Brother Thomas P. Draney, CFC
It should be understood from the very beginning that reclaiming Eucharist as a meal does not mean abandoning Eucharist as a liturgical sacrifice. These two aspects of the Eucharist are complementary, like right brain-left brain, right hand- left hand. We are not complete with only one half of the pair. This reclaiming is not a
New Age movement. It is a returning to our roots, because the Eucharist was a meal before it was a liturgy. Its development into a liturgy was a natural part of evolution in history, and reclaiming the meal now should be seen as a further development, not an aberration. The Pasch was a meal first, and then became a temple, but the meal is still celebrated!
A description of ritualized meals
The traditional Sabbath meal, the Paschal meal, and the chaburah or discipleship meal had much in common. They began with prayers and a Scripture reading, then the breaking of bread as the beginning of the meal, and a symbolic cup of wine as part of the ritualized meal. The Sabbath and Passover meals used their rituals of the cup to honor God's presence in their history and, as in a Davidic psalm, “to raise a cup of gratitude.” In the chaburah the cup of blessing came at the conclusion of the meal and was to honor God's presence in their group and pledge themselves to the group's purpose. The Sabbath meal generally focused on the family; the annual Paschal meal on the deliverance of the Hebrews from captivity in Egypt. The chaburah revolved on the common interest of the circle of friends, similar to a Knights of Columbus breakfast, a Rotarian luncheon, etc. (For examples of the rituals and prayers of a chaburah , see the articles listed on the index of this web site.
The Last Supper - a Paschal meal or a chaburah?
The overwhelming consensus in the past was that it was a Paschal meal, but there are some difficulties with that. St. John's Gospel says it was on the night before the Pasch; all the actions related in the synoptic gospels that followed later that night and the next morning would have been forbidden on a Holy Day; and finally, the first disciples, all Jewish, would have celebrated it only once a year.
Scholars such as Bishop Spong contend that the association of the meal with the Pasch was due to the readings that would have been appropriately used in the synagogue of the Jews who had come to accept Christ as the Messiah. On the feast of the Pasch, they would have read the account of the passion because it was the story of their deliverance by Christ's passion and death. Over time, the theory is, that the gospel story written decades after the Last Supper was declared a Paschal meal by its connection with the deliverance.
There are good arguments for the chaburah meal. The Paschal meal was more of a family affair, while the chaburah was definitely for a group of like-minded friends. I much prefer to think of the meal as centered on friendship and love than on guilt and atonement.
Regardless of which type of meal it was, it was an event very different from a liturgical sacrifice.
Importance of meals in Jewish life in apostolic times
Luke Timothy Johnson in his lectures on early Christianity makes the rather startling observation that whom one ate with was more significant socially than whom one slept with. That is why the Pharisees were scandalized when Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. The Gospels all show that Jesus used meals as a means of building community and teaching. Luke 's gospel is the account of Jesus going from Galilee to Jerusalem and having ten meals on the way. When Jesus appeared to the disciples at the lake after the resurrection, he called them, not to the temple or to prayer, but to breakfast. In the minds of his disciples, Jesus must have been associated more with meals than with temple services.
Why we need the Eucharistic meal today
We are a Eucharistic people and to appreciate the fullness of this we must return to the roots of our faith, the Eucharist, meal. Our fast food and computerized world of today is very different, but there is still a need and place for ritualized meals - such as business lunches, Rotarian breakfasts, coffee and Danish with a friend, family reunions, the luncheon after a funeral. All these testify to the need for meals that are part of our social fabric, not just for nutrition.
The Eucharistic meal offers a totally different space for people to proclaim their faith. It presumes a small circle of friends or family which would not number more than a dozen. It not only allows but invites participation through the discussion of the readings before the meal. The atmosphere of a meal encourages them to share their hopes, fears, details of their journey with God, in ways that are not possible at a liturgy. The liturgy emphasizes the institutional nature of the church; the ritual of the Eucharistic meal will emphasize the communal, which is the very cell structure of the institution. Since our first world society today is highly individualized and secular, it is imperative that the church provide a space to encourage sharing, relationships built on our common faith, and nourishment for the smaller community.
Is the meal sacramental? Is there transubstantiation?
The short answer is, Yes. If this were not so, the first Eucharists celebrated by the disciples would have been hollow rituals, and St. Paul' s admonition to discern the body of Christ meaningless. The first disciples were still Jews; they went to the Temple to pray and broke bread in their homes. They did not think of presiding at the Eucharistic meal as a priestly act, because priesthood belonged to the Temple. They did, however, believe that the power of the risen Christ was among them, and that when the assembled community designated someone, perhaps the host or an elder, to preside, that person could do for them what Jesus did at the Last Supper. In remembrance of Jesus' life and death, the presider would offer the lives of this new priestly people to God, and give them the bread of life to eat, — the body and blood of the risen Christ.
This thought is so startling to most Christians today that I will offer an excerpt from Priest and Bishop by Raymond E Brown, one of the most distinguished New Testament scholars of the 20th century:
Thus there is no compelling evidence for the classic thesis that the members of the Twelve always presided when they were present, and that there was a chain of ordination passing the power of presiding at the Eucharist from the Twelve to the missionary apostles to the presbyter-bishops…The only thing of which we can be reasonably sure is that someone must have presided at the eucharistic meals and that those who participated acknowledged his right to preside.. How one got the right to preside and whether it endured beyond a single instance we do not know; but a more plausible substitute for the chain theory is the thesis that sacramental powers were part of the mission of the Church, and that there were diverse ways in which the Church (or the communities ) designated individuals to exercise those powers- the essential element always being church or community consent (which was tantamount to ordination, whether or not that consent was signified by a special ceremony such as the laying on of hands).pp.41-42 (parentheses are by the author. ) See also
Eucharist and the Real Presence.
What other benefits can accrue from reclaiming the Eucharistic meal
It will focus faithful on the meaning of priesthood as the presence of the risen Christ in the individual and in the community. It will not diminish the need for or the dignity of the ordained priest, but it will do much to diminish the mentality of a clericalism that is monarchial in nature.
A priest is not chosen by God to represent God to the people. The priest is to represent the people to God. Too often the
power of the priest is seen as a magical power; the celebration of a Eucharistic meal will help to show that all spiritual power is just accessing the promise and power of God and is distinct from the authority needed to govern.
In the short term and on the more pragmatic side, the meal will also allow women to preside and emphasize the locus of God in the home and the ordinary life of disciples. Where there is a shortage of the ordained, it would provide the bread of life to the faithful. The liturgy and the meal both contain elements of sacrifice and feeding, but the meal puts much more emphasis on feeding, on Christ the bread of life, on giving thanks (which is the meaning of Eucharist,) for all we have received from God, thus making the celebration of our faith more joyful .