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Thursday, May 30, 2013

We proclaim the death of the Lord


I always love to hear the reading from 1 Corinthians 11 at mass, or any time. It’s the earliest description we have of the actions of the Lord at the “last supper,” antedating
the gospels by as much as two decades, and not only describing the actions of Jesus, but theologizing for a specific audience about the meaning of those actions.

Paul is writing to the new community at Corinth, one which he has founded, and one which is experiencing some growing pains. You can understand what is happening - Paul has introduced the Way in Corinth having lived there for a while and preached the gospel, then he moves on leaving the community in the charge of deacons and heads of household. The enthusiastic community starts to expand, and receives new members who are hearing the gospel now second hand, or third. Some of the original zeal starts to burn out in some. Syncretistic practices and simply falling back into old ways starts to happen. The idyllic practices of the pristine response community, to the extent they had ever existed, start to fray around the edges. Paul scolds them earlier in the letter for abuses of the body, the community. But then he gets to what is really on his mind, the rupture in the body itself.
First of all, I hear that when you meet as a church there are divisions among you, and to a degree I believe it; there have to be factions among you in order that (also) those who are approved among you may become known. When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord's supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk. Do you not have houses in which you can eat and drink? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed? What can I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this matter I do not praise you.


I wonder if all this just sounds quaint to us, that we think, “Jeez, what’s with that? They had just met St. Paul. Couldn’t they act like Christians even when they gathered for the Lord’s supper? What a bunch of losers.” But it strikes me that it’s not so different from what we do all the time. I mean, the meal is long gone from the rite of Eucharist itself, but the sharing of the wealth and food of the assembly with the poor isn’t much more widespread, if at all, than in the early church. There are examples of generosity and crazy possessiveness in both ages.

There’s a question that I like to pose when we do workshops around the country, something I like to ask people to think about while we’re singing songs and looking at the liturgy and the life of the Church: what is the connection between the meal of Jesus and the cross? Why is it that St. Paul can say, as he does in that reading yesterday, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.” Why the death of the Lord?

Fr. Eugene LaVerdiere in his recent book on the table ministry of Jesus in the gospel of Luke, called Dining in the Kingdom of God, makes the point that we Catholics tend to make too much of the “institution” of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and make less of the origins of the Eucharist in the table-ministry of Jesus. (Coincidentally, one of the major stories used by Laverdiere and others in this regard is the gospel account for next Sunday’s celebration, the meal at the house of Simon the Pharisee.) My great mentor in liturgy, John Gallen, used to talk about the table-ministry of Jesus in the gospels in three parts - in his three-year ministry among the people, the Last Supper itself, with its religious overtones of sacrifice, Passover, and freedom, and the post-resurrection food narratives, particularly the meal at Emmaus, the breakfast on the lakeshore in John, and the appearance to the disciples in Luke 24. The meaning of the Jesus meals, particularly their function as “street theater” incarnating his preaching about the reign of God and its meaning in the here and now, is apparent when viewed with this lens. Eating is never just about eating. It’s about sharing life, and with whom our lives are shared. How do we proclaim the death of the Lord by eating and drinking together? We see that the Jesus meals are ultimately laden with the justice and equality of God’s reign. But to turn to God's empire means to reject the other god who makes a claim on our allegiance: Caesar, and those who collaborate with Caesar. This is what leads to the cross, which as a Roman device of punishment was reserved for "enemies of Caesar and the pax Romana." As to the religious collaborators with Caesar, the Jerusalem priesthood, they resent that Jesus eats and drinks with sinners. By establishing a relationship of life and love with those left aside by what would become the “kosher” laws of the covenant, and by further claiming a special relationship with God, he makes himself in their eyes a blasphemer, putting the unclean next to the ineffable, and therefore, in their eyes, he has to die. 

We proclaim the death of the Lord when we eat and drink the sacred food in the Eucharist, but that all has meaning because of the way we live the other 167 hours of the week. Just as the meals of Jesus, including the Last Supper, had a meaning beyond simple sustenance, the Christian Eucharist has a meaning because of the way we treat each other and live in the justice of God’s reign during the rest of the week. To the extent that we are good news to the poor, that we cast out demons that hold people and groups of people hostage to evil, that we heal the wounds of sin and division in the world, that we live an alternative to false peace and counterfeits of wealth and power that are the commerce of the world, then our Eucharist proclaims the death of the Lord until he comes.

The body and blood of Christ are not an object to be adored on a shelf, even a holy shelf. A person is never an object; a person is a subject. The Eucharistic body and blood of the Lord is a person, is Christ, and as such includes us, called and transformed by the Holy Spirit to be something more than we thought we were. The body and blood of Christ are a living presence, are a living sign of what God continues to do in our world through the power of the Holy Spirit in the Church. In us, the community of the baptized, the gospel is preached and lived, good news is alive for the poor, freedom is announced to captives, the forgiveness of debts, the sabbath-jubilee of God is made present and unforgettable to both those who long for its coming and those hostile to it and covetous of their own comfort and wealth. Those who share this sacred food are bound forever to the death of the Lord, and, as so many advocates for the gospel have found over the centuries, destined for the same treatment as their Master.

All that having been said, I wonder how many churches experienced homilies based on the last line of Sunday's first reading from Genesis?

Catholics could use a little pep talk on tithing. The connection between the Eucharist and tithing is probably a mystery to more Catholics than either its connection with the Lord’s death or his real presence. But at its center, it is water flowing from the same well. Remember the admonition to “love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and soul and mind and strength”? Well, “strength” in that sentence, in Hebrew, means “wealth.” 

Ka-ching, Catholics. It’s about time the word became flesh again, doncha think? ☺

PS - if you like this way of thinking about Eucharist, and want more to think about or share with others today, look back at this blog post of mine, from Holy Thursday, on "real presence."