When some of my Catholic students make remarks about churches that rarely or never celebrate the Lord's Supper, I remind them that this practice can be traced back to how the Eucharist was celebrated in Catholic churches in the early 16th century.

I then quote some statements from bishops at the Council of Trent about the many abuses they observed and the need for reform, which actually didn't happen until Vatican II in the 1960s. I end by reminding them of Martin Luther's description of the situation: "The Church has turned an action into a thing." it was a "thing" from which some 16th-century reformers wanted to distance themselves.

Even today, we're still at a distance from what the early Church understood and experienced in the Lord's Supper. Nowhere is this clearer than in our lack of enthusiasm for taking the cup.

Cup of blood

Taught in pre-Vatican II religion classes that there was no need to receive Jesus' blood because "a body naturally contains blood," few stepped forward when the cup finally was offered to all in the 1970s. Some worry about germs, and some believe they don't need the extra credit, but almost no one knows why Jesus' first followers thought the cup was essential.

The second reading for Sunday (I Cor 11: 23-26) contains our earliest account of the Lord's Supper. (Some scholars trace it back to the mid-30s!) Notice, instead of saying, "This is my blood," over the wine, Jesus says: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood."

Ancient covenant-making ceremonies always included blood, a universal sign of life. People believed that entering into covenants or formal agreements would bring a deeper, more fulfilling life. Paul presumes when Jesus passed His cup to the people sitting around Him that night, He was asking them to join Him in the covenants He had made with God years before.

Those who drank from His cup were telling Him, "We'll carry on your ministry when your gone. We won't let the agreement you have with God die with you." Watching each disciple drink, Jesus knew He wasn't dying in vain. His dream was now their dream. No one worried about colds or extra credit.

That insight eventually disappeared. Several centuries after Paul, when the newly baptized received little or no instruction, people presumed only "clerics" carried on Jesus' work. The cup was superfluous, in the same category as the human appendix - no one knows why we have it or misses it when it's gone. Its absence was one more step in removing the community di-mension from our Eucharistic celebrations. Such a misunderstanding had certain implications.

Food and drink

Most of us, for instance, latch solely onto the "elements" of bread and wine in the first reading (Gen 14: 18-20), ignoring the meal and hospitality aspect which are the reading's main thrust. The Genesis author stresses that Melchizedek, a pagan priest and king, is offering food and drink to a bunch of foreigners.

We even hear Luke's bread miracle and falsely think Jesus is feeding the 5,000 (Luke 9: 11-17). Listen carefully to what Jesus tells His disciples: "Give them some food yourselves." When they complain they have only "five loaves and two fish," He tells them to prepare the crowd for a feast.

"Then taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, Jesus says the blessing over them, breaks them and gives them to the disciples to set before the crowd." Today, in a cleric-dominated Church, we rarely think of everyone sharing in the feeding that takes place during the Eucharist.

Our present celebration of the Eucharist is light years removed from how they "said Mass" in the early 16th century. Yet hearing Scripture readings that pertain to early Christian celebrations of the Lord's Supper, we realize that, no matter how good today's liturgies are, we're still light years away from doing in Jesus' memory what Jesus actually intended us to do.

(6/10/04)