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Paul and the Eucharist (Part 1)

By Msgr Michael de Verteuil, Chair, Liturgical Commission

1 Corinthians 11:17–34

In this Letter, Paul is answering questions or correcting things he has heard of the Corinthians’ behaviour, and one of the things he has heard of is their celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

His response is to tell them that what they are doing is certainly not what they should be doing. “I cannot congratulate you on this”, he tells them. What are they doing so wrong that it nullifies the celebration?

The situation is this: people gathered in the house for the celebration, arriving at different times. The richer people arrived first, taking the best seats, and beginning to eat and drink (the celebration of the Eucharist was at that time linked to a meal) while others arrived later – the poorer people arrived last, probably having to wait until their work was finished before they could come.

By that time some people may have had too much to drink and the poorer people might have been embarrassed at the quality of their food compared to what others had—if they had food at all (v 20–22).

This is Paul’s problem—unity and care for one another should have marked the community. The weaker ones in the community should not be embarrassed or discriminated against, no division between the haves and the have-nots.

The community is gathered ‘in remembrance of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood’—petty divisions have no part of that. The Kingdom of God is the Kingdom of peace and unity.

The community must “practice at the level of life what they proclaim at the level of ritual” (Fr Francis J Moloney SDB). If not, what they celebrate is a lie. Note what Paul is telling us, the criterion for an authentic liturgy is—it is not liturgical correctness (as important as that may be) but the love and caring that exists in the celebrating community. Good for us to remember when we worry about what is liturgically correct and pay no attention to the deeper issue of our relationships in the Christian community.

Paul goes on to say, “that anyone who eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily is answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.”

He continues in the next verse (28), “Examine yourself and only then eat the bread and drink from the cup.”

And what is the thing we are to examine ourselves on? Given the context, it is our attitude to everyone else celebrating, it is our relationships with one another.

If we do not recognise the gathered assembly—and indeed all God’s people—as the body of Christ, then we are eating and drinking judgement on ourselves (v 29).

In the behaviour of the Corinthians, Paul “sees a threat to the very meaning and purpose of the Eucharist.” Would that bother us as much today!