This is my body that is for you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
– 1 Corinthians 11:24–26
It was about 1:30 on Christmas morning of 1985. When I walked through the door of my house after returning from Midnight Mass, I could hear my mother sobbing from the TV room. Normally, I’d be worried if I found my mother sobbing uncontrollably. But not on Christmas morning. It was an annual ritual.
See, every Christmas Eve she would stay up late and watch the pope celebrate Midnight Mass at St. Peter’s. And every Christmas eve she could be found in front of the TV, weeping away. So, as usual, I went in to let her know I was home. But this year, my curiosity peaked. Instead of heading off to bed, I blurted out: “Aw, ma, what are you crying for? It’s only a Mass. What’s the big deal?”
“What’s the big deal?!” she screamed through streams of tears, furiously waving her ball of tissues in the air. “What’s the big deal?! The big deal is that this is the most moving celebration in all the world! There is nothing else like it. There is nothing in all the world as beautiful as Mass.”
What is so special about the Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, anyway? It’s just an empty, pietistic ritual we suffer through every Sunday. It’s boring and irrelevant. Any old prayer service will do.
If you asked me how I felt about Mass in 1985, this is how I would have responded. It isn’t that I wasn’t religious; I was in the middle of discerning a call to the priesthood, after all. No, I took my faith very seriously. I just didn’t understand what was so special about the Eucharist, about eating and drinking the body and blood of Christ. So what did I do? The only logical thing I could. I started going to Mass every day.
The daily Mass I attended had to the most tedious Mass anywhere on the face of the earth. The priest was near retirement. Although he was one of the finest Christians I have ever met, he didn’t exactly celebrate the Mass with unbridled enthusiasm. What’s worse, he would often lose his place and have to start over.
But one afternoon, during one of those weekday Masses, it came to me: This simple meal is the perfect celebration and expression of our faith, for “Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come again.” I remembered learning somewhere that for Jews, for Jesus and his contemporaries, memory was not the simple act of recalling events, the way we learn history by rehearsing the facts, but actually reliving and recreating them. This is what happens during the Eucharist. We relive the Last Supper anew; we recreate Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection.
But why would we want to do this? Why would we want to relive the crucifixion of Jesus? Because what we’re really doing is reliving, recreating, and receiving anew the greatest gift God has ever given us: his body, his flesh and blood. As Jesus says: “No greater love has any one than to lay down his life for his friends. I call you friends” (John 15:13–14).
The Greek word Paul uses in First Corinthians for body, soma, means the entire person, the whole self. In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, the words he used for “flesh and blood” mean the same thing. That’s what Jesus does, what God does, in the Lord’s Supper. He gives us his whole self—in visible, tangible, bodily form.
There is a famous story about Martin Luther’s first Mass as a priest. When he began to say the prayers at the altar, he was overcome with what was about to happen. Jesus, the holy, eternal God, was about to become really, truly, tangibly present in the bread and wine. The body and blood of the Lord right there in his very hands. He almost couldn’t go through with it.
Luther believed that something awesome happens at the Lord’s Supper. Even after the Reformation, he maintained his belief that Jesus was truly present in the Eucharist. It is true that he rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation: he didn’t care to speculate how Jesus became present in the bread and wine. What mattered to him was the fact that Jesus was present.
When other leaders in the Reformation such as John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli began to teach that Jesus was only symbolically or spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper, Luther passionately protested. Jesus’s real presence was the one major thing that Luther and the other Reformers weren’t able to agree on. During a famous meeting where they attempted to work this issue out, Luther sat across the table from Zwingli. As the discussion went on for hours and even days, Luther began carving words into the table under the cloth. Finally, when it was clear they weren’t making any progress, he flung the cloth back to reveal the words of Jesus at the Last Supper: “This is my body.”
Consuming the body and blood of Christ is a wonderful, mystical union. It gives us an intimacy with God we never would have thought possible. But it also arouses a dangerous memory. Every time we eat his body and drink his blood, we remember Jesus’s passion. He gives His body and blood for us so that we might be able, in turn, to give our bodies, our blood, ourselves, for others. In the same radical way Jesus loves us, so we too are called to love others. This might interfere with our plans, our desires. It might demand sacrifice, painful sacrifice. It might turn our lives upside down. But we can’t receive Jesus’s body and blood without stirring this dangerous memory.
In 1968, during the height of the Vietnam War, Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, broke into a municipal building and stole draft cards which he, his brother, and several others burned publicly to protest what they thought was an immoral war. He was arrested and sentenced to prison. On his way to prison, a parent in the crowd yelled: “Sure, Father, it’s alright for you to go to prison for your beliefs. But what about us? What are we to do? What’s going to happen to our children if we go to prison?”
Father Berrigan turned and responded: “What’s going to happen to your children if you don’t?”
Daniel Berrigan gave up his freedom in order that others might live. Consuming the body and blood of Christ stirred that dangerous memory in him and drove him to give his body and blood in defiance of the tragic waste of life that is war, and hopefully to prevent others from having their bodies torn apart and their blood senselessly spilled. Jesus gave his all for us, the greatest gift anyone can give, his very life. To live in him and have him live in us means that we must give our all for him, and this means giving our lives, even our body and blood for others. The Lord’s Supper is a dangerous memory. It reminds us of who we really are.
I used to think my mother was silly to be so moved by Midnight Mass. I used to think that she was being oversentimental, overdramatic. I used to wonder what was so special about this thing called the Lord’s Supper that it would cause her to shed tears of passion and joy. But now I know what my mother was talking about. Now I know why she was moved to tears. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we stir up that dangerous memory that propels us to great acts of love. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord, the supreme expression of God’s love for us. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, Jesus lives in us. There is no greater intimacy. There is no greater love.
Praised be Jesus Christ!
E. J. Sweeney is a pastor, author, and public speaker whose passion is to show skeptics like himself the overwhelming evidence for the Christian faith. A graduate of Trinity College, BA, and Yale University, MDiv, summa cum laude, E. J. has taught theology and scripture in two high schools and has served as a pastor in two churches. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, where he is a volunteer firefighter. You can follow E. J. and his writings at RaisingJesus.com and on his Raising Jesus Facebook page.