Chapter 16: Eucharist and Hope

Before reading this chapter, ask yourself and share with friends: When life gets tough, where do I place my hope? What is the light that I see at the end of the tunnel?

Christ’s Return

In his description of the Last Supper Paul says

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (I Corinthians 11:26)

The hope that the Lord will come again was very strong with Paul and the early Christian communities. In fact, they were quite sure he was coming within their lifetime, but that didn’t happen. Nevertheless, the return of Christ is an important element in the Eucharist. Two of the three acclamations that follow the narrative of the Last Supper proclaim the event with the phrase ‘until you come again’.

Why is Jesus’ coming again important? The return of Jesus will be the fulfilment of all that Jesus taught and the fulfilment of his mission; it will bring God’s kingdom to its completion. In the fullness of the kingdom that Jesus preached so ardently lie all our hopes for death to sorrow, death to misery, an end to unfairness, discrimination, hatred and violence – in sum, our hopes for an end to all the woes of humanity. In their place we will rise into love, peace, joy, tranquillity and the full potential of our human lives. This will be the ultimate death and resurrection event for us.

Paul found hope in this belief when he was being tried.

I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead. (Acts 23:6)

We too can find similar hope when we have our trials, when there is an end to a relationship, unexpected death of a child or loss of a job. In these situations the wonderful quality of hope helps us to persevere – a light appears at the end of the tunnel of darkness.

… so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints …   (Ephesians 1:18)

When we place our hope in Christ’s coming, this hope doesn’t have to be in Jesus’ coming in glory to the whole world – this could be thousands or millions of years away. Jesus comes again and again into our personal lives in various ways. He always comes to us when we ask him in prayer, but sometimes he comes unexpectedly without our even asking him. He takes the initiative as some of the witness stories describe.

No Boundaries to Christian Hope

There are so many times that Paul encourages us to hope it is difficult to make a choice of quotes, but this is one that I like so much that I had it in my ordination booklet:

May the God of hope bring you such joy and peace in your faith that the power of the Holy Spirit will remove all bounds to hope. (Romans 15:13, Jerusalem Bible translation)

There are times when we can be in such severe distress we just seem to be stretching hope too far to imagine how we can be rescued. We think, ‘Surely I can’t hope to get out of this mess, it’s too much to hope for’. But Paul says the Holy Spirit can remove all boundaries to hope. Hope cannot be fenced in, it stretches to the very edges of the cosmos.

It is when we participate consciously and actively in the Eucharist that we come closest to ‘Christ Jesus our hope’. (I Timothy 1:1)

As the sacrament of hope, the Eucharist is a sacred symbol of vital importance to the Christian community and to our contemporary world. It is a sign of God’s coming reign and of the promised transformation of all things. It looks toward a future in hope and with confidence that the victorious death and resurrection of Christ make a definitive difference and will bring all creation to perfect fulfilment. (Paul Vu Chi Hy SSS, Towards a Constructive Retrieval of the Eschatological Dimension of the Eucharist, in Australian Ejournal of Theology, August 2004, p.6)

This aspiration is echoed in the Eucharistic Prayer for Children III as used in the 1973 translation:

One day he (Jesus) will come in glory and in his kingdom there will be no more suffering, no more tears, no more sadness.

When we attend the Eucharist, it is very helpful to be sensitive to the presence of the other participants who are also wounded by the tragedies of life. The woundedness of some of them would almost certainly be more serious than mine; my life would not be the most tragic in the congregation.

I sympathised once with a man who was on crutches. He replied cheerfully, “There’s always someone worse off than me!”  This awareness of the pain of others brings with it a solidarity which can be very comforting. I can say to myself, “I’m standing here in pain with others who are also in pain, and I share their hope that this pain will be dissolved in the pain of Jesus’ suffering.” In his agony Jesus prayed,

Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done. (Luke 22:42)

And from the cross Jesus prayed,

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46)

Not only are we in solidarity with others who are in pain, we are in solidarity with Jesus who suffered though he had done no wrong. This can be a source of immense comfort for us and a very good reason for us to be full of hope for the future.

Christ is present as hope’s food and drink. (Tony Kelly, The Bread of God: Nurturing a Eucharistic Imagination, quoted by Paul Vu, p.3)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church corroborates this:

In an ancient prayer the Church acclaims the mystery of the Eucharist: “O sacred banquet in which Christ is received as food, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the soul is filled with grace and a pledge of life to come is given to us”. If the Eucharist is the memorial of the Passover of the Lord Jesus, if by our communion at the altar we are filled “with every heavenly blessing and grace” (Eucharistic Prayer I) then the Eucharist is also an anticipation of the heavenly glory. (No. 1402)

At Mass we are in the foyer of heaven, just a step away from the real thing.

John Paul II gives the same message:

Those who feed on Christ in the Eucharist need not wait until the hereafter to receive eternal life: they already possess it on earth, as the first fruits of a future fullness which will embrace man in his totality. For in the Eucharist we also receive the pledge of our bodily resurrection at the end of the world:    “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day”. (John 6:54)  This pledge of the future resurrection comes from the fact that the flesh of the Son of Man, given as food, is his body in its glorious state after the resurrection. With the Eucharist we digest, as it were, the “secret” of the resurrection. (Pope John Paul II, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 18)

Hope is Communal

There is something essentially communal about the human person. We only discover our true self in relationship to others. We grow in our humanity by interacting with other humans, through friendship, through team work, even through disputing with others. Through these interactions we discover how we stand in relationship to other people. As we grow, a clearer picture emerges of who we are by the way others react to the things we do or say, and we discover the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

An isolated person is a contradiction in terms, just as an essentially unrelated, self-contained, self-focused subject or the “solitary ego” is incompatible with both the human and Christian experiences of hope. By its very nature hope involves a consciousness of communion. (Paul Vu, p.11)

Those who cannot relate to others are in danger of becoming ‘loners’. Very often it is ‘loners’ who perpetrate our most atrocious crimes such as serial killing. Perhaps their loneliness becomes so extreme that they have a desperate need to make some contact with other people, and not having developed any social skills, the only way they know how to relate to others is by violence. Part of our growing to maturity is to learn sufficient social skills so that we avoid becoming ‘loners’.

This may be a problem for those with an introverted temperament in today’s Western world which places a heavy emphasis on being ‘outgoing’, being ‘popular’, being a ‘party person’. The reflective temperament of the introvert is not sufficiently recognised today in the Western world, and these people may avoid company altogether and run the danger of becoming hurt and bitter ‘loners’.

The Eucharist, being a community event, helps us to develop community awareness and encourages us to reach out to those who are standing apart. Cardinal Newman said a great treasure is lost when we do not allow ‘heart to speak to heart.’

See Ken’s Story.

Danger of Individualism

Community is at risk today in our culture because of the extreme individualism that is promoted. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find volunteers for community activities. For about three years I was a member of the local Neighbourhood Watch, a very valuable community program encouraging people to be alert to any threat to other neighbours. We tried very hard to get new members but finally the group ceased to be active.

One of our most urgent tasks in the Church is to recover the consciousness that we are celebrating Eucharist as a community. Together we form the body of Christ receiving the same food and drink from the same table, as I have stressed elsewhere. If you are having a meal with others, you talk with them, share your stories. It would be a bizarre meal if everyone ate in silence, each one focussing on his own food.

However this silence tends to be what happens in shelters for the homeless. They do not talk to each other while they eat. Very often these are people who have not learned how to relate to others and it is this insularity that contributes to their being both homeless and out of work. The inability to share conversation during a meal is a symptom of not knowing how to form relationships.

Sometimes these people are cruelly called ‘hopeless’. However, there is some truth in the assertion, unkind though it is, because they are often people who have given up hope or have never had the opportunity to acquire the wonderful virtue of hope. They are without hope. Along with faith and charity, hope is a gift. Those who have the gift must thank God for it from the depths of their hearts as they have a very precious possession and one of the essential ingredients of a healthy spirituality.

If things seem increasingly hopeless in these crazy, nasty and tragic times, it may be because the time of hope is still yet to come. Hope is nocturnal in a sense; it can best be seen in the dark and things may need to get darker – as I’m sure they will – before we begin to discover hope’s creative genius. (Michael Leunig, The Age, December 30, 2006)

The Eucharist is essentially a community activity. In fact, a priest is forbidden to celebrate Mass alone. In the Eucharistic prayers, it is always ‘we’ and ‘us’, never ‘I’ and ‘me’.

Therefore,  as we celebrate the memorial of his Death and Resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the Bread of Life and the Chalice of Salvation, giving thanks that you have held us worthy . . . (Eucharistic prayer II)

The greeting of peace reinforces the idea that we are not celebrating alone; we celebrate as a parish community of brothers and sisters.

It’s unfortunate that some people attend Mass and avoid any contact with other parishioners. I once visited two adult blood sisters who lived together, never missed Sunday Mass but never spoke to anyone or got involved in any parish activities. I encouraged them to attend the Annual General Meeting which was coming up soon. One of them replied in a tone of horror, “Oh no, Father, we might get elected to a committee or something.” They kept their religion strictly to themselves as a private matter. They ‘went to Church’ every Sunday but did they participate in the Eucharist?   Unfortunately, this is a common attitude today. It was not so in the early Church.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

Vatican II says

Christ left to his followers a pledge of this hope and food for the journey in the sacrament of faith, in which natural elements, the fruits of man’s cultivation, are changed into His glorified Body and Blood, as a supper of brotherly fellowship and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. (Gaudium et Spes, 38)

Hope is more easily sustained when we are part of a viable group which shares ‘the Bread of Life and the Chalice of blessing’ (Eucharistic Prayer for Various Needs), a fellowship where love for one another is a reality and is cherished.

Hope is an essential element in our spirituality and is fostered through active participation in the parish Eucharist.

(Reproduced by courtesy of the artist Michael Leunig)

Chapter 17: Eucharist and Ecumenism