While they were eating, Jesus took bread and said grace. He broke it and gave it to the students, saying, “Take! Eat! This is my body.” Then he took the cup, and after he said grace, he gave it to them, saying, “Everyone, drink this! This is my blood, which is the peace treaty between God and humanity. It’s being poured out for a lot of people for the forgiveness of everything they’ve ever done wrong.
This, of course, is Matthew’s version of the Last Supper. Catholics (Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans) encounter some version of this story every week in worship. It is part of the Eucharistic Celebration – Eucharist coming from the Greek word εὐχαριστία (eucharistia), meaning “to be grateful,” “to give thanks,” “to feel thankful.” Some Christians call it Communion, some call it the Lord’s Supper, but the oldest name for the sharing of the bread and wine as a memorial to Christ’s self-sacrifice is the Eucharistic Meal – the Thanksgiving Meal.
The earliest Christians apparently celebrated an actual meal. The Roman governor of Bithynia (in Asia Minor) wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan around the year 112, asking advice on how to deal with Christians. He knew Christianity was made illegal in a now lost edict drafted by Nero, but he had a hard time trying to figure out what their crime was. In the course of his letter, Pliny provides us with one of the oldest accounts of Christian worship:
…[T]hey were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food.
Over time this actual meal became reduced to the “symbolic” meal of the Eucharist as we now know it – the offering of bread and wine.
For the Catholic traditions, the Eucharist is the central element of worship. The confession of sins, the liturgy of the Word, the sermon, the creed, the offering, all lead to the Eucharist – the Thanksgiving. For it is in the Eucharist that sins are forgiven through the Blood of Christ, that the Word takes on “flesh and blood” in the bread and wine, the sermon finds meaning and texture, the creed is authenticated because the Eucharistic Celebration is a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet in the Kingdom of God.
Most Christians, if not all, declare that the Eucharist is not simply the ingesting of a small portion of bread and sipping a bit of wine, but that somehow, through the liturgy, and the elements of bread and wine, Jesus Christ is present. Roman Catholics assert this presence by teaching that the bread and the wine literally undergoes a change of substance (transubstantiation) and literally become the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. The opposite extreme seems to be that of the Reformer, Zwingli, who taught that the Eucharist is simply a memorial celebration, and that Christ is present in the gathering of believers, for whenever two or three are gathered in the name of Christ, then Christ is present with them. Most Christians, including those from Lutheran and Calvinist traditions, fall somewhere in between these two poles. I will let others argue the particulars of the presence. I only care that in the Eucharist – in the bread and in the wine – Christ is present with us.
It is more than just His “Body” that is present in the Eucharist, it is Christ, the whole Christ, the essence of Christ, that is present. It is generally accepted that Jesus probably spoke Aramaic. Aramaic has no word for “body.” The “This is my body” that so many Christians focus on was never said by Jesus because Jesus had no word for body available to Him in Aramaic. “This is my body” comes from the Greek, not from the Aramaic of Jesus. The word that Jesus would have probably used is the Aramaic gup, meaning “self” or “ego.”
Jesus does not say, “This is my body”; He says “This is me,” “This is my ego” “This is who I am” – passed around and broken into pieces. “This is my body” is not a bad, or misleading translation because “body” in the Greek is more holistic than it seems to be for us. We generally think “flesh” and “flesh and blood” when we think “body”; yet, the body is everything – flesh, blood, spirit, will, emotions. So the Greek translation does capture the Aramaic, as long as we stop long enough to actually see it.
This is important for those of us who wish to follow Christ. Jesus spoke these words on the way toward His cross. Jesus tells us: “If anyone wants to follow me, then he has to abandon his own wants! He has to pick up his cross and follow!” (Matthew 16:24). Anyone who desires to follow Christ must, like Christ, let his ego be broken. The more I am full of self, the less I can be filled with Christ and His Holy Spirit; the more I empty myself of my self – my ego – the more I can be filled with Christ. The more I let my ego be broken and smashed, the more I let Christ put it back together in a new and better way.
So most, if not all, Christians agree that Christ is somehow present in the Eucharist, and many Christians believe they are supposed to “share” Christ with others. Yet, when they “share” Christ, they share words about Christ. They make pretty speeches and promises, but they do not share Christ in the way that they claim Christ is present – by sharing bread and wine!
The Last Supper was a Passover Celebration, but the elements that Christ singles out, and the components of the Supper that the Evangelists mention in their Gospels are the bread and the wine. Bread and wine served as the staple of the diets for most people. Bread was what most people ate most of the time, and wine is what most people drank because sanitation was poor, and the water available to most people may have been contaminated, or polluted, or stagnant.
THE EUCHARIST TAKES EVERY DAY ITEMS – THE BASIC COMPONENT OF DIET AND NUTRITION FOR THE TIME – AND SANCTIFIES THEM, AND SAYS THAT IN THESE BASIC, EVERYDAY, ORDINARY MUNDANE ITEMS, CHRIST CAN BE PRESENT, AND RECOGNIZED AND EXPERIENCED!
The Eucharist declares that there is something sacred about mundane, ordinary existence, and by sharing in these ordinary things together, we can share Jesus Christ with each other.
If we really believe this, then “sharing” Jesus Christ with others is more than simply preaching. It is more than showing people select Bible passages, and so much more than convincing them that they are sinners in need of forgiveness. Sharing Jesus is about feeding people – not metaphorically, but literally! Sharing Jesus with others is sharing with others what they need! At the very least, sharing Jesus with others is sharing the basics that are crucial for survival because if we cannot share that much, then all our pretty words and promises are meaningless. We are all talk in a world where actions speak louder than words – and we must always be careful that our actions do not shout out “indifference” when our words strain to whisper “love.” We preach with our actions – it is our actions that prove whether or not we ourselves believe that our words are true, or whether they are just a smokescreen designed to hide our own lack of faith.
Sharing Jesus is sharing how we in the Church experience Jesus, where we recognize Him, where we encounter Him – and most of us agree that we encounter Him in the Eucharist. In the bread and in the wine, Christ is present with us. The bread and the wine are Christ’s PRESENTS TO US, that point to Christ’s PRESENCE WITH US!
It is fitting that Christ is present in bread and in wine because there are a lot of hungry people in the world, and a lot who thirst. This is how we celebrate Christ’s presence each week! So let us share Christ, not by offering them pretty words and promises, but by handing them bread and something to drink, so that they may be fed and nourished, so that when we try to feed their spirits, their bodies will be strong enough to bear it.