I am not sure whether to be encouraged or discouraged by today’s first reading. Encouraged, because it reminds us that today’s struggles around the Eucharist are nothing new. Clearly they plagued the very first generation of Christians. Discouraged, because, 2,000 years later, we still don’t seem to have gotten it.
Vatican II clearly defined the Eucharist as constitutive of the Church. What that means is that we are Church precisely insofar as we are gathered around the table of the Lord, dying to self in our daily lives, bringing with us that daily dying so that it can be united with the perfect self-giving of Jesus. It’s a celebration of what we’re doing outside
the church building, not primarily what we do inside. Eucharist is the intersection of time and eternity, where God’s timeless self-giving in Jesus meets and embraces our own and divinizes it. And if our own self-giving is not what we bring – as was the case in Corinth that St. Paul criticizes – then our “celebration” becomes a travesty.
We never do Eucharist as individuals. It’s never “Jesus and me”. It is a banquet in which, by our actions, we proclaim our solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten of our world, and to which we are all welcome so long as we are willing to feast with everyone else. That’s why St. Paul was so incensed at the me-centeredness of his Corinthian converts. Their behavior betrayed the Eucharist in the very act of its celebration.
Today is the feast of St. John Chrysostom, who for a time was patriarch of Constantinople and who lived some 300 years after Paul penned these words. In one of his sermons he had something to say on this same issue:
Do you want to honor the body of Christ? Then do not despise his nakedness. You come to attend church services dressed in the finest silks which your wardrobe contains; and it is right that you should honor Christ in this way. But on your way, do you pass naked beggars in the streets? It is no good coming to the Lord’s table in fine silks, unless you also give clothes to the naked beggar – because the body of that beggar is also the body of Christ. Do you want to honor the blood of Christ? Then do not ignore his thirst. You have donated beautiful gold chalices for the wine, which becomes a symbol of Christ’s blood; and it is right that you should honor Christ in this way. But on your way to services, you passed by beggars who pleaded for food and drink. It is no good putting gold chalices on the Lord’s table unless you give food and drink to the poor from your own tables. The service which we celebrate in church is a sham unless we put its symbolic meaning into practice outside its walls. Better that we do not come at all than we become hypocrites – whose selfishness can only besmirch the Gospel in the eyes of others.
How sad! It seems that nothing had changed in those 300 years.
But surely, we’re beyond that sort of thing today! Aren’t we? Well, what is our reaction to the immigrants among us – our fellow Christians, equal to us in every way at the Eucharistic table?
How does that emotionally charged issue come into the picture? Go back and reread Chrysostom, but substitute “immigrant” for “beggar”, or, even, “illegal immigrant”. . .
Both Vatican II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly teach that, at Eucharist, the Real Presence is not confined to the bread and wine consecrated at Mass. Christ is really present first in the assembly gathered to join in and thank God for Jesus’ self-giving. Do we approach those assembled with the same awe and reverence with which we approach the consecrated host? In this we too often fail, just as did the Corinthians. Nathan Mitchell, a distinguished liturgical theologian, in his book, “Real Presence”, stresses that Eucharist is, at its very core, a revolutionary act – a radical political – yes political – statement that the present socioeconomic order is not as God wants it to be – that it is changing, and that, in our celebration, we prefigure what it will be some day. You can see why authentic Eucharist is never “Jesus and me”.
Doing Eucharist this way puts us in jeopardy. Recall that Chrysostom was deposed on trumped up charges by his fellow bishops and martyred by them. (True, the church doesn’t actually designate him “martyr”. It seems one needed to have been killed by the evil pagans to earn that title.)
Discouraged? Dispirited? Yes, I could be, if it were not for Jesus’ assurance that we have His Spirit to see us through these recurring betrayals of the Gospel.