The Heart of the Matter: Transformation
March 07, 2007
When all is said and sung, what is the celebration of the Eucharist for? What is its ultimate purpose? It isn’t just to bring like-minded Christians together; it isn’t just to get our spiritual fix so that we can get through the week; it isn’t even just for the transformation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. So what, then, is the Eucharist ultimately about? The Eucharist is a many-faceted mystery, but here I invite you to reflect on one of the key aspects -- the Eucharist as the Meal of the Kingdom. In doing so, we will see that the Eucharist is ultimately celebrated for a triple transformation – the transformation of the elements, the transformation of the community of faith assembled and ultimately, the transformation of the world.
The first of two invocations of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic Prayer highlights the first transformation. It is spoken (or sung) over the gifts of bread and wine as the priest extends his hands over them: “And so, Father, we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become the body and blood of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at whose command we celebrate this Eucharist” (Eucharistic Prayer III).
The second invocation of the Spirit for transformation follows the words of institution and is invoked over the assembly: “Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer III). This important prayer is too easily overlooked. Perhaps its importance might be emphasized if the priest extended his hands over the assembly, mirroring his gesture over the gifts – but this is not part of our rite today. One bishop friend told me that he tried to emphasize the prayer by pausing briefly after he completed it, hoping to call attention to what had just been prayed for. Notice: the elements are transformed so that we, nourished by Christ's body and blood, might be transformed.
The third transformation occurs when we, in faithful obedience, try to live out the Eucharist. The members of the assembly are transformed so that in the Spirit’s power, they might transform the world. To understand the intimate link between the Eucharist and the transformation of the world, let us go to the heart of Jesus’ message.
Jesus announced the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom already here and a Kingdom yet to come in its fullness. The Kingdom, he said, is within us, something interior and powerful. It is also something that transcends us: “Go and tell John what you see and hear: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” (Mt 11:4) In other words, the Kingdom Jesus announced would be a Kingdom permeated by what the Bible calls “justice.” For the Jews of Jesus’ time, a just society meant one characterized by fidelity to relationships, where all relationships are in order: people’s relationships with God, one another and the rest of creation.
But Jesus not only preached this just Kingdom by his words, he also proclaimed it by what one might call his “dining ministry.” Here is our connection to the Eucharist. In choosing to dine with certain people, Jesus made a series of prophetic statements to his fellow Jews about the nature of the Kingdom of God. For the Jews, all formal meals, including the Last Supper, were religious events accompanied by prayers. One of the dominant images of the Kingdom for them was derived from their experience of the meal – the Heavenly Banquet. A Jew would become unclean if he or she ate with “sinners.” Yet, Jesus deliberately ate with outcasts and sinners. His meal at the home of the tax collector, Levi, caused the Pharisees and scribes to ask: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” (Lk 5:30) He extended a shocking invitation to Zacchaeus, social outcast and man of ill-gotten wealth, by calling him down from the tree so that he could dine with him that evening. With these gestures, Jesus was proclaiming that the marginalized in society must have a place not only at our table, but also at the Heavenly Banquet.
The Eucharistic celebration is both a re-presentation of the Paschal Mystery and an anticipation of the Heavenly Banquet. When we truly celebrate “through, with and in Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit,” how can we in good conscience be neglectful of the marginalized in our world? It goes against the very nature of the Eucharist.
At the end of the liturgy we are sent out into the world. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” Those are our marching orders for the third transformation!
Lawrence J. Madden, SJ is the Director of The Georgetown Center for Liturgy, Washington, D.C. and the editor of The Awakening Church: 25 Years of Liturgical Renewal (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992) and The Joseph Campbell Phenomenon: Implications for the Contemporary Church (Washington, DC: Pastoral Press, 1992).