The Eucharist: back to the roots - On Religion
November 24, 2008 · Updated 6:39 PM
By Dan Stevenson
As the end of October approaches so does the end of ``The year of the Eucharist.'' This is a one-year celebration instituted by the late Pope John Paul II to commemorate this central act of worship of the Catholic Church. It was one of the last official acts of the John Paul II papacy.
John Paul II opened the celebration on Oct. 7, 2004 with the release of the encyclical entitled ``Stay With Us Lord'' in which he wrote, ```The breaking of bread'-- as the Eucharist was called in earliest times -- has always been at the center of the Church's life. Through it Christ makes present within time the mystery of his death and resurrection. In it he is received in person as the `living bread come down from heaven' (John 6:51), and with him we receive the pledge of eternal life and a foretaste of the eternal banquet of the heavenly Jerusalem.''
As Catholic Christians we believe that it is in the ``breaking of the bread'' that we find the closest communion with one another and with our Lord himself. When we gather as a church and recall the words and actions of Jesus surrounding this sacred meal, we believe that in a very real (and yet entirely mystical) way our Lord is present with us as we share ``the one loaf of bread, and the one cup of wine'' (1 Corinthian 10:17)
This belief is nothing new for the Christian community. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote in the second century about the practices and beliefs of the early church: ``Those Christians, what a strange lot they are. They gather together on that first day of the week. Then having worshiped their God, they eat him.''
Ignatius of Antioch, who was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, said the following concerning the Eucharist in his epistle to the Christians living in Rome, circa 105 A.D., ``The unbeliever does not partake in the Eucharist or in our prayers, because they do not believe in our Lord's real presence.''
But the Eucharist for Catholics is not only about presence and communion, it is also about mission. In fact, the word ``Mass'' comes from the Latin meaning ``to be sent.'' As we participate in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we prepare ourselves to continue the life and mission of our Lord to bring peace and love to a world often broken by sin and division.
John Paul II points this out vividly as he says, ``The two disciples on the road to Emmaus, upon recognizing the Lord in the `breaking of the bread,' set out immediately (Luke 24:33), in order to report what they had seen and heard. Once we have truly met the Risen One by partaking of his body and blood, we cannot keep to ourselves the joy we have experienced. The encounter with Christ, constantly intensified and deepened in the Eucharist, issues in the Church and in every Christian an urgent summons to testimony and evangelization.''
What did John Paul II hope to accomplish with this final act that would in a certain sense become his ``last will and testament''?
No doubt he wanted to bring the Christian community back to the roots of its ancient form of worship. In modern times belief in the Eucharist has waned to some degree due to our more ``materialistic'' approach to life, which has a tendency to ignore and doubt supernatural possibilities.
But perhaps more importantly he wanted to prepare us for the troubling times that might lie ahead, times that are made easier with a deeper sense of communion with one another and with the Lord himself.
This past month has brought many of these troubling times right into our living rooms, via the modern technology of instant global communication. The words at the end of Matthew's gospel no doubt reflect the hope Pope John Paul II found in the Eucharist for trying times like these. ``Go therefore make disciples of all nations and baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and remember that I will be with you until the end of time.'' (Matt 28:16).
Dan J. Stevenson is director of faith formation for St. Monica Church, 4301 88th Ave. S.E. He can be reached at email@example.com.