by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Behold who you are, become what you receive!”
St Augustine, recommending what ministers of the Eucharist might say to people as they receive the body and blood of Christ.
On April 25 each year, Australians and New Zealanders celebrate Anzac Day. On the last Monday in May, Americans celebrate Memorial Day, and on November 11, people from countries across Europe celebrate Armistice Day. These days of memorial commemorate all the men and women who have died for their country in the course of military service. Only a week ago, on May 22, thousands of people gathered at different venues across the city of Manchester to remember the 22 victims of a terrorist attack that took place at the Manchester Arena one year ago. When the Dean of the city called for one minute’s silence, the crowd rose as one. The silence was palpable, and the scene very moving, as many brushed silent tears from their cheeks.
Commemoration days and events such as these are eloquent testimony to the reality that, as human beings, we are conscious that we are connected to one another. The deaths of fellow human beings in war and acts of terrorism touch us deeply. We are, indeed, bound together as members of the same human family. Yet, we need days of commemoration to remind us of our close connection to one another, because there are some who would have us believe that we live independent lives, separated from those around us.
For us Christians, Eucharist is a ritual meal that celebrates our connection to Jesus Christ, and, through him, to one another. Eucharist reminds us that we belong to a unified community, invited, in our turn, to be bread broken and wine poured out for our world; to be what we receive when we participate fully in Eucharist.
Over the centuries, the significance of Eucharist has been diluted to the extent that many Christians see it as little more than a ritual to be endured or as a weekly event to be attended by obligation. In this context, allow me to share a parable told by William Bausch, a pastor of a Catholic Parish in New Jersey for more than 60 years:
“Once upon a time there was a very wealthy and gracious man who hosted a dinner party every month for his close friends. It happened one month that several of his regular guests were sick, and unable to attend the scheduled dinner. Wanting to give his sick friends a reminder of the dinner they had missed, their host took a bottle of his best wine from the table and placed it in an ornate box on the dining-room sideboard. He knew his friends would see it on their next visit, open it up and enjoy the wine, knowing that they had not been forgotten. The man gave instructions to his butler: ‘Pierre, take care of this box and make sure to treat it with respect because what’s in there will make them happy, and they will always think fondly of me.’
Pierre wasn’t quite sure of what his employer actually meant, and, being fairly fixed in his ways, took his master’s words literally. Whenever he passed the sideboard, he began to bow gently in the direction of the box. It so happened, however, that, a week or so later, his master died quite suddenly. However, long before, the master had instructed Pierre that, if he were to die, he wanted Pierre to continue the monthly meals. That would keep the dinner group together and keep alive his memory among them. So when they came together again after their friend’s funeral, Pierre told them of the special box on the sideboard. As they wondered what was in the box and chatted about it, they could not help but notice that Pierre bowed to the box every time he passed it as he went about his work of waiting on the table. As the months and dinners followed one another, the guests, too, began to bow in the direction of the box on the sideboard as they came to take their places at the table. For some strange reason none of them thought to ask what was in the beautiful box. As the months and years slipped by, the box sitting on the sideboard had a depressing effect on them. The dinners became quieter and more solemn, to the point where they ended up eating in silence, from time to time gazing respectfully at the box, without realising that it contained a bottle of their generous friend’s best wine, meant to be shared by them in his memory.”
That’s something like what has happened to the Eucharist over the centuries. For the early Christian community it was a shared meal, reminiscent of the intimacy of the last meal Jesus had with his disciples before his death. Some families even took home the left-overs to be used later in the week. And some took pieces of the sacred bread to those who were unable to participate. By the 13th century this practice had been well forgotten, and the Eucharistic bread was locked away in an ornate box called a tabernacle, which people approached with awe and trembling, and bowed to from a distance. It took more centuries for Church authorities to realise the impact of what had happened. Out of false reverence, people came to see themselves as unworthy to participate fully in the Eucharist. Church authorities tried to correct the situation by inserting a clause in Canon Law, requiring Catholics to “receive Communion” at least once a year. But we know that there is a difference between receiving communion and participating in Eucharist. Receiving communion is consuming and being nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ. Participating in Eucharist is to offer ourselves with Christ, is to be unified with him and with one another, to become what we receive so that we become Christ for one another and for those to whom we reach out in service, in imitation of Christ. We commit ourselves to be bread broken and wine poured out as we engage in fellowship with everyone we encounter.
By gathering with our parish community around the table of the Eucharist, we take the bread and wine as our way of remembering Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love among us. But we do more than just celebrate the presence of Jesus among us. We recommit ourselves to following in his footsteps and reaching out to our world with mercy, care, encouragement, compassion and forgiveness. In doing that we regularly reaffirm our identity as his disciples and our baptismal commitment to be his body and blood given for others.
Augustine (354-430 shared his insights into Eucharist probably in the latter years of his life (early 5th century). In time, those insights were lost. The feast of the Body and Blood of Christ originated in Liege, France in the middle of the 13th century. It was originally called Corpus Christi, and was renamed The Body and Blood of Christ at the time of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). History has shown that the meaning of actions we regularly repeat often becomes lost or eroded over time. It is our responsibility to keep Eucharist alive and relevant. We will do that only by living it, by consciously being bread broken and wine poured out for others each day of our lives, by becoming what we receive.