Eucharist and Justice

If you are surprised by the combination of these two words above, stop and think for just a moment. Your surprise reveals the massive amnesia among most western Christians about the fact that celebrating the Lord’s Supper ought to have huge consequences for how we treat the most vulnerable among us. It is urgent that we reconnect these two principles in order not just to recover faithfulness to Christ, and to ensure that our Eucharist is “valid” (1 Cor. 11:29) but to save the very planet we inhabit, our common home.

When writing the latest essay for one of my M.Div. courses on the above subject, I unearthed some poignant words which are crying out to be reclaimed, from the Gospel itself to the early Church Fathers to today. I am sharing them here with the hope of awakening all of us from our consumer slumber. For if we truly are what we eat, and if we partake in Holy Communion over and over for years, then just about every cell in our body has been nourished with the sacred meal. Christ’s Body and Blood – that’s who we are. From that reality it ought to flow without question that we in turn are then called to bring Jesus’ body and blood out into the world, to lay down our lives for the sake of our sisters and brothers in need.  May it be so.

On the night before he gave up his life for us, Jesus, at supper with his friends, took bread, gave thanks to you, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “Take this, all of you, and eat it; this is my body which is given for you.” After supper, Jesus took the cup of wine, said the blessing, gave it to his friends, and said, “Drink this, all of you: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant, which is shed for you and for many, so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.” ~ Eucharistic Prayer 5, Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada.

‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and clothed you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visited you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ ~ Matthew 25:35—40

Although world leaders have increasingly talked about the need to tackle inequality, and in September agreed a global goal to reduce it, the gap between the richest and the rest has widened dramatically in the past 12 months. Oxfam’s prediction, made ahead of last year’s Davos, that the 1% would soon own more than the rest of us, actually came true in 2015 – a year earlier than expected.  ~ Oxfam Report, Jan. 18, 2016

When we seek liturgy which fosters social justice, we are confronted with an immense challenge – celebrating liturgy which changes not only the hearts of worshipers but, through them, the way the world – and the church – are organized and function. ~ The Liturgy that Does Justice, James L. Empereur, SJ, and Christopher Kiesling, OP. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN, 1990

I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an overflowing stream. ~ Amos 5:21-24

The 28 richest countries have resettled only 1.39 per cent of the 4.6 million Syrian refugees – a total of 129,966 refugees – a fraction of the 10 per cent of people who need to be urgently offered a safe haven. Only 67,000 have actually made it to their final destination. ~ Oxfam Report, March 29, 2016

Our habits and our predetermined ways and the structures of our society have fastened such blinders on our harnesses that, as a whole, Christians and Christian churches in our society have only the haziest notion of any moral imperative flowing from the Sunday meeting in which we celebrate God’s word of human liberation and solidarity and then act it out in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. As obvious as those ethical demands are, they simply do not impinge; they do not get through to us. We are too well protected by the world we live in. ~ Robert Hovda in Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work, US Catholic, June 12, 2008)

Those who hold strange doctrine … have no regard for love, no care for the widow, the orphan, none for the orphan or the oppressed … because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour. ~ St. Ignatius of Antioch, 100 AD

I recall you in the last place to the Christ of the Blessed Sacrament. … I say to you, and I say it to you with all the earnestness that I have, that if you are prepared to fight for the right of adoring Jesus in his Blessed Sacrament, then you have got to come out from before your Tabernacle and walk, with Christ mystically present in you, out into the streets of this country, and find the same Jesus in the people of your cities and your villages. You cannot claim to worship Jesus in the Tabernacle, if you do not pity Jesus in the slum. ~ Our Present Duty, Anglo-Catholic Congress, 1923. Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar

Do you wish to honour the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk only then to neglect him outside where he suffers cold and nakedness. He who said: ‘This is my body’ is the same One who said … ‘Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me.’  ~ St. John Chrysostom, 349 – 407 AD.

Why is it that in spite of hundreds of thousands of Eucharistic celebrations Christians continue as selfish as before? Why is the gap of income, wealth, knowledge, and power growing in the world today—and that in favour of the Christian peoples? Why is it that persons who proclaim Eucharistic love and sharing deprive the poor of the world of food, capital, employment, even land? ~ Sri Lankan Bishop, in Gabe Huck’s Let’s Put the Eucharist to Work, US Catholic, June 12, 2008

As each Sister is to do the work of a priest — go where he cannot go and do what he cannot do, she must imbibe the Spirit of Holy Mass, which is one of total surrender and offering. For this reason, Holy Mass must become the daily meeting place, where God and his creature offer each other for each other and the world. ~ Blessed Mother Teresa, Rule Book, Sisters of Charity, p. 31; R. 33.

The Eucharist, whether seen as Holy Communion or as the Mass, can become a kind of product created for individual spiritual customers. It’s supposed to have a trans-forming effect on us so that we leave church determined to do something. We should be seeing the world in a different way and have different priorities because of the Eucharist. It should affect what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we look for a job, how we vote. ~ Gabe Huck,  Let’s put the Eucharist to Work, in US Catholic, June 12, 2008

In the third century, the North African bishop, Cyprian, wrote once to reprimand a wealthy woman in his church who made no offering of her resources for the care of the poor but who presumed nevertheless to show up at the communion table. From Cyprian’s perspective, the poor and rich alike must spend themselves for others. This is the concrete self-gift of the church, the gift celebrated in the Eucharist. The wealthy woman who refused her gift was denying – even mocking – the thrust and imperative of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is, above all else, a sacrifice: yours–joined to Christ’s. ~ An Easter Sourcebook, Gabe Huck, Gail Ramshaw & Gordon Lathrop, LTP, 1990

When you have partaken of this sacrament, therefore, or desire to partake of it, you must in turn share the misfortunes of the fellowship… all the unjust suffering of the innocent, with which the world is everywhere filled to overflowing. You must fight, work, pray and – if you cannot do more – have heartfelt sympathy. ~ Martin Luther in “The Blessed Sacrament of the Holy and True Body of Christ, and the Brotherhoods,” 1519, published in Luther’s Works, Volume 35: Word and Sacrament I. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960

If a poor man or a poor woman comes, whether they are from your own parish or from another, above all if they are advanced in years, and if there is no room for them, make a place for them, O bishop, with all your heart, even if you yourself have to sit on the ground. You must not make any distinction between persons if you wish your ministry to be pleasing before God. ~ Didascalia of the Apostles, 230 AD

Anyone who celebrates the Lord’s supper in a world of hunger and oppression does so in complete solidarity with the hopes and suffering of all men, because he believes that the Messiah invites all  . . . to this table and because he hopes they will all sit at the table with him. In the mysteries, the feast separates the initiated from the rest of the world. But Christ’s messianic feast makes its participants one with the physically and spiritually hungry all over the world. ~ Jurgen Moltmann, in Liturgy, Justice and the Reign of God, Frank Henderson, Stephen Larson, Kathleen Quinn, 1999

The Eucharistic celebration. . . is a constant challenge in the search for appropriate relationships in social, economic and political life . . . . All kinds of injustice, racism, separation and lack of freedom are radically challenged when we share in the body and blood of Christ. … Reconciled in the Eucharist, the members of the body of Christ are called to be servants of reconciliation among men and women and witnesses of the joy of resurrection. As Jesus went out to publicans and sinners and had table-fellowship with them during his earthly ministry, so Christians are called in the Eucharist to be in solidarity with the outcast and to become signs of the love of Christ who lived and sacrificed himself for all and now gives himself in the Eucharist. .. Baptism, Eucharist & Ministry, par. 20 & 24, World Council of Churches, 1982

In the fullness of time, you sent your Son Jesus Christ, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to you, the God and Father of all. He healed the sick and ate and drank with outcasts and sinners; he opened the eyes of the blind and proclaimed the good news of your kingdom to the poor and to those in need. In all things he fulfilled your gracious will. ~ Eucharistic Prayer 1, Book of Alternative Services, Anglican Church of Canada

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The Body of Christ

Many years ago Dom Helder Camara was a much beloved bishop in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Recife, Brazil. He lived in the sacristy of the church. One early morning Helder Camara was awakened by an urgent knock on his door. Opening the door, he found a woman from the parish terribly upset. “Padre, the Body of Christ has been desecrated. There are hosts spilled all over the floor by the tabernacle.” Helder Camara looked at her and replied: “Are you telling me that it is only now that you notice how the Body of Christ is being desecrated?!”

What did the dear bishop refer to? He rightly replied from multiple understandings of the term “The Body of Christ.” After all, as we share the bread and the wine at the Eucharist, we say to one another “The Body of Christ, broken for you; the Blood of Christ, shed for you.” And so I got musing on these multiple meanings as if looking at a diamond from different angles and through different light sources.

First and foremost, the “Body of Christ” refers to Jesus, the historical person who lived some 2,000 years ago in Palestine. It is this person who was first given the title “Christ” meaning the “Anointed One.” Jesus revealed to us the face of God – the Source of love and mercy which draws us irresistibly into the fullness of our human potential, of all that God desires us to become as His sons and daughters made in His image and likeness.

Secondly, the “Body of Christ” refers to the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine, the simple fruits of the earth and the work of human hands transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharistic celebration. Next to the historical Jesus, the Eucharist is the second expression of the Incarnation and God’s sacramental presence among us. “This is my body, this is my blood,” Jesus commanded us to do in his memory.

Thirdly, the “Body of Christ” refers to those who are baptized into the death and  resurrection of Jesus Christ. Together we are united in Christ and form his holy body on earth, the Church. This “Body of Christ” extends beyond any one denomination and constitutes the community of salvation.

The most beautiful description of this body is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body (…) and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. … Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27)

And last, but certainly not least, the “Body of Christ” refers to the poor. When asked when do we see him, feed him, clothe him and visit him, Jesus replies in Matthew 25:45:  “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.” I’m quite sure that it is this meaning Dom Helder Camara had in mind when he replied to the distraught woman.

The anguished words of a Sri Lankan bishop shed more and similar light on the connections between the various meanings of the “Body of Christ”: “Why is it that in spite of hundreds of thousands of Eucharistic celebrations Christians continue as selfish as before? Why is the gap of income, wealth, knowledge, and power growing in the world today— and that in favour of the Christian peoples? Why is it that persons who proclaim Eucharistic love and sharing deprive the poor of the world of food, capital, employment, even land?” Dom Helder Camara was right; the Body of Christ is indeed desecrated routinely and massively every day in the plight of the poor.

What if we look at Eucharist not only as Jesus’ Body and Blood.  What if, when Jesus said, ‘Do this in memory of me,’ he was also telling us, ‘Now go break your body and shed your blood in the service of others.'”

The Eucharist calls us to transformation, so that we leave church “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), determined to live differently and to contribute to the (w)holiness of the world. The Eucharist is to give us new eyes and different priorities. It is to affect what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we look for a job, how we vote, whom we regard as our neighbour.

Every Sunday the Body of Christ gathers to celebrate and share the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, in order to be sent out to BE the Body of Christ in the world, especially to the Body of Christ in the poor and destitute. In this way, the Body of Christ is both a reality and a revelation, an invitation and a challenge: “Do this in memory of me.”

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