The very first narrative of the institution of the Eucharist in the New Testament is offered to us, not by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, but by the Apostle Paul in his First Letter to the Corinthians:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11:23-25)
Like the other teachings found in his letters, this narrative about Jesus’ self-offering at the Last Supper is being proposed by Paul as a solution to a concrete problem experienced in community. But how can a mere exhortation to remember a past event resolve a very real problem of division and lack of concern for one another in the newly-formed Christian community in Corinth?
The logic of what Paul is saying will only make sense when one considers his Hebrew origins and the concept of remembering for the Jews. The situation in Corinth is not really clear. But from what Paul writes, we can infer that when the members of the community come together to celebrate the Eucharist, it is also customary for them to hold a common meal, something similar to our “potluck” today. But the problem is that the wealthier members of the community, who have much leisure time at their disposal, begin feasting on their sumptuous food and drinks, without bothering to wait for the poorer members, whose time is at the disposal of their employers. When the latter arrive at the gathering, tired and hungry, there is nothing left to eat, for the rich have shamelessly gorged everything and have drunk to excess. When Paul, who is then at Ephesus, hears of these abuses and the resulting division in the community, his strategy is not to write a long, fiery letter scolding the offenders. Rather, he calls the entire community to remember the meaning of the Eucharist that they celebrate.
“Remembering,” in the Jewish sense, is not simply calling to mind, but actually making the event present here and now. The act of remembering does not leave the person untouched, but calls him/her to active involvement. The person is summoned, as it were, to be the extension of that memory. To remember Jesus’ act of breaking the bread and saying, “This is my body which is for you,” is to actualize right here, right now, what Jesus had said and done. In God’s “everlasting now” (kairos), the event of Jesus’ self-giving on the cross extends indefinitely. Remembering it means actualizing it at any given moment. In effect, Paul is telling the Corinthians that when they come together to celebrate the Eucharist, they are being summoned to actualize then and there the offering of themselves for one another. Therefore, no one could dare to eat and drink without minding the brother or sister who is not yet present in the gathering, but will later come hungry and tired from work.
Like the Corinthians, we are called to be mindful of one another, and especially of the poor. In doing so, we become extensions of the memory of Christ’s self-giving love in our world today.
Excerpted from Glimpses of Paul and His Message
Bernardita Dianzon, FSP, is a member of the Daughters of St Paul. She obtained her Licentiate in Sacred Scriptures from the Pontifical Biblical Institute and her Doctorate in Sacred Theology from the Loyola School of Theology, where she also teaches the Letters of Paul and biblical Greek.
About the image:
The stained glass window was commissioned by Blessed James Alberione for the Temple of St Paul, Society of St Paul Motherhouse, Alba, Italy.