In a very interesting article in the Christian Century, the Anglican priest Samuel Wells reminds us that, in the Eucharist, elements of bread and wine are taken, blessed, broken and shared. Rev. Wells continues:
“The significance of these four actions becomes clearer in the light of Jesus’ story. He took human nature in his incarnation. His human flesh bore the divine character in material form in his ministry. Through words of wisdom, question and command, and through gestures of compassion, challenge and miracle, he blessed humanity and the whole creation. In his agonizing death and the harrowing exposure of human sin that it entailed, he was broken for the life of the world. And in his resurrection, and perhaps most especially in the coming of his Holy Spirit, he gave and shared new life with all who trusted in him.”
And, thus, “The Eucharist is the definitive prophetic action because it identifies the whole life and work of Christ in a way that declares Christ’s living presence today.”
Perhaps you are a Catholic who is well aware that the Eucharist is supposed to be “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11), but have begun to participate in a Bible Study and noticed (with not a little anxiety) that the Eucharist doesn’t seem to come up all that often. There are, after all, only four accounts of the institution of the Eucharist (Mk 14:22-24; Mt 26:26-28; Lk 22:19-20; 1 Cor 11:23-25). And these accounts are not exactly identical – the Lucan account has a cup-bread-cup sequence that is apparently unique. But we can say that the four actions illuminated by Samuel Wells do show up in all the accounts in the Gospels – Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples. We are still left with minor discrepancies – in Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ second action is to “praise” God, while in Luke and Paul, Jesus “gives thanks” (perhaps resulting from the difference between Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek), and Paul only describes a total of three actions. But, save for these exceptions, the same words are used for all these actions in all four accounts of the institution of the Eucharist. That’s not insignificant.
As Fr Elias D. Mallon, SA, has written, once we familiarize ourselves with these four actions (to take, to give thanks/praise, to break, and to give), it becomes clear that they appear in other contexts in the Gospels. In Luke’s account of the road to Emmaus, Jesus appears to two disciples on Easter Sunday. They eventually ask Jesus to stay with them – they do not recognize him and have been discussing the events of Good Friday and Easter. Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them (Lk 24:30). The two disciples return to Jerusalem and “Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Lk 24:35).
Furthermore, we see the same four actions in Jesus’ miraculous feedings of the crowds. A version of this story appears no less than six times in the Gospels (Mk 6:30-44, Mt 14:13-21; Lk 9:10-17; Jn 6:1-13; and Mk 8:1-10 and Mt 15:32-39). In the first group of feedings (the first four references), five barley loaves and two fish are used to feed 5,000 people. Jesus takes the bread and fish (only the bread in John), gives praise, breaks (John skips this step), and gives. In the second series, we now see four thousand people, seven loaves and a “few” fish. But again, Jesus takes the bread and fish (only the bread in Mark), gives thanks, breaks, and gives. Fr Mallon notes that Paul could speak of the Eucharist as a “tradition” in the First Letter to the Corinthians, written only about twenty years after the Passion; Mallon suggests that the readers and authors of the New Testament would certainly have picked up on the Eucharistic allusions in the feeding narratives.
Then, Fr Mallon tells us to notice that, immediately after the feeding of the five thousand, we have the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mt 14:22-44; Mk 6:45-52; Jn 6:16-21). Jesus goes unrecognized until he announces himself. In John’s Gospel, on the very next morning, Jesus confronts the crowd that he had just fed and begins to teach them about the Bread from Heaven. They must recognize that his flesh is “true food,” his blood “true drink.” Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him,” (Jn 6:56), but declares, “there are some of you who do not believe” (Jn 6:64). The feeding of the four thousand in Mark and Matthew is also followed by an account in which the disciples must recognize a hidden meaning behind the feeding. In Mark 8:21, Jesus even explicitly asks, “Do you still not understand?” In Matthew 16:9, he asks, “Do you not yet understand, and do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many wicker baskets you took up?” Fr Mallon concludes, “Thus each of the stories about the miraculous feeding of the multitudes is followed by stories in which the eating of the bread is closely connected with recognition and understanding.” This, of course, is also true of the story of Emmaus.
If we are able to recognize the four actions of taking, praising, breaking, and giving, we will be able to recognize Eucharistic resonances in various places in the New Testament. But, even after we are able to do this, Jesus still addresses us: “Do you still not understand?” Rev. Samuel Wells reminds us that, in the breaking of bread, we must recognize the broken body of Christ on the cross. And, “The broken body of Christ crystallizes both the manner of God’s sovereignty over his creation, and the ultimate purpose of that sovereignty. If God’s sovereignty is the grain of the universe, the whole orientation of creation, then God’s love is the most powerful force of all. The power of violence and of money are revealed for what they really are, not dominant but ultimately weak.”