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)