Paul’s Eucharistic Challenge, by Wilfrid Harrington OP
Today we face the crisis scenario of an acute shortage of priests and the resultant deprivation of Eucharist. A look to the new Testament and, specifically, to Paul would suggest that our problem is due, in large measure, to the fact that we have got our priorities wrong. Paul offers a challenge. Facing up to his challenge could transform our understanding of Eucharist and help us find our way through a pastoral crisis.
THE LORD’S SUPPER
Apart from two passages in 1 Corinthians it might seem that Paul knew nothing of the Eucharist — surely a salutary reminder that what we have from Paul are occasional letters by no means giving us his whole theology or the full content of his preaching. At any rate, 1 Cor 11: 23-26 puts beyond doubt that the Lord’s Supper had been part of Christian faith and practice from the start. The passage is the earliest reference in the New Testament to the Eucharist: For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was delivered up took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Paul solemnly passes on a tradition which, because it came to him through an authentically Christian community, had come to him from ’the Lord’. In fact, he is citing an established liturgical text — likely the usage of the church of Antioch. He reminds the Corinthians of this tradition in the course of correcting an abuse in their celebration (11:17-22). The striking feature of the passage 11:23-26 is that Paul does not think of the Eucharist and Christ’s presence in a static manner as might be suggested by the formula ‘This is…’ Instead, the account is full of dynamic expressions. It is no mere making present of Christ’s body and blood — of Christ; it is a proclamation, and a memorial, of his death, of an event. By speaking of ‘body and blood’, that is to say, the self, Jesus is giving himself, and giving himself in death. Paul had grasped the significance of the gift — gift of ‘the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal 1: 20). The death of Jesus is ‘for us’. Similarly, the cup is ‘the new covenant in my blood’, that is, an event, the making of a covenant that has lasting and definitive consequence for the life of the people who are included in the covenant. ‘You proclaim the death of the Lord’: the Supper is the interpretation of the death of Jesus. The Eucharist is anamnesis, a bringing to mind that is a form of presence. The Eucharist is one fulfillment of the promise of the risen Lord: ’Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Mt 28:20).
The command to repeat the action of the Lord. ‘Do this…’ not only binds the community to celebrate the Lord’s Supper regularly and thus keep alive the meaning of the death of Jesus — the nuance is ‘keep on doing this in memory of me’ — but places upon it the obligation to proclaim the redemptive purpose of his death. ’Do this in remembrance of me’: Paul wants to evoke an active remembrance that would make the past present by recall of total commitment to Christ. Significantly, the proclamation of the Lord’s death is in terms of eating and drinking (in practice, an eating from one loaf and a drinking from one cup) that implies a true communion The joining together (‘in the same way’) of the eating of the bread and the drinking from the cup suggests that they constitute a single liturgical gesture in two parts. At any rate it is clear that nothing but love, expressed in warm table-fellowship, can serve to proclaim the meaning of the death of Jesus. It is crystal clear that, for Paul, celebrating the Lord’s Supper regularly is an absolutely essential factor of Christian life and Christian proclamation. A Christian community without Eucharist is unthinkable.
A PROBLEM AT CORINTH
In 1 Corinthians 10:16 Paul had asked, as of something self-evident to Christians: ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The loaf that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?’ Just here lay the Corinthian problem which Paul urgently confronts. The Eucharist had been, from the start, on the model of the Lord’s farewell supper, in the setting of a community meal. It is likely that the Christians of Corinth had adapted the practice of fellowship meals in the Hellenistic world. They would come together for a festive meal at the end of which they performed a ritual recall of what the Lord Jesus had done at his farewell meal on the night before he died, and would then have proceeded to a more general worship service (see 1 Cor 14: 26-32). At Corinth, however, it had become fashionable for the better-off members of the community — they owned ‘homes’ 11: 22, 34) — whose time was their own, to gather beforehand and dine well on lavish provision of food and drink (11:20-21). Later, when the slaves and workers, their labours over, turned up, the Eucharist was celebrated (11: 20-21, 33-34). Or, at least, these ‘second-class’ members had to be content with simpler fare. In Paul’s eyes this was not only a glaring abuse but a perversion of the whole meaning and purpose of the Lord’s Supper. He had previously declared: ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?’(10:16). His emphasis was not just on the one bread and the one cup, but on the sharing of the one loaf and the one cup. It is because, in sharing mode, they partake of the one loaf that the celebrants become ‘one body’ — the Body of Christ: ‘Because of the one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (10:17). The Eucharist was meant to be a bond of unity; in Corinth it had been turned into a wedge dividing haves and have-nots. No wonder that Paul does not commend the Corinthian practice (11: 17, 22).
DISCERNING THE BODY
Because the precise Corinthian situation is ignored, v. 29 has regularly been misinterpreted — ‘For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves.’ Traditionally, the verse has been urged in support of the doctrine of the real presence—the sin being that one fails to distinguish the Eucharist from ordinary food and drink. In point of fact, the ‘real presence’ was not an issue: the Corinthians do presume that they are eating and drinking ‘the body and blood of the Lord’ (11: 27). The point at issue is that what was designed to unify is being abused to divide. The ‘body’ in question in v. 29 is the body of the community (the Body of Christ). The Corinthian celebration is not communion. The sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord is being abused to rend the body of Christ. Paul goes further: ‘When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper’ (11:20). A ‘Lord’s Supper’ that was not a shared meal, that was not a sharing in the one bread and the one cup, was not, in fact, the Lord’s Supper. Even though the ritual words were said (vv. 24-25) the lack of love (vv. 21-22) meant that in reality there was no Eucharist. The essence of Paul’s reaction is that there can be no Eucharist in a community whose members do not love one another. Eucharistic celebration ought to be a manifest witness to unity. Paul’s view that, where such is not the case there is no Eucharist, should make us ponder. Is our eucharistic celebration, our Mass, a manifest sign of unity? Is it, always, truly the Lord’s Supper? Here is one Pauline challenge, There is another.
THE HOUSE CHURCH
In 1 Corinthians Paul addresses the community (’when you [plural] come together’) and not any individual. The Lord’s Supper is a community celebration. The matter of a presider at the celebration is , evidently, not an issue. Elsewhere, Paul has given a hint as to who, in practice, may have presided. In addressing Philemon he refers to ‘the church in your house’ (Phm 2) Twice, in alluding to the wife-husband team of Prisca and Aquila, he mentions ‘the church in their house’ ( 1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:5). In Colossians Paul (or one in his name) sends greetings to ‘Nympha and the church in her house’ (Col 4:15). The house assemblies (‘churches’) were no more than common-sense arrangements. The initial little Christian groups sought to gather for their communal meal and the Lord’s Supper. One member of the community, with a house of appropriate size, would offer hospitality. It is natural to assume that the host, or hostess (e.g. Nympha) would preside at the meal and also, surely, at the Lord’s Supper that was an integral feature of it. We really do not know, of course. Given, however, the reality of the house church, we cannot readily suggest a more credible alternative. It is obvious, at any rate, that community celebration is the essential factor. The role of presider would have been secondary.
A generation or more after Paul, forms of church office had emerged. The pastoral writer, (author of 1 Timothy and Titus) instances the role of episkopos, ‘overseer’ 1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1: 7-9, as well as those of diakonos, male and female (1 Tim 3: 8-13; see Rom 16:1) and of presbyteros, ‘elder’ (Titus 1: 5-6). It is not easy to discern the nature of these offices or where they differ, as they functioned in that generation. It is noteworthy that, in the whole New Testament, the term hiereus, ’priest’, as designation of a community office, is conspicuously absent. At this later stage it is reasonable to suppose that an episkopos would preside at the Lord’s Supper. Yet the Pastoral author, while proposing the unfortunate model of the patriarchal household, is still thinking in terms of household (1 Tim 3: 4-5). It is not irrelevant to observe that an absolute requirement of any aspirant to the office of episkopos and diakonos is that they be married (1 Tim 3: 4-5, 12). On the other hand, there clearly could be no office requirement which, in any fashion, curtailed community celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
FROM PAUL TO TODAY
I think back to a time close to the opening of Vatican II: the precise date escapes me. I listened to Bernard Haring being interviewed on radio. Already, in some areas, Christian communities were without Eucharist because no priest was available. Haring was asked what he thought of the situation. His reply was direct and uncompromising: ‘The people of God have a God-given right to the Eucharist. On the basis of human law, to deprive the People of God of the Eucharist is, objectively, gravely sinful.’ The interviewer, obviously taken aback, repeated the question. Haring firmly repeated his answer. Because of the repetition, I recall his words with total clarity and they have stuck with me. The ‘human law’ involved is, of course, the mandatory requirement of celibacy — more precisely the requirement of maleness and celibacy. Increasingly, today, Christian communities are bereft of the Eucharist. It is true that mandatory celibacy is not the only reason for an acute shortage of priests — but it is a serious factor. The basic need is for a change of emphasis. In Paul’s time, and after, the Lord’s Supper was truly a community celebration; the emphasis was firmly on the community. Later, and very much so today, the focus has shifted to the presider at the Eucharist. This is so much the case that, in the Roman church, where there is not a male celibate celebrant (unless one had, formerly, been a married Anglican priest!) there can be no Eucharist. A fundamental Christian right is being infringed. We must return to this right of the community to the Eucharist, as at the beginning of the Church, as witnessed, emphatically, by Paul. We must not continue to look exclusively to the presider at the Eucharist. Otherwise, the present state of deprivation will persist and worsen. In our current grave and unacceptable situation, pious exhortation to Eucharistic devotion rings hollow without our taking active steps to ensure that the community’s right to the Eucharist is fully honoured.