Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Eucharist: Bread Broken and Shared

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Year B, Mark 14:12-16. 22-26), June 10, 2012

YEARS OF CONTROVERSY with Protestantism have honed the emphasis on the real presence of Christ in the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. This is because, for centuries, most Protestant Churches, in one way or the other, followed Luther in his denial of the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine. It is thus understandable that pre-Vatican II Catechism almost exclusively focused on the real presence and the sacramental character of the Eucharist. Catholics had to be well-prepared to respond to Protestant heretical doctrines. In consequence of this understanding, the Eucharist became, among other things, an icon of adoration.

Unfortunately, however, many people have so confined their understanding to the Eucharist in terms of real presence and sacrifice that they failed to appreciate its meaning for the daily life of the Christian. It is not too far-fetched to say that, though some Catholics have much devotion to the real presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and yet hardly exhibit a life that is Eucharistic, it is partly because they fail to see the connection between the real presence and their daily action.

One way of seeing the connection between the Eucharist and our life is to look at it in terms of the words of the institution as recounted by Mark: “And when they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take, this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drunk of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many’ (Mark 14:22-23).

Jesus’ action, of course, fully corresponded with the way the meal was ordinarily held. The head of the household offered thanksgiving to God in that manner. Nevertheless, two things may be noted here. First, the four verbs used echo those in Mark 6:41 and 8:6-7 in the story of the multiplication of the bread. Mark portrays Jesus as using the same words and actions. And it is most likely that the correspondence is intentional. The multiplication of the bread has links with the Eucharist in terms of the meaning of the action. In the miracle of the loaves, Mark says that the disciples did not understand the meaning (Mark 6:52). But in the institution narratives, Mark no longer so affirms of the disciples, obviously because the Eucharist uncovers for them the meaning of the miracle.

Second, whatever the meaning of the account of the institution might have been in its original setting, the evangelist would have us understand that for the Markan community, the eucharistic celebration looks back on the death of Jesus in the same way that the Jews look back on the Exodus event: it is God’s saving activity. The death of Jesus is the act of redemption. Just as this bread is broken, so his body will be broken; just as this cup is shared, so his blood is to be spelt for the salvation of the many. And those who share in the fellowship, partaking of the meal, share in the body and blood of Jesus, and of course, in the fruit of redemption, as well as in the action. One then easily understands why Luke’s account ends with the saying: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). More than a command to repeat the ritual, the saying obviously commands his disciples to imitate the Lord who shared the bread and the cup in their practical life.

Thus understood, the Eucharist has implications for daily living. Even if we limit ourselves to these by no means exhaustive meanings of the Eucharist, it is obvious that the Eucharist implies the sharing of bread with the thousands who suffer from hunger and poverty. Greed and monopoly have no place in Christian life. If to be Christian is to partake of the Eucharist, one cannot be a Christian without having to share with his brothers and sisters in the community. An individualistic Christian is a contradiction in terms. Indeed, he must see to it that the miracle of sharing is repeated daily in the community.

But the meaning of sharing is not to be confined to the sharing of goods that a Christian possesses. Even more important is the sharing of oneself with others. This is the implication of the words over the bread and the cup. It is not enough to give money; one must share himself for the redemption of the community. This is seen, for example, in one’s death to selfishness, personal honor and glory. The command to repeat the ritual is fulfilled not simply at the ritual level—in the celebration of the mass—but at the practical level: in the sharing of goods in the community, and in the death of every member for the sake of the community’s salvation. For it is in dying that we are saved.

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