Many years ago, a friend of mine served Christmas dinner to a number of families living in a very poor area. He was joined by others, including a nun who soon rushed into the kitchen rather flustered. “We haven’t served the starter yet, and they’ve eaten the after dinner mints!”
The formality of some dining occasions is not to everyone’s liking. Some, of course, may have been brought up on a battery of cutlery laid out from the plate, naturally be able to decide which wine goes with what food, and what table etiquette to employ when it matters.
For most of us, most of the time, meals are enjoyed in far more informal settings, a TV Dinner or with family and friends at the kitchen table, and when we do end up in a more refined setting we may very well be eyeing up others to see which fork to lift!
At the heart of the Eucharist is, of course, a meal but we can often lose a sense of this. On the other hand, the Eucharist can be eyed as no more than table fellowship, a sign of happy togetherness. Henri Nouwen described the Eucharist ‘as the most human and divine gesture imaginable.’
It is human because it involves food, and not just food but a meal, something to share, as we gather at table. We eat to live of course. It’s a biological need, an physiological requirement, a natural instinct. But we also turns our eating into meals, into occasions, a time to gather and share, to savour in the food and enjoy the taste, the presentation, but maybe not the washing up!
“The Eucharist is the most human and divine gesture imaginable.”Henri Nouwen
Food turns up, too, at celebrations, whether it’s a light bite or a banquet. Who can imagine a wedding or similar occasion without some kind of food on the table?
And so, the intimate moment of gathering around the table is made more intimate by the promise of Jesus to be with us. The invitation to come to the feast is his. He bids us, calls us forward. He is the host, as well as the food.
Sometimes, though, this intimacy and sense of informality in the presence of Jesus may so easily descend into sloppiness or become quite an ordinary thing in which we participate. As well as being a human gesture, it is also, as Nouwen reminds us, most divine.
St John Chrysostom described the altar as ‘a place of terror and shuddering.’ In the Eucharist, we are in the presence of Christ our God. We join in the worship of heaven. He, through whom we were created, who laid down his life for us, who was raised from the dead and ascended into heaven is the one who bids us come.
It is possible to have that sense of intimacy and holiness, of familiarity and awe, which makes us aware of our own unworthiness.
“Lord I have not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word,” says the Roman Centurion to Jesus. These are words we make our own at Mass as we are invited to receive Holy Communion.
“Lord I have not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”
We come to the Eucharist aware of our own unworthiness but knowing that we are loved, loved by God who draws us into his life, into an intimate holiness.