Blog di FORMAZIONE PERMANENTE MISSIONARIA – Uno sguardo missionario sulla Vita, il Mondo e la Chiesa MISSIONARY ONGOING FORMATION – A missionary look on the life of the world and the church
The word covenant occurs 286 times in the Old Testament. This gives an idea of the importance that Israel has given to this institution. She used it as an image to express her relationship with the Lord. But what does it mean to make a covenant with God?
Talking about bilateral contract is approximate and even misleading. The first covenant, stipulated with Noah and, through him, the whole of humanity and “with every living animal, birds, cattle, all living creatures of the earth that came out of the ark” (Gen 9:8-11) was one-sided. The Lord alone took on commitments and demanded nothing in return. He promised that there would be no more flood waters, though he knew that man would continue to be unfaithful, “because man’s heart is set on evil from childhood” (Gen 8:21).
He called Abraham from Mesopotamia to give him a land though Abraham had done nothing to deserve this gift. He was only asked to believe in gratuitous love. To convince him, God made a covenant with him and sanctioned it with a ritual (Gen 15). The patriarch did not have to be afraid. He would come into possession of the land, because the covenant of the Lord was inviolable. It was founded on his word, solemnly confirmed by an oath.
The gratuitousness and unilateral commitment characterize the covenants of God. Throughout its turbulent history, Israel maintained its memory and, even in the most dramatic moments, she never lost hope. She was aware that the predilection of the Lord for her would never have come less. She could have sinned as long as she wanted, the Lord would not have revoked his covenant, because, without asking anything in return, he promised to bless his people. The covenants of God are contractual; they are pure grace.
Yet the Lord expects an answer from man. He does not ask him to sign a deal, but to accept his proposal of mutual belonging, as it happens between the groom and the bride. The Eucharist… is the exchange of rings.
Reading the first part of the passage (vv. 12-16), one feels the approach of a dramatic moment. One senses that Jesus and the group of disciples move with caution because they are in danger due to hatred and threats of the high priests. They are in Bethany and, to celebrate the Passover, they must go to Jerusalem, the only place where they can eat the lamb. There is a sign of recognition, agreed—it seems—by Jesus with the owner of a house. It is located in the upper part of the city, where the rich people live. This particular sign accentuates the aura of mystery surrounding the whole scene. Two disciples precede the group to prepare, on the top floor of the house, a large hall for dinner.
To get the message that the evangelist wants to convey, we must go beyond what, at first glance, seems a simple stenographic transcript. The first noted detail is that the initiative to celebrate the Passover does not come from Jesus, but from the disciples (v. 12). They are the ones who want to remember the deliverance from Egypt, liberation which began their history. They cannot imagine what will happen that very night during dinner. As representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel they will be involved in the new Passover.
A second particular: the one in-charge of accompanying the disciples in the banquet hall is a servant who performs a service reserved for women. It is not a trivial detail, but the sign of the change of social relations. It is the perception of this reversal that leads his disciples toward the place of the feast, the one in which Jesus is about to begin. One who sees people in a different way, who is guided by the surprising signs given by Christ, enters the banquet hall: the rich who become poor, the great who choose to become small, people who take the imposed menial services, until then, done by women.
Even the accurate description of the room is important. It is spacious because it is intended to accommodate many people. It is located on the top, like the mountain on whose top echoed the word of the Lord (Ex 24:1-4). It is furnished with sofas, so that everyone who comes in, even if poor, unfortunate or slave, acquires freedom. These details clearly allude to the Lord’s Supper celebrated in the Christian communities.
Evening comes and the Twelve meet with Jesus to eat the paschal lamb. They think of celebrating their liberation from Egypt and the Sinai covenant. They become, instead, witnesses of the new covenant foretold by the prophets and they receive the true Lamb as food.
In the second part (vv. 22-26) we approach with trepidation because it is the liturgical text used in the early Christian communities for the celebration of the Eucharist. It is the text composed in the early years of the church and conserved for us by Mark, author of the first gospel.
In the story there is no allusion to the Jewish Passover. The Twelve who prepared the lamb see the Jewish Passover meal transformed into the dinner of Jesus in the Eucharistic banquet.
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 22). So far nothing new compared to the traditional rite. As head of the table, Jesus prayed before the distribution of bread: “Be praised, O Lord, our God, king of the world, for you let bread spring from the earth.”
The invitation directed to his disciples is a bit unusual: “Take this and eat” and, above all, the value attributed to the bread, “This is my body,” that is, “It’s me.”
The disciples are able to understand the meaning of the gesture and words. The Master’s whole life is a gift. He has become bread broken for people, now he wants his disciples to share his choice. They enter into communion, they become one person with him, so they will share in his own life.
Now it is clear, even to us, what it means to approach the Eucharist: this is not a devotional meeting with Jesus, but the decision to be like him at all times, broken bread at the disposal of the brethren.
At the end of the meal, Jesus drinks the cup of wine.
His gesture is laden with symbolism because it is the last cup, that of parting from the old covenant, in fact he states: “I will not taste the fruit of the vine again, until that day when I drink the new wine in the kingdom of God” (v. 25).
Unlike the Baptist, Jesus ate, drank (Mt 11:18-19) and accepted invitations to dinner. To a group of Pharisees and followers of John the Baptist, who had asked him the reason for not fasting, he answered: “How can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the day will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them and on that day they will fast” (Mk 2:19-20). He foresaw, for the community of his disciples, a time of mourning, sorrow, abstention from intoxicating drinks. The message is clear: wherever he is absent, the bridegroom, lacks wine; there is no joy of the feast. The signs of triumph of evil and death are in the world. This saddens the disciples, but the “feast of rich food and choice wines, meat full of marrow, fine wine strained” (Is 25:6) will take place. Jesus will be present at the party and will give to all his wine, “I will drink it (with you), anew, in the kingdom of God.”
The cup is that of his blood, “the blood of the covenant, poured out for many.”
The covenant made at Sinai had not reached the goal of keeping the people in communion with the Lord. It was sanctioned with the blood that, being of animals, did not have any life-giving power. The covenant of Jesus is celebrated with blood, his own, in which the divine life is present and offered to anyone who is willing to accept it.
The blood of the new covenant is poured out for many, that means for all. The Eucharist is not instituted for the individuals, so that everyone can personally meet Christ, to encourage individual fervor or some form of spiritual isolationism. The Eucharist is the food of the community, is bread broken and shared among brothers and sisters (at least two), because the community is a sign of the new humanity, born of the resurrection of Christ.
The door of the great hall, which is located at the top, it is always wide open for all to enter. The banquet of the kingdom of God, proclaimed by the prophets, is prepared “for all peoples” (Is 25:6). All must be welcomed, no one is excluded. For God there are no pure or impure, worthy or unworthy people; in front of the Eucharist are all on the same level; all are sinners, unworthy, but invited to enter into communion with Christ.
The bread is Christ and the cup of his blood creates a community of “blood relations” with Christ and with one another, so as to form the new people whose only law is the service to the brothers and sisters to the point of giving one’s life as “nourishment” to satisfy all forms of human hunger.
Any family event that is celebrated with a meal and a drink is a cause for great joy and happiness. Friends and relatives, some of whom we may not have seen for a long time gather around the table to be fed, nourished and refreshed. Food is eaten, stories are told and memories are created. The transforming power of a family meal should never be ignored, dismissed or underestimated.
Jesus was very fond of eating and celebrating. There are many times in the gospels where we are told that he sat and ate with people. He sought out and ate with those who were despised and excluded; the tax collectors, the sick and the poor. This became such a feature of his daily life and ministry that some of the Pharisees and Scribes even said, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’. Nobody was excluded for the company or table of Jesus. Can we say the same them today? Who are those who in our families and communities who are not allowed to gather around our table and the table of the Lord.? Who have we decided don’t belong because they are different from us? We need to be careful that we do not becoming like the Pharisees and the Scribes.
Pope Francis challenges us and reminds of this when he says in the Joy of the Gospel, ‘The Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak…’ The Church is the House of God, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.’ This means you and me; it means all of us. We don’t come to share in the Body of Blood of Jesus because we have earned it or because it is our right. We can’t demand it. We come because we are invited around the table of the Lord out of love. It is a gift freely given to us.
The Body of Christ is not just or even something that we receive. As the Church, the People of God, we are the Body of Christ. Through our baptism and confirmation, each of us has become a part of and a member of the Body of Christ. We all belong to the Body of Christ. If one part is missing, excluded or made to feel unwelcome, then the whole body is suffers and is poorer because that person is missing. Jesus excluded no one, so how can we?
The words of St. Augustine, and early church writer echoes down through the centuries to us; ‘Believe what you see, see what you believe and become what you are, the Body of Christ. When we say ‘amen’ we are saying, Yes, I believe this is the Body and Blood of Jesus and I will become the Body of Christ for others’.
On this great Church feast, may we not only receive the Body and Blood of Christ in faith, may we also realise deeply that we are the Body of Christ in and for the world today
Michael Moore OMI