Eucharist, a word Catholics, Orthodox, and Episcopalians/ Anglicans often use for communion and for the Mass, sounds pretty technical to many people these days. Yet in its origins in ancient Greek (the verb eucaristein), it was a common way of saying to give thanks, to be grateful. The best synonym for Eucharist would be Thanksgiving.
And so maybe it’s not surprising that one of my most important lessons in Eucharist came at the dinner table of some friends, a table not so unlike the ones that we all spread out for the holiday feasts.
The year before I entered the seminary I had just moved to Northern California for a temporary job, not far from the house my college friend Christine was sharing with her mother Elaine after the death of her father (names have been changed since personal information is involved). I got into the habit of driving up for periodic dinners, usually with another good friend and with Christine’s cousin as well. The five of us would feast on wonderful Italian meals.
Get your holy meal here
Arriving in the late afternoon, the guests would join in the cooking already in progress, various people being directed to wash this head of lettuce or cut these onions while we began to talk and have some wine. By the time dinner rolled around, the sky was dark and the table set with bread, wine, cheese, pasta, meat, vegetables, and other delicacies. Knowing I was thinking seriously about the seminary at the time, Elaine would direct me to pray with the lightest touch of sarcasm, “Okay, Brett, you’re the holy one.”
Then the conversation really began. Ordinary time was suspended, and we talked about what we expected and what we feared. Where all of us were headed, those of us starting out on career track, and Elaine beginning her new life without her husband. There were spiritual dilemmas, moral conundrums, and just plain funny stories.
And those nights we talked about Joe, Christine’s father, remembering him. I had never met him, but Christine and Elaine would talk about his life, how they were faring in their grief, where they imagined he was now. His memory hung over our gatherings, but in a beautiful way, as if there were an extra person seated at the table.
What I mostly remember of those evenings was how life-giving they were. I felt connected to those four people in a special way, and rooted in a transitional time in my life. And I do recall being terribly grateful those nights, grateful to God just to be alive.
A kind of model
Obviously, the Eucharist we experience at church cannot regularly be the intimate experience of a candlelit dinner. But those nights remain a kind of model in my head. What if the elements of bread, wine, candles, light, music were wielded with grace? What if the words of the Bible readings were read clearly and then preached or discussed in a down-to-earth way, with vulnerability and relevance? What if people were invited and what if they accepted the invitation to participate more?
Even as it is, the Eucharist is not so different from those dinners, I think. People gather together in search of connection and grace. The mysteries of life are discussed and pondered. Bread and wine are shared. And a man who means everything to all of us is remembered�and in remembering him he becomes present again.