Unless I have missed something, there are only two meals in history that are so important that they are repeated for all time, and the two are really the same meal. To ignore this meal means sure starvation, though you might eat endless amounts of other food.
What Jesus does “in the night in which he was betrayed” is what he does with his entire ministry. He fulfills the covenant relationship God has established with humans, and he begins a new, radically re-defined covenant. Thus, the supper which we do “in remembrance (anamnesis),” both replaces and continues the Passover dinner that recalls and celebrates the action of God towards his people.
On Maundy Thursday, he thus gives us, as the title of the day suggests, a mandate, “do this.” It is the bridge transitioning from and transcending beyond all previous acts of God. This supper which he mandates is to be the center point of our connection to God and each other.
The outsized emphasis in the New Testament given to this meal is a clue as to its importance in the early church. The Synoptics relate the details and dialog of Maundy Thursday. The Gospel of John extensively recounts the theology in chapter 6 and Jesus’ lengthy exposition in chapters 13 through 17. Among others, the Book of Acts refers to it, St. Paul writes of it (1 Corinthians from chapter 10 to the end is all in the context of the Lord’s Supper) and St. John has his vision within the Sunday Eucharist (“On the Lord’s Day, I was in the Spirit…” he begins, Rev. 1:10). The vision sees a door open into heaven, and the Liturgy on Patmos joins the heavenly Liturgy, with its hymns and liturgical dialog.
But both the centrality and the glory of Eucharist faded as the centuries marched along. Today many read the New Testament and hardly notice it as more than a passing event. The term “Eucharist” itself is replaced today with others which, while not incorrect, fail to emphasize the connection with God’s grace. But “ευ χαρις,” literally “good grace,” shows that the grace for this meal is exactly the channel of God’s saving grace to us. It is not an occasional optional extra to our encounter with God, it is the epicenter. As a bumper sticker puts it, “I sought the Lord everywhere, only to find he was in the bread and wine all along.” Once that thought hits you, the fact that “eu-charis” is also “thanksgiving,” the ultimate mealtime saying of grace, follows naturally.
Because it is the epicenter, much radiates out from it:
1) God’s grace, as mentioned, is most reliably found in the material form of our community celebratory meal of Eucharist
2) The earth is the Lord’s, powerfully symbolized by God’s use of material elements to convey his grace and his actual presence which carries that grace in his saving Body and Blood
3) The central act of the Church, the community of the Faithful, is to gather at this fountain of grace, “singing, shouting, proclaiming” it (as the Liturgy of John Chrysostom puts it) and thanking God for it
4) The symbol/ expression of the “Body” connects here. Baptism incorporates us into the Body of Christ. The post-communion prayer of the Book of Common Prayer says it well in thanking God who has fed us with “the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ and dost assure us thereby …that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people” (1928). Thus, the Body of Christ is both that which we receive in the form of bread and that in which we are “incorporated” (note the Latin here means precisely to enter into the body), the Body which includes all the faithful with Christ as the head.
5) St. John’s revelation shows that when we gather for Eucharist, we enter into the Kingdom where the eternal, unending Eucharist of heaven is always in progress, and “with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify “ our gracious Lord, “evermore praising thee” (1928 BCP).
Now the bad news. For most of the past millennium, all this has been marginal. With the advent of the medieval idea that the Mass is a meritorious sacrifice, it became the priest’s job to operate it. Everyone else was a spectator, adoring, but not concelebrating or receiving. The epiclesis, the calling down of the Holy Spirit, disappeared, and perhaps the Spirit with it, leaving the priest to create the miracle by himself, in the “words of institution.” Grace and thanksgiving were left to find their own way home from the party.
In a glorious burst, Martin Luther’s Reformation restored the Mass to its original meaning and to all the faithful for whom it was intended. Luther’s goal was to restore the faith of the early church, before the medieval centuries of spiritual decline and distortion. The faithful again received the Real Presence of their Lord on a weekly basis, and participated fully in the celebration of grace.
But some other Reformers continued the medieval distortion, with a new twist. They took the Mass from the priest and dumped the meritorious sacrifice, but replaced it with no Mass at all, only an occasional memorial, without the Lord presence. Since Jesus now lives in heaven, they said, he can’t be with us, in a prototype of fundamentalist literalism, shrinking God. They communicated that the earth perhaps used to be the Lord’s, but he doesn’t live here anymore. It continues the Romanist Thomistic dualism that saw material things as not very godly.
The debates that ensued among all parties have centered on what happens to the bread and wine, rather than on the Body of Christ. Does it change into the Body and Blood, does it mystically accompany Body and Blood, does it co-mingle, is there some “spiritual” presence with bread and wine or is it just bread and wine for the memories? But the real question is what happens to us in the process, not the elements. What Jesus really, yes, really, comes into my heart, what happens?
Unfortunately, the glorious burst was flattened by Lutheran pietism after two centuries, so essentially the Christian world universally stopped living eucharistically and turned instead to fine uplifting thoughts and prayers, so nobody much pondered the above question. Thankfully just in the past century, the Eucharist has been re-discovered by many, the Holy Grail, as it were, found. We live again!
What ought we to do with this? We are called to do the eucharistic process. This means bringing your offering to the Sunday Body each week. The offering is centered in bringing the bread and wine, which are gifts of God’s creation (grain and grapes) worked by human effort (milling bread and making wine). The Offertory thus begins the Eucharistic action. In offering, we include with the bread and wine, the whole production of our week. God accepts our bread and wine, blesses it, fills it with his presence and returns it to us. We receive it, and “incorporate” it, carrying our Lord with us for the week to come.
In churches where Eucharist is intentionally not celebrated every Sunday, the process collapses. We are filled perhaps with intellectual concepts and inspiring notions. That will not feed you the way the presence of the Lord can, nor is a church tithe a proper offering. St. Paul warns that eucharistic distortions like this cause sickness (1 Cor. 11:30). And, of course, in churches which reject the idea that Jesus could be there in the material world, there is an unending drought of the soul.
We stand at the pinnacle of history, the center of the world, as we celebrate the coming of Christ to restore creation, including us, through the Resurrection. But the feast continues in the eucharistic process Every Sunday is a celebration of Christ’s resurrected life bestowed upon us as we live each week. “Come, Lord Jesus” we ask. And he does, his Blood nourishing all the members of His Body.