By CLIFFORD M. YEARY, Little Rock Scripture Study | Published April 23, 2009
It seems almost cruel to say that among all the addressees of Paul’s letters, the Corinthians take the lead by bad example. But the conclusion is hard to avoid.
Paul “yells” at the Galatians for allowing male converts to be circumcised (Galatians 3:1), and the Thessalonians may have been a bit lazy
(2 Thessalonians 3:10), but the Corinthians allow incest, avail themselves of temple prostitutes and even get drunk in their attempts to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.
And yet we owe a tremendous thanks to these ancient people, who, for all they lacked in discipline, seemed to make up in enthusiasm. Because they got so much wrong we have the benefit of hearing Paul set them straight.
Because they bungled their eucharistic celebrations, we have the benefit of witnessing the handing on of apostolic tradition in this, the most sacred of matters for a Catholic. In his recounting of the Last Supper to the Corinthians, Paul not only teaches us about the Eucharist, he affirms for us the importance of Tradition in handing on the faith.
What Paul tells them, in First Corinthians 11, is preserved for us as the earliest known written account of the Last Supper. Penned sometime in the early 50s of our era, it predates any account of the Last Supper in our Gospels.
Because of what he tells them, we are even more confident that when we celebrate Eucharist we are doing so in the tradition handed on by the Apostles. But Paul’s teaching about the Eucharist ought to remind us of another vital aspect of the Eucharist and the body of Christ.
Paul harshly criticizes their celebrations of the Lord’s Supper for things we might find both shocking and hard to imagine. If anything, they resembled a boozy parish potluck dinner and were nothing like even one of our most folksy “guitar” Masses.
The Corinthians would apparently gather together in one of the largest family homes available to them and eat a communal meal that was climaxed by the breaking of bread and the serving of a cup of wine that they offered as the Body and Blood of the Lord.
Paul tells the Corinthians that he cannot consider their celebrations a true attempt to eat the Lord’s Supper — but not quite for the reasons we might think.
As strange as it might seem to celebrate Eucharist in the context of a potluck supper, theologians tell us that this was probably the normal way of celebrating Eucharist in the early days of the Church.
The Last Supper, after all, was a supper, and the bread and wine that Jesus identified as his body and blood were chosen from within the context of a larger meal.
It is the way in which they selfishly indulge in the larger meal that so disturbs Paul. When he warns the Corinthians that they fail to discern the body of the Lord, it is not because they fail to distinguish between the regular bread of their feast and the bread that has been transformed in the Eucharist.
The Corinthians know the tradition that Paul has handed on to them. The Corinthians have failed to discern the body of Christ because they ignore an essential eucharistic reality: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes” (11:26).
Christ gave up his body to death for the poorest among them and when they gather to eat and drink they let the poorest among them go hungry!
Today, theologians often distinguish between distinct encounters with the real presence of Christ during the celebration of Eucharist: Christ is truly present in the proclaimed word, and he is truly present to us in the person of the presiding priest. Christ is present in a most special way under the signs of bread and wine. Finally, we, too, are a true presence of Christ to one another when we gather together in his name (see Matthew 18:20).
Paul’s theology was less exacting. He was able to easily shift from considering the assembly of the baptized as the body of Christ and the bread of the Eucharist as the body of Christ because he saw both clearly as one and the same body of Christ.
The lesson to both the Corinthians and us is this: The way in which the community gathers together reveals whether it recognizes itself as a gathering of God’s people. Do the wealthy get preferred seating? Do the notables get more attention than those of more anonymous appearance?
How well the community communicates its esteem for each other is of vital importance to truly celebrating the Eucharist.
This is the ninth in a series of 13 columns on St. Paul and his teachings, written by the directors of the Little Rock Scripture Study (Diocese of Little Rock, Ark.) for the Jubilee Year of St. Paul. The Jubilee marks the 2,000-year anniversary of the apostle’s birth.
This article was originally published in the Arkansas Catholic, Feb. 14, 2009. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved.