By Thomas O’Loughlin
We like to think of the realm of religion as a place of authenticity: here we do not pretend, here we are far from the make-belief of the celebrity culture, the double-talk of marketing and advertising pitches, and the sham games that populate the public forum.
Before God our deceits and our boastings are useless:
‘But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”’ (1 Sam 16:7).
This is a widespread human sentiment about religion: we tend to expect sham and hypocrisy elsewhere, but hope that those who claim to speak in the name of Most High will set a higher standard - and so are all the more shocked when we find pretence among those who are outwardly identified with religion as clerics and religious. This is part of our revulsion at the sex-crimes of priests.
This horror of sham in the presence of the Holy is what lies at the base of such statements as “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Mt 23:27). Before God, we must be genuine.
In the last few years when the credibility of the clergy has taken blow after blow with successive revelations about the extent of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults, this point should not need to be laboured. However, authenticity, which for most people means that there is some direct linkage between appearances and reality, affect every aspect of our lives, and this includes our celebration of the Eucharist.
What we say we are doing when we celebrate must be what we are doing when we celebrate.
However, the link between words and practicalities in most liturgies is as strained as the link between décor and reality that we find in theme parks: it may look the part, but it is only a stage set; image rather than fact.
The bread of life
We continually refer to the Eucharist as ‘the bread of life,’ ‘the bread broken for the life of the world,’ and say that it is in human realities that we sacramentally encounter the Christ. But when we look at what we actually use bread only within the most strict legal definition of bread – can we say that we are authentically using bread? We often hear in homilies that it is the very ordinariness of bread the basic foodstuff – that makes it such a rich symbol. It is present on every table, virtually every culture has a cereal-based mainstay of subsistence that is like it, and so it points to Jesus interacting with us as the very staff of life. But would anyone give you thanks for what we actually use at the Eucharist if they saw it on their plate?
Does this look like authentic bread?
Would you give this to someone who was hungry?
So we live in world of double-take: we talk about bread, but what we actually hold up as bread, and talk about as bread is not what we would ever otherwise talk about as bread. Language becomes silliness. Cheap language breeds contempt for reality.
Let’s start with real bread, something to which we can all directly respond, then we can talk about what we as Christians believe about the mystery of the Eucharist.
We all share in the one loaf
We happily read Paul’s explanation of the Eucharist to the church in Corinth and we rejoice that within a couple of decades of the Resurrection that the Eucharist was, indeed, the focus of the weekly gathering. The Corinthians may not have been the most exemplary of Christians, but we are thankful for the excuse they gave Paul to expound on this central ecclesial mystery. Paul’s thought is based on the fact that a loaf represents a transformed unity: umpteen grains have been ground together, transformed in cooking, and now we have a single, but divisible reality, a loaf of bread. The loaf is the unity of all who are in Christ, and by its being divided we are all given a share in it. Paul’s imagery is not that of the splitting up of a some large lump-like foodstuff, such as large lump of meat that can be sliced so that everyone has some, that is parcelled out. No, Paul’s image is that the unity remains: each having a piece is each having a share, and that share is in Christ. This is the notion of getting a piece of the wedding or birthday cake: that is a cake (a single entity) we share in, not something that we simple get a lump of. So the Eucharistic loaf is a unity that is broken so that we feed upon, and so share in the unity.
The loaf is the unity of all who are in Christ,
and by its being divided we are all given a share in it.
We read 1 Cor 10:17 (‘Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’) and we refer to the breaking of the loaf in every celebration in the Institution Narrative (‘… he broke the bread … ’), and we have the token fraction (the president breaking his waver and then eating both parts himself – as thus performed the breaking is meaningless), yet in practice it is pre-cut little disks which are the opposite of sharing in a single entity. Our standard small wafers transmit an image of individualism (think of the mini-packs that can be got bought where people do not want to share: ‘just for one’), rather than the mystery of sharing within the body of Christ (symbolised for Paul in the loaf).
Significantly, and sadly, we talk about ‘the distribution of communion’ rather than ‘breaking for sharing.’
If we want to authentically celebrate that event the early Christians referred as ‘the breaking of the loaf,’ then our paten must have a big loaf which we take the time to share, not a heap of altar breads that we pass out so that everyone can have one.
Real food / Fast food
One does not have to be a member of the ‘slow food movement’ to know that real food is not fast food: hence expensive restaurants are where we celebrate. Time over food with our friends is the basis of community – and it is the basis of Christians community in the Eucharist.
But would you serve ‘left overs’ to your guests, would you serve pre-cooked reheated food at a solemn celebration? Likewise, when we gather for the Eucharist we are there to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, not to get a commodity. This is why the distribution of ‘communion outside Mass’ – a common practice in the pre-Vatican II era – has been all but abolished; this is why there are exhortations in the rubrics to distribute ‘particles consecrated at the Mass’ (note the ‘commodity’-style theological vision) rather than from the tabernacle. ‘Communion from the tabernacle’ transmits the message that it is the equivalent of ‘left overs’ from the fridge within our experience of food. It is also the equivalent of the drive-in fast-food outlet: we can conveniently serve all as the come by. How sad that anything to do with the most sacred banquet could be thought of, from its praxis, as akin to a ‘hamburger and fries’ rather than a meal where we truly celebrate all that is best in our humanity.
Fast food is a substitute for real food.
Is the Eucharist a banquet or a fast-food affair as it is celebrated in so many places?
If we are serious about ‘being called to the Lord’s Supper’ and the banquet language of the liturgy, then the tabernacle must remain firmly locked until after all present have eaten!
We all share in the one cup
‘Take this all of you and drink from it’ is central command at every Eucharist, yet it take time, is messy, and somehow seems unnecessary – and we are adept at thinking up reasons for curtaining access to the cup such as spills, contracting swine flu, or time. Yet a banquet without liquid is unthinkable, and the words without the action conveyed inauthenticity as if we do not really mean or believe it. As it happens, sharing a cup (as distinct from sharing a loaf or a cake) is deeply counter-cultural and was so even in the time of Jesus. In this action, passing a cup one to another we have an action that is unique to the Eucharist and to the meal-practice of Jesus. This most unique, Jesus-based gesture is, however, the one we seem to omit with aplomb. There is something seriously wrong here: ‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?’
Sharing a cup is mark of the disciples of Jesus. It is deeply counter-cultural.
We have become experts at by-passing this aspect of the practice of Jesus
If we are to bring words, deeds, and the activity of gathering for the Eucharistic Meal then we must view not sharing the cup with as much horror as the notion that the president would not drink from the cup.
Gathered at his table
We mention the table and being gathered around it: the common table is precious aspect of our humanity, we share at a table and discover that we are not animals at a table. We condemn an individualist culture that does not eat together but from separate trays before separate screens, and we proudly use the language of ‘the Table of the Lord’; but is it all just words? Even when we have only a handful for a weekday Eucharist, we tend to have the table in front of people rather than them around it; we think of them seeing it, rather than being at it; and, alas, some priests still think that its ‘ok’ to have the table against the wall as if its not there as the table of the community of Christ so that gathering for the banquet, he can be in their midst.
If we are serious about table language, then the celebrating community must celebrate at the table not before it. Perhaps we could start by translating Eucharistic Prayer I accurately: ‘Remember Lord your servants, male and female, indeed all who stand around this table.’ Just imagine inviting three or four people for lunch: would you put them over at the end of the room and dash over to them with food? Surely you would put one opposite you (what ever shaped table you have) then one each side: our experience of being ‘round a table’ must become part of our Eucharistic experience.
IThe table creates a space around it where we can become sisters and brothers.
Authenticity is precious, and doubly so in the face of divine; its pursuit is never optional. These changes hinted at here may seem simply troublesome, unnecessary, or un-rubrical; but bear in mind that for ever more people what we do at our most sacred assembly lacks value, meaning, or worth. Perhaps its time to reinvest value by re-aligning words and deeds for a more eucharistic meal.
Do this ...
It is very easy to write a theology of the Eucharist or preach on the Blessed Sacrament: one can study the great works of the tradition, consult the magisterium’s latest documents, read theologians and get hints on conveying all this from communications experts. But so could any good journalist or researcher. We are not commanded to think about the Eucharist nor to preach about it, but to act: ‘Do this in memory of me.’ It is the doing that is difficult. ‘Eucharist’ is the name of an activity, a doing, the action of offering thanks to the Father through sharing in the meal of the Christ. Unless this is an authentic action where the words we use in the liturgy are matched by the actions we engage in during the liturgy, then far from being the centre and summit of the Christian life, our weekly gathering may just be another distraction, suggesting that even in the liturgy we are engaged in inauthentic behaviour, in sham and double-think. Before we can authentically preach an authentic theology of the Eucharist, we must be doing the Eucharist with authenticity.