Catholic Update

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Is the Mass a Meal?

by Charles Gusmer

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 battle.

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.

Likewise, 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 resurrection.

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 lifeliving 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 of gifts
   blessing or giving thanks—————————  = Eucharistic prayer
   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 Supper.

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 human meal.

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.

It 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 Mass

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.

A 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" (emphasis added).

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 10:17).

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 Faithful

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 and love.

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 Eucharistic Meal in
the New Testament

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.


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