For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lordís death until he comes. (1 Cor. 11.23-26).
St. Paulís words to the Corinthians are considered to be the earliest written expression of Christís great gift to His Church, and two thousand years after that first Holy Thursday, the understated simplicity of Jesusí proclamation continues to awe, baffle, and console us. Nothing could be more straightforward than these words, but they invite us to acknowledge and embrace a reality that - in the words of an old hymn - "... far surpasses mind or thought."
To understand what Jesus means when he commands his disciples to eat and drink as a memorial, we must first rid ourselves of some unproductive notions of memory. As we commonly understand it, "remembering" is the corrective counterpart to "forgetting", and memory itself is a passive faculty, something to be jogged when necessary, and a pale reflection of a reality - something we put up with when the real thing (whatever that may be) is unavailable.
An example from literature may provide a helpful, if incomplete, remedy to this idea. William Wordsworth defined poetry as "strong emotion recollected in tranquility," a definition that gives memory the power to overcome the barriers of time and space, so that we may experience as if for the first time a singular, defining event. What is incomplete in this notion is the "as if" quality of the remembered event. The poetís "... heart with gladness fills and dances with the daffodils," but only "as if" the flowers were present to him. In the Eucharist, the act of liturgical memory presents the event itself.
This is what Moses intended when he gave the Israelites detailed instructions for their Passover meal and said, "this day shall be for you a memorial day" (Ex.12.14). Three thousand years ago our Israelite ancestors ate a meal in haste, to strengthen themselves against the certain terror of an uncertain fate. Their 21st Century descendants approach the Passover with the same awe, for to eat this memorial feast is more than to share a dinner. The Passover meal is the means by which the children of Abraham even today hear the hoofbeats of an approaching army, and feel the desperation of a people in flight.
When Jesus told His disciples to eat and drink in His memory on that first Holy Thursday, He established the means by which His saving death could remain with us. The Last Supper looks forward to the events of Good Friday, and our sharing in Christís gift of the Eucharist opens a window onto eternity that enables us to stand at the foot of the cross with Mary and the disciples. When we eat and drink in Christís memory we do not simply "think about" what Christ did for us on Calvary; the memorial ritual of the Mass places us face to face with the reality of the cross.
But Christís sacrifice does not end with His crucifixion; our memorial acclamation at the Mass also asserts our belief that Christ "is risen." The Eucharistic food and drink that nourishes us at the Mass incorporates us into the Saviorís risen life, in which He is the eternal, and eternally living bread by which His Church is daily fed.
From the Churchís earliest days the faithful believed that the bread and wine Jesus offered His disciples was His body and blood. The challenge for later theologians was to explain how this transformation occurred. Describing the change as transubstantiation, The Council of Trent concluded,
We experience the transformation of one substance to another every day. But the change of one to another without changing the appearance of the substance that is changed is unique in human experience. It appropriately excites wonder and awe among those willing to accept Christís word, but the gospel reminds us that from the very beginning, some have found the possibility hard to accept. St. John relates that when Jesus identified Himself with the bread "which came down from heaven ... [so that] he who eats this bread will live forever," many in the congregation said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" (Jn 6. 58-60)
In detective fiction, mysteries are solved by a combination of the heroís skill, logic and luck. In the life of faith, on the contrary, true mysteries yield some of their riches to human learning, but since they cannot be fully penetrated by knowledge, they must be embraced in faith and lived in love.
Faced with the sensory contradiction of the Eucharist, the Churchís earliest teachers urged their listeners to ignore the appearance of bread and wine and rely instead on the guarantee of Christís words, "... the Lord has expressly said that they are his body and blood; faith assures you of this, though your senses suggest otherwise."
Great poets bring readers to an elevated state of awareness, often by "short hand" methods that bypass some of the logical steps by which we ordinarily arrive at conclusions. In this regard one of the Churchís greatest theologians is also one of its greatest poets. In two well-known hymns St. Thomas Aquinas is able to say in a few words what elsewhere takes pages.
In "Adoro te devote," St. Thomas writes
And in the well known "Tantum Ergo" (the concluding verses of the longer "Pange Lingua"), he speaks of Faith, our outward sense befriending, makes the inward vision clear.
Clearly, faith alone, the gift by which we believe in something precisely because it is revealed by God (St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, II.1) makes possible our assent to a reality that contradicts the testimony of our senses.
The Eucharist extends an invitation and a challenge: an invitation truly to become what we eat, and a challenge to live daily what we celebrate. Our willingness to allow the Body of Christ to transform us is an offering of ourselves that unites us to Christís offering of Himself on the cross. The bread and wine offered at the Mass are signs of the hopes, disappointments, sufferings and joys we encounter throughout our lives. The sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist is therefore a life commitment. From it stems the spirituality of sacrifice ... demanded by authentic Christian living (Congregation for Divine Worship, 24).
"Do this in remembrance of me." These words are a command - to act. To be for the world what Christ, by sharing in our mortality, was for us. The imperative in Christís words is very important, and the memorial meal that gathers us around Christís altar at the Mass forbids us to forget the social dimension of our faith. The Eucharist is the focus of our worship; it is likewise the basis of our morality.
Not long ago, an American bishop, speaking on the relation of moral life to moral law, said,
Our Holy Father makes explicit the connection between the Christianís obligations in and to the modern world and the Eucharistic food that equips one for these challenges.
As she is in all things, the Mother of God is our model in living out the moral demands of our Eucharistic faith. The Holy Father remarks, ... there is a profound analogy between the Fiat which Mary said in reply to the angel, and the Amen which every believer says when receiving the body of the Lord. The Blessed Virgin, the Pontiff explains, was asked to believe that the Child she bore was the Son of God; the faithful Christian to believe that the Son of Mary becomes present in the sacramental signs of bread and wine.
The gospel does not tell us that Mary was present at the Last Supper, but we know she was with the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 1.14) when the infant Church received its mandate to carry the sacramental presence of the Living Christ to the world. We may confidently infer that she was also part of the early Churchís Eucharistic celebrations. But more than the example of Maryís explicit participation in the Churchís formal worship, the example of her whole life draws us to a more intimate embrace of Christ in the Eucharist.
Mary is not only the first to preach the Good News with her Magnificat; she is also the Churchís first tabernacle. Her life is a preparation for the great events at Calvary, but her sharing in the obscure daily events that preceded Good Friday and Easter remind us that the Eucharist makes present to us every moment of Christís life. These include the awesome childhood visit to the Temple, the consolation of time spent with friends, and the merriment of the wedding at Cana.
The Holy Father calls the daily life of Mary "a kind of anticipated Eucharist," which culminated in Christís Passion. Faith tells us that our lives have the same potential - if we are willing to see Christís presence in the joys and sorrows that punctuate our days.
When the crowds asked John the Baptist to identify himself he replied, "I am not the one you imagine me to be," adding, "He must increase, but I must decrease." (Jn 3.30). This is not a loss of something essential; it is a laying-down of something that is no longer necessary. Commenting on this passage in the gospel, St. Thomas Aquinas said, "... people who advance in this way need to have less self-esteem, because the more a person discovers Godís greatness the less importance he gives to his own human condition."
In one of his sermons St. Gregory remarked,
Johnís humility is embraced by the Churchís saints, and it sets a pattern that ought to characterize all of Godís people. Nourished by the Eucharist, we grow in Charity. As Godís love becomes more and more our own, we realize our true nobility as Godís creatures even as we realize how infinitely greater is the nobility and majesty of Christ.
Christís death and resurrection are eternal. The life and example of Mary looked forward to them, and our liturgical life enables us to be equally present to them although, as historical events, they took place two thousand years ago. The Eucharist, which unites us with past events, also readies us for the future - not merely the immediate future of the day after tomorrow, but the eternal banquet we hope to share in Christís kingdom of heaven.
"Remain with us Lord," the prayer of the disciples at Emmaus, is the prayer of the Church, drawing us to union with Our Savior, and to one another, in the meal Christ prepares for us in the Eucharist. The Last Supper was Christís gift to his friends, a commandment for what they must accomplish in this world, and a sign of what they might look forward to in the next. It is the same with us. In our eucharistic acclamation we say "we proclaim your death until you come in glory." By this we mean that to share His Body and Blood we, no less than the disciples, look forward to the day when signs will yield to the reality of eternal life with Christ. In the meantime, the sacramental signs of His Presence strengthen us to carry the gift of friendship to the world.
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