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MARCH 20, 2008: EUCHARIST OF THE LORD'S SUPPER

Readings: 

Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
I Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-15

There's a good reason the early church chose this day to officially forgive those sinners who had completed their public penance. Everything about tonight's celebration stresses unity. There's no better occasion to again unite those separated from the church with their communities.

We old timers who grew up simply "going to Mass," had to learn after Vatican II what the Eucharist originally meant for Jesus' disciples. Taught to regard the person kneeling next to us as a temptation to sin, we had to go back to Christian basics. Only after our mid-60s reform did we begin to understand the person kneeling next to us was the reason we were celebrating the Lord's Supper. Our common belief that the Mass was an action between God and me, with no distractions permitted, had to be drastically changed.

Paul already challenged that heresy almost 2,000 years ago. In the second half of I Corinthians 11, he angrily confronts that element in his community who tried to ignore those gathered around them during the Eucharist, especially the poor. In the original pot-luck setting of the Lord's Supper, some resented certain people's attainability to bring anything for the pot. They ingeniously informed such people that the meal began at 7:30; while the well-to do gathered at 7:00. "When you meet . . . it is not to eat the Lord's Supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his or her own supper. One goes hungry while another gets drunk."

It's against this individualistic background of the "Mass" that the Apostle reminds his community, "As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes."

What makes the Eucharist the _Lord's_ Supper is the determination of those who participate to die deeply enough to themselves to be one with everyone around the table, even the "unworthy." Only then can we validly proclaim Jesus' death.

Paul perfectly sums up the situation: "For those who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment on themselves." In this context, he's not talking about Jesus' "body" in the bread and wine; he's referring to all those participating in the Eucharist, those who, because of their willingness to become one with those around them, have become the body of Christ.

John's Jesus zeroes in on the same Eucharistic dimension in our gospel pericope. The evangelist replaces the Last Supper "words of institution" ("This is my body; this is my blood") with Jesus' servant act of foot washing. He humbly becomes one with his followers, stepping out of his "field of expertise" and serving them in a way that leaves him out of control of the situation. No wonder Peter objects, and no wonder Jesus gives him the "my way or the highway" alternative. Only by serving others through our weakness can we completely become one with those others. Those who refuse to do this can't be Christian in Jesus' definition of the term.

As good Jews, both Paul and Jesus must have often reflected on how Yahweh became one with a ragtag band of runaway slaves 1,200 years before. Every year they heard the words of our first reading as they gathered for Passover. Who would think that the Great God could identify with these Hebrew slaves and free them from the most powerful nation in the Middle-East? That oneness meant freedom for the Chosen People.

In the same way, our oneness with those gathered for the Breaking of Bread is what brings us freedom, the freedom of being Jesus' Chosen People. Though we've long ago given up officially absolving sinners on Holy Thursday, perhaps each of us could ask forgiveness this night for turning the Lord's Supper into an event the Lord wouldn't recognize.