What did Jesus want to express by leaving us the Eucharist?
The heart of the Christian message is the proclamation of communion, a life shared with God that results in solidarity among human beings, all sons and daughters of the same Father. In his life on earth as one of us, Jesus did not only invite human beings to open themselves to this message; he lived it out in his own existence: “I have come from heaven not to do my own will, but the will of the One who sent me. And the will of the One who sent me is that I lose nothing of all he has given me, but raise it up on the last day” (John 6:38-39). If Jesus’ entire existence manifests a life for God and for others, it is above all the end of his life on earth, his death on the cross, that witnesses fully to his gift of self to the very end. Transfigured by the power of the Spirit at work in the resurrection, this existence as gift became the foundation of a life of communion for all.
On the night before he died, Jesus expressed the meaning of his life and his death in the language of gesture. During a festive meal he took some bread and blessed it while adding the words: “This is my body, given for you.” Then at the end of the meal, he blessed a cup of wine while saying: “This is my blood, shed for you.” The disciples took what Jesus handed to them and consumed it.
This act of Jesus makes the burning core of our faith present with unimaginable density. In the Bible, eating food with someone is a way of expressing a shared life. Guests seated around the same table form a virtual family; they recognize one another as brothers and sisters. But here, what creates the unity among the guests is Jesus himself. Not only does he invite to his table and preside at the meal, but he gives himself as the food that communicates the same Life to all. “My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6:55-56.)
By giving his life for us, Jesus thus offers us the possibility of entering into fellowship with him and therefore with one another. If, in human terms, food and drink are assimilated by those who eat and drink, by sharing in the body and blood of Christ he assimilates us to himself: we become what we consume, the Body of Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:17), the prolongation of Christ’s active presence in the world. The Eucharist manifests in sacramental fashion the deepest meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection, communicating that Life which consists in communion with the Source of all life and which turns us into one family, one body.
Is the Eucharist more than the repetition of something that happened long ago?
Jesus said to his disciples together for the last supper, “Do this as my memorial” (Luke 22:19). Following his suggestion, for two thousand years Christians have continued to recall, in their liturgy, Jesus’ gift of his life. The celebration of the Eucharist looks back to the past and keeps it alive as a wellspring in the ongoing life of the Christian community.
But in this celebration we do far more than merely recall something that happened long ago. The word “memorial,” in Hebrew zikkaron, does not refer to an act of human memory to keep an event of the past from passing into oblivion. Rather, it expresses the fact that, in the nation’s worship, it is God who keeps alive in the present day his past “marvels,” in other words his powerful acts of mercy and salvation. Each time Israel celebrates the feast of Passover, for example, the event of the liberation from Egypt becomes a reality today: the liberator God is still present and active in the midst of his faithful people.
All the more so, since Jesus is risen from the dead and thus alive for ever, can it be said that his presence never deserts the community of his disciples. He is present as the Crucified One who is simultaneously the Risen Lord, a reality marvelously expressed in the Book of Revelation by the image of a Lamb, slain yet standing in the middle of God’s throne (see Revelation 5:6). This presence comes to a climax in the Eucharist, where believers enter into communion with Christ in his passover from death to life.
And since the Easter mystery leads to the gift of the Spirit “without reserve” (see John 3:34), the Eucharist is likewise the presence of the risen Christ who brings us together today around his table in order to send us out as his witnesses on the roads of the world. In the Acts of the Apostles, the life of the first Christians has two aspects which express the beating of its heart: sometimes they are called together into unity and sometimes they are sent out in their turn towards others, to express and to invite to a wider communion. The celebration of the Eucharist includes these two dimensions of call and sending, of gathering and of mission.
Finally, the Eucharist is a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet where all nations will form a single family in God (see Isaiah 25:6-9). During his last supper, did not Jesus say, “Never again will I eat [this Passover] until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 22:16)? By representing this absolute future, the liturgy, “memory of the future,” exists to give us a foretaste here on earth of God’s joy. Thus the celebration of the Eucharist unites past, present and future in an act of disarming simplicity that nourishes our pilgrimage in the steps of Christ, like the manna from heaven for the people of Israel in the wilderness long ago (see John 6:30ff).
Letter from Taizé: 2005/2