Jesus took with him Peter and James and John and led them up a high mountain where they could be alone by themselves. There in their presence he was transfigured: his clothes became dazzlingly white, whiter than any earthly bleacher could make them. Elijah appeared to them with Moses; and they were talking with Jesus.
Then Peter spoke to Jesus: ‘Rabbi,’ he said ‘it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say; they were so frightened. And a cloud came, covering them in shadow; and there came a voice from the cloud, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.’ Then suddenly, when they looked round, they saw no one with them any more but only Jesus.
As they came down from the mountain he warned them to tell no one what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. They observed the warning faithfully, though among themselves they discussed what ‘rising from the dead’ could mean.
In last week’s ‘Origins and Influences’ posting we considered the New Testament accounts of Christians gatherings held in fulfilment of the Lord’s command to ‘do this in memory of me’– gatherings for… well, what do we call it? Breaking of the bread (generally their term), or call it Eucharist or Mass (our terms and, to a greater or lesser extent, anachronistic terms)
A key term, a key verb, associated with these communal meals – used in the accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels and in Paul is eucharistein. It is a word that means ‘giving thanks’. It is also a word that has remained in currency over 2000 years. And is used in the New Testament most broadly than in the accounts of the Last Supper.
As noted in last week’s mini-essay, eucharistein is also used in association attitudes and a life of thanksgiving more generally – key aspects of living in communion with the Lord.
It is a word also used, in Matthew and Mark’s Gospels in their account of the multiplication of the loaves for the 4000; and in John’s account of the feeding of the 5000. Though eucharistein does not appear in the synoptic gospels account of the feeding of the 5000, there are other verbal parallels which themselves echo the synoptic accounts of the Last Supper. In other words, these miraculous feedings far great, far more substantial than the feasts of which Paul complains in Corinth – these meals too need to feed into our appreciation of what it means to eat and drink in memory of Jesus.
Let’s look at the accounts of the feeding of 5000 and 4000 in Mark’s Gospel.
Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish,he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
It is interesting to note that not only is Jesus’ action with the bread described in terms which evoke what he does at the Last Supper, it is describe much more elaborately than is what he does with the fish. The bread is blessed, broken and given – the fish just divided.
Jesus Feeds the Four Thousand In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
Again, the fish are just set before them, but the bread… the loaves Jesus give thanks (eucharistein) for, breaks and gives them.
This language of giving thanks, breaking and sharing anticipates the language that Mark uses to describes Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper.
This is surely not accidental. In these miraculous feedings Jesus draws on his divine power, on himself, for the benefit of others.
The disciples – by contrast – seem just want rid of the others – send them away. They want to keep what they have for themselves and for Jesus.
There is lovely little episode in Mark’s Gospel that follows on from the feeding of the 4000 that seems to me to make the point beautifully. The Pharisees miss the point, and the disciples miss the point. The Pharisees are blind to the signs that have already been given; and the disciples fail to understand the deeper truth of the sign. Jesus is the bread – the living bread as John would put it – and to be in communion with Jesus is to be fed. Every thing else is bonus…
The Pharisees Demand a Sign The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.
The Leaven of the Pharisees and Herod Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
Mark 8. 11-21
Jesus tells us he has a reputation for one who has come ‘eating and drinking, and they say, “Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”’ . (Mt 11.19).
And yet believers see that in his eating and drinking with sinners he manifests the love and mercy of God in a way that is sometimes obscured by our disciplines of inclusion and exclusion, not least those surrounding eating and drinking, be that in our homes, and even – at least sometimes – in our religious rituals.
When we ourselves come to eat and drink with the Lord, or – in truth even more truly when we come to eat and to drink the very Lord himself in the Eucharistic food and drink – we do well to call these other transgressive meals to mind.
When we come to the Eucharist we say that we are not worthy to be there – we group ourselves with tax-collectors and sinners. Do we mean it? Do we? And do we truly ask the Lord to speak his healing word.
Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
Order of Mass 132
The priest at Mass is given additional words to use in his prayers before Communion and as he receives Communion. They underline our very real need for what Christ offers in communion
The Priest, with hands joined, says quietly: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who, by the will of the Father and the work of the Holy Spirit, through your Death gave life to the world, free me by this, your most holy Body and Blood, from all my sins and from every evil; keep me always faithful to your commandments, and never let me be parted from you.
Or: May the receiving of your Body and Blood, Lord Jesus Christ, not bring me to judgement and condemnation, but through your loving mercy be for me protection in mind and body and a healing remedy. … (As he receives Holy Communion) the Priest, facing the altar, says quietly: May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.
And he reverently consumes the Body of Christ.
Then he takes the chalice and says quietly: May the Blood of Christ keep me safe for eternal life.
And he reverently consumes the Blood of Christ.
The Order of Mass 131, 133.
The priest prays ‘keep me always faithful …and never let me be parted from you.’
In other words he prays that as he leaves the altar, as he leaves the assembly of the faithful and with them returns to ‘the world’ he might continue to live in communion with Christ. He prays that he will be at one with Christ’s life of thanksgiving to the Father.
He prays that he himself (with the rest of the Church) will live as an effective sign of communion with Christ that Christ himself extends to all peoples – with those others with whom we might easily eat and drink – but especially with those others that, left to ourselves, we might shrink from spending quality time with…
How does Eucharist challenge the status quo?
Does Mass in your Christian community challenge the status quo?
What connects sharing in the Eucharistic food and drink with other meals in your daily life?
How does Eucharist feed the hungry? Where does it fail to meet their needs?
Translation of Scripture: English Standard Version (c) 2001-9, Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
The Roman Missal(c) 2010, International Commission on English in the Liturgy Corporation. All rights reserved.
Photographs. (c) 2013, Allen Morris, Two images from paleo-Christian sarcophagii, Musee Departemental Arles Antique, Arles, France.
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘You have learnt how it was said: You must love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on bad men as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest and dishonest men alike. For if you love those who love you, what right have you to claim any credit? Even the tax collectors do as much, do they not? And if you save your greetings for your brothers, are you doing anything exceptional? Even the pagans do as much, do they not? You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.’
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.
‘You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you: anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court; if a man calls his brother “Fool” he will answer for it before the Sanhedrin; and if a man calls him “Renegade” he will answer for it in hell fire. So then, if you are bringing your offering to the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar, go and be reconciled with your brother first, and then come back and present your offering. Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. I tell you solemnly, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.’
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For the one who asks always receives; the one who searches always finds; the one who knocks will always have the door opened to him. Is there a man among you who would hand his son a stone when he asked for bread? Or would hand him a snake when he asked for a fish? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give your children what is good, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
‘So always treat others as you would like them to treat you; that is the meaning of the Law and the Prophets.’
The crowds got even bigger, and Jesus addressed them: ‘This is a wicked generation; it is asking for a sign. The only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. On Judgement day the Queen of the South will rise up with the men of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here. On Judgement day the men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation and condemn it, because when Jonah preached they repented; and there is something greater than Jonah here.’
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘In your prayers do not babble as the pagans do, for they think that by using many words they will make themselves heard. Do not be like them; your Father knows what you need before you ask him. So you should pray like this:
‘Our Father in heaven, may your name be held holy, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us. And do not put us to the test, but save us from the evil one.
‘Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours; but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.’
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi he put this question to his disciples, ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say he is John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’
‘But you,’ he said ‘who do you say I am?’
Then Simon Peter spoke up, ‘You are the Christ,’ he said ‘the Son of the living God.’
Jesus replied, ‘Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So I now say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.’
The Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness and he remained there for forty days, and was tempted by Satan. He was with the wild beasts, and the angels looked after him.
After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the Good News from God. ‘The time has come’ he said ‘and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.’
In an earlier blog I noted that although we can have an idea that there is a direct and straight line from the Last Supper to our Mass of today that is not so. Jesus did not distribute a missal to each of the apostles and say ‘do this in memory of me’.
What were they to do, in memory of him? Everything he had done at the meal?
There is no indication that they ever did that. Whatever the Passover element of the meal was – and we do not know what it was, with any certainty – never seems to have been repeated. If it was a Passover meal, remember in John’s Gospel the meal is before the Passover. But there is no indication that there was a regular gathering for the mutual washing of feet either.
What we do know about that line of connection in the earliest days of the Church, between the Last Supper, the Lord’s Supper – and for sure there is a line of connection – we glean from scripture.
The first thing that we see is that the Breaking of Bread becomes a significant ritual for the early followers of Jesus.
The Breaking of Bread
That term, the Breaking of Bread, is used especially in the writings of Luke. It comes first in the climax of the Emmaus story which takes up almost the whole of the last chapter of Luke’s Gospel and in which Jesus helps his disciples slowly put together the things they will need to understand what has happened in the Easter Mystery, the Paschal Mystery, of his Passion, Death and Resurrection. First he engages them in a reconsideration of scripture, helping them to begin see that his death rather than being a betrayal of hope is in fact hope’s fulfilment. And second he takes, blesses and breaks bread with them: and it is at the breaking of the bread that they recognise him.
That language of the breaking of the bread continues to be used by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles.
The Fellowship of the Believers And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Eutychus Raised from the Dead On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lamps in the upper room where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus, sitting at the window, sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer. And being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third storey and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the youth away alive, and were not a little comforted.
Breaking bread in a storm As day was about to dawn, Paul urged them all to take some food, saying, “Today is the fourteenth day that you have continued in suspense and without food, having taken nothing. Therefore I urge you to take some food. For it will give you strength, for not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat. Then they all were encouraged and ate some food themselves. (We were in all 276 persons in the ship.) And when they had eaten enough, they lightened the ship, throwing out the wheat into the sea.
Trying to understand and account for what is being described in scripture is not always straightforward!
Very many would, without hesitation, see the reference in Acts 2 to the breaking of bread as a reference to the first believers celebrating Eucharist (in one form or other).
And it is regularly suggested that the gathering at which Eutychus quite literally drops off during Paul’s preaching (or at least speechifying) was a Sunday gathering for Mass.
However what about what happens in the third episode? There is quite a lot of what we take now to be eucharistic language in Luke’s account: ‘he took bread and giving thanks (in Greek ‘eucharistein)’he broke it and began to eat. With all of that language employed Luke seems to imply this is a very eucharistic moment, (even in our later sacramental understanding of the term) and surely something more is going on than Paul was simply telling everyone to have a bite to eat and pull themselves together. But was he celebrating Eucharist? Did he share it with others?
Interpreting the words of scripture, scholars will sometimes push the evidence towards more or less tentative conclusions so as to test out their theories. But for others us it is often enough to notice ‘the grey areas’, and value the resonances, the points of connection, between what is said and what we – in a very different age and in very different circumstances – say and do, without demanding to know ‘was it Mass or wasn’t it?’
The word eucharistein – giving thanks noted above in that somewhat problematic account of Paul in the boat – gives us our English word ‘Eucharist’. The noun is used c 150AD by Justin Martyr in his Frist Apology – of which more in some weeks time.
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, “This do youe in remembrance of Me, this is My body;” and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “This is My blood;” and gave it to them alone. …
Justin, First Apology 66.1
By the time of Justin Eucharist has taken on a technical meaning (and the Eucharistic Rite, as we will see has taken on what is to us a very recognisable form). But in the New Testament, and in the First and early Second Century, at least, there is also a good deal of fluidity. The Eucharistic controversies, and the centralisation of Church authority, that it has helped (and sometimes hindered?) our appreciation of the Eucharist – and certainly brought a forensic clarity to what is considered valid and invalid, licit and illicit – lie far in the future.
There is evidence of -at least – ritual diversity in the Eucharistic practice of the early Church – some may have had rituals using bread only; others with bread and water; others with bread and water and wine. We have no need to judge the propriety of what they did. It is enough to note what they did, these people who sought to live in communion with the risen Christ and understood themselves to eat and (generally, also) drink their communion in his Body, of his flesh.
What did matter in these formative times was that whether or not the breaking of bread, for example, was done in communion with Jesus, in memory of him, and under the uniting power of the Holy Spirit. The niceties of ritual practice seem to have been of less importance, at least for a while.
While there clearly was variety, the dominant tradition which has been handed on to us, is that first expounded in Paul. But for Paul too – though he knows Eucharist as a ritual that involves bread and wine and which echoes what Jesus did at the last supper – Eucharist is also more than the ritual. It is thanksgiving, and it is about a life of thanksgiving, a life lived in Communion with Christ, and with his Body the Church.
So Paul eucharistises – he give thanks (and uses the language of eucharistein) – for the Church in Corinth (1 Cor 1.4); he partakes with thanksgiving (again he uses eucharistein) over most any food set before him (unless he knows it has been offered in sacrifice to false gods (1 Cor 30); and he urges those he writes to eucharistise always and everywhere (cf Eph 1.16, 1 Th 5.18 and 2 Th2.13), as well as at the meal that is specifically memorial of Christ.
If we allow ourselves to loosen up a little with regard to what Eucharist has been for others, we have the opportunity to broaden our appreciation of what it is that we are part of when we celebrate Eucharist today. For all of the wonder of how Eucharist engages us in what happened in the Upper Room at the Lord’s Supper, and what Christ suffered and achieved at Calvary, there is more too.
Next week we look at some of that more – in the Gospel accounts of other meals that Jesus shared with his disciples, and in some of the earliest non-scriptural accounts of Eucharistic prayer.
Translation of Scripture: English Standard Version (c) 2001-9, Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.