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APRIL 17, 2014: HOLY THURSDAY Eucharist of the Lord's Supper


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

One of the obstacles to understanding the true significance of tonight's celebration revolves around our Catholic belief in Jesus' "generic" presence in the Blessed Sacrament. We presume the only thing necessary for Jesus to become present in the Eucharistic bread and wine is for a properly ordained priest to say the exact prescribed words over the correct elements in the context of a valid Mass. Once that event takes place, Jesus is present in the bread and wine until those elements cease to be bread and wine. Like most of you, I was taught as a child that the biggest difference between Catholic churches and Protestant churches was the presence of Jesus in the tabernacles of the former. That's why we boys - almost under pain of venial sin -were expected to tip our hats when we passed any Catholic church.

But it wasn't always that way.

Those who visit Rome's oldest churches discover they originally had no tabernacles. At most, some might have a little compartment close to the main door in which some of the consecrated bread was kept for those who would carry it to the community's sick or imprisoned. But not only are those compartments in out of the way places, there's normally no space around them for the faithful to gather for prayer or adoration.

Shortly before his death, Karl Rahner stated his conviction that the earliest Christians believed Jesus was only present in the Eucharistic bread and wine for as long as the community was present. Though this well-known theologian never denied Jesus' presence in our churches' tabernacles long after the Eucharistic celebration ends, he became convinced that such a belief only became widespread centuries after Jesus' death and resurrection. Our Christian sacred authors seem not to have known about it.

That's one of the reasons Paul and John wrote tonight's second and third readings. Each presumes the risen Jesus only becomes present when those who celebrate the Eucharist recognize his presence in one another. They were much more concerned with recognizing than with rituals.

Of course, there's a problem in experiencing the risen Jesus in one another: it often takes a death to pull that off. The wealthy in Corinth, for instance, had no difficulty surfacing Jesus in the well-to-do members of the community who brought food and drink to the pot-luck Eucharistic meal. On the other hand, they were blind to that same presence in the community's "free-loading" poor and slaves who could contribute little or nothing to the celebration. That's why the Apostle is forced to remind his readers, "As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes." In other words, "This meal is only for those - like Jesus - who are willing to die enough to themselves to become completely one with everyone around them." No death; no Jesus.

Forty years later, John's Jesus addresses the same basic problem. Some of his Last Supper followers, personified by Peter, refuse to give themselves over to serving all in the community, especially in situations when, like Jesus, they're not in total control of that service. No wonder Jesus informs the leader of his community, "It's my way or the highway!"

Only one of our three Last Supper traditions (Mark) places the event in the context of a Passover meal, Paul or John don't. Those who follow their Eucharistic theology, eventually discover that if we're to experience the freedom our covenant with Jesus provides, it's a freedom that comes only to those willing to die to themselves during their participation in the Lord's Supper. If they don't buy into that theology, they'd better stick to worshipping Jesus in the tabernacle.