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November 14, 2012
Rebuilding Catholic Culture: 'Thank you'
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Hurricane Sandy and a snow storm are testing the endurance of North Easterners who are coping with their aftermath. Not only neighbors but also relief workers from all over the country have given generously of themselves and by way of offering food, shelter, and clothing – all  to help in the long recovery ahead of them.

Amid fear, anger, and frustration, the needy recipients have expressed heartfelt thanks to one and all. Such is the uncanny link between food, thanksgiving, and unselfish care for others.

We Say ‘Blessing’ and ‘Thank you’

You can never say thank-you enough, the Jews learned from their Exodus experience. Their Passover meal, celebrated in a hurry, was filled with praise and thanksgiving for the wonders God did in rescuing them from slavery in Egypt.

To Be a Jew …

Every Jew participates in the Passover feast as though the Lord God had personally delivered each person from slavery: “In every generation each Jew looks upon himself as though he, personally, was among those who went forth from Egypt. Not our fathers alone did the Holy One redeem from suffering, but also us and our families.” (Haggadah for the American Family) To be a Jew is to celebrate the Passover and forever seal the Covenant between YHWH and the Chosen People:

On every Sabbath, Jewish prayer blesses and gives thanks to God. These psalms of blessing and thanksgiving were prayed daily, but in the Passover banquet, they held a special significance.

As the Chosen People, the Jews accepted the Covenant which encompassed the whole life of the nation and the individual, every aspect of prayer, observation, and work.  Every thought, activity, and deed was an act of fidelity and love. The act of worship was simple in its origin, yet pure and vital – a political, liturgical and personal bond. Here the people were united in a national and religious act.

In the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” Tevye, a devout Russian Jew, the husband of a nagging wife and the father of five daughters, is weighed down by abject poverty and family worries. With his lame horse, he pushes his wagon along in the field, looks up to heaven with arched eyebrow, and wryly tells God: “I know that we are the Chosen People, but once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” Still, he continues to bless and thank God.

The Passover of the Lord

Jesus’ last celebration of the Passover began like the others. However, on this night, a substantial change took place. The meal was no ordinary feast but a drama and a crucial turning point in world history. The words Jesus spoke have become the hallmark of Catholic faith.

He took and blessed the life-blood of the Jews symbolized by unleavened bread and the wine – the one, symbolizing the bread of affliction, the manna of the desert, and the other, symbolizing the blood of the slaughtered lamb. (Ex 12:8) He inserted new words accompanying the action giving new meaning and content to the ceremony. When he broke the bread and said: “This is my body … ” he shared the sacred food with the Twelve. At the third cup of wine, the cup of blessing and consecration, Jesus declared: “This is the cup of my blood … ”  He gave it to them to drink.

The Motif: Food, Blessing, Thanksgiving, and Loving Service

In Early Christianity, Eucharistic worship assumed the rite that the Lord instituted on the evening before his passion The Early Christian community referred to it as both “the breaking  of the bread” (Acts 2:42) and the “Eucharist” or thanksgiving.

We eat in order to live. We become what we eat. Bread is the staff of life and wine, part of a meal.

Jesus shocks the Jewish leaders by declaring: “I am the bread of life … If any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever  He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and abides in me and I in him.” (Jn 6:51, 54, 56)

The notion of consuming human sacrifice, a grossly repellent practice to human decency, was forbidden in the Law. But instead of moderating his words, Jesus only intensified the ultra-realistic verb trogein (Gr: to crunch, to gnaw); Jesus used the crude word four times in this instruction. (vv 54, 56, 57, 58) The verb connotes both the state of being torn to pieces and the mandate to consume the sacrifice. (W. Dewan, “The Eucharist,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 5:603-04) Eucharist means giving thanks (eucharistia), and we give thanks for the Eucharistic food, God’s gift of his Son.

Natural food perishes, but his food is the condition for life in God: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him.” (Jn 6:54-56)
Jesus understands the relationship between eating and having life: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (Jn 6:22) Consuming his food is the condition for life in God because it sustains an energy motivated by love and for growth in the Spirit. Though rooted in the Passover meal, this new ritual transcends it.

‘I Could Eat You Up Alive’

Among our phrases of endearment we have the phrase, “I could eat you up alive.” It is most often reserved for an infant when a parent wishes to express inexpressible love for his or her child. This metaphor says more about the desire for intimate union between parent and child than the words themselves convey. It lends vividness to the fact that, as the bread of life, Jesus wants to unite himself to us, and we to him and to one another.  Jesus has been placed at our disposal to be taken and incorporated into our very beings. We become what we eat.

Why Does Jesus Wash Peter’s Feet?

The washing of the feet is a central part of the Lord’s Supper. The meal becomes a lasting memorial of Jesus’ love and the context for a lesson the Apostles will not forget. The washing of feet was the typical task of a slave. Why, Peter asks, does the Master insist on washing his feet? He recoils, but Jesus admonishes him: “If I do not wash you, you will have no part in me.” (Jn 13:8)  Peter is free to refuse, but Jesus presses for his consent. (The Von Balthasar Reader, 286)

If Peter wants to unite himself with his Master, then he must renounce status and all that is associated with status – glory, power, and prestige. The Lord will choose a servile but loving act to give the example. Peter realizes that what Jesus has done for and to him, he Peter must repeat to and for others. He too must share in the Lord’s redemptive work for the sake of others. (Ibid, 288) Henceforth, the mandate given to Peter will be the loving service that marks Christian discipleship. It is so explicit that it cannot be misunderstood or misinterpreted. The Eucharist opens the door that leads to unselfish love.

The Eucharist: A Centrifugal Force

The Eucharist is like the sun’s centrifugal force whose rays are thrust outward to warm and light the universe. Nourishment supreme begins and ends with the Eucharist. Thanksgiving par excellence begins and ends in the Eucharist. Unselfish love begins in the Eucharist but radiates outward with no limit. Such is the uncanny relationship between food, thanksgiving, and serving others.

It is from the dismissal “Go, in the peace of Christ” that one grasps the relationship between the liturgy and mission to the world. This dismissal, “Ite, missa est,” implies “mission,” succinctly expressing the missionary nature of the Church. In fact, the dismissal is a starting point from which every person brings nourishment, blessing and thanksgiving, and service to others. (Benedict XVI, Sacramentum Caritatis, #51)

A Eucharistic World

Eucharistic worship sends out the Eucharistic person to a world that cries out for nourishment, both physical and spiritual, for thanksgiving, and for unselfish care.

Mission, wherever and however it is carried out, emerges from the Eucharist, its starting point. Why go to the font and source of life? God shows the way to men and women. In the Eucharist, the calculating psyche needs to silence itself and listen to God speak.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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