Sunday, April 24, 2011

Eucharist: Gratitude, Community, Civil Disobedience - I

Changes Over Time

Over the Lenten season, the weekly meeting Francis/Clare Community (F/CC)of which I am convener has worked through the Eucharistic prayers of the various incarnations of the Book of Common Prayer beginning with its first version in 1543. One week we were led by an independent Catholic priest in our community in the Latin pre-Vatican II Tridentine mass.

The Eucharistic liturgy has changed much over the years. In the Anglican and later Episcopal traditions, it has gone from a very paternalistic format in which clergy did most of the speaking - often in condescending terms to a laity seen as children - to an increasingly participatory format. And it has embodied a gradual peeling away of layers of the medieval obsession with sinfulness and punishment while moving towards a restoration of the sense of the Eucharist as a celebratory communal meal.

For the most part, while the basic components of the mass have remained the same, the tenor of its language has become lighter, warmer and increasingly inclusive. It has been an evolution for the better, in my view, particularly given where the Eucharist began.

This past week’s F/CC Eucharist fell on Maundy Thursday as it does each year. In the past we have done the foot washing liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer followed by the Eucharist. This year, I chose to lead a didactic liturgy which examined the four sources of the Eucharistic prayer in the Christian scriptures with a focus on context of each reference. A discussion of each source follows.

St. Paul – I Corinthians:

The first reference to the words that become the heart of the communion rite is found in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In this letter seen by scholars as authentically the writing of St. Paul, he reports having “received” these words:

On the night when he was handed over, Jesus took bread, he broke the bread and said, “This means my body broken for you. Do this to remember me.” And he passed the bread and they ate. After the meal, he took the wine cup, and he said, “This cup means the new covenant ratified by my blood. Whenever you drink this, do it to remember me. So every time you eat and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the death of the lord until the day when he returns. So, then, my friend, when you gather to eat, wait on one another. Any of you who thinks only about his own hunger should eat at home…”

A number of aspects of this reference are instructive.

• The text occurs in a wider context of eating generally, including eating food dedicated to idols and being a gracious guest when eating in the homes of others (i.e., not dictating the menu or refusing to eat what one is served).

• There is a strong focus on eating as a communal activity, indeed, as seeing eating as a means of being community. Much of the surrounding context is devoted to discussion of what it means to be part of a single body.

• Correspondingly, there is a strong reminder that this is not about the individual. The “lord’s supper” is not about serving oneself first to the exclusion of others. Indeed, Paul goes so far as to say essentially, “If that’s all you care about, stay home.”

• Interestingly, there is a reference to the drinking of wine at such communal meals, noting the possibility that one should not get drunk while others are left out. These folks are not teetotalers and we read our modern attitudes about intoxicants into their understandings at the peril of our intellectual honesty.

• There is no mention of Passover. The sense here is that this is a common activity among the early followers of the Way of Jesus (the institutional church not yet formed) a mere two decades away from Jesus’ death. This lends some weight to the argument that the Last Supper is ultimately based upon a cheburah meal, not a Passover celebration.

• There is also no mention of sin. The communal meal is not cast in terms of sin, forgiveness or the next life. It is focused here and now.

• Finally, the bread and the wine are separated by the communal meal. The wine is essentially the coup de grace, passed around at the end of a time of eating together as a means of being intentional in the remembering of Jesus whose way is celebrated.

Paul’s letter is written about 20 years after the death of Jesus, around 50-55 CE. While Paul never knew Jesus, he is familiar with the communities seeking to follow the Way of Jesus in the wake of his execution. Hence, at some level, Paul serves as an anthropologist of sorts, reporting to us the practices of those early communities. His writing is closer in time to the Jesus whose Way these communities would have incarnated in their praxis than the Gospels which would follow. But his account would prove to be just the first word regarding this practice, not the final.

Gospel of Mark:

It’s interesting to see how the understandings and practices of the communities which Paul’s letter reflects have changed by the time they are reported in the Gospels. In the first Gospel written around 70 CE, the writer of Mark situates a Last Supper in the twin contexts of Passover and betrayal. Judas is never named here. Indeed, there is a good argument to be made for Judas as an anti-Jewish straw man constructed by gospel writers for purposes of vilification of their former coreligionists in the synagogues who are in the process of expelling them over the Jesus issue.

In Mark’s version, the bread and wine are now both offered amidst the meal. This is followed by a vow that Jesus will never touch another drop of wine until the day he can drink it in G-d’s empire (i.e., the kingdom of G-d). Then they sing a hymn and leave for the Mount of Olives.

There is no focus on a wider community in this version. Indeed, there is no real focus on the meal itself, much less the communal activity of eating together. While there is no specific mention of sin yet, the context of Jesus’ pending betrayal suggests this. In many ways, the Last Supper has become an intermission in a larger drama of Jesus’ betrayal and pending death.

Gospel of Matthew:

In another 10-20 years, Matthew will flesh out Mark’s Gospel with his own version of the life of Jesus using Hebrew Scripture as a pallet to paint his account. In Matthew’s Last Supper narrative there is an extended discussion of the preparation for the meal which, like Mark’s version, is set at Passover time. The betrayal narrative commands a much larger attention of the Gospel writer than the meal and precedes an extended account of sleeping disciples in Gethsemane. Judas has taken on his scapegoat name and the chief priests and scholars are now cited as co-conspirators.

Matthew places Jesus on the floor (reclining) with his unnamed disciples to eat their meal. (So much for Da Vinci’s class photo with its long table and posed participants sitting on one side facing the artist.) Here Matthew introduces a new element to the account with Jesus saying “[T]his is my blood of the covenant which has been poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This is not a new covenant but, in typical Matthean style, a reference to the blood covenants of Hebrew scriptures. The Eucharist has also taken on the element of sin and forgiveness in Matthew’s account. And Matthew is more than happy to relate the sins of the moment – betrayal, unfaithfulness – which must be forgiven in the ensuing drama.

Gospel of Luke:

About the same time period, perhaps a bit later, the Greek writer of Luke will also endeavor to revise Mark’s story perhaps with the guidance of Matthew. Luke provides yet another look at what will become the communion rite’s language. Like the other two gospels, Luke sets the meal in the context of Passover and, like Matthew, amidst the conspiracy to betray Jesus by Judas and the chief priests. Luke, ever attentive to detail, adds the temple police to the cabal and defines the terms of the betrayal, agreeing to pay Judas in silver. 

In Luke’s version, the bread and wine are consumed during the meal. He tells them that the bread they eat is “a memorial” of his life and time together with them. And the cup becomes a “new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you,” the old Hebraic Covenant now replaced by a new covenant God makes with the followers of Jesus. Luke includes no reference to sin and forgiveness and the cup is not poured out for anyone beyond the room. In many ways, Luke’s last supper is immediate and tribal – when you do this as a group, remember me - perhaps a reflection of a movement increasingly conscious of boundaries and self-definition in opposition to the religion from which they have recently departed.

The tribal focus continues after dinner when the disciples get into an argument over who is the greatest among them. Jesus shames them with a reminder that, after all, it is he who is serving them dinner. Luke’s Last Supper is cast in the context of communal bonding, communal order and concerns for communal survival (“Simon, look out: Satan is after all of you.”)

Gospel of John:

Interestingly, the writer of John, the final of the four Gospels written about the turn of the first century, evidences little awareness of the three Synoptic Gospels which preceded it. John’s account gives little detail of the final supper. Instead, it focuses on the humble servant ministry of washing feet. The Judas betrayal narrative is expanded greatly in John.

Unlike the Synoptic writers, John’s last supper is specifically not a Passover meal. Indeed, while John gives virtually no detail of the meal itself, he will spend a lot of time theologizing about the event. This is consistent with his gospel generally – very little history, lots of theology. And lots of anti-Jewish polemics. A half century removed from the practices of the early communities of the Way of Jesus that Paul reports, John reflects a movement which will ultimately become the institutional church. For John, the praxis of a communal meal has been left in the dust of a movement increasingly marked by abstract theology.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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