In the past six weeks, when my church is closed, access to Eucharistic celebrations is virtual more than “real”, and with lots of at-home time, I have been reflecting on the essential meaning of the Eucharistic celebration (Mass). My reflections have been guided by some great books, one of which is the basis for this post: The Meal That Reconnects: Eucharistic Eating and the Global Food Crisis by Mary E. McGann (Liturgical Press Academic, 2020). I have mentioned this book in previous posts.
I chose excerpts from McGann’s book that address two specific questions:
Q. While at home, how can I connect with meal celebrations in Jesus’ life and in the early church?
Q. Once my church re-opens, how can we revitalize Eucharistic celebrations to reflect their gospel beginnings as shared meals?
Meals in the Life of Jesus and in the Early Church
In the gospels of Luke and John, Jesus eats a lot! In fact, Luke structures his narrative around ten meals: three in Jesus’ Galilean ministry, four on his way to Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and two post-resurrection meals. Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus searches for and finds those who are rejected and despised, reclining with them at table, and teaching all who would follow him to do likewise. John’s gospel highlights God’s miraculous abundance, for example, at the wedding at Cana, and the remarkable catch of fish on the Sea of Galilee. In each case, the unexpected drink or food becomes a revelation of God’s nourishing and compassionate presence in the world in the person of Jesus, and an invitation to believe in him.
A new society was forming, forged around a common table where there was not only enough for all, but food to spare. Jesus teaches his disciples (and us) about abundance, trust, sharing, and neighborliness. Seated at table, Jesus sums up his earthly ministry as one of servanthood and invites us to continue this same ministry.
The earliest accounts of the followers of Jesus suggest the actual identity of eucharist and meal as a single event that involved giving thanks to God for Jesus Christ over food and drink. Here, believers remembered Jesus’ expansive meal fellowship, not simply his “last supper”. The gospels were formed at this early table practice as believers recounted stories of Jesus’ parables and teachings. Bread and wine were central to these meals precisely because they were the everyday food of first-century people. Along with bread and wine, everyday fare included olives, vegetables, and occasionally cheese. The transition from a meal with real food to a briefer eucharistic service with representative food happened gradually over the centuries.
Reclaiming the Eucharist as a Meal
Thinking about eucharistic meals in the gospels and in accounts of the early church, I wondered how we might reclaim some of these essential characteristics, especially once our churches re-open. In her book, Mary E. McGann identifies five aspects of the eucharistic celebration that are critical for a revitalization of its meal character:
An Assembling Community
We are called to seek greater unity and solidarity with all persons of faith, inviting them to share the same eucharistic table, and embracing eucharistic eating as a unifying sacrament that enables us to work together in service of the poor, the sick and the marginalized. It is essential that all of us in the community feel empowered to witness to the Gospel.
A Common Table
Focusing on the table raises questions about relationships within the assembling community: who serves at table, who has access, who ministers to whom and when. There is a strong connection between what we put on this holy common table and what we share so that others may live.
A Common Loaf and Cup
What was distinctive about the early communities was not so much the food itself but the emphasis they placed on the “one loaf” broken and shared by all. Likewise, the cup: early focus was not on the contents of the cups but on Jesus’ invitation to drink from a common vessel, drinking from the same cup rather than drinking the same wine. The question of who makes the bread for eucharistic eating, that is, who shapes the one loaf, is a significant one today. The token wafers that have replaced nourishing bread for many communities are the product of mechanized industrial processes, losing all connection with the daily lives of the assembled community. Wafers lack the quality essential to revitalizing eucharistic eating: the image of the one loaf, composed of many grains and broken for the world’s healing.
A Table of Abundance
The gospels overflow with generous feeding, boundless welcome, and ultimately Jesus’ self-sacrificing death for the life of the world. The eucharistic table will be recognized in the simple beauty of human food and drink – enough for all and to spare – and by the generous service of those who minister that food one to another. Moreover, offering food to all present, no matter what may be their affiliation with the baptized community, can speak of gospel generosity and Jesus’ inclusive table.
Thanksgiving for All Earth and Creation
Eucharistic prayers focus primarily on the redemptive action of Christ toward the human community in his great paschal mystery. Thanksgiving for creation needs to permeate the whole meal event of Eucharist. Liturgical celebrations can engage more directly with the Earth, for example, outdoor opening rites, harvest rites of blessing gardens and crops, tree plantings as part of closing rites, or baptismal rites in local rivers and seas.
Eating at the eucharistic table is an invitation to embrace others no longer as strangers but as part of one’s self where exploitation is overcome with compassion and reverent care, where the drive for accumulation of goods is overcome with sharing and mutual service, and where Christ’s self-emptying becomes the source and inspiration for acts of generosity, mercy, and justice. In sharing Jesus’ Body and Blood, we who partake are called to be healers of Earth and lovers of all her creatures.
I leave you with a series of questions and invite you to imagine some creative answers.
Q. How can we rethink our family meals as eucharistic eating – a common table, shared stories and reflection, shared food and drink, gratitude for abundance in our lives, and celebration of our interconnectedness with other people and all of creation?
Q. What first steps can we take to transition to revitalized Eucharistic celebrations in our churches?
Q. How would our attendance move toward participation if we saw the Mass as our celebration and not that of the priest alone?
Q. What if our common table were in the center of the liturgical space around which we could all gather?
Q. What if we baked real bread or purchased it from local farmers and bakers? Or, what if we brought our own bread to bless, break, and share with others?
Q. What would a truly boundless welcome look like in our churches?
Q. How can we create liturgy that incorporates all of God’s creation?