By Barb Arland-Fye
Paul’s dismay at the Corinthians’ abuse of celebration of the Eucharist has fresh impact each time I read it.
Theologians say this Scripture passage is the earliest account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament (1 Cor. 11: 17-33). Paul reminds the Corinthians of Jesus’ self-giving and how he commanded his followers to do the same, “in remembrance of me.”
But the Corinthians have become so absorbed in extraneous details — where to meet, who to invite, how much bread and wine to bring — that they fail at basic hospitality. People are being treated differently because of social class; the poor are left hungry while the rich eat sumptuously; some people even get drunk. They’ve failed to see themselves as the body of Christ, all together, so what they are doing isn’t Eucharist, Paul tells them.
The Corinthians’ failings and Paul’s correction come to mind as I reflect on a class focusing on the Eucharist that I participated in last weekend as a student in the Master of Pastoral Theology Program. My classmates are deacon candidates for the Diocese of Davenport, their spouses and other individuals. In this particular class, Deacon Frank Agnoli, the diocese’s director of deacon formation, and Corinne Winter, a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, are exploring the development of Eucharistic practice and theology through the major eras of Church history. We left off this month with the Middle Ages. Next month, we’ll study the Council of Trent through the post-Vatican II era.
It amazes me that the Eucharist we celebrate today has retained the underpinnings described in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, given the dramatic societal and cultural changes that have shaped each generation’s values, beliefs and understanding of self and of God.
Early Christians celebrated the Eucharist in their homes, ideally in an intimate communion of faith, and witnessed to that faith in justice and love toward their fellow human beings. (Deacons distributed the leftover bread to the poor, the hungry, widows and orphans).
But over the centuries, as Christianity became a dominant power both politically and spiritually, the Eucharist seemingly slipped from the grasp of ordinary people. They no longer considered themselves worthy to receive the Eucharist. In the last half-century, as a result of the Second Vatican Council, we are striving to grasp a fuller understanding of how the Eucharist shapes our daily lives and our relationships with one another and with God as the body of Christ.
Professor Winter asked us what we might want to retrieve of the early Church’s celebration of the Eucharist. For me, it would be a sense of intimacy within the worshiping community. I remember eight or nine years ago when our parish celebrated Mass on Fridays during Lent in various parishioners’ homes and shared potluck supper afterward. Those experiences gave me a deep sense of communion, or koinonia. But it’s not practical to return to celebrating Mass in individual homes with 10 to 15 people. What is practical is engaging in smaller groups for Bible study, choir practice, adult faith formation and other activities and then coming together for the liturgy each weekend as a community.
Eucharist gives me strength for the journey, compels me to give thanks for this generous outpouring of love from God and to share it with others I encounter in my daily life.
“That the Eucharist is the sacrifice of Christ is clear; that his sacrifice should be imitated and lived out by us in lives of self-transcendence, self-sacrifice, and service should be equally clear,” says Kevin W. Irwin in his book, “Models of the Eucharist.” The Eucharist commits us to the poor, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church” tells us. That’s the message Paul conveyed to the Corinthians, and conveys to us through the ages.