Most fundamentally the Eucharist is a Sacrament of the Sacrifice of Christ.
It is a sacred meal in which the crucified and risen Christ offers himself to us as spiritual nourishment. We feast on him, receiving him in form of a scrap of bread and a sip of wine.
In response we seek to become what we receive – Christ for the world, not only as individual Christians, but united in the Communion of the Church, the Body of Christ.
The Eucharist is Christ and Church in Sacrament.
- Church and Eucharist are (among other things) historical realities. They have their antecedents in salvation history, and these antecedents provide context for the shaping of and our continued understanding of Church and Eucharist.
- The second person of the Trinity existed from before all time, but the Word took flesh in history and so our understanding of Jesus Christ, too, is very much informed by the religious and cultural milieu out of which he acted.
The meaning of Jesus, Church and Eucharist are not limited by their antecedents. Each of them brings something radically new to salvation history.
But if we do not look also to what went before, we alienate ourselves from our spiritual heritage – we render ourselves religious orphans, and cut ourselves off from a healthy, sound and secure appreciation of the richness of what God has done, is doing and will continue to do for the salvation of humankind.
More importantly yet, when we do not see what was, we will regularly underestimate the evangelical challenge posed by Jesus, Church and Eucharist.
To get a sense of how our spiritual heritage comes to bear on Eucharist let us very briefly consider the Eucharist in relationship to meals.
At every celebration of Mass we are reminded of the Last Supper – the meal Jesus shared with his disciples during the evening in which he was subsequently arrested, the night before he was crucified.
At that Last Supper, Jesus words and actions gave meaning to the eating and the drinking, which continues into our celebration of Mass.
However this was a last supper, not the first meal Jesus shared with his disciples. We understand it – and Eucharist – better in the context of meals that went before, as well as those other meals which Jesus shared with his disciples in the Resurrection.
Furthermore – at least according to the accounts of the meal found in the synoptic Gospels (those of Matthew, Mark and Luke) – this last supper was a Passover meal: a ritual meal which celebrated God’s saving Israel from slavery in Egypt and establishing them as ‘his people’. By the time of Jesus this Jewish meal had close associations with the Temple and the offering of sacrifice. Again the meaning of these things – Passover, Israel, Temple, sacrifice – needs to inform our understanding of Eucharist.
Let’s start simple, with meals. Not that we need to give consideration to every meal noted in the Bible.
But meals matter in the Bible..
In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, the alienation of humankind from God is first manifested by Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 2:15-3.24)
In the last book of the Bible, Revelation, John tells that the faithful will now be permitted “to eat of the tree of life, which is the paradise of God. (Revelation 2.7). That tree is revealed later in the book – a tree now yielding twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month (Revelation 22.1-2). It is described after the account of the marriage supper of the Lamb (revelation 19.6-10) – a meal referenced by the priest at every Mass at the elevation of the host, after the breaking of the Bread in readiness for our Communion.
Behold the Lamb of God,
behold him who takes away the sins of the world.
Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.
Revelation and Genesis speak to us in the language of vision, myth and poetic image. They speak truth, but on the slant. They speak of the meaning and direction and challenge of things that otherwise we find hard to express or engage with.
Some reflection questions to end this post
- Where do you see elements of ‘meal’ in the celebration of Mass? Which do we give greater emphasis to?
- Are there any elements of meal that are missing?
- Is your understanding of the Eucharist already enriched by association with any of the meals described in the Old and New Testament? Why and how?
- Have you had experience of ritual meals in the practice of other cultures or religions? What did you notice? What did you learn?
- What place does eating and drinking have in our contemporary society? For good or ill?
Some key meals of the Old Testament…
- Text (c) 2021, Allen Morris,
- Image (c) 2007, Allen Morris. Altar and mosaic at traditional site of the multiplication of the loaves. Tabgha, Galilee.