March 27, 2013
What does the Holy Thursday feast (the Last Supper of the Lord Jesus) have to do with the hungry, the poor, the unemployed, and the marginalized people of the earth? Everything. Including, we might say, quoting St. Paul, that the celebration of the Eucharist is invalid if it's done in a community whose members are responsible for the injustice that causes hunger and exclusion in this world.
In the second reading for the Holy Thursday Mass (First Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 23-26), St. Paul talks about what Jesus said during the Last Supper: "I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks,broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'"
"Take heed," Paul explained, "whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes."
Immediately prior to this passage, Paul had been criticizing the Corinthians harshly because, in the communal meals around their Eucharistic celebration, the rich ate well and a lot without sharing equally with the poor of the community. "I can't praise you for your meetings, because they are doing more harm than good...When you meet, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, since each one goes ahead with his own supper, and while one goes hungry, another gets drunk."
"Do you not have houses in which you can eat and drink? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and make those who have nothing feel ashamed? What can I say to you? Shall I praise you? In this matter, no." (1 Cor 11:17-22) According to the Nueva Biblia Española, "in the celebration of the Eucharist itself, class differences were emphasized, humiliating the poorest."
Referring to this lack of sharing in the early Church, John Paul II in his encyclical "Ecclesia de Eucharistia” (April 17, Holy Thursday, 2003) commented that "The Apostle Paul, for his part, says that it is 'unworthy' of a Christian community to partake of the Lord's Supper amid division and indifference towards the poor (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-22, 27-34)."
Here, John Paul II adds a precious footnote, quoting Saint John Chrysostom: “Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: 'This is my body' is the same who said: 'You saw me hungry and you gave me no food', and 'Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me' ..."
"What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when Christ Himself is dying of hunger? Start by giving food to the hungry and then with what is left you may adorn the altar.” (Evangelium S. Matthaei, hom. 50:3-4: PG 58, 508-509)
In number 20 of his encyclical, the pope relates all this to life today: The Eucharist "spurs us on our journey through history and plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us. Certainly the Christian vision leads to the expectation of 'new heavens' and 'a new earth' (Rev 21:1), but this increases, rather than lessens, our sense of responsibility for the world today. (Cf. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 39)
Emphasizing this, he said "so that Christians will feel more obliged than ever not to neglect their duties as citizens in this world. Theirs is the task of contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God's plan.
"Many problems darken the horizon of our time. We need but think of the urgent need to work for peace, to base relationships between peoples on solid premises of justice and solidarity, and to defend human life from conception to its natural end. And what should we say of the thousand inconsistencies of a 'globalized' world where the weakest, the most powerless and the poorest appear to have so little hope! It is in this world that Christian hope must shine forth!"
John Paul II comes back to the Eucharist: "For this reason too, the Lord wished to remain with us in the Eucharist, making his presence in meal and sacrifice the promise of a humanity renewed by his love. Significantly, in their account of the Last Supper, the Synoptics recount the institution of the Eucharist, while the Gospel of John relates, as a way of bringing out its profound meaning, the account of the 'washing of the feet', in which Jesus appears as the teacher of communion and of service (cf. Jn 13:1-20)."
This text from St. John to which the pope is refering and which is the gospel reading for Holy Thursday 2013, describes how Jesus, shortly before his execution for being a prophet, began to wash the disciples' feet: "Before the feast of Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to pass from this world to the Father. He loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end...he rose from supper and took off his outer garments. He took a towel and tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel around his waist..."
"When he had washed their feet and put his garments back on and reclined at table again, he said to them, “Do you realize what I have done for you? You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master,’ and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Shortly thereafter, Jesus gave them "a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (13:34-35)
True disciples are the ones who follow Jesus' example of humble service and solidarity. In the early Church, during the suppers related to their Eucharistic celebrations, they should share the food equally.
This spirit of sharing also characterized the family and community life of the Church: "The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common. With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all.
"There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4:32-35).
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, when he was president of the Bishops' Conference of Argentina, criticized the unjust distribution of the earth's resources, saying in a speech on September 30, 2009 that "human rights, as the Latin American bishops said in the Santo Domingo document [IV Conferencia General del Episcopado Latinoamericano – Santo Domingo, 1992], are violated not only by terrorism, repression and assassinations but also by the existence of conditions of extreme poverty and the unjust economic structures that produce great inequality."
Two years before, he had touched on the same theme: "We live in the most unequal area of the world...", Bergoglio said during a meeting of Latin American bishops in 2007. "The unjust distribution of goods continues, creating a situation of social sin that cries to the heavens and limits the possibility of a fuller life for so many of our brothers and sisters."
Today we should fight for a world in which resources are shared for the good of all. This was the prophetic message of Father Héctor Gallegos, who was disappeared in Panama in 1971: "When we speak of communities of change, we are facing the current situation of our world which is essentially individualistic. Capitalism is intrinsically individualistic. So the community of change must fight against individualism and become communitarian."
So the celebration of Holy Thursday should spur us, fighting along with the hungry, the poor, the unemployed, and the marginalized of the earth, to create a more just society.
Fr. Joe Mulligan, a Jesuit priest from Detroit, works in Nicaragua with the Christian base communities. His book, The Nicaraguan Church and The Revolution, was published by Sheed & Ward in 1991. In 1994 he published The Jesuit Martyrs Of El Salvador — Celebrating the Anniversaries (Baltimore: Fortkamp), about the six Jesuits and two women massacred at the University of Central America in 1989.