‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ The Last Supper was, first and foremost, an act of Christ’s love, and not just for his friends. “But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table.” At that very first Communion, Christ shared his body and blood even with Judas, who was to hand Him over to his death within hours. None of us is worthy to share this great Sacrament with Christ, and all of us are invited to eat with him anyway. This is, after all, the God who when he walked the earth, was constantly criticised for sharing meals with prostitutes, tax-collectors, Roman soldiers and other ‘undesirables’.
For some reason, pretty much all Churches tend to ignore this lesson. There is always somebody who is considered especially ‘unworthy’ and kept away from the Lord’s Table. At its worst, this reduces the Sacrament to a tool in a game of punishment and reward. Not only is the ‘punishment’ side of the game foreign to the way of life that Jesus modelled for us in the Scriptures, but seeing the Sacrament as a ‘reward’ for sufficiently good behaviour or doctrinal purity is fraught with spiritual dangers. The Sacrament is not a magic token. It does not in and of itself make us ‘better’. If we think it does, we are setting ourselves up for a fall.
Christians have also shamed Christ in the way we have allowed different understandings of the nature of the Sacrament to be a cause for bitterness and rancour, at times even violence. Scripture does not delve into the questions of transubstantiation versus consubstantiation or whether communion in one kind only is legitimate. The Bible gives us only a few sentences of explanation for this central Christian act, yet it tells us everything that is important about the Blessed Sacrament: this is my body; this is my blood; do this in remembrance of me.
Rancour about the name of the Eucharist is particularly distressing: in Anglican circles, for example, many people will decide to go to one Parish Church or another based on whether their notice board refers to the service as ‘Holy Communion’, ‘Eucharist’ or ‘Mass’, with ‘the Lord’s Supper’ seen almost as an extreme Protestant term best reserved for Baptists and other strange creatures! Other Christian traditions have their own shibboleths, as if using one term rendered all the others invalid. The Eucharist is, quite literally, beyond our comprehension and must be while we remain part of a fallen world – “for now we see in a mirror, dimly”. And yet each of the terms in common usage in the English-speaking world expresses an important truth about this greatest of God’s gifts to us.
At the Lord’s Supper, we re-enact the first Eucharist on the first Maundy Thursday, proclaiming Christ’s death until He comes again, as He commanded us. Remembering does not only mean calling to mind, but quite literally re-membering, putting together again and making real Christ’s actions.
The Eucharist means ‘a giving of thanks’. We give thanks to God for the great gift of life, and that he continues to feed and sustain us. When we want to thank someone for their love and kindness towards us, we often invite them for a meal. We should not be ashamed to invite God, as human as He is divine, to share this great feast with us in our Churches.
Communion literally means the sharing of intimate thoughts and feelings, or the common participation of in an experience. Holy Communion is both of those things, but it is more than that – Christ literally shares his body and blood with us, our faith allowing us to perceive with our souls what is invisible to our senses. Our God is not a cosmic watchmaker, who puts the mechanics of creation in place and then sits back to watch, but one who became one of us, died for us, and feeds us throughout our earthly journey.
The term Mass comes from the Latin “ite missa est” – “go, you have been sent”. The Mass is not a private ceremony for the faithful, gathered in a holy huddle, cosily detached from the world. It is where Christ feeds us with his very self, and sends us strengthened out into the world to love and serve Him.
So much argument about words and doctrines, yet in my own life I have found the great benefit of lthe Eucharist has come from the lessons taught by it as a physical performance and as the anchor of real human communities. I started this piece by saying the Eucharist is first and foremost an act of Christ’s love, and it calls us to love others, even those who we don’t want to love.
It is not always a pleasant experience to kneel next to someone at the altar rail who has is habitually unkind or unpleasant to us, or to people we care about. It is equally difficult when someone uses their frequent reception of the Sacrament as a badge of superiority over others. It is all too tempting in those circumstances to nurse one’s superiority and pat ourselves on the back for understanding what the Eucharist is all about. But if we truly come to Communion in humility and repentance for our own sins, we should not have time to worry about the sins of others.
The Eucharist expresses in physical form one of the great truths of God’s kingdom. None of us is worthy, but all of us are invited to the party.