Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B., holds the Katharine Drexel Chair of Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. He is author of over thirty books, including The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary (Hendrickson, 2003).
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THE LORD JESUS ON THE NIGHT WHEN HE WAS BETRAYED TOOK bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body, broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this . . . in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (see 1 Cor 11:24–26). Paul has called his erring Corinthian converts to task by telling them the story of Jesus’ words and actions “on the night when he was betrayed” (v. 23). That same story has been told and retold for almost two thousand years.
Christians have told the eucharistic story, enshrined within the liturgy, in the church’s response to the command of Jesus: “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24, 25). But this story has not only been told in the liturgy. It has been told just as significantly in the lives of Christians who have been prepared to break their own bodies and spill their own blood in a deeply eucharistic way, proclaiming “the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). Rooted in the broken body and the spilt blood of Jesus himself, the Eucharist has always been the story of a body broken for a broken people. This is the aspect of the central mystery of the Christian life that I would like to highlight through the New Testament study that follows. Above all, I wish to show that the Eucharist is the celebrated and lived expression of a love so great that we have never been able to match it.
Such love, however, raises difficult questions about its institutionalization. As a twenty-first-century Christian church looks back upon its history, it must honestly and critically ask whether or not it has lost touch with its founding story. I wish to raise some questions that arise from a contemporary reading of that story. This study has been a long time in the making.
Through my years of teaching the New Testament I have been increasingly surprised by an overwhelming impression that the eucharistic passages in the New Testament proclaim the presence of the love of God, made visible in Jesus, to a broken people. I began to articulate this impression in various lectures from 1986 to 1988. I eventually published some preliminary results of my research into this question in a scholarly article, and the study developed into the first edition of this book, which appeared in 1990. What follows in this revised edition is an attempt to speak to as many people as possible so that they may more deeply appreciate both the beauty and the risk of celebrating Eucharist. Given some of the entrenched traditions that surround the understanding and practice of the Eucharist in many of the established Christian churches, there may be some who find my study uncomfortable. I have no desire to disturb; but we must allow the word of God to be unleashed, to be in the church “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 5:12).
I first look at the place of a critical study of the New Testament material that questions a well-established tradition in the Christian churches (ch. 1). The next chapter (ch. 2) is dedicated to Mark 6: 31–44 and 8:1–10 (the feeding miracles) and Mark14:17– 31 (the Last Supper). My concern is to rediscover what Mark was attempting to say to his community about its celebration of the Eucharist, through his telling of the story of Jesus. Each eucharistic text is set within the wider context of the narrative flow of the Gospel story. I presuppose that we can best find what Mark (or Matthew, Luke, or John) is telling his readers or listeners by looking at the whole story, not merely at the part that appears most immediately relevant to our search for eucharistic thought and practice.
Although they are at first sight very similar, there is need to study Matthew’s retelling of the same stories (Matt 14:13–21 and 15:32–39 [the feeding miracles] and 26:20–35 [the Last Supper]). Matthew’s account is not an unreflective copying of his source, Mark. Attention must be given to Matthew’s pastoral concern for his particular community through his well-considered use of these accounts (ch. 3). Again we must look more widely than the passages themselves, into their narrative contexts.
Chapter 4 is devoted entirely to the Lukan material: Luke 9:10–17 (the feeding miracle), 22:14–38 (the supper), and 24:13–35 (Emmaus), read in close association with the final meal with the eleven apostles (24:36–49). This list itself indicates that Luke has his own way of telling the story of Jesus. He has only one feeding miracle, while Marka nd Matthew both have two. He also adds the story of the walk to Emmaus. This significant narrative is found nowhere else in the New Testament. Luke’s ability to “tell a good story” is reflected in his very personal use of the more traditional material of the feeding miracle and the Last Supper. Careful attention to Luke’s way of telling his story will help us discover his particular point of view.
In his story of Jesus’ last encounter with his disciples the fourth evangelist gives no explicit account of a meal tradition that contains words of institution. Although scholars often dismiss this evangelist’s contribution to eucharistic theology, the important eucharistic teachings in John 6:51c–58 and 19:34 must not be ignored. Through a detailed study of John 13:1–38 (ch. 5) I suggest that while the Eucharist is not at the center of the narrative found in the first section of the Gospel’s last discourse, there is much to learn from John’s use of Jesus’ gift of the morsel on the night he was betrayed.
My final study of a New Testament passage (ch. 6) focuses most of its attention on 1 Cor 11:17–34, a passage that has long been used to distance so-called sinners from the eucharistic table. Especially important, over the centuries, for this end has been 11:27: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” As always in a study of the Pauline literature, however, we must attempt to rediscover the precise situation in the Corinthian church that led Paul to quote from his tradition of the eucharistic words of Jesus himself (see vv. 23–25) in his debate with his converts. This rediscovery will lead us to a consideration of 1 Cor 10:14–22 and its wider context. The practice of the blessing of the cup and the breaking of the bread is used to exhort the Corinthians to a more committed Christian form of life in a pagan world.
Only on the basis of the data I have assembled from the pages of the New Testament itself do I have any right to raise some final questions. Is it possible that the early church’s understanding and practice of sharing the eucharistic table originated in its own experience of meals shared with Jesus? How does the practice of Jesus’ table fellowship relate to the church’s celebration of the Eucharist? At the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church developed a self-description that, I suggest, would be happily shared by all the Christian churches: “clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification” (Lumen Gentium 8). In the light of the practice of Jesus’ own table and the eucharistic practice of the early church revealed to us in the authoritative word of God in the Scriptures, are our contemporary Christian churches still clasping sinners to their bosom? Many pastoral and theological arguments could and should be raised both for and against the issues addressed here. Thus, although I am mainly interested in the questions that the word of God raises, my concluding chapter (ch. 7) will also furnish some final theological reflections and more practical considerations that flow from my analysis of the New Testament texts.
This is not only a book for scholars, even though the footnotes will refer to contemporary scholarship. I have attempted to write it in a way that would be accessible to all people interested in the celebration and the living of the Eucharist in the Christian churches. I am dedicating it to my father, who passed away after a long period of suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. In his brokenness, his gentleness and genuine concern for others was always obvious. As his whole life had been eucharistic, my Christian faith continues to be nourished by the memory of his final sickness, proclaiming the Lord’s death . . . until he comes again.
I would like to record my thanks to a group of fellow scholars and friends who read part or the whole of my work: Brendan Byrne, S.J., Mark Coleridge, Peter Cross, Rod Doyle, C.F.C., Michael FitzPatrick, O.F.M., and Nerina Zanardo, F.S.P. Nerina not only read and reread the first edition of this bookin 1989; she has performed the same task for this edition. I am particularly grateful for the lively interest that Xavier Léon- Dufour, S.J., took in it, despite his many other serious obligations. The enthusiasm of Patrick Alexander of Hendrickson Publishers made this second edition of my study possible. It exists because of his interest. Although I am responsible for all that follows, these people have shown me that the Eucharist is not only ritual; it is life.
Australian Catholic University, Oakleigh, Victoria, Australia