Bartholomew C. UGOCHUKWU, a priest of the Orlu Diocese, Nigeria, is a PhD research scholar at Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium. He holds an M.A. (Religious Studies); an M.Th. and a STL. He is the author of: The Eucharist as the Bond of Christian Unity (Orlu: Chimavin Press, 2000) and has published many articles in his field. As NACC board certified member, he works as Chaplain at Covenant Health System, Lubbock, TX, U.S.A. while on a research trip.
What we would like to present in this paper is the relational significance of Jesus taking bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and offering it to humanity (Lk 22:19). What does it means to assert that through these profound actions, Jesus makes himself present in the form of the meal he offered to human communities? And how does the sacrament of the Eucharist manifest his presence as an illumination of love, as an epitome of mutual "giving and taking," which challenges us to go out from ourselves for adequate relationships with one another? Giving answers to these questions will help us rediscover the significance of the Eucharist, in which Jesus’ act at the Last Supper is commemorated and reenacted.
To remember what Jesus did leads to increasing awareness and understanding of his real and definitive presence among us. This encouraging and challenging presence is felt and experienced even beyond the precise moment of liturgical celebrations. Thus, it is important to look for an in-depth knowledge and practice of this relational grace-filled sacrament. This will help us enter into more candid and open dialogue to decipher effective mechanisms for mutual acceptance, cooperation, openness, and commitments to one another and to our community life. It will also pave the way for invigorating life as Eucharistic koinonia, which is the epitome of human interconnectivity.
Anti-Relational Factors in the World: The Unfortunate Scenarios
Regrettably, there exist many anti-relational factors in the world. These weaken human relationships and communality since they lure human beings away from genuinely comprehending and contextualizing the Eucharistic communal ideals, among which is "the togetherness of we-ness." In a world plagued by exploitation, violence, and poverty amidst so much opulence, the koinonia expressed and experienced at the Eucharistic banquet serves as a critique of the status quo. This is a challenging invitation for the concretization of mutuality and interconnectivity.
How can the practice of a Eucharistic community help us to confront anti-relational factors such as inequality, segregation, racism, and sexism? What is the relevance of the Eucharistic community in the postmodern period, with its individualistic and relativistic tendencies and lifestyles? We will try to answer these questions from the perspective of the conviviality and relational principles of the Eucharistic koinonia.
Eucharistic koinonia has far-reaching implications for both the Church and the wider society. The latter is, as it were, where participants in the Eucharist are sent to put into practice the symbolic exchange inherent in the sacrament.Koinonia, a Greek word translated into English as "community," expresses the larger community gathered for fellowship. This koinonia is highly expressed in the celebration of the Eucharistic meal. Its rite is the highest expression of the community in union with Christ and humanity.
The Relational Meaning and Understanding of the Eucharist
The Eucharist, according to some postmodern theologians like Lambert Leijssen, is presented in the symbolic order as a gratuitous gift from God through Jesus Christ, the Icon, who dwells in the human community as the lingering silent glimmer of the Holy Spirit.1 Leijssen situates in an anthropological approach the theological implications of the meaning and understanding of the Eucharist. According to him:
People of all times have experienced a relationship with the transcendent primarily by engaging in rituals. In and through rituals, people claim contact with these higher powers, to honor or control, to gain reconciliation, or to compel favors by bringing offerings. These ritual archetypes have to do with the experience of the natural world within which humans are physically situated and within which the transcendent is experienced.2
Leijssen further states that all facets of human life—from cradle to grave—are enveloped within the sacramental and relational experiences of the Eucharist. His understanding indicates how the Eucharist brings to expression and manifestation the ontological meaningfulness of human living, especially at important and decisive moments.
From this perspective, let us now try to explore the meaning of the term "Eucharist" from Jesus’ declarations at the Last Supper: "This is my body for you" (Lk 22:19; I Cor 11:24), "This is my blood, which is shed for you" (Mt 26:28; Mk 14:24). Walter Kasper opines:
With these words, Jesus meant: this is me, the one who gives himself as a gift for you and for everyone. In these gifts of bread and wine, I am present for you; in them, I give myself to you. Understand these appearances; I am in your midst. In these signs of bread and wine, you can recognize me and know who I am and how great is my love for you. For the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine express who I am for you—namely, the one who shares with you, who communicates himself to you, who gives himself to you.3
Kasper’s interpretation crystallizes the Eucharist as a community celebration that deepens and enhances the covenanted relationship between God and human beings. We bear in mind that the sacrament is also an extraordinary lesson of humble service to the other, as it commenced with the washing of feet (Jn 13:15). This is Jesus’ "gift of himself" to the world (I Cor 11:20). Applying this understanding to the early Christians’ attitude during times of persecution, Kasper concludes that the Eucharistic celebration is essential to Christian identity as it is "the source from which they draw life."4 He also emphasizes that "in the Eucharist, the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper become a present reality." He goes further to point out that "in this way, Jesus himself answers the question how we can recognize him and experience him, how we can let ourselves be touched by him."5 Consequently, in repeating Jesus’ words of institution, Christians become aware of his presence as that which bonds, invigorates, and rejuvenates them together as a community.6 This indicates that the sacrament possesses the capacity to unite or to bring together the visible and invisible orders.7 As such,
[The Eucharist] does not refer to an absent reality; it calls forth the invisible, divine favor into visibility. In the experience we come in contact with the divine. The celebration links up with the human experience of divine proximity that binds human occurrence with divine nearness. A transfer, a transposition takes place toward the divine.8
Accordingly, in the Eucharist, "the deepest human experiences are transferred into the realm of the divine, and they become carriers of divine favor and grace."9
The Eucharist as "Metaphor Celebrations": Relational Significances
Edward Schillebeeckx’s interpretation of the sacrament "as metaphoric celebrations"10 again situates the Eucharist inkoinonia. This defines the sacrament as the heart and summit of the life of the Church.11
Referring to the decline in the understanding of the Eucharist, Kasper says:
It is an alarming signal that ought to set our inner alarm bells ringing; it demonstrates that faith is growing less and love is growing cold. We let Jesus’ love go unanswered. Are we aware how offensive that is, how ungrateful our behavior is, how much guilt we incur thereby?12
The Eucharist entails reciprocity and the practice of Jesus’ love for us. This calls for mutual openness, respect, and recognition of one another in the spirit of koinonia. Kasper further adds:
Naturally, to recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread also means that it must be possible for others to recognize us Christians in the breaking of the bread—that is, in our sharing and giving. Not for nothing was it said of the first Christians: "They were together and had all things in common" (Acts 2:44). We can share the Eucharistic bread only when we also share our daily bread. We read in a description of the way of life of the early Christians: "They love everyone. They are poor and make many rich; they lack everything and yet have an abundance of everything."13
This relational significance of the Eucharist ought to inspire every human being "with the same attitude that inspired Jesus when he instituted the Eucharist at that Last Supper in the upper room: ‘for you,’ ‘for all.’ Just as Jesus makes himself a gift for us, we too should make ourselves a gift for others."14
Challenges of the Eucharistic Life Ideals to Human Relationships
The practice of the Eucharist does not go without any hindrances or a self-effacing mentality. According to Kasper:
To make ourselves and our life a gift—that is a message that rings strange in the ears of most people today, for one fundamental trait of our society is that we seek to take and to hang onto what we have taken, rather than to give. Many simply cannot get enough, and desperately try to cling to their possessions. This is why there is so little change in our world. Scarcely anything is in movement; indeed, scarcely anything lets itself be moved. This rigid egotism is a sign of death, not of life. For life is born of love, and it is only the one who lays down his life that will find it (Mk 8:35).15
Because of this, the world needs to understand and practice anew the Eucharist. It must be understood as a gift, which is to be gratuitously mediated in order that God’s love is lived (vertically) and shared with others (horizontally).16God’s love in Jesus Christ effects mutuality in human lives.
Thankfulness and Cordiality in Human Relational Endeavors
The word "Eucharist" derives from the Latin eucharistia, which means "the virtue of thanksgiving or thankfulness." Its Greek counterpart, eucharistein ("gratitude") is a combination of eu ("good") and charizesthai ("to show favor").17 The nuances in meaning range all the way from profane usage to the profound conduct of one who is a recipient of a divine gratuity. This notion traces back to the Hebrew understanding of "blessing," the praise of God, which recalls God’s magnanimity.18 The Greek words eucharistein and eulogein are used in numerous Scripture texts to recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim—especially during a meal—God’s works of creation, redemption, and sanctification.19 Following this explanation, the Eucharistic prayers of the Church always recall and allude to the Jewish berakah. According to Dennis Smolarski, this entails that the Church uphold the "Jewish prayer-form consisting essentially of a ‘blessing’ of God."20 He adds:
When a Jew pronounces a "blessing," he offers praise to God as Creator of all things. Since God has been blessed and thanked, the person or object, which was the motive for the prayer of blessing, was thus made holy, since this person or object was the reason why praise and thanks had been given to God.21
However, the development of some Christian theologies indicates a gradual shift from the Jewish berakah to the consecration of bread and wine by Jesus. The Eucharist is thus attributed to Jesus’ act at the Last Supper (Mk 14:23; Lk 22:19; Mt 26:27; I Cor 11:24). Joseph Martos describes the Eucharist as designating, not only the Eucharistic elements, but also "the ritual worship which surrounded their use."22 This emphasizes the reality of the words of consecration by Jesus over the bread and wine. The Eucharist is thus also the sacramental meal of the Church, celebrated by the community of the faithful in accordance with the instructions of Jesus.23
Sharing and Sacrifice Unite in the Eucharistic Life
The apostolic understanding and teaching of the Eucharist is twofold: it portrays the Eucharist as a "sacramental meal" and also as a "sacrifice." The Eucharist is thereby understood as a communion associated with the use of "bread and wine," which knits together the concepts of "meal" and "sacrifice." This understanding is seen as perpetuated by Jesus himself as he entrusted to the Church a memorial of his "Body and Blood."24 This trend of thought explains the reality of the bond existing between Christ and his Body, the Church in Eucharistic koinonia. This relational understanding makes Christ truly present in the Eucharistic reenactment.
Today, the concept of the Eucharist assumes a threefold significance: as sacrifice, communion, and viaticum. The Eucharist is now referred to as a "sacrifice," as it is a commemoration of Christ’s passion. It is also called a "communion," because it is an ecclesiastical bond shown in the sharing of one bread and one cup. More so, it is designated as a "viaticum," which strengthens the participants in their eschatological journey.25
Implications of the Eucharistic Life on Human Relationships
The Eucharist is explained by the Council of Trent as "a symbol of a sacred thing and a visible form of an invisible grace" which bestows life on the recipients since Christ, the author and giver of life, is present therein.26 Trent brings out the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church and portrays it as always forming bonds of community. TheCatechism of the Catholic Church advances Trent’s understanding. It says:
The Eucharist is the efficacious sign and sublime cause of that communion in the divine life and that unity of the people of God by which the Church is kept in being. It is the culmination both of God’s action sanctifying the world in Christ and of the worship men offer to Christ and through him to the Father in the Holy Spirit.27
The document goes further to uphold that as the Eucharist produces grace and spiritual nourishment, which binds together the entire Church, all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostleship are anchored in it. Thus, the Eucharist is understood as uniting all in Christ and in his Body.
The Eucharist is also called a ritual meal, a unifying banquet. In and through it, we share in the memory of Jesus as Paul ever reminds us (1 Cor 11:23-27). The Eucharist is thus properly called a "sharing," which encourages, nurtures, sustains, enriches, and concretizes our oneness with Jesus (1 Cor 10:16-17) and with one another. The Eucharist further encourages us to live out this unity at all times and everywhere (Acts 3:42-47; 4:32-35). According to Duane Cummins:
[In the Eucharist] we affirm the presence of the living Lord and proclaim him to be the dominant power in our lives. It is an act of thanksgiving for the renewal of our lives through the forgiveness of God. We pledge faithfulness and reaffirm the covenant of new life into which we entered at baptism. Celebrated in fellowship with the whole people of God, it is an expression of unity, of oneness in Christ, and of concern for one another.28
One could say that the God-given dignity of the human being is actually realized and lived out in community. According to John Sachs, "our humanity is essentially ecstatic, other-directed. We are whole and entire only in our relationship with others: both human others and with God, the divine Other."29 The Eucharist helps us to fulfill and advance our humanness.
The Eucharistic Life as Enhancing Human Relationships
As mentioned above, the Eucharist definitely enhances community life and human relationships. However, many people understand this naively. They tend to focus on certain ritualistic actions that are considered especially "religious." This distorts the proper living out of the Eucharist, depriving it of its intended relational effectiveness and orientation.
Leijssen uses the concepts "gift" and "icon" to bring out the interaction between "giver" and "recipient."30 Bernard Cooke makes the same point when he situates the Eucharist as "a key element in the process of Christians helping to make human life a more truly human and fulfilled reality."31 The Eucharist transforms the reality of "the human by somewhat bringing persons into closer contact with one another and with the saving action of Jesus Christ."32 Through active participation in the Eucharistic koinonia, we are decisively introduced into the vision and the reality of what it means to be truly human. According to Cooke:
All this demands a greater awareness of just what it means to be human. Instead of living at a low level of consciousness, people must give more direct attention to many things they now take for granted. To put it bluntly, using the language Saint Paul used centuries ago, we Christians must wake up; we must find out what is really going on.33
Cooke reminds us of the pitfalls in the understanding of the Eucharist. In the early Christian communities, the Church had to struggle against a multitude of mystery cults. Much later, scholastic theology systematized a "sacramentalistic" view of the mystery of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.34 The controversies between East and West on the issue of the epiclesis also resulted in divergent theological views.
The Eucharistic Life: Epitome of Meaningful Human Relationships
The deepest meaning of the Eucharist is summed up in what has become axiomatic in Christian theology: to live meaningfully here on earth and to inherit eternal life. In other words, it means to live a true and authentic life, and not just in a conventional way.35 The Eucharist entails being in koinonia, in communion with Christ and with one another. This means longing for participation and involvement in the perfect communion that exists between the Father and the Son. "Just as the living Father sent me, and I live through the Father, he who eats me will live through me" (Jn 6:57). This parallels 2 Peter 1:4, where those participating in the Eucharist meal are described as "partakers of the divine nature."
This understanding of the Eucharist recalls the new covenantal relationship between God and humanity (Mk 14:24; I Cor 11:25). "I will make a new covenant" (Jer 38:31) and "I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be unto me a people" (Jer 24:7).
The Eucharist builds up community under God’s direction. In it, we gather to celebrate our interconnectedness, our being created in God’s image and likeness.36 Jesus, in telling us that he is the vine and that we are the branches, reminds us that only when we are joined to him can we bear much fruit (Jn 15:1-8). Thus, our relationship with him is not "Jesus-and-I," it is "Jesus-and-we."
The Eucharist is about people in community. It is about celebration. It is about mutual sharing. It is about care and concern for one another. It is about Christ’s family that gathers together to share the bread and wine in memory of him. It is what we do as branches on Jesus’ vine, as we come together to share in his body and blood (Mt 18:20). This connects human community and communion with God, which has to be understood as an action, not some static thing.37 Through this, Christians give the world visible proof that Jesus really gives us life, that we are alive in and through him.
1. Lambert Leijssen, With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit: A Postmodern Look at the Sacraments (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006), 2-4.
2. Ibid., 1.
3. Walter Kasper, Sacrament of Unity: The Eucharist and the Church, tr. Brian McNeil (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 2004), 41.
6. Lambert Leijssen, "Rahner’s Contribution to the Renewal of Sacramentology," Philosophy and Theology: Marquette University Journal 9 (1995): 201-222, esp. 216. See also Kasper, 41.
7. Leijssen, Silent Glimmer, 4.
10. Edward Schillebeeckx, Theologisch Testament: Notarieel Nog Niet Verleden (Baarn: H. Nelissen, 1994), 190.
11. Lumen Gentium, 11.
12. Kasper, 42.
13. Ibid., 43.
14. Ibid., 44.
16. See David Power, The Eucharistic Mystery (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992).
17. Nicholas Halligan, Sacraments of Initiation and Union, Vol. 1 (New York: Alba House, 1972), 107.
19. Catechism of the Catholic Church (Ottawa: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992), no. 1328.
20. Dennis Smolarski, Eucharistia: A Study of the Eucharistic Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 1982), 13.
22. Joseph Martos, Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Interpretation to Sacraments in the Catholic Church (Liguori, Missouri: Liguori/Triumph, 2001), 210.
23. Norman Tanner, ed., "Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy," Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, 2 Volume Set (London: Georgetown University, 1990), 832, no. 59.
24. See David Power, "Theology of Eucharistic Celebration," Handbook for Liturgical Studies 3 (1999): 321-366.
26. Council of Trent (1551), Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist, arts. 1516, 1639.
27. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 336.
28. Duane Cummins, A Handbook for Today’s Disciples: In the Christian Church (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2003), 33.
29. John Sachs, The Christian Vision of Humanity: Basic Christian Anthropology (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999), 20.
30. Leijssen, Silent Glimmer, 4.
31. Bernard Cooke, Sacraments and Sacramentality (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third Publications, 1994), 10.
33. Ibid., 11.
34. Petros Vassiliadis, "Towards a Eucharistic Understanding of Mission: Russia Facing Evangelicals," available at http://users.auth.gr /~pv/tachiaos.htm, accessed on 19 February 2007.
35. Sachs, 27-42.
36. Sidney Griffith, "Spirit in the Bread, Fire in the Wine: The Eucharist as Living Medicine in the Thought of Ephraem the Syrian," Modern Theology 15 (1999) 2: 225-246.
37. Karl Rahner, "Reflections on the Unity of the Love of Neighbor and the Love of God," Theological Investigations 6 (New York: Seabury Press, 1974), 231-249.