The Holy Eucharist of the Meal. That will sound strange to most ears – perhaps even a bit heretical. We have heard the Eucharist described as a sacrifice so often that anything else sounds wrong .
Meal sounds, to many folks, much too plebeian, not associated with that which is holy. The Eucharist in Apostolic times, however, was a meal; for ritual sacrifice the first Christians went to the Temple. Like the Pasch, which began in the home of the Jewish families as a meal, the Eucharist became a community celebration or liturgy, because of its meaning for the community. The Jewish people, however, retained the Seder or Paschal meal as a family ritual, so God’s deliverance was celebrated and recalled both by greater community and the family.
Theologians maintain that the elements of meal and sacrifice are both found it in the Mass today. Father Edward J. Kilmartin writes—
Jesus instituted his self-offering in the symbolic actions of the Last Supper, and so the sacrificial aspect and event is constituted in the form of a ritual meal. Sacrifice and meal are inseparable, and the consecrated bread and wine are consumed in the communion as food for the soul. ¹
But let us be honest and admit that consuming a small wafer does not constitute a meal in any ordinary human sense. In many diocese the
beverage has been reserved again for the presider and denied to the people in the pews We are fed spiritually, and that is wonderful, but all the human experience of a real meal - conversation, interplay of personalities, the pleasure of being satisfied with real food - all these are missing.
The Gospels make clear that the focus of the Eucharist was to feed us. The feeding of the multitude is the only gospel story that is found in all four Gospels. Jesus called himself the bread of life It is time for us to reclaim the Eucharist as meal, to celebrate a Eucharistic which is in fact a meal.
Let me be clear from the beginning. I do not advocate a diminishment of the Eucharist as a sacrifice, the Eucharist as meal to replace the parish Mass, nor an abandonment of an ordained clergy. I see the returning to the practice of a Eucharistic meal by small groups within a parish as something which will strengthen the parish in the long run. This is not New Age. It is returning to the roots. In the gospels and Acts, the house churches of Mary (mother of Mark), Lydia, Prisca and Aquila, Nympha, and of Philemon and Apphia are recorded.
Central to any understanding of the Church is the reality of development. Just as evolution is the framework for understanding our physical world, so development under the power of the Spirit promised by Jesus is key to seeing the reality of the Church today. Jesus left only a believing community. Structure, doctrine, sacraments and priesthood all developed from the seed left by the Lord. Development goes on as life goes on, and like life itself, development is often cyclical, a spiral staircase that covers the same ground but higher up. It makes little sense to say we cannot return to an ancient practice because we haven't done so for centuries. Now is the time of the Lord. In the words of Thomas Merton, God's NOW cuts through time like a blade.
What happened to the meal
When the first disciples met for the Lord's Supper, it was a small group meeting in a household setting. Scholars tell us that the first
churches were probably no more than 30 or 40 people… As
the people of the way grew in numbers, they needed larger places to accommodate the numbers. Then as now, the rich had bigger and better homes, so the Christians with more resources became the hosts. The development from family meal to liturgy was beginning
This probably explains St.Paul's angry comments to the Corinthians:
Some eat and drink while others go hungry. They had as much of a problem as we do today in accepting fully the words of Jesus that all were equal in the kingdom. Raymond Brown, noted scripture scholar, suggested that when the motley crew of disciples came to celebrate the Lord's Supper, those of higher rank, friends and associates of the host, were brought into the private dining area of the home and fed well, while those of inferior rank assembled separately and were given food appropriate for them.
Just think how hard it must have been for a slave owner to sit down with his slave, or a pious Jew stuffed with patriarchy, to sit down with a woman as an equal. So after they had eaten a real meal, they came together for the symbolic meal of the Lord's Supper. This was obviously a perversion of the Lord's message, and the reason Paul fulminated about the practice.
Growing numbers necessitated a building that would be, in a sense, neutral — where all could come and feel welcome. In 1931 a building was discovered in the ruins of an ancient city, Dura Europus, in Eastern Syria, which was a bridge between the home and the church building. It was a home which was remodeled in order to serve a larger number of worshipers.
The numbers also rendered an actual meal impractical. The logistics and ambience of a meal for eight or ten people would be very different from those of a meal for a hundred. The meal became symbolic, and the event a liturgy. The breaking of the bread which started the Lord's Supper, and the cup of blessing which concluded it, were moved together. The actual meal was replaced with the communion service, a spiritual meal and important in its own way, but lacking the other features of eating a meal with family and friends.
That is what the Spirit called the Christians to then. I believe the same Spirit is calling us now to a further development – bringing back a real meal, the Lord's Supper, to be celebrated in the house churches of believers as it was in the beginning. We need the opportunity of finding the Lord present among us as He promised when he said that when two or three are gathered in His name, He would be there among them. We need the Emmaus experience in our lives – not to replace but to enrich the Sacrifice of the Mass.
Why return to the meal
In the parish Mass the people are essentially spectators. They listen to the readings, follow the prayers through responding, watch the consecration, and until the Kiss of Peace, have no part in the action. This is the nature of a liturgical sacrifice and not a bad thing in itself, but the people in the pews have needs that are not being met in this format. There is no opportunity for dialogue, for more active participation, for inter – personal relations. This is a great problem for the young people today, and many are walking away from the Church because they find its chief focus, the Mass, as impersonal, sterile, and too much top – down
Our society has developed into a very individualistic, aggressive, profit-motivated, society. The family dinner which was so common and even sacred in a societal way, has disappeared to a great extent. The schedules of work and school and activities have made it next to impossible for many families to even have dinner together on many nights. We all need the ability to counter this fragmenting, secular mentality, and restoring a Eucharistic meal is both a powerful tool in doing this, and it is available for us to use.
Meals are meaningful in their own right. They are a fundamental social building block, just as the family is. Business men have their lunches as a way of communicating with others, as a setting for doing business. People just getting together for a coffee and Danish can be the structure for maintaining or furthering a friendship. In all these meals, the gathering and the conversation is equally or more important than the food. So it was with the Lord's Supper; the disciples did not come together just for a meal, but rather to experience community and Christ present in it. The food they sought was the Body of Christ.
Meals were always important in the religion of Israel. Meals such as the Sabbath meal and the Seder meal, retold the story of God's salvation; in some meals a cup would be left for the Messiah, should he come during the meal. St .Luke's Gospel recounts the story of Jesus participating in ten meals.
Dining in the Kingdom of God by Eugene LaVerdiere details how the whole message of Luke is contained in the account of the Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and ten meals on the way; Jesus used the meals to teach, to proclaim his message and to invite people into the kingdom. The Emmaus event centered on a meal; He was known in the breaking of the bread. When He appeared to the disciples at the lake after the resurrection, He didn't just say
Here I am. He invited the disciples to breakfast!
The format for a Eucharist meal today
The Eucharistic meal in a house church would follow the format of the ancient meals such as the Paschal meal and the chaburah ² — which was the format of the Last Supper. It begins with a relaxed gathering in the living room where wine and snacks can be served; when all are gathered, it moves into the ritual of opening prayers and scripture readings. But now, instead of listening to a homily, the assembly can talk about the reading, share their thoughts on how it has or might touch them, and if someone is able to give some instruction or background information to make the readings more meaningful, they can do so. It is an interactive experience in a comfortable setting.
After the scripture and dialogue, the participants move to the table and the host or hostess who is presiding takes bread, breaks it and says the words of Christ at the Last Supper: This is my body. Take and eat. At the same time the participants stretch forth their hands towards the presider, indicating that the power of the Spirit resides in the community which the presider represents. (Priesthood and transubtanstiation are discussed in separate articles. )
The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Catholic Church do not agree on when the
consecration takes place. The former believes at the words of institution; the latter, at the general epiclesis or
May the Spirit come down…They do not agree either on what takes place. The former believes the bread and wine are replaced by the body and blood of the risen Christ; the latter, that the bread and wine remain and the body and blood of the risen Christ is added to the substance
We who are reclaiming the meal are satisfied to believe that a mystery cannot be understood, that the presence of Christ is that of the Risen One, hence the body/blood is that of the Risen Christ. We wish to concentrate also on Eucharist as an action, not a thing; the Risen Christ is present in a special way in the community assembled from start to finish, and that the communion is to feed us spiritually with the bread of life. Finally, we believe that the
power of the presider to consecrate is not like a magician's claim to have power over the supernatural. No one has power over God! It is the presence of Christ in the individual through baptism, and then in the community, which is tapped into by faith, by re – membering Christ and asking Him to keep His promise to be with us.
At the meal, all are free to talk about their life with God. We are invited to share how or when they have experienced God or the absence of God during the past week or so, and yet no one is pressured to share. It is the kind of opportunity which builds real friendship, community, and in the long run strengthens a parish.
At the end of the meal the chalice of wine is consecrated in the same fashion, with the chalice being passed around the table, affording everyone the opportunity to partake of it. In the chaburah meal, this final cup of wine was seen as a toast and a pledge of the group assembled to remain faithful to what had drawn them together. For the first disciples of Christ, it was a pledge to remain
people of the way. For us it is a pledge to remain committed to the vision of Vatican II and to each other as we struggle to renew our church.
¹ Edward J Kilmartin, The Eucharist in the West (Pueblo Book by Liturgical Press, 1998) p.340)
² For a full explanation of this statement,
which contradicts the common teaching about the Last Supper, see The Shape of
the Liturgy by Dom Gregory Dix, first edition in 1945, A and C Black, Ltd.,
London, pp.60-70. There have been many revised, later editions.