My beloved eight-year-old granddaughter is getting ready to receive her First Holy Communion in May, and it’s got me worried. I mean her Sunday School teachers are filling her head with “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected. In the 4th century he wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”
Eventually, my granddaughter, I predict, will come to the same conclusion. And rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s Shared Bread, she’ll probably follow the example of so many young people I know and reject the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasy akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.
To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because it represents a rejection of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”
Let me explain.
To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, From the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.
But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:
Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.
“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well. It was something uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against one another, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves. That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.
Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.
Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.
Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.
In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.
Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.
All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.
Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”
And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction (found in I COR: 12-12-27) is worth quoting at length:
“12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.
15 Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 16 And suppose the ear says, “I am not an eye. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell? 18 God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be. 19 If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body? 20 As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body.
21 The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. 23 The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honor. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care. 24 The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honor to the parts that didn’t have any. 25 In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.
27 You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”
Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.
In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”
Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?
It’s powerful. The Eucharist is not a magic show. It’s a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.
That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.
My granddaughter and the world she’ll inherit need everything that signifies. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.
(Next Week: How priests fit into the Eucharistic picture of the early church)
11 thoughts on “Notes for a Home Church: The Eucharist Is Not a Sacrifice or a Magic Show, But a Shared Meal (Pt. 3 of 4)”
I love the “re-member” idea, Mike.
Thank you for this.
Sent from my Alcatel A466BG
Dear John, so good to hear from you. And you know I respect your thoughts — especially about this topic. I still remember your very influential (on me and my classmates) liturgical history and theology classes . So might you find a moment to clarify your comment. I’m not sure of your meaning. I’d really love to know what you think. I hope all is well with you — the Ageless Sage.
Your exegesis reminds me of restoring a painting so that a masterpiece that has been painted over with a mediocre work is revealed in it’s full beauty and glory. Thank you for revealing so much of the real depth of divine meaning in the Eucharistic celebration. It is indeed a celebration of our unity with all reality. Truly we live and move and have our being in and as God – if only we were more aware of that.
It is ironic that this profound spiritual insight is treated as a blasphemy by those stuck at the exoteric level of religion. The idea of God as fundamentally other than and separated from us mortal beings is one of the principal errors taught by exoteric religious doctrines. This fundamental misstep gives rise to so many mistakes and difficulties for those who believe it.
To discover and live the deeper meaning of spiritual truth often requires that one go through a long process of penetrating and discarding so many shallow and false teachings! This is so sad. But this is part of the long path of discovering truth that we must all tread.
Your increasingly deep sharing on your blog make me eager to attend your meeting next Saturday. Talking with John C. after our Sunday gathering of the Spiritual Growth Network further whetted my interest. My own experiences have made me familiar with how groups dedicated to a higher vision necessarily begin with a few. But we are reminded that when two or three come together to serve the Divine, that Reality is present with them….
Mike: I am so grateful for your comment and encouragement. I must admit that I felt disappointed and a bit of a failure last Saturday, when only two (other than Peggy and I) showed up. I do hope you can come this next week. My friends (including Peggy) have advised me that I might be premature with this initiative, and that perhaps I should wait. But I think your (& Jesus’) insight about “two or three gathered” is apt You’d laugh: last week I set the table for 15 people! I’ll be more modest this week. Hope to see you here. Thanks again. — Mike
“Beautiful” and “explication” don’t often belong in the same sentence. They do here.
Those still attending the “magical” Mass will, by definition, be those who have not yet despaired of the emptiness of the magic. I wouldn’t plan on their filling places at the table.
There is, however, an audience out there potentially receptive to your message. Based on polling information that audience is not in the Medicare (my) group, however, but in the Millennials and post-Millennials.
Hello Mike! Great article.
I just picked up your book, “The Emperor’s God.” in which you give a little bio of yourself. We are probably close to the same age and I notice some other similarities in bios… parochial school education, being a young conservative & Republican before seeing how the rest of the world really lives, etc. Only, I went into medicine a decade before entering the Jesuits (Calif Province).
My “awakening” came after inner city U.S. experiences with The Catholic Worker and overseas practice in Kingston, Jamaica. I read a lot of Latin American and Black American liberation theology then.
I left the Society to live with the man to whom I am now married. We live in Lompoc, CA, where I am still active in Pediatric practice. I still preside and preach from time to time at Dignity Los Angeles. Your blogs are an inspiration!
After reading your current blog article, “Thank God! I am not the only person with a theological interpretation on Eucharist and Real Presence like his.”
“The days ahead will be dark and frightening. But as Immanuel Kant reminded us, “if justice perishes, human life on earth has lost its meaning.” We fight for the sacred. We fight for life. It is a fight we must not lose. To be a bystander is to be complicit in radical evil.
Revolt is a political necessity. It is a moral imperative. It is a defense of the sacred. It allows us to live in truth. It alone makes hope possible.” ~ Chris Hedges
Revolt takes many forms. What are my forms of revolt?
A partial answer to my question posed above: My revolt includes a revolt against the conditioned thinking of my own mind, and attempts to foment that revolt in the minds of others. I think it is easy to conclude in our action oriented materialist society that ideas are just an impotent waste of energy that would be better expended on real problems. To this criticism I respond that our real world of all too solid problems mostly have arisen on the basis of our mental contents and the flawed actions that have flowed therefrom. If we are to change our world it will necessarily involve changing our thinking. So let’s not fall for the materialist ploy of sneering at work to change minds; it is crucial to our success. This same erroneous contempt for ideas extends to groups formed for the purpose of changing minds.
Please remember that what we hold in our minds will determine our fate on this Earth. The revolt against wrong ideas is the most basic of all revolts. As a man thinketh in his heart, so shall he be.
All real education is revolutionary.