More on the Eucharist

More on the Eucharist and the Mass


All Catholics know the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper after he blessed bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, "Do this in memory of me." These words perpetuated the institution of the Eucharist until today, and for all time to come. I've always wondered how the Eucharistic meal, which was a family gathering, the Apostles and Jesus, became an elaborate liturgical ritual, as it was when I grew up in the Netherlands in the 1940's. Before the Second Vatican Council, and actually from the post-Reformation time onward, the Sacrifice of the Mass, or what is now referred to as the Tridentine Mass, was a very elaborate liturgy. Unlike our Protestant friends, Catholics know that doctrine is based on Scripture and Tradition. There are early references, other than the four Gospels, to the Eucharist being celebrated as a fellowship meal, in Acts 2:46-47, "And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." I've underlined "in their homes," which still indicates the breaking of the bread was a family gathering at someone's house. And, in Acts 20:7-12, "On the first day of the week when we gathered to break bread, Paul spoke to them because he was going to leave on the next day, and he kept on speaking until midnight. There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were gathered, and a young man named Eutychus who was sitting on the window sill was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. Once overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and when he was picked up, he was dead. Paul went down, threw himself upon him, and said as he embraced him, "Don't be alarmed; there is life in him." Then he returned upstairs, broke the bread, and ate; after a long conversation that lasted until daybreak, he departed. And they took the boy away alive and were immeasurably comforted."


Jesus was raised in the Judaic tradition, and thus a family meal takes on a different dimension. What do we do, nowadays when friends come over...we have a picnic. We eat. Well, we often eat hamburgers or hot dogs prepared on an outdoor grill but still, such a meal is a family celebration which leads to friendship or the expression of friendship. At the time of Jesus, the breaking of the bread and the pouring of wine was participation in a family meal, but also a meal where strangers were sometimes invited, such as at Emmaus. In those days, people lived widely apart, and all traffic was either on foot or on a donkey or horse. Strangers often came by and sometimes when they passed dwellings along the way, they would stop and be invited to participate in the meal, the breaking of the bread. And this was a ritual, particularly in the Jewish tradition. The contemporary ritual in that tradition is, for example, the Seder. So in the cultures of the time of Jesus, it was a common social practice to have a meal between members of the household and invited neighbors and even strangers. In the Judaic tradition these meals consist of thanksgiving for all the Lord (Y----h*) had done for them, and they would read a portion of the Talmud that dealt with the Exodus and Y----h's Covenant. So blessing, thanksgiving, covenant, sacrifice and memorial, had special significance at one of these meal rituals.


The early Christians all knew about the traditional Jewish meal rituals. In the Christian meal ritual, there is bread and wine, a response to our daily need for nourishment, which takes on an even greater meaning. We are not just eating bread and drinking wine, but we are actually eating of His Body and drinking His Blood. Again, referring to Judaic tradition, when people in those days spoke of one's Body or one's Blood, it was not meant in a cannibalistic way, but "taking on Jesus Himself, rather than his physical Body. So when we eat His Body and drink His Blood, we take on the ideals of Jesus Christ. In our daily life, we are Jesus Christ to all we meet or live with. When this is not the case, we need to take a long look at ourselves, ask forgiveness and begin again. That the Eucharistic ritual became the "Sacrifice of the Mass," has been debated for centuries and reference pertaining to Sacrifice are found primarily in the old Testament. The early Christians, because of the Judaic traditions, came to see the Last Supper, and subsequent Crucifixion, as a Sacrifice. In Ephesians 5:2, "So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma." 


Over time, the basic fellowship meal of the Eucharist became a more elaborate liturgical celebration known as the Mass. This is particularly the case around the time of the Council of Trent, where it became a very clerical ritual that really did not invite participation by those in the pews. The priest faced the altar, with his back to the people, prayed more than often quietly or inaudibly, while in the meantime, the congregation prayed rosaries, etc., because few understood what the priest was doing since they did not understand Latin. The Council of Trent ended in 1563. It was not until the end of the Second Vatican Council and full implementation of the results(1969) that the "private ritual" became a celebration for all. Taking on the vernacular language now allows parishioners to actively participate in the prayers of the Mass. The 2nd Vatican Council changes give us a deeper appreciation of the Eucharist in our own language but the underlying theology of the Mass is basically unchanged. 


I remember Holy Mass in the 1950's, where the Roman Mass (what we now call the Tridentine Mass) was still the non-participating ritual of those times, the Altar Boys made the responses, in Latin, to certain prayers, but the congregation was silent. At least in those days we had prayer books in both Latin and English. Infrequent reception of the Eucharist was a by-product of those days I don't believe it was encouraged then. Most people did not go to Holy Mass during the week (but many did). Actually, if we read the history of the Mass and Eucharistic practices in the 20th Century, we would learn that in the United States, the Benedictine monks of St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, sought to encourage lay people to understand and participate in the Mass and that was by the late 1920's. During the next 3 decades, the use of the English language gradually was allowed to be used in the Roman Mass. It wasn't until 1955 that Pope Pius XII issued "De musica sacre, which permitted fuller lay participation in the Mass. The average Catholic did not realize that there was a movement toward greater lay participation and changeovers to the vernacular languages until the Second Vatican Council documents were issued and then the changes were made so rapidly that most of us were confused if not bewildered. In my own situation, I had been a Novice in the Capuchin Franciscan Order in 1959-1960. Then I joined the Army (there was no choice; if I had not joined, I would have been drafted at the time). I did not participate in much religion during military service (also for lack of opportunity overseas), and when I returned to New York and went to church, everything had changed. The suddenness of the changes so unnerved me that I stopped going to Mass for a period of 20 years. I am not proud of that by any means, but I also feel the changes on the part of the Church could have been slower in implementation. I am sure that the same effect was felt my many other Catholics. It would certainly explain why there are so many ex-Catholics. Fortunately, over time, as I rediscovered my Catholic identity, I returned to the Sacraments and have found a new joy in participating in the Eucharist over and over again.


"A contemporary Catholic aware of the ferment created by the Council must remember that the Eucharistic theology and liturgical practices suggested by the Council were themselves the end products of over a century of pastoral and scholarly insights. The Council made these insights available to a much wider audience. Opening windows increased the possibility that Catholics would call for further development of Eucharistic theology and a Eucharistic ritual that would take into account the experiences of the people to whom they were addressed. For the Church in the modern world, eucharistic practices must relate what people do as a result of their understanding of Jesus' command to do this "in memory of me." (The Eucharist, Mary Durkin, 1990. Thomas More Press)


Christ is present in the Word of God, as well as in the Eucharist, the consecrated species of Bread and Wine. There is also more emphasis now on unity... we are not participating in Holy Mass as individuals as much as we are the Body of Christ, and thus all of us are Church. We offer thanksgiving for the gift of Christ's life, death and resurrection. It is in that sense that we experience a call to unity and service. "All these activities are possible because Christ at the Last Supper gave himself to his followers and told them to remember him." (Ibid, p. 147-8) 


Footnote: The book from which I have taken a few quotations, "The Eucharist", Mary Durkin, 1990. Thomas More Press, was used as a basis for historical data in this teaching. 


Fred Schaeffer, OFS
March 2004 rev. 2012


[*] The Lord's Name in Jewish (Y----h) is not shown because in the Jewish Religion it is never pronounced out of reverence.


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