Unity through the Eucharist

Father John A. Kiley

The Gospel accounts of SS. Matthew, Mark, and Luke as well as a Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians all relate the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday in words that today are echoed almost exactly during the consecration portion of every Catholic Mass. “This is my Body…This is the chalice of my Blood…” So indeed it is interesting, in fact, instructive, that St. John, who otherwise devotes six full chapters to the Last Supper, should omit the solemn words of consecration. Well, the words might not be found on John’s text but the significance of the Eucharist is indeed revealed there. In 2004 the Apostolic Letter Mane Nobiscum Domine (Stay with us, Lord) by Pope St. John Paul II was published in hope of increasing the Catholic Church’s appreciation and understanding of the Holy Eucharist. In that letter the Holy Father wrote, “It is not by chance that the Gospel of John contains no account of the institution of the Eucharist, but instead relates the “washing of feet” (cf. Jn 13:1-20). By bending down to wash the feet of his disciples, Jesus explains the meaning of the Eucharist unequivocally.”
In washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus announced vividly and powerfully that he was the servant of them all. Donning the apron and placing the wash basin at their feet, he declared himself to be one with them. He preferred not to be their master, their lord, even their teacher. He wanted to be their servant; he wanted to place himself at their disposal, eradicating any semblance of superiority or dominance. Christ truly wanted to be a brother to this group of fishermen, rural folk, a tax collector, and even a traitor. The Eucharist, accordingly, is always about such oneness: then, Jesus with his disciples; now, Christians with one another through Jesus. St. John could not have revealed the Eucharist as the sacrament of unity any clearer.
Pope St. John Paul II confirms this illustration that the Eucharist bespeaks communion and camaraderie again by citing the words of St. Paul. The Pontiff wrote, “Saint Paul vigorously reaffirms the impropriety of a Eucharistic celebration that lacks charity as expressed by a practical sharing with the poor (1Cor 11:17-34).” The Apostle scolds those Christians who gladly receive the sacramental Body of Christ in the Eucharist but rudely neglect the Mystical Body of Christ found in the poor. Oneness with Christ through the Sacred Species demands oneness with Christ through charity, service, and benevolence toward the neighbor.
The Pope clearly appreciates the powerful lesson of unity revealed by Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet and he believes that this humble act of washing at the first Eucharist was indeed an instruction on the unity that Christ intends as a fruit of every Eucharistic celebration. St. John Paul II further teaches that Church unity was emphasized not only by the washing of the feet but also by the very nature of that final repast itself. The Pope writes in the same letter: “There is no doubt that the most evident dimension of the Eucharist is that it is a meal. The Eucharist was born, on the evening of Holy Thursday, in the setting of the Passover meal. Being a meal is part of its very structure. “Take, eat... Then he took a cup and... gave it to them, saying: Drink from it, all of you” (Mt 26:26, 27). As such, it expresses the fellowship which God wishes to establish with us and which we ourselves must build with one another.” Oneness through the washing of their feet; fellowship through the sharing of their Eucharistic meal. The lesson is obvious!
On this Solemnity of Christ, King of the Universe, the Church’s liturgy has chosen to highlight that other great unifier, King David. The first reading instructs, “King David made an agreement with them there before the LORD, and they anointed him king of Israel (2Sm.5:3).” The son of Jesse was the first monarch to rule over all twelve tribes of Israel from the capital city of Jerusalem. The ancient Jews looked to David as their hero and the Jews in Jesus’ time hoped that Christ might follow David uniting them once again in a free Israel. In the New Testament, Jesus is compared to David the unifier more than to any other Old Testament figure. St. Paul also celebrates Christ today as unifier in his words to the Colossians: “In him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church…For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things.” Indeed the work of Jesus was unity: unity with God and unity with one another. The Eucharist continues this work of Jesus, unifying mankind with God through the Church’s sacramental life and unifying mankind with one another through the Church’s liturgical and parochial life.