Think of some of your best family memories. They often involve meals and joyous times around the table with loved ones. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, birthdays and weddings. Eating and drinking are essential for maintaining our life. Jesus gave us food and drink for eternal life.
The night before he died for us, the Synoptic Gospels tell us that Jesus celebrated a ritual Passover meal with his disciples. In Luke’s Gospel, he not only blesses the bread and breaks it, but adds the words: Do this in remembrance of me. Jesus did the same with the cup after supper (Luke 22:19-20).
The fellowship of a meal was integral to the religious and social life of first-century Judaism. So much of Jesus’ own ministry also identified with this Jewish custom. He deliberately invited those viewed as outcasts and sinners to eat with him thereby scandalizing the Jewish religious leaders. He miraculously fed the hungry crowds.
He incorporated meals into certain parables. He ate often with the disciples.
Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances often involved meals. Two followers encountered him on the road to Emmaus and he revealed himself to them in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:28-35). Next, he appears in the midst of the disciples and asks them for something to eat (Luke 24:36-43).
In Acts 2:46, the early followers of Jesus break bread. A very early Christian writing, the Didache (a Greek word for teaching), thought to possibly pre-date at least some of the Gospels, includes a ritual celebration of this holy meal. St. Paul mentions it in 1 Corinthians, written as early as 20 years after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.
There are many names for this holy Christian meal: the Breaking of Bread, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Table, the Mass, the Divine Liturgy and the Eucharist (the Greek word for thanksgiving). In apostolic times and into the early patristic period, the specifics as to the shape of this ritual celebration are mostly lost to history. But Acts 2, the Didache, and other studies of early church history confirm that the Eucharist was a literal meal, usually celebrated within a domestic setting, a house church.
By the middle of the second century, we have a text called First Apology written by Justin Martyr. He provides a worship outline.
By the middle of the third century, the order of this central act of worship had been determined and has essentially been carried forward in the sacramental churches with variations up to the present.
This holy meal was thus an integral part of early Christian worship. Over two millennia, it is the major recurrent liturgical rite of Christianity celebrated at least occasionally even in churches that eschew ritual.
For the sacramental churches, the celebration of the Eucharist is at least a weekly Sunday observance with some churches offering it daily or at least at times during the week. One danger in frequent reception of the Eucharist is complacency. How should we think of this gift from Jesus that keeps on giving into the 21st century?
Think of the Eucharist as spiritual food. It is a feast that Jesus himself prepared for us the night before he died. Theologian Karl Rahner said: He sat down with them at a table because man is closest to his loved ones when the fellowship of fidelity and love is embodied in the common sharing of bread and drink of the one earth from which all live.
The Eucharist becomes Jesus’ fellowship presence among us today. We share in his suffering, death and resurrection, and he shares in ours. Yes, God is transcendent, but in this sacrament through the very common symbols of bread and wine, he is also imminent. This holy meal fortifies us to go out into the world each week seeking the opportunities to love God and love our neighbor with joy, gladness and generosity. We thus literally enter into a communion relationship with God and our neighbor.
Thank you, Jesus, for this marvelous gift you have given us.
May we never take it for granted.