We sometimes forget that Jesus was born in a barn, not a church, and that the God of the Incarnation is as much about kitchen tables as ecclesial altars. God is as much domestic as monastic. This is important to keep in mind as we try to understand the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the body of Christ, a continuation of the Incarnation, and, like Jesus’ birth, is meant to bring the divine into concrete, everyday life.
Hence, among its other things, the Eucharist is meant simply to be a family meal, a community celebration, a place, like our kitchen tables and living rooms, where we come together to be with each other, to share ordinary life, to celebrate special events with each other, to console and cry with each other when life is full of heartaches, and to be together simply for the sake of being together.
It is not good for the man to be alone. God spoke those words just before creating Eve, and he meant them not just about Adam, the first man, but about every man, woman, child, and creature forever. Nothing is an island, not even a molecule or an atom. Everything is meant to be in relationship. The Eucharist honours that.
When Jesus gave us the Eucharist, he intended it to be a ritual that invites us to come together as a family in every circumstance of our lives. In faith, just as in nature, we are meant to come together with others when we are happy and when we are sad, when the occasion is festive and when the occasion is mundane, when we celebrate new life and when we bury loved ones, when we give ourselves to each other in marriage and when we need reconciliation, when our energy is high and when our energy is low, when we feel the need for each other and when we want distance from others, and when we have no other reason to be together other than the fact that our nature invites us there.
The Eucharist invites us to gather as family. The very essence of family life is sharing with others both the special and the ordinary moments of life. Families gather together to celebrate occasions: Birthdays, weddings, graduations, transitions, illnesses, wakes, and funerals. At these times the atmosphere is more charged, the energy is higher, and there is a clearer sense that this is an occasion that merits our coming together.
But families that sustain themselves also gather regularly, ideally daily, irrespective of whether there is a special occasion or not. They don’t just gather when the energy is good, when everyone is at his or her best, when nobody is bored or angry, and when some occasion merits the effort. They come together regularly, despite tedium, boredom, low energy, busyness, distractions, and interpersonal tensions because they recognize, however inchoately, that family life is as much about sharing the mundane, the distracted, the sports scores, and the tensions of life, as it is about sharing special and joyous moments. The weekday supper of hotdogs and beans, wolfed-down in 20 minutes with the conversation going no deeper than the sports scores, is not exactly the same stuff as the fare of the Christmas dinner or the conversation that takes place at a wedding or a funeral, but it is equally as important in creating family and keeping a family together. Families are for everyday, just as they are for special occasions. So too is the Eucharist.
For a variety of reasons, we have been slow to take this aspect of the Eucharist seriously. Perhaps this is because its other dimensions seem more sacred. Our reluctance to accept this is evident in the simple criticism that is made of people who go to church principally because of its social aspect: “She doesn’t go to church to pray! She just goes for the socializing, for the chance to talk with others!” That is always voiced as a negative when, in fact, it a good reason, among others, to go the Eucharist. The ritual of the Eucharist was given to us because we are social in our very make-up. To go to church to socialize is reason enough to be there.
I wish I had known that as child when I went to church on special feast days, like Christmas or Easter, and heard the priest using the word “celebration” to describe our Eucharistic gathering and never, not even for a second, connecting that with the much-anticipated family dinner we would be having once we got home from church. I wish too that people would know this when they stay away from church because of boredom or anger or because they feel their presence there is only social and not an act of prayer.
One of the reasons we go to church is to pray, but we go there too for the same reason we go to the family table every evening. It’s good to be there, no matter what!