by Norman B. Pelletier, s.s.s.
Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament
Presentation for a round table discussion at the46th International Eucharistic
26 May 1997
Printed in Emmanuel Magazine, July/August 1997
1. I would like to begin this reflection by reading a text from Saint Luke which I believe may help us meditate on the meaning of Eucharist and freedom.
After this Jesus went out, and saw a tax collector, named Levi, sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, "Follow me". And Levi left everything, and rose and followed him. Then Levi made him a great feast (banquet) in his house; and there was a large company of tax collectors and others at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes murmured against his disciples, saying, "Why do you eat with tax collectors and sinners?" And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:27-32).
2. This gospel scene, does it not speak to us of our own reality? We who claim to be disciples of Jesus Christ, have we not been freely called by Christ to leave everything in order to follow him? Like the call of Levi in this text from Saint Luke, have we not freely accepted Christ's invitation and recommitted ourselves to discipleship, perhaps repeatedly, at the Lord's table?
3. At the feast in the house of Levi, the Lord eats with his disciples as well as with sinners to the great scandal of the pharisees and their scribes. This account of the vocation of Levi and the banquet in his house can help us understand the wonderful freedom of Jesus to invite all of humanity around the table, symbol of the eternal banquet in his Father's house. Since all of us are sinners as well as disciples, or if you prefer "wounded disciples", how can we find our place at the table of the Lord? And once seated at the table, how can we begin to understand this meal as a truly liberating experience for our lives?
4. Around the table with Levi, the tax collectors and sinners Jesus models for us the kind of freedom which pervaded his life. In him we discover the way to the Father and the way we must relate to one another. His entire life was lived in devoted obedience freely and lovingly given to his Father. This obedience grew out of a radical and uncompromising fidelity to his Father's will. He was faithful (obedient) to the end: "even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:8). The obedience demonstrated on the cross was also the revelation of Christ's love for his own in the world whom he loved to the end (cf. Jn. 13:1).
5. Jesus is not only our perfect model for a life of freedom, he is also the source of this freedom. It is the love of Jesus which frees the whole person in the very depths of one's being. It is the freeing love that is not diminished because of infidelities or betrayals. Is it not significant that Saint Paul begins the account of the great act of Jesus' farewell banquet with the words: On the night he was betrayed (cf 1Cor.11:23). Knowing of the betrayal would not deter him from freely proceeding with the meal he "earnestly desired to eat" before suffering. It is in the light of this truth that our own lives can be genuine proclamations of a life lived freely, but not without its pain and suffering, in the midst of betrayals and desertions. Whether we ourselves have suffered betrayals or are guilty of betrayal cannot the example of Jesus at the last supper evoke in us a sense of free abandonment to God's loving acceptance and embrace?
6. The sacrifice of Christ is the point of contact with our human condition. It is in the free acceptance of a violent and cruel death that Jesus enters most intimately our humanity and at the same time shows us how to be truly and freely human. It is in this sacrifice that human violence in all of its shapes and forms, personal as well as collective and structural, is absorbed for all time and for all humanity. Jesus' entire life, not just his final act of perfect love on the cross, was a sacrifice. Everywhere he faced aggression, hatred, revenge and violence. He stood in the face of violence and he did not waver. There was bound to be a final confrontation. His sacrifice was to maintain a faithful relationship with his Father, with the people and with the earth itself. Thus, harmony, peace and love become a real alternative to violence and aggression. In other words, Jesus freely positioned himself on the side of the victim, the poor, the marginalized and the powerless: He did not cling to his equality with God, but he emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave, and became as human beings are; and being in this condition he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
7. The profound meaning of Jesus' sacrificial life and death was always the revelation of his relationship with the Father. Jesus revealed the Father, but in doing so he revealed how to be in relationship with him and the Father with us. Jesus' sacrifice further revealed that our brokenness and woundedness is acceptable to God. In this, Jesus overturned definitively any false understanding concerning who is the recipient of God's favor. Never again can the cross and its victim be appealed to in order to justify violence and death. But this can only be true because of the empty tomb. Because he is risen, Christ remains present and forever involved in our lives and in our world. The revolutionary power of the Passion and Resurrection narratives is that it is the story of the victim. Like all other victims, this Jesus dies. But unlike any other before or after, it is his story that is told and retold. He is remembered. The community keeps alive this dangerous memory, for he lives in its midst. The Eucharist is the remembrance (anamnesis) of this life of self-giving love to God the Father and to all humanity. It is a salvific reality which is not only recalled but also proclaimed, and celebrated. In the Spirit, God allows us to participate in this salvific event every time we share in the Eucharistic sacrifice.
8. The Eucharist as the proclamation of the life of freedom of Christ and the celebration of our life of freedom in Christ can be a truly liberating experience. It can free us from the false self and deliver us from our false images of God. The Eucharist frees us from our false self in so far as it is a constant challenge to our self-centeredness, our self-absorption, our personal sense of power and control. A Eucharist that celebrates the sacrifice of Jesus in complete fidelity to his Father cannot leave those who participate in this memorial but questioning their own allegiance and integrity. Cannot that final act of violence against Jesus on the cross absorb the violence we commit against ourselves in our acts of self-hate and self-destruction?
9. In the Eucharist we discover the vulnerability of God's son in the violence of the cross, the sacrifice freely accepted which we in turn offer with Him to the Father. Our image of God has been radically altered by the revelation of Jesus' self-offering out of love and fidelity. We have been freed from our false notions of a vengeful and despotic God. In our Eucharists, by the power of the Spirit, we can pray "Abba", Father, with Jesus who was not embarrassed to dine with tax collectors and sinners. The Eucharist is our entrance into the mystery of Jesus' death and resurrection. The Eucharist, moreover, allows us to participate in His sacrifice. It is in this sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that we are able to identify with Christ who is our freedom and in whom we discover our true identity as children of God. When we proclaim Christ's free self offering we celebrate our own because in the Eucharist it is Christ that transforms us into Himself through the power of the Spirit.
10. This morning in the first major conference of this International Eucharistic Congress, Cardinal Francis ARINZE focused directly on the theme of this Congress: Eucharist and Freedom. The Cardinal spoke about the "Freedom of God's Children in a Changing World". He reminded us of the consequences to freedom brought about by totalitarian systems -- how the very structure of society and the family was adversely affected by repressive political systems -- how the loss of freedom was a price too high to pay and eventually these oppressive regimes collapsed "partly because of the unquenchable aspiration of the human heart to freedom". Now, however, he reminds us, we still have to deal with the false freedoms of our contemporary culture. Ultimately, he recalls, in this rapidly changing world "It is Christ who sets us free" (Basic Doc. #7). It is Christ who "reveals the authentic meaning of freedom" (Veritatis Splendor, #85).
11. In the final analysis, the problem of freedom in this century of monumental human progress in science and technology, and at the same time of incredible inhumanity, can only be resolved when we begin to appreciate that freedom is a precious gift received from a loving God in whose image and likeness we have been fashioned. "Authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within the human person" (Gaudium et Spes, 17). Cardinal Arinze cautions us, because freedom is such a fragile gift it is like a seed that needs to be well cultivated. This is precisely what the Eucharistic Celebration can help provide, namely, "an education in the true sense of the freedom of God's children" (Basic Document, #9).
12. Because the Eucharist is professed to be the source and summit of Christian life, it must be able to speak convincingly to the reality of our human experience, our lack of freedom, including our experience of alienation, loneliness and violence. The Basic Document reminds us of this stark reality when it analyzes some of the destructive elements of our contemporary culture: the pain experienced in the loss of personal relationships; the growing power of selfishness; the profound sense of emptiness; and the persistent drive towards aggressive and violent behavior (cf. #6). Can our Eucharists carry the weight of this all too human reality? Can the Eucharist successfully address our wounded condition? Can the power of the Eucharist sustain us in the face of our own unfaithfulness, our failures in friendship, our betrayals of trust, our addictions, our sinfulness? Perhaps what is required is to first acknowledge our brokenness. Only then can a door be opened to the mystery of Christ's sacrificial life and love as having something to offer to our blockages to friendship, to our selfishly destructive behavior, to our empty lives.
13. It is in the sacred action of remembering (anamnesis) at Eucharist that we are gathered up into this redemptive event. Our entrance into the mystery is through the door of obedience and fidelity to Jesus' invitation: Do this in remembrance (anamnesis) of me (Lk. 22:19). This action of remembering is not limited to only performing the ritual or of recalling a historical event but of making the same self-gift that Jesus made. His sacrifice becomes our sacrifice. Like him, and because of him, we are invited to absorb violence with love: No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends (Jn. 15:13). We are the friends who must now befriend the other. It is in this free gift of self that Christ reveals the true meaning of a love freely given: having loved his own in the world, he loved them to the end (Jn. 13:1). The Eucharist is the remembrance (anamnesis) of this love.
14. As we make our journey through life, for us who are Christians and Catholics, we will find in the Eucharist the memorial of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the anointed one. In the Eucharist we celebrate a life freely given in obedience to the Father and in loving friendship so that all "may have life and have it to the full" (Jn. 10:10). Consequently, it is in full active and intelligent participation of the Eucharistic celebration that we are formed into the children of God and learn how to be free. In the words and gestures of our Eucharists celebrated with deep faith and active participation we enter into the mystery of the life and death of Jesus. Just as the proclamation of the word of God has the power to liberate, so also do the prayers and gestures within the Eucharistic celebration awaken in us the power of God's liberating love.
15. At the presentation of the gifts at the Eucharist, participants bring to the altar the fruits of the earth and the work of human hands. "The fruits of the earth" are the free gift of God to his people. They are the freely received gifts of God's creation which we return to Him in thanksgiving. But these simple gifts, are they not also a powerful reminder of all of God's bounteous creation? Do they not symbolize the longing for a "new earth" where everyone will have sufficient nourishment, work and leisure? And do they not likewise carry a judgement on what we have done to the earth? The pollution of the air, the water and the land itself. Have not these gifts been tainted by our neglect, our carelessness, our betrayal of God's creation? What violence have we inflicted on His creation?
16. These gifts are "the work of human hands." As such they represent the entire economic and social structures and systems that merge to produce bread and wine from wheat and grapes. In this sense, these simple gifts bring to our consciousness our freely chosen market economies and its consequences to people and places. The production of food and goods enters the great salvific chain of events which we celebrate at Eucharist. This simple action of carrying the gifts of bread and wine to the table of Eucharist and the prayers of offering recall the entire economic and social realities of our world. We can make this offering only because these gifts were first made to us by a loving creator. Before being symbols of our own lives they are first symbols of God's benevolence. But at what price have these gifts been realized? How many victims have been left along the way?
17. So we offer our gifts, -- imperfect and tainted -- because of the economic and social injustices suffered by the men, women and children involved in the production of the goods of our world; and we ask God to transform them into an acceptable offering, mindful too of all those other men and women who ceaselessly struggle to achieve greater justice and equity for all of His children. We bring these gifts and ask that they be made holy by the power of the Spirit: cleanse and purify these gifts, free them so as to become the worthy body of your Son who invites us to celebrate this great mystery.
18. At the presentation of the gifts, especially during Sunday Masses, the collection which was taken earlier is regularly brought to the altar along with the bread and wine. This mundane gesture of placing money in a basket, does it not also speak to us of our everyday lives, involved as we are in making money or in spending it? How much of our time and energy is spent on monetary concerns, whether it is the worry we have about the amount of money we need to earn to feed, house, clothe and educate our families (to say nothing of medical expenses and leisure) or again, the trauma of the lack of sufficient money to pay mortgages or rents. Money, in our present society, is obtained from our labors. The tragedy of unemployment can lead to tensions and conflict. And in some cases the excess of money or the lack of it can lead to violence depending on whether one wishes to keep and increase his share or one desires to obtain conditions for a living wage. Whatever may be the situation in which we find ourselves, money touches all of our lives. In the sense that people invest time and energy for its acquisition and its disbursement, in that sense the money freely offered as a gift to God and for the poor will always remain a significant symbol of the offering of one's life. The gift of money becomes a self-offering, the offering of one's labor, of one's energy and of one's time.
19. The collection at Mass echoes the concerns for the poor of the early Christian communities spoken of in the Acts of the Apostles (cf Acts 24:17) and by Saint Paul (cf. Rom. 15:25-27; 2Cor. 8:1-9; Gal. 2:10). When we make our free-gift offering to God we recall the vast social, educational and missionary works of the church. We participate in the great works of charity that alone we could never hope to accomplish. Yet, the gesture of placing money on the collection plate can also make us aware of the injustices in wages and employment of which our particular economic system, and our participation in it, creates. How free are we really? Can this simple "collection ritual" at the Mass remind us of the part we must play in helping resolve exploitative practices and unjust situations. Does not the Eucharist in this instance, once again, recall our responsibility to liberate ourselves from harmful attachment to money? More dramatically, does not this offering of money, in some small way, help break the chains which may bind us to the altar of the god of profit? The collection at the Mass is a powerful reminder, also, that we are implicated in a vast social, economic and political order.
20. Returning to the gospel story of Levi in St. Luke, can we not see the freeing power of Jesus in the call to discipleship? Can we not also appreciate the banquet scene in the house of Levi as a challenge to our prejudices, to our destructive vision of people, and to our self-righteousness? Was it not the freedom of Jesus to question our assumptions that finally and inevitably led him to the cross? As disciples of Jesus can we freely follow him? Are not our Eucharists a celebration of this invitation as well as a remembering of His sacrificial offering to free us from self-destruction and our tendency to do violence to our brothers and sisters? If we are to be freed is it not so as to live fully as Jesus promised, "I come that they may have life and have it abundantly" (Jn. 10:10). I wish to conclude this reflection with Jesus's words to the crowd, "I myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world" (Jn. 6:51). Let us make ours the Opening Prayer for the feast of the Precious Blood: "Father, by the blood of your own Son you have set us all free and saved us from death. Continue your work of love within us, that by constantly celebrating the mystery of our salvation we may reach the eternal life it promises."
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