Sister Margaret Scott (see previous post) skillfully weaves the liturgy of the Easter Vigil (a lot of liturgy and a lot of scripture) into an example in the Roman Catholic tradition (and some Protestant traditions) of how the Eucharistic meal reflects the covenants God has made with God’s people through Israel and Jesus the Christ. In the original covenant with Moses, the third reading of the vigil from Exodus 14.15-15.1, God presents a new social order “characterized a way of life based on right relationships with God and with others” (Scott, 36). Scott calls this a “contrast society.” She suggests that this new covenant and social order forced the community to talk about issues of justice, especially in regard to the defenseless and marginalized (Scott, 35).
In the Abrahamic covenant, as in the Mosaic covenant, the people are blessed by God, but only so that they, in turn, may be a blessing to others, “to reflect God’s compassion,” as Sr. Scott puts it: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6.8).
These ancient Hebrew stories come alive in the Eucharist as we receive the bread and share in the cup. Sr. Scott suggests, and I am inclined to agree that, the Eucharist is an act of practicing the lived new social order revealed to Moses, Abraham, and many of the mothers and fathers of our faith, and that was most clearly and truly embodied in the person of Jesus. He bucked the systems of the standard social orders of first century Palestine under Roman Rule. Though more ritually exemplified in the Last Supper, Jesus’ entire life was a Eucharistic embodiment of God’s ongoing and renewed covenant with us. As Pope John Paul II wrote: the eucharistic celebration is a “project of solidarity for all humanity.” (Scott, 38). Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church, and many other denominations and churches, believe it is only through their celebration of the sacrament, to the exclusion of all others (more on this later).
If the Eucharist is a lived covenant between God and God’s people, some questions come to my mind. For instance: Why, then, does the Church put limits on who can share in the meal? The Roman Catholic Church states that only confirmed members can receive. The Presbyterian Church (USA), my denomination, states that only those previously baptized can share in the meal (though there is a paper approved by our General Assembly that opens the door a bit more on this restriction). Further, most Christian denominations restrict who can administer (ordained clergy) or serve (ordained elders and deacons) the sacrament. Further, if the covenant and Eucharistic practice is to be the new context of our lives, why is only bread and wine/grape juice allowed to be used? Why not use staples of the culture within which the meal is being shared (e.g., rice and Saki, crackers and apple juice, and even potato chips and soda—I know, not the healthiest) or a veggie platter and pomegranate juice)?
If the Eucharist is a gift from God for all people, who can we put any restrictions on it? From the gospels and Paul’s letters we get the idea that the early church had many different practices around Eucharist. Why do so many denominations and churches try to streamline and singularize it?
I do realize the challenge all this might pose to maintaining the traditional context of the early Christian meals (Acts 2.43-47) and the meals of Jesus (including the Last Supper, but not exclusively) that gave rise to our contemporary practice. And there is the issue of maintaining the sanctity of the practice and how it shapes our identity as followers in the Way of Jesus. But have we closed the borders and boundaries of our Eucharistic practices too close?
Jesus incarnated/embodied the Word of God, and through meals he invited his disciples (including us) to do the same. As we read in the Gospels, from beginning to end, and throughout scripture, such incarnation is a choice and involves much sacrifice. But, it is for both our own benefit and the benefit of the world. To share in the Eucharist is to have one’s eyes opened to the challenges of inclusive community shaped by God’s covenants with humanity. In North American culture, where individual autonomy is highly valued, such revelation challenges the Church to be a blessing to the world, “even at the risk of losing its life” (PCUSA Book of Order, F-1.03). Doesn’t Eucharist, then, become not only a practice, but a challenge to what it means to be Church?