We’ve seen that for fourth and fifth century monks, who spent a great deal of time alone in prayer, the Eucharist was part of a “coming together,” a synaxis where they would experience the hospitality of God and then show that hospitality to one another. As Archbishop Kevin McDonald said, God comes to meet us in the Eucharist so that “we have a reference point outside ourselves – outside our own fears and anxieties and sins,” and, through this Eucharistic foretaste of the fullness of joy, we can catch a “glimpse of a society in which everyone shares equally in the fruits of the earth and the work of human hands.”
The Eucharist also shows us that God himself is a communion of love. The epiclesis is “profoundly Trinitarian,” as Liam has reminded us. The Father is asked to “send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here present,” to make the bread and wine the body and blood of Christ, “having changed them by Your Holy Spirit” (Liturgy of St John Chrysostom).
I hope that the words synaxis and epiclesis mean something to you. But I realize that they have to compete with other words that have now entered our vocabulary – words like “Nalchik” and “H5N1” and names like “Katrina” and “Stan.” In times of crisis, when we fear for our future, it is easy to turn away from the Eucharistic pledge of the future towards a desperate search for scapegoats, lurid apocalyptic fantasies that trap us more deeply in our own fears and anxieties and sins, or just a sad resignation. But it is especially in times of crisis that we might need to meditate on the Eucharist – and “look beyond” with the Eucharist to find an elusive hope. The following excerpt on the eschatological meaning of the Eucharist is from a very moving article by William Cavanaugh (“Dying For the Eucharist or Being Killed By It: Romero’s Challenge to First-World Christians,” Theology Today 58 ):
In Oscar Romero’s own words:
The eucharist makes us look back to Calvary twenty centuries ago … [b]ut it also looks ahead to the future, to the eternal, eschatological and definitive horizon that presents itself as a demanding ideal to all political systems, to all social struggles, to all those concerned for the earth. The church does not ignore the earth, but in the eucharist it says to all who work on earth: look beyond. Each time the Victim is lifted up at Mass, Christ’s call is heard: “Until we drink it anew in my Father’s kingdom.” And the people reply: “Come, Lord Jesus.”… Death is not the end. Death is the opening of eternity’s portal. That is why I say: all the blood, all the dead, all the mysteries of iniquity and sin, all the tortures, all those dungeons of our security forces, where unfortunately many persons slowly die, do not mean they are lost forever.
Since the earliest days of the church, the earthly eucharist has been seen as the eternal action in time of Jesus Christ himself, “high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens” (Heb 8:1). The Letter to the Hebrews makes clear to the humble group of assembled Christians that their liturgical action is no mere earthly mumbling: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly (ekklesia) of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:22-24). No mention here of coffee and donuts. At the eucharist, the feast of the last day irrupts into earthly time, and the future breaks into the present. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy affirms the scriptural and patristic emphasis on the eschatological dimension of the eucharist: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the Holy City of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims.”
That the Christian life is a pilgrimage is more easily forgotten by those who are comfortable in the world. Persecuted Christians – whose name today is legion – do not have the luxury of forgetting the eschatological dimension of the liturgy. The eucharist was essential for the early Christian martyrs, for it was seen as the foretaste of the heavenly banquet to which they were about to be called. Upon seeing the execution of Papylus and Carpus, the martyr Agathonica exclaimed, “For me too this dinner has been prepared, I too must eat my share of this glorious dinner.” For Romero, “Each priest killed is for me a new concelebrant in the eucharist of our archdiocese.” The martyrs bridge the gap between earth and heaven by participating in the sacrifice of Christ on both the earthly and the heavenly altars. This gives us hope that the way things are is not the way things have to be or will be. Through Christ’s sacrifice, the beginnings of the future heavenly kingdom have irrupted into human history. As Romero puts it, “Christ arisen has put in history’s womb the beginning of a new world. To come to Mass on Sunday is to immerse oneself in that beginning, which again becomes present and is celebrated on the altar at Mass.”