Each issue carries an imprimatur
from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting
Is the Mass a Meal?
Like the American flag a few years ago, even the Eucharist can be an emotional
sign waved differently by two opposing viewpoints. To some, sacrifice is the proper description of the Mass; to others, it is a meal. And neither party wants
any facile solution that says it is both.
The roots of the argument lie deep in the hostility between Protestants
and Catholics over the past 400 years. If Protestants emphasized a doctrine
or practice, we were cool; if they denied it, we gave it headlines.
The things we agreed on (charity, of course) almost got lost in the smoke of
Protestants shuddered at the thought of novenas, vigil lights, monsignors
and Mass stipends. So the Baltimore Catechism had eight pages about indulgences
and nothing about the priesthood of the faithful, a frequent Protestant theme.
as Protestant reformers continued to stress, at times one-sidedly, the meal
aspect of the Lord's Supper, Roman Catholic
theologians felt compelled to respond with a lopsided concentration on the Mass
as sacrifice and real presence. This explains
the continued reluctance in Roman Catholic circles to recognize the Eucharist
as a ritual meal and to accept this emphasis in the liturgy today.
What is needed is a complete theology of the Eucharist which, first of all, presumes the presence
of the Lord in what we
are doing—otherwise everything else collapses—and, secondly, takes as its starting
point the words and actions of the Mass. In this way we can easily see that:
1) the actions of the Mass are those of a sacred meal; 2) the words are
a thanksgiving prayer (eucharist); 3) and the Mass' ultimate meaning
is that of a memorial sacrifice, a representing of the Lord's death and
Therefore, to emphasize the meal aspect,
as does the rest of this article, is not to deny the Mass as a thanksgiving
or the Mass as a sacrifice. All three aspects are present and deserve recognition.
Scripture Portrays the Eucharist as a Meal
What do the sources of revelation—the
Bible and tradition— tell us about the basic shape of the Eucharist as meal?
The original accounts of Paul, Mark, Matthew and Luke show the Eucharist originating
at the Last Supper as a meal within a meal. The sacred actions of Jesus with
the bread and wine take place during a Jewish Passover seder supper,
or at least a festive meal. Many of the resurrection appearances of Jesus
involve partaking in a meal. The most important statement about the Eucharist
in St. John treats it as the bread of life— living and life-giving
bread. And the most ancient name for the Eucharist was "the breaking of the
bread" (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7), a designation that highlights the banquet aspect.
Hence, many Scripture scholars today
see the Eucharist of the early Church as a continuation of the table fellowship
Jesus shared with his disciples and followers during his earthly life.
It should be no different today. Indeed,
we must not only assert the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic bread
and wine, but also the reason for that presence: Christ is the head of
a family who graciously invites us, his followers today, to share a pleasant
meal with him.
Some years ago Dom Gregor Dix demonstrated
that all liturgies of both the Eastern and Western Church exhibit a four-fold
action: the taking of bread and wine, the blessing or giving thanks, the breaking
of the bread, and the sharing of the bread and wine. These four-fold Eucharistic
actions are obviously those of a meal.
Here's how they translate into today's liturgy:
taking of bread and wine——————————— = —preparation
blessing or giving thanks————————— = Eucharistic
breaking of the bread)
sharing of bread and wine)———————
= communion rite
Thus, a meal structure forms the basis of our Mass.
The Symbolism of Eating Together
Besides being true to the Church's earliest
tradition, recovering the sign value of the Eucharistic meal
could also enliven the much-neglected devotional aspects of Eucharistic piety.
It is not words which appeal most deeply to the religious dimension of
the whole person. The liturgy is not just words; least of all is it a lecture.
ft is action—prayer in action, ritual prayer.
The forms of bread and wine are not
things isolated in themselves, but part of the whole symbolic action whereby
the risen Christ continues to give himself to his Church. They should be eaten
and drunk as bread and wine, as Jesus offered them to his friends at the Last
To the extent that this eating/drinking-in-friendship
is made apparent, the meaning of our encounter with the Lord will be more readily
grasped. We are dealing with real symbols (signs, sacraments) —which bring about
what they symbolize.
"The Good News implicit in the Eucharist is that God
offers men redemption through common meals. The marvelous may happen
when people eat together. Eating itself is redemptive in the sense
that here a man acknowledges his need of food and, hence, of other
people—.If we consider how a meal shared with others offers men
redemption from their pride and individualism and opens them to
the human community,—we see that eating may indeed be sacramental."
These words of Gregory Baum (Man
Becoming) describe the phenomenon of sharing a meal as a medium for celebrating
the mystery of Jesus' dying and rising. In other words, we may , appreciate
the meaning of the Eucharistic meal in proportion to our ability to share any
Improving the Meal Symbolism
Here are some of the ways in which the
meal dimension of the Eucharist may be recovered in our day. We are basing these
suggestions on the Church's tradition as continued in the General Instruction
and Revised Order of the Mass (1969), issued by Pope Paul VI. (This
is the official statement on the proper celebration of the Eucharist, and is
the result of four centuries of liturgical science and the mandate of Vatican
Il for the revision of the Missal.)
1) Visibility of the Bread and Wine
It goes without saying that if the bread
and wine are important, they should be placed in a position of prominence both
on the offertory table before the presentation of gifts and afterwards on the
altar. This means they should be plainly visible to the congregation and not
obscured by the sacramentary or microphone.
may help to use a large paten
in the form of a
plate and a glass flagon for the wine.
2)—— Bread Blessed at the Same
This has been a constant exhortation of every
Eucharistic instruction since Pius XII's Mediator Dei in 1947.
It stands to reason that if the Eucharist is a meal as well as a sacrifice,
then the food we eat should be present to us on the table from the beginning
of Mass. Ordinarily, it should not be the consecrated bread reserved in the
tabernacle far communicating the sick and the dying and for Eucharistic worship
apart from Mass.
little planning and forethought regarding the number of communicants can normally
assure enough bread consecrated for each celebration of Mass.
3)—— Communion Under Both Kinds
The meal symbolism of the Mass appears more clearly when communion is received by eating the consecrated Bread
and drinking the Precious Blood. From the institution of the Eucharist
at the Last Supper, eating and drinking have always been a part of every Mass.
However, by about the ninth century, the laity began to be refused the cup and
only the priest received communion by eating and drinking. This greatly diminished
the meal aspects of the Mass.
The Second Vatican Council restored
the cup to the laity. As with many of the liturgical reforms, Holy Communion
from the cup was introduced gradually: At first it
was permitted only on special occasions when the groups were small and
the restored practice could be adequately explained. Gradually the practice
was extended. On October 13, 1984, the Holy See confirmed the decision of the
bishops of the United States to extend communion from the cup to all Masses,
even on Sundays and holy days of obligation. At that time, the bishops stated
in This Holy and Living Sacrifice (the official document confirmed by
the Holy See which accompanied this extended permission), "Communion under both
kinds is to be desired in all celebrations of the Mass."
The General Instruction (no. 240) gives —three reasons why Communion is more
complete when both the bread and wine are received:
a) "The sign of the Eucharistic
meal appears more clearly" (Jesus instituted the Eucharist under the forms of
bread and wine);
b) "the intention of Christ that
the new and eternal covenant be ratified in his blood is better expressed" (the
words of the institution narrative: "This is the cup of my blood, the blood
of the new and eternal covenant");
c)— the "relation of the Eucharistic
banquet to the heavenly banquet" is better exemplified.
4)—— Bread That Resembles Bread
This is a provision of the General Instruction (No. 283) which has
been little heeded: "The nature of the sign demands that the material for the
Eucharistic celebration appear as actual food. The Eucharistic bread,
even though unleavened and traditional in form, should therefore be made in
such a way that the priest can break it
and distribute the parts to at least some of the faithful"
But, sadly, the situation has not changed much since a report published
in Worship magazine two years ago: "The fact is that, four years after
the Instruction, 91 per cent of parishes in this country are continuing
with the conventional bread which is stark white, paper thin, often shiny and
plastic-like. In addition, very few celebrants are breaking the large host for
distribution, even when it is practical."
Maybe one reason why celebrants
are not breaking the large host for communion is that there simply is not much
to break! Even if it's impossible to buy hosts that "resemble bread" as they should, a community can
always resort to Mid-eastern bread, readily obtainable commercially, or bake
their own unleavened bread, for which recipes abound.
5) Rite of Breaking
Of the four Eucharistic actions of taking,
blessing, breaking and sharing, the breaking of the bread has fallen into almost
complete de-emphasis, or at times even misinterpretation. The time for the breaking
of the bread is not during the recital of the consecratory words of institution,
but during the communion rite.
Once again, the Genera/ Instruction
(No. 561c) catechizes us on its meaning: "Breaking of bread: this gesture
of Christ at the Last Supper gave the entire Eucharistic action its name in
apostolic times. In addition to its practical aspect, it signifies that in communion
we who are many are made one body in the bread of life which is Christ" (1 Corinthians
It is not the body of Christ that is
broken. It is rather a multiplication of the loaves all over again: Many people
share one meal, one Christ, one love. They stop being isolated grains and become
one bread in the Bread of Life.
The General Instruction further
advises that the Lamb of God may be sung with repeated invocations for as long
as necessary to accompany the breaking of the bread. One of the most successful
collections of experimental liturgies, Bread Blessed and Broken, edited
by John Mossi (1974), has creatively introduced prayers to be proclaimed while
the Eucharistic bread is being broken. To these prayers the people respond with
a sung "Lamb of God" or another song containing a bread motif. Making more of
a ritual of it would restore the meaning of the rite of —"breaking"—one
of the four principal actions of the Eucharist.
6) Communion in the Hand
Of all the features which could lead
to a recovery of the meal dimension of the Mass, the recent restoration of communion
in the hand is most promising. Only misunderstanding and a lamentable absence
of catechesis make this manner of communion controversial. Communion in the
hand is the most ancient practice of receiving communion and persisted in the
Church for the first 800 years of its existence until a general liturgical decline
forced its discontinuance.
Transforming the Assembled 'Body'
Perhaps the foregoing seems to be excessively
preoccupied with rubrics and ceremonial details. Therefore, let us recall that
the greatest liturgical symbol of all is the actual Christian community at worship.
Moreover, the biggest change is not only that of the bread and wine into the
sacrament of the Lord's Body and Blood, but the transformation of the Eucharistic
assembly into the Body of Christ which is the Church.
Nonetheless, it is through the symbolic
actions of the liturgy that our worship happens. A balanced Eucharistic theology
which keeps the meal dimension in perspective can serve to restore or intensify
the other aspects of the Mass: the meaning of the community of the faithful;
the calI to action as an outgrowth of the Eucharist; and the eschatological
dimension, that is, its reference to our —final
and eternal salvation.
1) The Meaning of the Community of the
The recent instruction
Immensae Caritatis (1973)
recognizes the Mass's role in creating a community when it gives the reason
for not receiving communion twice in the same day:
The sacrament of the Lord's Body and
Blood unites us not only with Christ but with one another as the fullest
form of liturgical participation.
Through communion we take on a new relationship
with the other members of —the Eucharistic assembly. Our "Amen" at communion is —thus an affirmation of two things: first,
belief that this is the living body of Christ and that he is Savior; second,
—that we hereby become Church, the whole
Body of Christ, head and members. As St. Augustine once said, "By the grace
of the redemption, you yourselves are what you receive. You acknowledge
this when you respond, 'Amen.' What you witness here is the sacrament of unity."
Our reverence should extend not only
to the Eucharistic bread and wine, but also to our brothers and sisters with
whom we are made holy and sanctified at communion.
2) Impetus to Action for Others
Recovery of the sign value of the Eucharistic
meal could also preserve us from an overly individualistic Eucharistic piety:
me-and-Jesus to the exclusion of others. Maybe we should reread the Acts of
the Apostles in order to grasp the strong sense of social action and concern
verging on the point of primitive communism: "They devoted themselves to the
apostles' instruction and the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and
the prayers" (2:42).
No one can wholeheartedly enter into
the Eucharistic spirit of this community without becoming more aware of the
great community "out there"—a world which cries for bread and justice, for healing
Other features of the revised order
of Mass—the general intercessions, gifts for the poor, the sign of peace—also
call us to social action insofar as these can express our responsibility to
feed the hungers of the human family.
3) A Sign of Eternity Beginning
One reason for communion under both
species is that it relates the Eucharistic banquet more closely to the heavenly
banquet. In other words, there is more to come. The greatest things Christ
has promised us have yet to be fully revealed.
Surely, it is no coincidence that both
the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament describe the joy of heaven with the imagery
of a sumptuous messianic feast. The salvation we await and which is already
at work in the world is depicted in terms of intimate union with the Lord at
a meal where all will be assembled together: "Here I stand, knocking at the
door. If anyone hears me calling and opens the door, I will enter his house
and have supper with him, and he with me" (Revelation 3:20).
The risen Lord breaks bread at Emmaus:
"Now while he was with them at table, he took bread
and said the blessing; then ne broke it and handed it to them.
And their eyes were opened and they recognized him....They
had recognized him in the breaking of the bread" (Luke 24:30ff).
The early Christian community:
"They went as a body to the temple every day but met in teir houses for teh breaking of bread" (Acts w:46).
St. Paul's expressions for the Eucharist:
1) "The Table of the Lord" (1Corinthians 10:22)
2) "the Lord's Supper" (1 Corinthians 11:20)
3) "the breaking of bread" (1 Corinthians 10:16)
Rev. Charles W. Gusmer is chairman of the Newark
Archdiocesan Commission for Divine Worship. With a degree in theology
from the Canisianum in Innsbruck, Austria, and a doctorate and liturgisches
diplom from the Theological Faculty of Trier, West Germany, he presently
teaches sacramental theology and liturgy at Immaculate Conception
Seminary in New Jersey, and is president of the North American Academy
of Liturgy. This article is a popularization of a lecture he gave
at the 41st Eucharistic Congress and has been published earlier
in St. Anthony Messenger.