Jesus left us the Eucharist as the source of our unity. Sadly, often, it’s the cause of our division, both among Christian denominations and within them. We tend to do battle with each other about most everything connected to the Eucharist: What’s its precise theology? Who may preside? How often should it be celebrated? What’s the precise role of the presider? How is the presider to be vested? Where should the altar be placed? Which hymns are appropriate and which aren’t? How is Christ’s presence in the bread and wine to be understood? How inclusive must the language to be? What’s the relationship of the Eucharistic ritual to the celebration of the Word? Who may appropriately serve the Eucharistic species? The disagreements, it seems, never end.
There is one consolation in all of this. Scripture scholars suggest that it has ever been thus, right from the beginning. Already within the earliest apostolic churches, these same questions were hotly debated and were the source of painful divisions.
Looking at the Christian scriptures we see that there is no single theology and practice of the Eucharist presented there. Rather there are already a variety of theologies, approaches, and vocabularies about it. Some communities, for instance, called it “The Lord’s Supper”, others, it seems, didn’t; some communities, John’s for instance, may have celebrated Eucharist daily while others may have celebrated it only on Sundays or even less frequently; some communities argued about who should sit where during the service, others about who should have their heads covered and who shouldn’t.
Hence, already by the time that the gospels were written there was not one precise, univocal view on the Eucharist and, seemingly, considerable variety in its practice, not to mention painful and sharp disagreements about it. Already then it was both a source of unity and a source of division within and among the various communities.
The Evangelist, John, tries to make an important point about all of this. By the time his gospel is written, there were already, strikingly parallel to today, many disputes about the Eucharist. More and more, the Eucharist was becoming as much a cause of division as a source of unity for Christians. What was John’s response?
Where the other gospels place the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, John inserts a very different kind of “Eucharistic” text. In place of having Jesus take the bread and wine and say, “This is my body! This is my blood!”, John has Jesus washing the feet of his disciples – precisely as a “Eucharistic” act. How so?
To the popular mind, this gesture is understood as a lesson in humility, namely, Jesus, the master, turns the mantle of privilege into the apron of service. That lesson clearly is there, but there’s more. Jesus is also saying something important about the Eucharist with this gesture (which is why the church chose this text, rather than one recording the words of institution, as its gospel-text for Holy Thursday). What does the washing of the feet say about the Eucharist?
In essence, Jesus is saying this: “Acquiescing to each other in charity and service, in this way, is what the Eucharist really means. If we can’t do this for each other, perhaps we shouldn’t be celebrating the Eucharist at all. We can give up our right to be right!”
The Eucharist is an invitation to many things, but it’s also, as Jesus’ gesture of washing his disciples’ feet shows, an invitation to GIVE UP OUR RIGHT TO BE RIGHT, especially as regards our views about how the Eucharist must be celebrated. Simply put, Jesus tells us (shows us really) that it’s more important to be in union with each other than to be right!
That’s an important challenge. We simply fight too much about the Eucharist. Everyone, it seems, has an important, non-negotiable, truth that he or she feels may not, at any cost, be compromised: Catholics and Protestants fight over the real presence (at least over its vocabulary); feminists and traditionalists fight over language; liturgists fight with the common folk over how a service should be properly done; artists fight with the pious over liturgical aesthetics; choir directors fight with pastors over the choice of songs; priests fight with each other over the issue of concelebration; bishops fight with church boards over how liturgical space should be constructed, and people at Eucharistic services glare at each other and throw private tantrums because a certain song mentions dancing or names us as wretched sinners.
Too often what’s at stake under all this is more pride than truth, more the need to be right than the need to worship.
Jesus washing his disciples’ feet leaves this message: It’s more important to be in union in Christ and each other than to be liturgically, aesthetically, and politically correct. What the Eucharist asks of us, among other things, is to acquiesce to each other, to give up our right to be right!