"Almighty God, you teach us by reason that all the riches of the world are made by you for our common use, and that by natural law, not one of them belongs to one human being more than to another; direct us, we pray, in obedience to your law, that all things may serve all people." -- St. Anselm of Canterbury
Anyone entering St. John's on a Sunday morning will find three objects just inside the main door to the church. There is a small table with some bread and wine on it, a large basket for donations of food, and a carved wooden box -- St. Anthony's Bread Box. The juxtaposition of these three items is not accidental; they are connected with each other and their prominent position at the door points to their significance in the Eucharistic liturgy which is about to begin.
Each communicant upon entering is asked to take a small piece of bread and place it in a common container (called a ciborium). This is much more than a convenient way of coming up with the right amount of bread! The bread is to be seen as a symbol of ourselves, as in some sense 'containing' the fruits of our life and labor in the world. By taking a piece of it, we claim it as our own, and by placing it in a common container we signify our willingness to merge our offering with that of the whole assembly. The bread and wine, 'which earth has given and human hands have made', will be handed over to God in the Great Thanksgiving which follows the offertory. They (and with them we) will be united to the Sacrifice of God's Son, to become the Body and Blood of Christ.
It is, perhaps, more difficult for us than for some previous generations to see the bread and wine of the mass as in any way 'embodying' our life and labor in the world. As Helen Ray has said in an early pamphlet on the Offertory and the Liturgy:
In the time of our Lord the work of many families, even of whole communities, was that of growing grain and cultivating grapes. As these families worked in the production of grain and grapes the whole lives became involved in the process. Their hopes, their associations with each other, their intentions, their good deeds, and their attitudes toward each other all entered into the history of their products, The finished bread and wine were actually the bread and wine of their lives, resulting from the work of their lives. --What's this life all about, anyway? Vine Press, 1959.
Today, very few of us, especially in an urban parish like St. John's, have this direct connection with the production of bread and wine -- and we certainly do not have it as a community. For us, bread and wine are commodities among other commodities, produced for sale and not for use; their ownership is alienated from their producers and we take possession of them -- make them our own -- through purchase, not labor. While this is hardly a satisfactory state of affairs from a Catholic point of view, it is nevertheless the reality of economic life in our society. One of its results, from the point of view of the liturgy, has been to obscure the intimate connection of the bread and wine of the mass -- which become the Body and Blood of Christ -- with the day to day life of human food-producing activity in the world.
Various methods of cutting through this obfuscation and re-establishing a conscious link have been attempted over the years. One, of course, is to have the bread and wine made by religious communities which to one degree or another function like the community described by Ms. Ray. While this may be fine for the members of those communities, it hardly does anything for the rest of us. The vast majority of us cannot live in such communities, however highly we may regard them. We are still enmeshed in the production relations of the world in which we must make a living, and the bread and wine remain remote and alienated from us.
In some parishes today individual members or families bake the bread and (sometimes) make the wine to be offered at the liturgy. These are seen as their gift of loving labor to the community, given by them to be shared by all. This is sometimes done by St. John's on special occasions, such as marriages or baptisms, where this particular symbolism is appropriate. It is not our usual practice, however, for two reasons. First, it restricts participation to those who have the necessary time, skills, and equipment; it excludes those who have no time to bake, or who cannot afford to buy the equipment or ingredients needed. In other words, it discriminates in favor of those who lead a relatively middle-class existence.
Secondly, such bread-baking or wine-making is likely to take place as a leisure-time activity, performed in addition to and outside of the routine, serious business of making one's living. But it is precisely not this 'private', 'personal-time' activity which needs to be claimed for God in the Eucharist. Our society has already relegated its 'God' and 'religion' to just such a nonessential sphere. It is, on the contrary, the public area of life, the total infrastructure of economic and productive activity, which needs to be seen clearly as the source of our bread and wine.
Helen Ray suggests a third way of claiming our bread and wine as symbols of our life and labor in the world:
We become identified with these offerings, as we become identified with most material things in the world, by purchase. Part of the money we put into our church alms basin buys our bread and wine. In some churches where this idea of offering the bread and wine is fully understood, the communicants, as they arrive, purchase with a penny their own individual wafers of bread, thus directly becoming the owners of what is to be offered; they become identified with the bread in the most meaningful way, just as the people who used to make the bread in our Lord's day were identified with it.If we wished to adopt this practice as our own, we would not have to look far for a way to do it at St. John's. We could begin to see an offering (in addition to our pledge) of food for the basket or a small amount of money to St. Anthony's Bread Box as being more than an 'extra' or 'special' donation. It could become for us a way of 'purchasing' our bread and wine and this becoming identified with our gifts in a structurally meaningful way. The bread and wine would become as truly ours to give as if we had bought them at a store or made them ourselves. That the contents of the food basket and St. Anthony's Bread Box are then used to feed the many hungry people who come to us during the week has a significance of its own quite central to the meaning of Eucharist.
No payment, of course, could ever be demanded of expected of those who cannot afford a donation of food or money; the church's bread, unlike the world's is there for the taking. But the early leaders of the Church were quite insistent that those who could afford to bring something to share with the hungry and did not were guilty of a grave offense against the Eucharist itself. Thus St. Paul upbraids the Church at Corinth because some were stuffing themselves and getting drunk while others went hungry; they ate and drank to their own condemnation, not discerning the Lord's Body. As Rafael Avila points out:
For Paul . . . they who do not share the bread do not discern that 'we many are one single body' -- that is, they do not discern the ecclesial body of Christ. They despise the church (1 Cor. 11.22) and divide Christ (1 Cor, 1:13). Paul does not deny that the supper in Corinth is the supper of the Lord simply because they cannot distinguish between a common and a sacred meal (as most exegetes conclude). Rather, he rejects their practice as a memorial of the Lord's death because they proceed to eat their own food and refuse to share their bread with the poor. For this reason he commands them to wait for one another so that their meeting will not bring their own condemnation. -- Worship and politics, Orbis Books, c. 1981
In the second century, the Roman martyr St. Justin describes the Eucharist as the time when Christians brought offerings, according to their ability, to share with "orphans and windows, and those who are in want on account of sickness or any other cause, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers who are sojourner among [us], and, briefly . . . all those in need." The third century Bishop of Carthage, St. Cyprian, was adamant that if the rich came to the liturgy with nothing to share with the poor they would not be allowed to take part in the mass. "Do you rich and wealthy think that you celebrate the Lord's feast, you who do not consider the offering, who come to the Lord's feast without a sacrifice, who take part in the sacrifice that the poor person as offered?"
As Avila points out in commenting on these passages:
The Eucharist was, therefore, more than an act of devotion and piety. It was also a social act in which Christians shared their possessions with those in need . . . this sharing was considered not something more or less secondary but as an integral and indispensable part of the celebration.We have, unfortunately, drifted away from seeing the Eucharist in such terms. We are content to relegate it to a particular "religious" sphere and to treat what a healthier orthodoxy knew as integral and indispensable as a secondary and derivative "implication". The social act of sharing possessions has become that pale and anemic thing called "service to others", a condescension toward which we may be moved by our worship but without which our liturgy could still be "validly" celebrated (as though that were all that mattered). We have come close to abandoning the Eucharist by turning the Feast of the Lord into a merely private devotion.
As Fr. Paul Bernier says:
This is very easy for us to do today. We are so convinced that Jesus is present in the Eucharist and that we receive him in Communion that our participation at Mass becomes the high point of the day. It is the time when we can commune with our Savior an glory in the realization of his presence within. Whether there are other people celebrating with us makes very little difference, really. Most of the time they are a distraction anyway . . . We have come a long way from the early church. Then, there as only one Eucharist in any location, and all gathered for the common celebration. The whole community was involved. The Liturgy was the bond of union between believers, The Acts of the Apostles tell us what the early liturgies were meant to be: "The faithful all lived together and owned everything in common; they sold their goods and possessions and shared out the proceeds among themselves according to what each one needed." (2:42-47). Another summary of the early days reads: "The whole group of believers was united, heart and soul; no one claimed for his own use anything he had, as everything they owned was held in common . . . none of their members was ever in want." (4:32-35). -- Bread broken and shared, Ave Maria Press, 1981.That, as Fr. Bernier recognizes, these accounts may be somewhat idyllic and influenced by the first fervor of a new movement, does not detract from the fact that they remained the Church's ideal for some centuries to come and remained, at least in theory, at the heart of the Church's Eucharistic celebration. St. Cyprian comments in the third century:
Such conduct is that of the true children and imitators of God; God's gifts are given to all humankind, the day enlightens all, the sun shines on all, the rain falls and the wind blows upon all. To all comes sleep, the splendor of stars and the moon are common to all. We are truly imitators of God when we follow the common beneficence of God by imparting to all the good things which each possesses.We have already made some progress at St. John's in returning to this more fully Catholic (whole view of the Eucharist. There is today only one Eucharist on Sunday at which all gather for a common celebration. We explicitly view it as the bond of union between Christians and actively discourage individualist and privatist views and practices. Our people are beginning to see the reception of Holy Communion as a profoundly social act of sharing rather than a solely personal moment "alone with God", a recovery of understanding which is fostered and expressed by a return to the traditional posture of standing to share the Sacrament. Our Social Action is firmly rooted in our Eucharistic faith and practice. It has never been seen, for example as mere charity or service, but as a means of sharing what we have -- whether food or drink or use of the parish hall -- with those who have need of it, according to their needs. It is a way of proclaiming in and to the world that perfect sharing of the Reign of God that is the heart of the Gospel message and the Eucharist. It is, itself, evangelism.
We share our goods not "out of the superfluity of our bounty" but because the Gospels and the Eucharist teach us that "what is given to us by a common God is only rightly used when those who have received it use it in common" (St. Gregory the Great). Such sharing is not mercy but justice, and a Eucharist celebrated without justice is less than a sincerely-celebrated Eucharist. The Eucharist demands justice if it is to be an authentic Supper of the Lord; every Eucharist is thus a "protest mass" against a society which has founded itself on injustice and is a prophetic foreshowing of a different way of doing things -- the way of the Reign of God.
-- Ted Mellor