The Eucharist And The Christian Community

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2005 »Volume 42 2005 Number 3 »The Eucharist And The Christian Community

By Michael Amaladoss, S.J.

Michael Amaladoss, S.J. is Professor of Theology at Vidyajyoti College of Theology in Delhi, and Director, Institute for Dialogue with Cultures and Religions, Chennai, India. A well-known international speaker and prolific writer, he has written extensively on issues of mission, multiculturalism, inter-religious cooperation, and liberation theology.  He is also a regular lecturer at the East Asian Pastoral Institute (EAPI), Manila, Philippines

The phase of preparation for the next ordinary Synod for the Bishops in October 2005 has started. Its theme will be the Eucharist and will be preceded by a year dedicated to the theme. The Synod is supposed to treat pastoral questions concerning the Eucharist. Its freedom of discussion will inevitably be conditioned by two recent documents: Ecclesia de Eucharistia,* the encyclical of John Paul II andRedemptoris Sacramentum** the disciplinary document of the Congregation for Divine Worship. TheLineamenta, published by the Synod secretariat, is an introduction to the questions that follow it. Though no one will discuss the Lineamenta itself, it does lay down a theological outlook which, together with the other two documents, will guide the discussions at the Synod. In the following pages I shall try to focus on some pastoral issues that bishops in India and Asia could keep in mind before and at the Synod. I have no intention of entering into a theological discussion with any of the Roman documents. But even pastoral suggestions will be oriented by a particular theological outlook. I shall outline this very briefly in the beginning before going on to make my pastoral suggestions. In making these I shall feel free, knowing well that some of these will not be allowed to be taken up at the Synod, even if one or other bishop ventures to raise them during the first week. We have been asked to reflect and we must make our honest proposals, hoping that some of these suggestions may be taken up later by people younger than I at a more propitious time. But it is worth laying them on the table now.

However, while the Eucharist may be understood theologically—as primarily a sacrifice followed by a meal or a sacrificial meal or a sacrament of Christ’s bodily presence which becomes food and drink for the community—there is no doubt that its basic symbolic action is a shared community meal taken in memory of Christ celebrating his paschal mystery. This symbolic action may be interpreted differently according to different theological perspectives. It cannot, however, be simply reduced to a common meal. Its mystical or sacramental dimension of meaning is based on this symbolic action. The more meaningful the symbolic action, the deeper the mystical experience. The agent of this symbolic action is the community headed by the priest which becomes and acts as the Body of Christ with its head, namely Jesus Christ. The priest prays and acts in the name of the community. The community is part of the action. It is not outside it, only drawing benefit from it. It is not a meal that follows a sacrifice. It is not a meal that replaces the sacrifice. The memorial meal itself is sacrificial. The meal consists of shared food and drink. This means that it is the high point of the life of a community that expresses its love for each other by sharing its goods. It strengthens such ongoing solidarity.

Eucharist and Community

All the documents insist on the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Christian community. The Second Vatican Council describes the Eucharist as "the source and summit of Christian life" (Lumen Gentium, 11). John Paul II insists again on this in his recent encyclical: "The church draws her life from the Eucharist" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 1). But how seriously do we take account of this, if more and more communities today are deprived of their regular Eucharist because of the absence of a priest? We know very well that today in many parts of the world, either because of far-flung parishes which the priest cannot cover every Sunday or because of the paucity of priests who cannot cater to the parishes in their charge every Sunday, most Christian communities go without a weekly Eucharist. At a recent meeting a friend from Brazil said that 70% of communities in his country do not have a priest to celebrate the weekly Eucharist for them. Another from Portugal spoke of priest friends who are each responsible for 8 to 12 parishes. To wait and pray that God will somehow raise vocations to the priesthood in countries where the birth rate is going down, refusing to make any viable alternate arrangement seems unreasonable, when what is involved is not a matter of faith, but of ecclesiastical discipline. To make matters worse, the lay people who generously cater to these communities celebrating the Liturgy of the Word are working under all sorts of restrictions. The aim of ecclesiastical discipline seems to be to protect the "sacred" identity and power of the priest and to set him apart from the community rather than to worry about its Eucharistic need. The image of the priest need not be a monolith. The Oriental Churches distinguish between the priests who lead the community Eucharist and the monks who are its intellectual and spiritual animators. However, we need not spend more time on this issue since I suspect that it will not be allowed to be discussed at this Synod.

Another point that will not probably be discussed at the Synod is the role of women in Eucharistic celebrations. Even if we do not think of women as priests, there are so many other roles that women can play and actually do play in many communities where there are no priests. In some parts of the world (Europe and Latin America) women, religious, and lay administer parishes, doing everything except celebrating the Eucharist. They prepare the young and the old for the sacraments. They conduct services of the Word and of prayer. They counsel people. They minister to the sick in the hospitals and homes. They organize and run community events. They facilitate community sharing. Their generosity and commitment deserves formal recognition and encouragement by the Christian community. In a recent letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to all the Bishops on The Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and in the World (31 May 2004) there is not a word about what women are actually doing to animate the Eucharistic celebrations of many communities across the world. There is a section (IV) on the importance of Feminine values in the life of the Church. It speaks about how women are called to be unique examples and witnesses for all Christians of how the Bride is to respond in love to the love of the Bridegroom (16). Following Mary’s example, they can only receive the Word. It is significant that in this context reference is made to the reservation of priestly ordination solely to men (16). What the women are actually doing, even within the limits imposed on them, to animate the Eucharistic communities will not disappear because we choose to close our eyes to them.

Discussions concerning contemporary Eucharistic practice takes for granted the celebration of Sunday as the Lord’s day and the community as primarily a territorial unit. These two could be rethought today. For many years now, in many places, the Saturday Eucharist is offered as a replacement for the Sunday Eucharist. The effect of this is that the link between Sunday and the weekly Eucharist is broken. Even earlier, in ‘mission’ lands, many communities living far away from the parish center used to celebrate the Eucharist whenever the priest happened to come by, whatever the day be. The priest came, rang the bell of the church and the people gathered for the celebration. In some places a catechist may have preceded the priest by a day. We hear from pastors that people who take part in a small community celebration during the week, whether Eucharistic or not, do not seem to feel the Sunday "obligation." Basic Christian Communities (BCC) of all types may have an occasional Eucharist even when they are meeting on a weekday. The people may also find these smaller community celebrations more meaningful than the Sunday parish celebration. In some countries Sunday may be a working day. It is worth reflecting, therefore, without detriment to the symbolic importance of Sunday as the Lord’s day, whether we can focus more on the importance of occasional meaningful celebrations of the Eucharist in community.

Territorial parishes have always been large in "mission" lands. Today this is becoming true also in post-Christian countries. Besides, in many urban situations territorial parishes may be culturally pluralistic. We can think of creative ways of catering to such cultural pluralism. Even today in many parishes we can see that, during the Liturgy of the Word, the children go to another room with their catechist to have the Word of God explained to them in a different way. Could we think of more such groups in a parish community: the youth, people belonging to a particular association, the old people, etc.? We can think also of inter-territorial groups that focus on a particular culture or other element that naturally brings people together. We should take care of course that the larger community also experiences and celebrates its multi-cultural nature occasionally. But this need not be done every week. We can imagine a pluralistic pattern of celebrations in a given area. The ministers too may have different charisms and may be differently, though appropriately, qualified and prepared.

Inculturating the Eucharist

The Second Vatican Council inaugurated a period of inculturation in the liturgy. It laid down as a guiding principle the promotion of full, conscious, and active participation by the people. It affirmed the right of the Church to change whatever has not been "divinely instituted." Though it suggested the preservation of the unity of the Latin Rite, it went on to evoke the emergence even of new ritual families and authorized bishops’ conferences to take initiatives in the matter. The Church in India responded to this invitation positively and got twelve points of adaptation approved by the Roman authorities. The first Indian Eucharistic prayer was never officially forwarded to Rome by the bishops.1A second Indian Eucharistic prayer which was sent by the bishops to Rome has not elicited any response so far. In the meantime Rome has maintained the unity of the Latin Rite as a paramount principle of inculturation. While inculturation is now officially allowed, the conditions laid down are such that nothing is likely to happen. I do not wish however to go into the details of this painful history. However, on the occasion of reflecting about the reinvigoration of Eucharistic practice I cannot but evoke the prospects of inculturation, at least in some areas. I shall limit myself to four points.

First of all, this could be an occasion for the many bishops’ conferences across the world to reassert their right given to them by the Council to inculturate the liturgy, and the Eucharistic celebration as part of it, even leading to the emergence of new Ritual families in order to promote the full, active, and conscious participation by the community which is the agent of the celebration. We are told by the central authorities in the Church that the period of experimentation in the liturgy is over, while it has not been allowed even to start in a serious way. If various groups were doing various "experiments" because nothing was being allowed to happen, that is a reason to start real experimentation. Here the initiative belongs to the bishops’ conferences. I think that it is time that they asserted their responsibility and freedom in this matter.

Active participation demands that the people recognize the symbols spontaneously and do not need an elaborate introductory explanation. The symbols have a double meaning structure. The washing with or immersion in water at Baptism symbolizes purification and rebirth. The Hindus too wash themselves in the Ganges for the forgiveness of their sins. But in the context of the Christian faith, Baptism means, at a second level, dying and rising with Christ, becoming a child of God and becoming a member of the Christian community. The first level of meaning of religious and sacramental symbols should be natural and self-evident. Only the second level needs to be explained. The symbols that Jesus and/or the early Church chose for the sacraments are natural, human, and social symbols like washing with water, anointing with oil, imposition of hands, and eating and drinking together. These are found in all cultures and can be understood at a first level by every one. Only the second level of meaning will have to be explained in the light of the Christian faith.

Secondly, the "12 points" were proposed experimentally. They have not since been reviewed after many years of experimentation. On the one hand, some groups in the Christian community, have suggested that these points were "Brahminical" in origin and other groups in the Christian community do not feel at home. As a matter of fact, if we remove the accompanying Sanskrit chants, I do not see what is "Brahminical" about the rites. The aarathis are done by most cultural groups in India. I have seen Dalit and Adivasi groups doing it. However, it is true that the aarathis can be simplified and more focused. I had suggested a review of the "12 points" many years ago. But my suggestions have fallen on deaf ears. I do not wish to go into the details here. Our bishops can do this on their own without taking this issue to the Synod. But a reference to these "12 points" at the Synod may inspire other local churches to do similar things on their own to make the Eucharist more meaningful for the people.2 For the Church in India the "12 points" were a first effort. They need to be further developed, perhaps with more sensitivity to local and cultural requirements.

The "12 points" seem to make the liturgy more prayerful. While it seems ideal for an ashram, it may be less suitable to a youth group. So I think the bishops’ conferences should have the freedom to develop different liturgies to suit different groups in the Church. Some liturgies could be more contemplative, while others could be more active.

My third point refers to the texts of the prayers in the Roman missal. The reform undertaken by the central authority in the Church has led to a new selection of prayers. The Church has gone back to its resources of early centuries. New prayers have been composed only for recently instituted feasts. The churches in other cultures are only allowed to translate these prayers for their own use. My questions are simple. Why should there be only a Roman missal? Why not an Indian or Chinese or African missal? After all, there are Byzantine, Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, and Maronite missals in the Church. Why should this freedom be denied to people who became Christians during the colonial period? Why should the people across the world not have the liberty to pray to God using the images and languages of their own cultures? Why should I put on a Latin mask when I enter the church? How many people understand or identify with the Latin turns of phrase and oratorical structure? I think the freedom given by the Council for the use of other languages in the Liturgy has been very narrowly interpreted.

It is often been repeated in the lex orandi (the law of prayers), lex credendi (the law of belief): that the prayer expresses the faith of the Church. The faith does not change. But the understanding of the faith and its theological explanation do change. If our doctrine and our theological understanding of the faith have changed over 20 centuries, it stands to reason that prayers written in the early centuries of Christianity may not reflect the contemporary understanding of the faith. There is a dichotomous contrast between this world and the next and an insistence on punishment and expiation for sin in the Latin prayers that a modern Indian Christian feels uncomfortable with. If it is legitimate to have an Indian Christianity and an Indian theology, it is also legitimate to have prayers written in an Indian language, keeping in mind Indian cultural and religious sensibilities. If priests and ministers are tempted to improvise prayers, it is simply because either they do not feel at home with the prayers in the book or because the prayers do not meet the need of the moment. Any one who has been present in charismatic prayer groups can testify that one of the attractions of such prayer groups is the freedom that people—non-priests—have to pray in their own way in their own language. This is also the secret of the success of popular devotions. It is in this context that the Indian bishops prepared an Indian Eucharistic prayer. If they are consistent, they should also demand an Indian missal composed by them with suitable assistance. The missal does not have the same status as the Bible in Christian awareness. It is a collection of prayers and need not be sacralized.

Finally, if the basic symbol of the Eucharist is a shared common meal, it must be experienced by the community as a meal, whatever the second level meaning that this symbol acquires in the context of the Christian faith. An important element in the meal is what we eat. Jesus understandably took the food and drink that was on the table during the paschal meal. He would expect that each community would share what it normally eats. Wheat is commonly available in India. There are regions in the world in which wheat will have to be imported. Unlike 20 years ago we have wine produced in India today. We do not have to import it any more from Italy or Australia. But there are countries in the world where wine is not produced. Even in India, wine is not the normal drink of the people, even on festive occasions. The question whether other materials besides bread made of wheat and wine made from grapes can be used in the Eucharist has been raised by theologians in different parts of the world. I would like to place this issue on the table for discussion, perhaps for future generations. It would not probably be taken up at this Synod.

The Liturgy of the Word

I shall now focus on some sections of the Eucharistic celebration. The first is the Liturgy of the Word. It is customary to speak of the Eucharist as consisting of two tables: the table of the Word and the table of the Bread. This part of the Eucharistic liturgy acquires greater importance today because many communities can celebrate only this part regularly. This is also the part that helps the people to look at their lives in the light of the Word of God and hear God’s call to conversion and God’s challenges to transform the world. The people are also helped to renew their vision of the Kingdom of God towards which they are moving. The homily by the priest can help to make the Word of God relevant to today’s situation. But other ministers too can play the same role, though this is frowned upon by the central authority which seeks to protect the role of the priest in the community. The liturgy of the Word can be developed and enriched in various ways. The texts can be discussed by various groups at various times and places. I have known priests who prepare their homily with the help of a group of people who reflect on the Word of God with him during the week. The Basic Christian Communities and other similar groups can be encouraged to focus on the liturgical readings during the week. Leaders of these groups can be prepared at the level of the parish to facilitate discussions in such groups. Even on a Sunday the community can be divided in different ways according to their needs to read and reflect over the texts separately. I referred above to what is done for the children in some parishes. That method can be extended to other groups. At special times of the liturgical year and on festive occasions other media can be used: images, street plays, stories, Powerpoint presentations, short films, and corporal expressions like dance, music, and drama can be used both to communicate the Word and its challenges and to facilitate the response of the people. We often use the media for publicity. We do not use it in a provocative manner to inspire and challenge.

A creative celebration of the liturgy of the Word needs time. It is a question whether anything creative could be done within the one-hour limit that most Sunday liturgies seem to have, especially in modern, urban areas. If the Sunday liturgy cannot be prolonged, it is worth exploring whether the liturgy of the Word can be shifted to other times in the week in other groups, integrating all of these groups on a Sunday or another day in a common celebration around the table of the Bread.

May I mention in passing that nearly 30 years ago the Indian theologians evoked the possibility of using the Scriptures of other religions, of course in the context of the Christian Scriptures, in the liturgy. I shall not discuss this here except to say that I have seen some creative ways in which this can be done.

The Prayer of the Faithful and the Offertory

The prayer of the faithful and the offertory are the two occasions when the usually passive congregation becomes somewhat active. It may be good to encourage the people to come forward with their needs and propose them for prayer by the community in a way intelligible to every one. This can be an excellent way of getting to know each other and of showing mutual concern. I do not think that this is exploited sufficiently in the liturgy. People should, however, be helped to avoid making this occasion a press conference of their activities and concerns. One way of doing this is for a minister to collect written prayers. As they are read out to the community, the individual(s) concerned could be asked to stand up and be seen and recognized by everyone.

The offertory is seen today mostly as bringing gifts to the celebrant, especially if he is a special one like a bishop. In the early Church people brought bread and wine in abundance. A part of them that was used for the liturgy of the Eucharist, the rest was distributed to the poor after the celebration. Today of course the gifts can take other forms like money and the distribution to the poor too can be done in other ways. But it will be helpful if there is a public accounting of what is being received and distributed. We see this already happening in some churches. The offertory can also be made, on special occasions, the moment to express the integration of the whole universe in the self-offering of the community. Workers may bring their implements and products on Labor Day. Farmers can offer their produce on the feast of the harvest. Water, flowers, light, incense, and food can symbolize the five elements of the universe as the aarathis do in the Indian celebration of the liturgy. This may be an occasion to highlight and develop the cosmic context of the Eucharistic celebration and to explore the ecological implications of offering the fruits of the earth and the work of human hands.

Eucharist and Sharing

In the Gospel of John, the Eucharist is set in an interesting context. Jesus gives the new commandment: "Love one another as I have loved you." It is loving God in the other as he shows in the mystical image: "That they may all be one…." He demonstrates the implication of such love and communion in a threefold way. First of all, he washes the feet of the disciples, giving them an example of humble service. Then he shares food and drink to indicate not only sharing, but also communion in life. Finally he offers his own life as a sign of his love unto death. This is explained well by Cardinal Ratzinger:

In truth, Jesus is killed; he is nailed to a cross and dies amid torment. His blood is poured out, first in the Garden of Olives due to his interior suffering for his mission, then in the flagellation, the crowning with thorns, the crucifixion, and after his death in the piercing of his Heart. What occurs is above all an act of violence, of hatred, torture and destruction. At this point we run into a second, more profound level of transformation: he transforms, from within, the act of violent men against him into an act of giving on behalf of these men—into an act of love. This is dramatically recognizable in the scene of the Garden of Olives. What he teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, he now does: he does not offer violence against violence, as he might have done, but puts an end to violence by transforming it into love. The act of killing, of death, is changed into an act of love; violence is defeated by love. This is the fundamental transformation upon which all the rest is based. It is the true transformation which the world needs and which alone can redeem the world. Since Christ in an act of love has transformed and defeated violence from within, death itself is transformed: love is stronger than death. It remains forever.3

The early Church sought to realize this communion. They sold all that they had, sharing everything in common and taking each one according to his/her need. It is in that context that they prayed and broke bread together. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul takes them to task for celebrating the Lord’s supper unworthily, with some people feasting while others went hungry.

The message is clear. The Christian community cannot celebrate the Eucharist meaningfully if it does not share its goods. The sharing of food and drink is a symbol of sharing of life and all that life demands. In this context it is difficult to imagine a Christian community where some people are not able to meet their basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, while others have plenty. The kind of communion that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles may be ideal. The early community itself was not able to maintain it since the apostles were obliged to appoint deacons to meet the complaints of the groups that felt neglected. But a community that does nothing to share its goods with the poor has no right to celebrate the Eucharist. Its Eucharist will have no meaning.

Today, Christians in rich countries are helping the poor in other countries. I would like, however, to make two remarks. Most of the richer countries in the world today became rich by exploiting others during the colonial period. Most of them remain rich or grow more rich by continuing to exploit others in open and hidden ways through unjust economic, commercial, and political structures. In such situations it is not enough that Christians share what they have. They also have to get involved in movements that seek to promote more just economic, commercial, and political structures. In today’s world individualistic liberal capitalism seems to be the dominant system. No one speaks of socialism anymore. Yet, I do not think that without a sense of community and solidarity we can move towards a more just world. The Eucharist must give Christians this sense of community and solidarity.

On the other hand, I am afraid that Christians in former colonial and mission countries like India are still keen to receive, but not fully ready yet to give and to share with the poor. Most parishes have social projects. It will be interesting to find out how much of the money comes from the parish itself. What structures have we set up to encourage the well-to-do Christians to help the poor?

Eucharist and Community

St. Paul affirms more than once that to share the new life of the risen Jesus is to recognize equality in the community. In the risen Christ there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor master, male nor female. The gospel of Jesus should have been a message of liberation to the Dalits of India, oppressed as they are socially, economically, and politically. At a first stage, Roberto de Nobili affirmed that one could be Christian and Indian, not Portuguese. At his time and even today to be Indian is to belong to a caste. But it was a pity that nothing was done to abolish the system even within the Church. The Church took more than 300 years to declare that the caste system is sinful and unchristian. If this is true, then someone who practices the caste system insofar as it justifies social inequality has no right to celebrate the Eucharist, which is a symbol of equality and community. And yet, the hierarchical caste system has been and still is, in some places, an integral element of the celebration of the Eucharist. This is simply unchristian and unacceptable. It would be interesting and welcome if the Indian bishops came out with a statement on the occasion of the Synod saying that people who are still practicing caste discrimination cannot and should not celebrate the Eucharist. The problem is that the Eucharist has become simply an act of devotion and of union with God in and through Christ. Its social dimension is ignored, if not forgotten. It is time that we rediscovered it.

Similarly, the Eucharist has always been associated with reconciliation. It is in itself a sacrament of reconciliation as a celebration of community. Still villages and communities, divided by caste and other communal conflicts, will happily celebrate the Eucharist together, without realizing the meaninglessness of the gesture. Our theologians would not declare these Eucharists invalid because they focus only on the priest and what he does. With reference to inter-communion between Catholics and Protestants, it is often discussed whether the Eucharist is a means or a celebration of unity. I think that we could raise a similar question with regard to communities that are deeply divided.

Such an attention to the community dimension of the Eucharist should not, however, lead us to make use of it as an instrument to make people whom we consider "erring individuals" fall in line. We have heard of cases recently in the United States of America that some bishops were refusing communion, not only to political leaders based on their political policies, but also to people who voted for them in the elections. The community celebration should not become a political tool. The Synod could say something about such a practical matter.

Some bishops in Europe (especially in Germany) have raised other questions like inter-communion between Protestants and Catholics, at least in mixed marriages, on special occasions, and communion to Catholics who have been divorced and remarried. Theologians in Asia have raised questions regarding communion to members of other religions who manifest belief in Christ. I need not go into them since they are not likely to be discussed at the Synod.

Could the Synod be the occasion to bury the system of "mass stipends" once and for all? The people should certainly be encouraged to contribute to the maintenance of priests and of the Church. But any impression that they are paying for masses must be avoided. The kind of theology that suggests more masses = more merit = more grace should not only be discouraged, but forbidden. The ghost of indulgences refuse to disappear from the Church. If the mystical body of Christ is celebrating the Eucharist, certainly the living and the dead are involved in it. It is good for people to experience their fellowship with the dead in the context of the Eucharistic celebration. They can feel certain solidarity in prayer with the living and the dead. But, simply paying for masses to be said for the dead in which one is not present is certainly an abuse. A few months ago the newspapers in India reported that masses for the American dead were being celebrated in Kerala, South India. The papers, understandably, set it in the context of the phenomenon of "outsourcing" in industry!


The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not a problem for the Indian Church in general. So it does not merit discussion. But what may merit discussion is the various real presences of Christ of which the Council speaks. The Christians in India may attend too exclusively to the presence of Christ in the sacrament and ignore the other real presences.

The point I would like to stress in conclusion is that the Eucharist is not primarily a celebration of Christ and of the priest who acts in Christ’s name (in persona Christi), in which the people are present and participate, but a celebration of the community, led by the priest and united to Christ as his body. The people are not merely called to participate, but to celebrate. The Eucharist should not be isolated as an act of devotion, but must be seen as the center of Christian life. As a symbolic celebration it supposes a life in conformity to what people celebrate. If the life of the people does not correspond to what the people celebrate, then the celebration becomes meaningless and ineffective. Therefore the priest and the people must pay more attention to how people live than to how they celebrate. God may make up for some deficiencies in the celebration. But even God cannot make up for the failure of people to live in love in the community in which they celebrate.


* Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 17 April 2003. English edition in L’Osservatore Romano, 23 April 2003.

** Redemptoris Sacramentum (On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist), 23 April 2003, Rome.

1. Here I am speaking with reference only to the Latin Church in India.

2. The "Congolese version of the Roman Rite for the Eucharist" is a similar example.

3. In a talk he gave to the Bishops of Campania, Italy, 2 June 2002.

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