When Catholics criticize a specific Protestant church for rarely or never celebrating the Lord's Supper, I remind them the reason for that community's reluctance to take part in this essential Christian activity probably is rooted in the Reformers' reaction to 16th-century Roman Catholic celebrations of the Eucharist.

We need only check the proceedings of the Council of Trent to uncover the myriad abuses which the bishops admitted and discussed. The "Tridentine Mass," which resulted from this council, was tightly regimented so as to rid the Eucharist of as many improper practices as possible.

Historians and liturgists today are convinced that most of those abuses sprang from the clergy's ignorance of the biblical and historical roots of the Lord's Supper. Because they didn't know the original meaning of the Eucharistic words and actions, it was easy to distort them.

Lord's Supper

The bishops of Vatican II knew the clergy was far better educated in the 20th century than they were in the 16th, so they didn't feel they had to be as strict and rigid in reforming the Eucharist as their predecessors had been. They presumed most abuses could be warded off by grounding today's Eucharistic presiders in something their 16th-century counterparts didn't have: an understanding of the biblical theology of the Lord's Supper.

That's why Sunday's second and third readings are so important. Though some Christian commentators make a big thing of Melchizedek offering Abram bread and wine along with his blessing (Gen 14: 18-20), the authors of the Christian Scriptures don't get too excited about that part of the Genesis narrative. It probably had no Eucharistic significance beyond reminding us of the hospitality which should be part of every celebration of the Lord's Supper.

But when we reach the second reading (I Cor 11: 23-26), we're hearing the earliest account of what Jesus said and did during the last meal He celebrated with His followers. Scholars believe the words and actions Paul narrates are rooted in a tradition which possibly originated in the mid-30s!

Never forget that Paul falls back on this ancient tradition as a way to address the divisiveness consuming his Corinthian community. It's in this context that he wants his readers to understand that

"as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes."

Their refusal to imitate Jesus' death by dying to their own vested interests is creating chaos in church gatherings. Paul believes that since Jesus gave us the Eucharist in the context of His dying, then we should experience it only in the context of our dying to ourselves enough to become one with those who join us in the celebration.

Food for all

Luke's Jesus asks for a parallel death from His disciples in the Gospel (Lk 9: 11-17) when He insists, "Give them some food yourselves!" instead of dismissing the hungry crowd.

Recognizing the Eucharistic message underlying this miraculous feeding, scholars point to the role of Jesus' disciples in the narrative. Only after they finally agree to share what little they have can Jesus bless, break and give it back to them to distribute to the hungry crowd. And miracle of miracles, their little bit feeds thousands.

Luke tells us that Jesus demands all His followers "share what little they have" when they gather for the Lord's Supper. No matter how insignificant or small our gift, it could be the very thing Jesus blesses to satisfy the hunger of those around us.

Paul and Luke believe that to die by becoming one and to die by sharing ourselves is at the heart of the Eucharist. If those elements are missing, our rubrical words and actions are meaningless, no matter how "reformed" they are.

(06-14-01)