The first step in correctly understanding any
Scripture passage is to hear it within the context in which the author
originally placed it.
Just as the individual actions of our lives
make sense only against the background of our entire lives, so we can't take
just a verse of two of Scripture out of the writer's work and think we're
getting from those lines what the author originally put in them.
Nowhere have we "sinned" more against
this biblical principle than in our understanding of the Eucharist. We zero
in on Jesus' words of institution -- "This is my body/blood" --
and completely ignore the context in which our sacred writers have Jesus
Through the centuries, we've spent most of our
theological time reflecting on how the bread is transformed into Jesus'
body, and the wine into His blood. Little time has been given to exploring
the implications of the Eucharistic community's own transformation into the
body and blood of Christ.
Yet that's almost always the context in which
our Christian sacred authors place Jesus' words over the bread and wine.
Sunday's second reading (I Corinthians
10:16-17) provides the earliest scriptural reference to the Eucharist. St.
Paul employs these two short verses to illustrate how ridiculous it is for
Jesus' followers to live their faith as "independent contractors."
Those who imitate Jesus have a responsibility
to all others who also imitate Jesus. For the Apostle, the greatest and most
practical sign of that unity is the community's participation in the Lord's
Supper. There, they most die and rise; there, they are most one.
Every Corinthian Christian knew what Paul meant
when he asked, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a
participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a
participation in the body of Christ?"
In this context, Paul is not talking about our
being part of the bread and wine. He's referring to our participation in the
community as the blood and body of Christ. If he weren't, the next verse
wouldn't make sense: "Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though
many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf."
Even St. John's classic words in the Gospel
(John 6:51-58) should never be taken out of the context in which the
evangelist places them. All of us have practically memorized the words,
"If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you
have no life in you."
The evangelist here shines the spotlight on
Jesus' bread/body, wine/blood, warning us about the lifeless existence of
those who refuse to participate in consuming them.
Yet, during John's actual Last Supper
narrative, Jesus emphasizes another dimension of the Eucharist, one which
many commemorated on Holy Thursday: the foot washing.
Body of Christ
Scripture scholar Sister Sandra Schniders
believes it's only in such "out-of-control" actions of service to
others that we can actually build the body of Christ as Christ wishes it to
For John, the life-giving aspect of Jesus' body
and blood can be appreciated correctly only when we consume His body and
blood in the context of a life-giving community.
We now hear Moses' first reading words
(Deuteronomy 8:2-3,14-16) with a different understanding: "He fed you
with manna...to show you that not by bread alone do we live, but by every
word that comes forth from the mouth of Yahweh."
Those who concentrate solely on the Eucharistic
bread and wine might be the very people with whom Moses, Paul and John are