By Art Laffin
Throughout my faith journey and ministry of service and peacemaking, the Eucharist has helped to sustain me and compelled me to act. Moreover, the Eucharist has enabled me to endure difficult life situations: State-sanctioned killing; standing with people in war zones in Central America and Iraq crying out for peace; assisting poverty victims, including kids dying from hunger; being imprisoned for acts of peacemaking; being assaulted; and coping with the sickness and death of loved ones. As I have experienced the tragic murder of my brother, Paul, and the death of my father this past year, the Eucharist has been an especially important source of strength for me.
I am forever indebted to my parents for introducing me to, and teaching me the importance of, the Eucharist. As an altar boy, and then a high school student at LaSalette Seminary, the Mass was central in my upbringing. While I didn’t completely fathom all that went on, I always felt renewed by the Eucharist. My appreciation of the Eucharist deepened when I lived at L’Arche in France in 1977, and as I met and prayed with many followers of Jesus, including those from Puerto Rican and African American communities, from Central America, from Jonah House, the Atlantic Life Community, the Catholic Worker, and with those of other communities and parishes with whom I have been involved. I am deeply grateful to all who have shown me the transforming power of the Eucharist.
One friend who helped me more fully appreciate the Eucharist, and the importance of living a eucharistic life, was the late Fr. Henri Nouwen. Whenever I attended the Eucharist Henri celebrated with us at the Covenant of Peace Community in New Haven or elsewhere, it was a sacred time. He had a great gift of breaking open the Scriptures, of relating God’s infinite love for us, and of conveying the vital need to root our lives in Jesus. Henri often reminded us that Eucharist means “act of thanksgiving.” For Henri, the Eucharist was a time to praise the God of all history, to celebrate Jesus’ life and to pray for the strength to follow him. In With Burning Hearts, Henri writes: “It is this intense desire of God to enter into the most intimate relationship with us that forms the core of the eucharistic celebration and eucharistic life. God not only wants to enter human history by becoming a person who lives in a specific epoch and country, but God wants to become our daily food and drink at any time and in any place… Communion is what God wants and what we want. It is the deepest cry of God and our heart…”
I have come to see the Eucharist as a kairos moment—an occasion for God to break into our history anew, a time of infinite grace, and an opportunity for radical conversion. In the eucharistic liturgy we renew our relationship with God, our Creator, and with Jesus Christ, our Savior. We also become united with the entire Body of Christ, past and present. In the Eucharist our whole faith as Christians is defined and expressed. We praise God in word and song. We beg God’s mercy for personal and collective sins, and pledge to convert our lives to the Gospel. Inspired by the Scriptures, we declare our trust in God and renounce all idolatry. We pray for God’s intercession for the church, the world and ourselves, and for the sick and all who have suffered and died. We invoke the entire cloud of witnesses and give thanks for the martyrs, saints, and all our ancestors in faith.
This sacred liturgy culminates with the celebrant’s proclamation which Jesus offered at the Last Supper, whereby bread and wine are consecrated and become Jesus’ body and blood. We then receive the body and blood of Jesus—the spiritual food that nourishes our soul, and which serves as a constant reminder for us to give our life in love as Jesus did.
To partake of the Eucharist is a gift beyond measure. This sacred meal satisfies our deepest hunger and transforms our hearts. By coming to Jesus, to be nourished by his life and Gospel, we find the ultimate meaning for our lives. For Jesus is our true food and drink. Jesus declares in John’s Gospel: “I am the bread of life. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry…Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him…
Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” Thus, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we thank Jesus for the gift of His life, for the new gift He has given to us, for showing us the way to gain eternal life. In the face of my own sinfulness, sorrow, and struggles, I am continually thankful for the healing love and new life I receive from Jesus in the Eucharist.
It is important to remember that Jesus did not offer the Eucharist in a problem free setting. Jesus celebrates the first Eucharist with a struggling community about to abandon Him on the eve of His execution. In the midst of betrayal and denial, He shows the depths of His love by offering His body and His blood to His disciples. Jesus loves us so much He offers to us, regardless of our betrayals and denials, His own body and blood. Jesus offers us His all embracing love in the Eucharist. He invites us to take up our cross and follow Him, even to Jerusalem.
In the Eucharist Jesus also presents a challenge: can you drink the cup of suffering? In The Risk of the Cross, my two co-authors and I reflected on how at the Last Supper, Jesus, the Suffering Servant, prepares His disciples and all believers for the road to Calvary. He reveals the imminent persecution He would endure by sharing with them crushed wheat and grapes. In offering the bread and wine, Jesus anticipates His being crushed to become the blood of the new Passover covenant He declared: “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant, to be poured out on behalf of many.” Jesus assures us of the salvation He will gain: “Never again will I drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new in the reign of God.” In offering the Eucharist to His disciples on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Jesus reenacts the Passover story. He inaugurates a new Passover through sharing the Eucharist in the shadow of the cross. Jesus is the deliverer of the new Passover. To receive this new Passover meal is to accept suffering and the cross as our means of true liberation.
During the Eucharist we declare: “Lord, by Your cross and resurrection You have made us free. You are the Savior of the world!” Through His cross and resurrection, Jesus has forever overcome the powers of this world and freed us from the forces of sin and death! This marks the turning point in human history. Everything has now changed! Jesus has inaugurated God’s reign—He has established a new era of justice and nonviolence. Thus, in the Eucharist, we celebrate God’s reign which Jesus has ushered in. And we pray for the grace to let go of our fears, make whatever sacrifices God requires of us and be transformed into the people who live and proclaim God’s reign. If we remain faithful, Jesus assures us that we will endure the cup of suffering. For with God, all things are possible!
Jesus invites us to live the Eucharist without counting the cost. To live the Eucharist as Jesus did requires that we become servants of one another and that we see and treat every person as a child of God. We were all created by God—thus we are all part of God. Therefore, any act of violence against another person is an act of violence against God. In a time of unprecedented violence and killing, when all life is imperiled by weapons of mass destruction, Jesus calls us anew to practice Eucharistic love.
Eucharistic love requires that not only can we not kill, but that we must resist all killing. It requires that we uphold the sacredness of all life and adopt a consistent life ethic. Eucharistic love requires that we disarm our hearts and all our weapons, abolish war, and resolve all conflicts nonviolently. It requires that we protect the environment, simplify our lifestyle, share our resources, end the violence of poverty, end the genocidal sanctions against Iraq, cancel the Third World debt and declare Jubilee. Eucharistic love requires us to risk breaking the laws of an unjust system that sanctions war preparations, military intervention and arms sales, economic injustice and corporate exploitation, the killing of the unborn and those on death row, racism and sexism. It requires that we risk the cross and show the same forgiving love that Jesus showed his murderers.
To practice forgiveness is a difficult thing, especially when it involves acts of violence against ourselves or those we love. But this is what Jesus asks us to do. Thus, following my brother’s murder at the homeless shelter where he ministered, my mother, other family members and I sought to follow Jesus’ example and called on everyone to pray for, and show mercy to the mentally ill homeless man charged with stabbing Paul. I have since experienced the reconciling love of Jesus as I have prayed at Sunday Eucharist with several members of his family. I continue to pray that one day he will come to know God’s forgiving love.
In the Eucharist we experience Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We declare ourselves to be people of the cross, who stand with and for victims, and who practice a resurrection faith. Hence, the Eucharist becomes the basis for incarnational theology where we express our commitment, individually and as communities of faith, to proclaim God’s reign by making the Word become flesh. Thus, the works of mercy, acting for peace and justice, and all that we do for the sake of the Gospel, are genuine proclamations of the Eucharist.
Henri Nouwen sums up well the meaning and the transforming power of the Eucharist: “Communion with Jesus means becoming like Him. With Him we are nailed to the cross, with Him we are laid in the tomb, with Him we are raised up to accompany lost travelers on the journey. Communion, becoming Christ, leads us to a new realm of being. It ushers us into the kingdom… There we belong to Christ and Christ to us, and with Christ we belong to God. Suddenly the two disciples who ate the bread and recognized Him are alone again, but not with the aloneness with which they began their journey. They are alone, together, and know that a new bond has been created between them. They no longer look at the ground with downcast faces. They look at each other and say; ‘Did our hearts not burn when He talked with us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?'”
We realize what it means to know and follow Jesus, and to love each other in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup. It is this communion with Jesus, the loving companionship with family, friends and community, and the inspiring Gospel witness of countless people that has helped me to endure difficult life-challenges. I am thankful to God for providing me with resources I didn’t know I had to draw on in times of great pain and sorrow. I am especially grateful for the Eucharist which, I believe, is an essential spiritual wellspring that can constantly sustain us and transform us into eucharistic people.
Art Laffin is a member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker community in Washington, DC.
Reprinted from The Little Way, newspaper of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, Washington D.C., Fall 2000.