One of my earlier books was denied an imprimatur (back in the days when that was deemed essential) because I had not said that the Mass was a sacrifice. Not that I denied it, mind you, only that I was focusing on the meal aspect of Eucharist. The emphasis on the Mass as a meal that followed Vatican II, though, was regarded with suspicion by some, as if doing so denigrated from the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist.
What cannot be denied, however, is that the Eucharist was instituted at a meal. We do call it the Last Supper, after all. “While they were eating,” we are told by Mark and Matthew. “When the hour came, he took his place at the table,” we read from Luke. Saint Paul adds the injunction that shapes our Eucharists today: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes again” (1 Corinthians 11:26). These are meals that are being referred to.
Indeed, nothing seems more obvious than the reality of the meal dimension on the Mass. It is celebrated at a table lined with a tablecloth; there is a plate and a cup; there is bread and wine. The climax of the Mass is when the congregation comes forward to share that bread and wine in memory of Christ. Those are all elements of what we do at meals.
There are a number of consequences that follow on a deeper appreciation of the meal aspect of the Eucharist. One of the most important is that it puts a lot more emphasis on the fact that this is a family meal. We are not at Mass simply as individuals alone with Christ. We gather as members of his body. We are sisters and brothers of Christ. What makes it difficult to appreciate this today is that we live (at least here in America) in a fast-food society. In fast-food restaurants, the most important thing is not the people, it is the food — to be eaten as quickly as possible. They are not places of social encounter. A boy would not take his girlfriend there to propose to her.
When we think of meals in a eucharistic context, the best comparison would be with a festive meal, one celebrated at home for Thanksgiving or Christmas or some other important occasion. There, the most significant thing is the people gathered there. These meals last a long time. There is much conversation (very loud at times), people are not checking their cell phones, and the meal can last well past an hour. Reflecting on meals like this months, or even years, later, our memories tend to focus on the people who were there, the conversation, the friendship shared, etc. Exactly what we ate may even be forgotten. If there has been a falling out with someone, the mere fact of inviting that person to a meal is a sign of forgiveness and love. Meals are important for more than sustaining life.
I mention this because I am convinced that we cannot truly appreciate the Mass unless we appreciate meals. The central Catholic action has always been a sacramental meal. Indeed, in the earliest days of the church the Eucharist regularly took place as part of a full meal. It is obviously a sacrificial meal as well. But the emphasis I insist on here is that it is a meal. Catholic culture was formed at the family table as well as at the table of the altar. There is a reciprocal relationship here. This means that the focus is not only on eating and drinking, but on eating and drinking well. Hence the emphasis in this issue of Emmanuel on various aspects of meals. As I stated earlier, we cannot fully appreciate the Eucharist if we do not appreciate meals.
Paul Bernier, SSS
Emmanuel Editorial Board Member