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Eucharist: The Real Presence
by John Gallen, S.J.

Pope John Paul II has asked that we make this first year of the new millennium an "intensely eucharistic year." When we Catholics hear this call, there are many among us who remember that even the word Eucharist has come to mean so much more than when we were growing up. We remember that the Second Vatican Council was able to sponsor a renewal of liturgy that communicated the eucharistic experience in ways that opened up the richness of Eucharist even beyond what we already reverenced so deeply.

We discovered, for example, that our own active participation in this community prayer really counted. We were not meant to be passive spectators at Mass. At the same time, younger Catholics are extremely alert to issues like participation, and get turned off very quickly if they feel their involvement is restricted.

Jesus: alive and present

So many different kinds of Catholics—different in age and culture, education and background—celebrate Eucharist every Sunday and bring their own ways of talking about their eucharistic experience. For all of us Eucharist is profoundly important. For all of us there is a very real sense of Christ's presence at Mass, alive and touching us, nourishing our deep hungers. We have different ways of describing that reality, but our faith is persistent.

What does it mean to say that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist? What words can we use to describe the real presence of Jesus at Mass? The related question of how the real presence of Jesus at Mass is accomplished will be addressed in the next issue of Millennium Monthly. In this issue we will explore the meaning of Jesus' real presence through a two-part reflection: 1) What was Jesus doing during his public ministry as he shared meals with so many different people, as we see recounted in the pages of the New Testament? 2) What is Jesus doing now at Mass as he continues to share this sacred meal with us?

Sharing food, life

First of all, we cannot fail to remember how Jesus exercised during his public life what biblical scholars describe as his ministry of table-fellowship. The Gospels recount the ways that Jesus continually shared meals with all kinds of people. Stranger or friend, sinner or saint, they were invited to the table because, in addition to the physical nourishment that food provides, more than food is shared at meals together. Meal-sharing is a way of sharing life. When we bring people to our table, we are inviting them into our life.

What we are saying on a deeper level is, "Here, take of my life." And when our guests accept the invitation to our table and eat our food with us, they are accepting more than food. They are also accepting us, accepting our invitation to share life with us. To accept the food is to accept the person. In a similar way, to pass the food is to pass the person. Meal-sharing is person-sharing.

Throughout his public ministry we find Jesus continually at table with people to share life with them. He constantly was able to draw people to this sharing of himself as he sat with them at table. That he ate with moral outcasts, of course, did not find welcome reception among those who searched for ways to attack him. "This man," they complained, "welcomes sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:2). The moral outrage was based on the reasoning that if Jesus ate with sinners, then he shared life with them! His detractors were exactly right, but they did not grasp the true implications of the event. Sinners, and everybody else, were drawn into life with Jesus by sharing meals with him. Meal-sharing is person-sharing.

Journey from death to life

At the Last Supper Jesus gathered his friends in the terrible moment when it seemed everything was lost. They come to this last meal and, in full awareness of what is to come in the morning, Jesus embraces them all and does it again. He shares the bread and says, "Here, this is my Body for you." He shares the cup, telling them, "Here, this is the cup of my Blood poured out for you." Then he tells them, "Do this in memory of me." This supper took place "on the night he was handed over" (1 Corinthians 11:23), before his arrest. Jesus is linking the events of his imminent passion and death to the meal that is being shared. So when he gathers his disciples into the shared meal he gathers them likewise into the journey of suffering and death which then unfolds into his rising in glory. All who share the meal with Jesus share in the paschal journey of death and rising.

Years later St. Paul described the event by referring to their meal not as the Last Supper but as the Lord's Supper. In doing so Paul was pointing to the link between their meal, the suffering and death, and also the resurrection because the word Lord was the title of the risen Christ. According to Paul, the disciples came to "the table of the Lord" in order "to eat the Lord's supper" (1 Corinthians 10:21; 11:20). Already at the Last Supper the full meaning of sharing the meal with Jesus includes sharing his Passover journey through death to risen life.

It is remarkable that the same pattern of table-fellowship appears in the New Testament accounts of meal-sharing with the risen Jesus. In his risen appearances Jesus invites his startled disciples to share food with him, and the meaning of this extraordinary invitation is not lost on them. They are being drawn into a sharing of life that is astounding, a life that is not undone by the experience of death. Life triumphs over death! So when the disciples are out fishing on the Sea of Tiberias and recognize Jesus on the shore, they come to the beach and find him cooking breakfast for them. He shares the meal with them, and when they are finished gives them the mandate to continue this sharing of risen life: "Feed my lambs" (John 21:15).

The same day that Jesus' disciples discovered his tomb empty, Jesus came to meet two of them on the road to Emmaus. Although they did not at first recognize him, he explained the Scriptures to them about his death and rising and finally, "while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him" (Luke 24:30-31). When Jesus did what they knew to be typical of him, that is, meal-sharing, that is when they recognized him and knew him to be the Lord.

'Gift of risen life'

What Jesus was doing at the meal in those instances is precisely what Jesus continues to do with us now and throughout history. In fidelity to the mandate which Jesus gave, "Do this in memory of me," Christians continue to gather at the table of the Lord to share the gift of risen life. There is more at stake here than simply the memory of what Jesus once did many centuries ago. There is more at issue here than the pious and grateful recall of the heroic love that Jesus expressed in his earthly ministry, as though we were saying to one another, "Well, it was certainly great and wonderful what Jesus did in those days, and what we are doing here is reminding each other of those events of long ago and how wonderful they were then."

This kind of sentiment, however well meant, really amounts to this: It was wonderful then, when it happened, but it isn't happening now. We have a rosy memory of how fine Jesus was. We can always remember him, we will never forget him; but he isn't here now, with us, sharing the meal.

But of course he is! What Jesus did then, Jesus is doing now. Jesus continues his ministry of table-fellowship with us in this moment of history, inviting us to share the meal with him so that we may share life with him. Present with us, Jesus identifies himself with the food and drink that are being shared in the meal. And so Jesus shares life, risen life, in the sharing of himself.

The risen Jesus is truly present in the community, the Church that gathers for celebration of the Eucharist, and is truly present in the bread and wine that are passed. We have here more than bread and wine. In the eucharistic meal we have bread and wine that Jesus, through the hands of his living community, takes as the food and drink that carries his risen self to us. Jesus continues to identify himself with the bread and the wine that he gives, much as men and women have always identified themselves with the food and drink they share. To pass the food, to pass the cup, is to pass oneself. In this case the identification with the food and drink is total. It has the appearance of bread and wine, but it is more than that. It is totally identified with the Jesus who gives, who shares, so its very heart and stuff is more than bread and wine. It is the living Christ! The body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ is truly present!

Sharing in sacrifice

The Supper of the Lord in which we share has always been called a sharing—not only in Christ's life but also in Christ's sacrifice. Eucharist is sacrifice. How can we come to understand what this means? Sacrifice can be a difficult word. We think of people abandoning themselves and everything dear to them, giving themselves up for a cause. Jesus gave himself on the cross for us, making sacrifice of himself. How does Eucharist as meal-sharing embrace the notion of sacrifice?

Scholars have helped us to understand what the earliest Church understood by the word sacrifice. In the first centuries of Church history the meaning attached to the word was "doing what is holy." Sacrifice was a holy gesture. Furthermore, the Church has always proclaimed that God is the Holy One, just as we sing in our hymn at Mass: "You alone are the Holy One." Therefore, sacrifice, holy action, was what God did. Every divine action was the doing of what is holy and, in this Church sense, the making of sacrifice. So God's creating the world, all the events of God's action in the world, all of the wonderful things that God has done, the mirabilia Dei, are all God's action of sacrifice.

God's most important act of sacrifice is the sending of Jesus into human history. God reaches out to gather all human history to his divine heart by the sending of Jesus and his divine mission to bring the world to God. What Jesus did was gather up everything of our world and history, all of its beauty and tragedy, all of its tears and joys, and bring it to the Father. Even suffering and death were gathered up, as we remember in our eucharistic prayer: "For our sake he opened his arms on the cross." The cross is the sign not only of suffering and death but also of resurrection and new creation. The cross is the place where death was transformed. The sacrifice of the cross is, in reality, God's holy action in which death is made into risen life.

In sharing the meal with us Jesus is making sacrifice. Jesus is reaching out to us and our world to gather it to himself to make our world and ourselves holy. We become holy because God makes us holy. The more we surrender to this holy action of God in Jesus Christ, the more we share in God's holy action and so join in the sacrifice of Christ. "Lord," we pray in our eucharistic prayer, "you are holy indeed, the fountain of all holiness." The eucharistic meal is the sacrifice of Jesus and the sacrifice of us, the community of Church, gathered up with him in response to the Father of love.*

Jesuit Father John Gallen is founder of the North American Academy of Liturgy. He holds a doctorate from the University of Trier in Germany.

 


 

Lucas Benitez 

When Lucas Benitez, 24, sits down for a meal, he makes a point of thanking God and thinking of the farmworkers who helped bring food to the table. When you yourself labor by day in the fields, gratitude for food comes naturally.

When he immigrated from Mexico as a teen to begin the life of a farmworker in Florida, Mr. Benitez was grateful for the opportunity to work and help his parents and siblings back home. But he wasn't prepared for what he encountered: verbal and physical abuse, denial of basics such as fresh drinking water, shockingly low wages.

Nor was he prepared to accept such oppression without a challenge. In 1995 he helped organize a general strike in Immokalee, Florida, in a successful effort to turn back a wage cut that had been planned by local growers. Other actions followed, including a 30-day hunger strike that brought about the first raise for tomato pickers in decades.

Although he continues to labor in the fields, particularly during the summer months, Mr. Benitez also works full-time for the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida. His official title is community organizer, but he prefers the word animator. Speaking to Millennium Monthly through an interpreter, he explained that his goal is to encourage farmworkers to work together to achieve their goals of respect for their work and their dignity as human beings.

In recognition of his success and his commitment to putting Church social teaching into action, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development honored Mr. Benitez with its first Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award. "Do Something," the national youth leadership organization, and Rolling Stone Magazine named him America's Best Young Community Leader for his commitment to worker rights and higher wages for farmworkers in South Florida.

"These awards are not for me only or for me personally," Mr. Benitez says softly. "They show that there are people who are seeing that we are doing good work, and this encourages us to keep going forward."

Some days he needs that encouragement. "This is a field of work that is often very controversial," says Mr. Benitez, who attends Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Immokalee. Personal attacks and name-calling are common, "but we cannot be overcome by the negative. If Jesus' enemies spoke that way about him, what more can we expect?"*

— by Judy Ball



 
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Holy Year for All

While Jubilee Year pilgrims fill the churches, streets and restaurants of Rome, the city's poor are not forgotten. They, too, are part of the Holy Year celebrations.

Throughout 2000, the Vatican is providing 500 meals of Italian pasta each day. "Without charity the Jubilee would not be the Jubilee, but a dead thing without spirit," said Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe, secretary of the Vatican's Jubilee committee, when the effort was initiated. Meals are being served at St. Peter's, St. John Lateran, St. Mary Major and St. Paul Outside the Walls. The hot tortellini is being contributed by Giovanni Rana, a pasta king in Rome. The daily menu also includes a sandwich, a snack and mineral water—all served by volunteers from Circolo San Pietro, a Rome-based organization that supports papal charities.

Meanwhile, members of the Catholic lay group San Egidio have prepared a "yellow pages" for the poor. It offers listings of soup kitchens, homeless shelters, hospitals and public bathrooms as well as information about Holy Year events. "If Rome is the universal city, then it must be so for the poor as well," Mario Marazziti of San Egidio told Catholic News Service.*

 

 
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