We know that our Faith teaches us that Jesus is both divine and human, that he has both a human nature and a divine nature. I think we focus so much on the divinity of Christ that we seem to often overlook his humanity. Yet there are so many signs throughout the Gospels that show us how human he truly is. One of the most interesting signs of his humanity is how he shares table fellowship and has meals together with so many different people, including those who were considered social outcasts: tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners. In fact, he ate meals with people so regularly that he began to garner a reputation of being a glutton. He says in Matthew’s Gospel, “the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” The fact that Jesus ate meals with people all the time, even with “societal rejects,” is not an insignificant detail and it’s something we should examine more closely.
Sharing meals with other people was a significant custom in ancient Jewish culture. While meals are often shared amongst family and friends, there are occasions when strangers or foreigners may be invited to partake in table fellowship. Having a meal with others carries with it a strong sacramental character. It’s not simply a matter of eating food for the sake of bodily survival or nourishment. If that were the case, then people could just eat individually at any time they chose. But in sharing a meal with others there are many things that are being communicated, oftentimes without words. Meals are a sign of mutual sharing, kinship, friendship, and good will. People share not only food together but good conversation and stories, which only serve to strengthen one’s sense of unity and communion with those at table. Presumably, there is already a relationship of love and charity that exists between the people partaking of a meal. Yet the more we learn about those at table with whom we are feasting, the more we grow in our love for them. Ordinarily, people do not sit down to eat with their enemies or with those they despise, although unfortunately there are times when animosity and lack of love exists between members of a family eating together. It’s impossible to share a meal among those who have ill will towards each other. Hence, mealtime communicates a sense of peace and fellowship. Meals are also an occasion of hospitality especially when outsiders are invited to join the feast.
When Jesus shares meals with other people, all these qualities are present: love, charity, sharing, kinship, friendship, communion, hospitality, peace, and good will. The fact that Jesus chooses to eat meals with social outcasts such as tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners communicates to all a very important truth about God, that God does not wish anyone to be separated from Him. God does not will the death of the sinner but that they share in communion with Him. It shows the depths of God’s love for sinners and how He wishes sinners to be freed from their sinful affliction. God expresses His union and communion with those who have gone astray, and He expresses nothing but good will towards them. He wishes to bring back all those who have sinned into communion with Him and not hold their sins against them. It’s no wonder that Jesus instructs his disciples in Luke’s Gospel to invite to the banquet the poor, the maimed, the lame, and the blind, those who cannot repay them. Jesus does precisely the same thing with us sinners when he invites us to the heavenly banquet, which we celebrate sacramentally in the Holy Eucharist. He invites us who are spiritually poor, maimed, lame, and blind and he shares a meal with us, showing us his love and hospitality and expressing his desire for communion with all people.
The Eucharistic meal that Jesus institutes on this Holy Thursday evening is really a fulfillment of the Passover meal that was instituted when the Israelites were liberated from captivity in Egypt. This meal involves one sacrifice, a one-year-old male lamb without blemish. Although there are multiple lambs required to feed the many households of the Israelites, the sacrifice is comprised of one type of animal. These lambs are all slaughtered together on the same night in the presence of the entire community of Israel. While each Jewish household/family partakes each of a separate lamb, the individual households are all joined together spiritually and symbolically as one large household partaking of one sacrificial meal. Hence, the entire community of Israel partakes symbolically of the one Paschal lamb. There is a powerful sign of unity in this gesture of sharing a meal together according to God’s explicit instructions on the very night that God liberates them from slavery. It is the blood of these lambs that spares the lives of the firstborn sons of the Israelites. They are redeemed by this Paschal sacrifice. This liberation from slavery in Egypt by means of a Paschal meal is an early biblical sign and type of the Holy Eucharist.
In the Holy Eucharist we share together, not merely as a local community, but as a universal Church in the definitive Paschal feast of the Lamb, the Lamb of God. The local Catholic community not only expresses its fellowship, love, communion, good will, and hospitality towards its own members, but also within the entire mystical Body of Christ, the Church. As the entire community of Israel partook together of the Passover feast, both as individual households and collectively as members of a nation, so we Catholics partake of the New Passover feast both as a local community and as members of the universal community of the Church worldwide and throughout all of history. We not only share communion and love with the people of God living in our own historical period, but with the people of God in every age! The Holy Eucharist transcends space and time and unites all peoples together in one family meal together with Our Lord. The sacrifice of the New Passover is no longer merely an animal that is incapable of taking away sin, but the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We all have communion with one another because we all partake of this one Lord, who gives us His Body and Blood present in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. We are one gigantic, universal family brought together by the love and mercy of Our God, who greatly desires to eat this meal with us. It is also his desire that we strive to bring others into this communion of love found in the Holy Eucharist so that they might share in his happiness and joy.
On this night, the Lord has not only left us this perpetual sign of his love in the banquet of the Holy Eucharist, but he has also instituted the Holy Priesthood as a means of perpetuating the sacrament of the Eucharist throughout the ages. When a priest is ordained, he is configured to the person of Christ, the Head of the Church, and is endowed with the power and authority to offer Mass. This authority is not given to the ordained to lord it over others but to serve others; as Jesus says, “The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The priesthood is a perpetual sign of Christ’s love in service to his Church. By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus gives his disciples a model of service and shows them how they are to humble themselves in serving others. As their teacher and master, Jesus would have been justified in commanding respect and honor from his disciples. Yet he humbles, and even humiliates himself, by tying a towel around his waist and taking the form of a servant, washing their feet. The master of all chooses to serve, hence the disciples must do likewise.
While ministerial priests and bishops are ordained and are given the power to celebrate the sacraments, lay people are also given a share in Christ’s priesthood through holy Baptism. Every baptized person shares in what is called the common priesthood of the faithful. While the common priesthood does not bestow the power to celebrate the Eucharist, it does give the faithful the power to join their own personal sacrifices, sufferings, and works of charity in union with Christ so that they might be taken up into Christ and perfected in him. When the priest offers the bread and wine at the Offertory during Mass and says, “Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received this bread/wine we offer,” this is an opportunity to offer your own sacrifices along with the bread and wine. Then, when the bread and wine are changed into the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ, our own sacrifices are taken up into Christ’s sacrifice and are perfected by it. Since the lay faithful have a share in Christ’s priesthood, they also have a share in his call to the service of charity. Pope Benedict XVI has called the Eucharist the sacrament of charity. Hence, all of us who partake of the Eucharistic meal not only share in a communion of charity and good will towards those in the Church, but with all people. As we receive the sacrament of charity, we are called to put this charity into practice in our daily lives.
On this day, we thank Our Lord Jesus Christ for his gift of the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Priesthood, and his humble example of charity and service. We pray especially for the unification of all Christians under this sacramental sign of the Eucharist, that we may all once again share table fellowship, full communion, together with one another. We pray that the Lord might continue to teach us how to love and humbly serve others in charity, just as he taught his disciples at the Last Supper.
– Fr. Matthew Mary