The Second reading at Mass this Sunday, Corpus Christi, is our oldest written account of the Eucharist. It comes from a letter of St Paul dated to the mid 50s, maybe twenty years before the Gospel of Mark, which offers a fuller account of the Passion of Jesus and the Last Supper.
This is what I received from the Lord, and in turn passed on to you: that on the same night that he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread, and thanked God for it and broke it, and he said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this as a memorial of me.’ In the same way he took the cup after supper, and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.’ Until the Lord comes, therefore, every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are proclaiming his death.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
The chain of witnesses, the unbroken chain that have treasured and passed on this sacramental action is our heritage and yet it is barely conceivable. There have been so many in so many places and circumstances. Yet it is important we try.
Gregory Dix famously did:
Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.
The Shape of the Liturgy.
The Eucharist, this gift of the Lord, is re-presented to God, and us, when we faithfully obey the command of Lord. Our obedience and his faithfulness combining with such power and to such effect.
Eucharist is never just me or you and Jesus. It is always, gloriously and abundantly, us; always Church, the Body of Christ in all times and places, that we be one in him.
Tabernacle in church of Nowa Huta, Cracow, Poland. (c) 2013, Allen Morris.