Nearly two thousand years ago, Jesus did a very strange thing that we celebrate today, Maundy Thursday. The night before the Passover meal that the rest of the Jewish people would be celebrating, He and His disciples met together in an upper room for Jesus’ Passover meal. Jesus, opened the meal with prayer, gave thanks, broke bread, and offered to His disciples, telling them that it was ‘His body’ which was broken for their sins. After the meal, He took a cup of wine and had everyone take a sip out of it, telling them that it was His blood, blood which would inaugurate a new covenant.
I often wonder what this meal must have felt like to his disciples. No doubt initially it was just one of many strange things Jesus had done that very evening. After all, He had already played the role of a slave in washing their feet before dinner. He’d foretold a traitor in their midst during the meal. The last Passover they spent together, Jesus had told a crowd thousands strong that they would need to eat His flesh and drink His blood if they wanted to have eternal life. (cf. John 6)
Yet this strange ritual assumed great importance in the early Church right from the beginning. Jesus reveals Himself by repeating this ritual ‘the breaking of bread’ before the disciples travelling the road to Emmaus. (Luke 24:13-35) It’s one of the things the first Christians devote themselves to doing regularly after Pentecost. (Acts 2:42) The oldest Christian document outside of the New Testament, the Didache, contains prewritten prayers for this ritual, which it calls the ‘Thanksgiving’ or ‘Eucharist’ and instructions that it was to be given only to the baptized after they had confessed their sins. (Didache Online)
Nearly 2000 years later, as I had finished my first year of teaching, I was sitting down with a sheaf of papers I wanted to go through that I had gotten from teacher’s college. One of my classes had been about teaching Catholicism, and many of the things I had learned in that class had been useful for teaching at Christian schools in general. As I leafed through the pages, I came to a handout containing about six pages worth of quotes from early Christians, from the Church Fathers and other documents about ‘the Eucharist.’
I was struck by the universal testimony of these figures about this thing – that it was true that Jesus gave us His actual body and blood in the Eucharist. It was what prompted me to start reading the Church Fathers, actually reading them and not in exerpts given to me in some theology class or packet of notes (I posted some thoughts, my first one on Clement was posted November 2014.) This spawned a spiraling, cascading set of questions that sent me back to the Bible and eventually led me to conclude that I needed to make a change.
This ritual – Communion or the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist – is a microcosm of our whole trip from evangelical Christianity to Catholicism. Every Protestant community I worshiped with celebrated Communion or The Lord’s Supper. It was something holy, given to us by Jesus. There were different approaches; some forbade those who had not professed their faith from taking part, some included wine and some did not and some made it very individualistic and private. One church gave it to me as a grape juice box and dinner roll in a paper bag, to go, but this was certainly not the norm. I was taught different things about it, sometimes only superficially different, sometimes radically different, by the different congregations I was part of.
My final Protestant community had different individuals introduce the Lord’s Supper each time it was celebrated, and I heard everything from a Zwinglian approach, to a Calvinist, to a quasi-Catholic explanation. It was here, sometime in 2015, that I took communion for the last time, with significant reservations. It was in this community that, for the first time since I had professed my faith, I had to let the communion tray pass me by, and this was hard to do. For over a year since then, I have attended church without being able to fully participate.
But this coming Easter Vigil, for the first time in a year, I will again participate in communion, though I will do this in unity with a community that I was formerly in schism with. For the first time in my whole life, as I open my mouth, it will not be bread and some variety of grape drink that I consume, but Jesus Christ Himself.
How does this represent my journey as a whole? It started with study, questions and a commitment to the truth. I was dismayed at the disunity over it. It involved giving up the ability to fully participate in certain things that I had cherished. But it was not a movement of rejection; it was not from a desire to reject my faith, or to make a shipwreck of it, or because I was bored or wanting something more exciting. I wanted to know the truth, and I found it.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. – Jesus (John 6:51, NABRE)