“The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life.” (Lumen Gentium, 11)
The word “Eucharist” is a transliteration of the Greek word eucharistia, which is itself a translation of the Hebrew word berekah. All three words have the meaning of thanksgiving, or praise for the wonderful works of God.
Most Hebrew prayers begin with the words “Baruch atah adonai, Eloheinu…” which is usually translated as “Blessed are you, Lord God…” (The word baruch is from the same stem as berakah.) Jews have traditionally viewed all the goods of the earth as gifts of God for which they are called to frequently give thanks and praise. For the religious Jew, even to this day, every day is filled with opportunities to give thanks and praise to God. “The Greek word eucharistein recalls the Jewish blessings that proclaim – especially during a meal – God’s works: of creation, redemption and sanctification.” (Catholic Catechism, #1328)
The Eucharist should be understood as the sharing of a common meal. The Jesus of the scriptures is an advocate of the open table to which all are called, regardless of status. The Gospel of Luke (22:16-24) tells the parable of the banquet to which many of the invited guests sent their excuses. The master then sent his servants out into the byways and invited the “poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.” Earlier in Luke’s gospel (7:34,35) Jesus is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!
As Paul testifies, the Eucharist was often celebrated within the context of a common meal to which all were invited. In 1 Cor: 17-22, Paul excoriates those who refused to share food with others who were not of the same status as them, thus violating the model that Jesus had presented. In the subsequent passage, Paul indicates that the origin of the Christian Eucharist was at the Last Supper, a Jewish Passover rite, when Jesus took bread and said, “Take and eat. This is my body which is given up for you. Do this in memory of me.” Then he took a cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, whenever you drink of it, in memory of me.” (1 Cor. 11:23-26; see also Mt. 26:26-29; Mk. 14: 22-25; and Lk. 22:14-20.)
As a Jew, Jesus had a profound sense of the importance of memory in making present the saving activity of the past events of the Passover. Here is what the Catholic Catechism says of memory in the context of the Eucharist:
“In the sense of Sacred Scripture, the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for man. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them.” (Catholic Catechism, #1363)
In the 2nd and 3rd centuries of the Christian era, various forms of Eucharistic prayer emerged in the languages of the Near East. All of these prayers were great prayers of Thanksgiving for all of creation, and especially for the life, death and resurrection of the Lord, Jesus Christ. Over the centuries, these Eucharistic Prayers were developed and embellished in both the Eastern (Orthodox) and Western (Latin) rites.
- Sacrosanctum Concilium, The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Vatican Council II, December 1963.
- Lumen Gentium, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Vatican Council II, Nov. 1964.
- The Sacrament of the Eucharist #1322-1419, Catechism of the Catholic Church, Doubleday, 1995.
- Eucharist: Celebrating its Rhythms in Our Lives, Paul Bernier (Ave Maria Press, 1993)
- Eucharist, Louis Bouyer (University of Notre Dame Press, 1968)
- The Eucharist, Mary Durkin (Thomas More Press, 1990)
- eucharist with a small e, Miriam Therese Winter (Orbis Books, 2005)
As you celebrate the Eucharist, pay careful attention to the entire Eucharistic Prayer, noting the thanksgiving and praise for all creation, the calling of the Holy Spirit to bless the gifts, the institution narrative, the commemoration of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and the intercessions for the whole Church, including the living and the dead.
As you receive Communion, be aware that you are joining with others throughout the world who are becoming one with Christ and building up the Body of Christ in the world. Be mindful that that when you leave the church you are called to help bring about the Kingdom of God.
See also Eucharistic Devotion