The Eucharist, the Poor and the Meals of Jesus
How shall we think of the Eucharist today in a way that makes sense to the 1.2 billion all over the world today who live on less than 1$ a day?
My first instinct is to look at our main resources — the Magisterium. But it seems I do not find it there. These documents—noble as they are—seem to come from a very different social location, from concerns quite dissimilar and far from the grounds where I speak. What it wanted to avoid in the first place—communal liturgical sentimentalism—came back through the back door in its more individualistic and pietistic forms.
What were (un)consciously suppressed and forgotten are the meals Jesus had — simple human meals among friends and acquaintances which are closer to the hearts of my Payatas friends for they also share their pagpag no matter how little there is. In Jesus’ meal fellowship, there were wine and laughter but also prayer and reverence, sensitivity to other’s needs but also awareness of Abba, a sharing of pain but also of joy, of betrayal but also of trust forgiveness. During these meals, pains are healed, doubts respected, oils poured, wounds bound, and prejudices challenged. In these meals, boundaries collapse; all are welcome: man, woman or gay, outcast or free, sinner or saint, religious or heretic. And bread is broken for everyone. The whole of life is all there in all its roughness, neither compartmentalized nor dichotomized, neither polished nor sanitized. Its main concern is the promotion of the human not submission to rubrics.
Let me reflect on the Eucharist that we celebrate in small Payatas chapels every Sunday and what do people think about it; what meaning they attach to it. Let me go back to Ate Inday’s sharing and ask what lessons about the Eucharist we can learn from people at the rough grounds.
a. The Eucharist is the source of their personal strength and life-direction. Bereft of social, political and economic networks, the Eucharist is the poor’s only connection that works. In the testimony of Ate Inday, she tells us that the Sunday Mass is her only source of strength. Without it, all her problems would crush her down; with them, her temper flares and she loses control. That is why she does not really want to miss that Sunday Mass. It is her only connection with God. Jesus already said this long time ago: “I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me you will bear much fruit. Without me you can do nothing” (John 15: 5).
b. The Eucharist is a shared meal, a shared life. For all the present Magisterium’s allergy to the meal dimension of Eucharistic theology because of its fear of liturgical horizontalization, people in Payatas still thinks that the Mass is a meal of Jesus being shared with us, so that we can share with the others. For all you know, pagpag is not an individualist selfish scramble for survival in the spirit of Hobbes “homo homini lupus” (man is a wolf to man). Pagpag is a thrown-away food by this “throw away culture”, collected again by the hungry, brought home and reheated to be shared with the rest of the family and neighbors. What experience is deeper than the sharing of one’s pagpag from the garbage dump? Others share out of their abundance; the poor share despite their need.
Ratzinger’s Eucharistic theology was rightly reacting to the seemingly complacent and mediocre “parish tea party” liturgies, all singing “cuddle me Jesus”. But Jesus’ meal fellowship – as it is experienced and understood by his disciples in Payatas – even as they are celebratory, are also ‘difficult meals’, of real sharing for painful survival, of challenging narrow-mindedness and transgressing boundaries. They are meals of liberation, of passing over, of sharing that which I also badly need, of ‘sacrifice’ for the other—if you really want to use that word.
c. The Eucharist is a joyful celebration. Ate Inday observes that some priests are so serious with their message that he either lulls them to sleep or brings their imagination to the cemetery. Her advice to priests: put in a little bit of rock! Pope Francis also said something like this: “an evangelizer should never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral” (Evangelii Gaudium, 10). To celebrate the Eucharist with them is always a joy for me every Sunday. There are just funny and celebratory surprises – most of them an assertion of real theology.
It was the Feast of the Corpus Christi one Sunday. I was explaining Eucharistic theology in simple words. An old man raised his hand and said: “If today is the feast of the body and blood of Christ, why is it that it is only the priest who takes both body and blood? Why do we only have the body?” That was a stinging theological critique to present liturgical practice in the name of expediency. So I relented. At least for that Mass, we distributed communion in both species. Ten years after, on the same feast in that same chapel, I wanted to recall that experience. I started my homily this way: “Ten years ago, there was an old man here who objected. I was touched by what he said. I do not know where is he is now. I think he is dead by now.” Then from the back, a hand was raised. He stood up and said: “Father, I am still alive! Why did you kill me?” And the whole congregation giggled. But he was a sport. When he lined up for communion, he whispered to me: “I will forgive you if you give me two hosts and the wine.” I again relented. :)
d. The Eucharist is service and mission. Ate Inday tells us that God is not only felt in receiving the host at Mass. It is also in serving the church, the community, her neighbors… “lalo na yong mas higit pang nangangailangan kaysa sa akin.” Despite all the hardship, the focus is not about oneself. It is about making the other live. It is only this kind of sharing that provides a critique to the selfishness and corruption in our social systems and personal lives. Jesus’ egalitarian table fellowships provide us with an alternative vision to the very difficult situations mentioned at the start—of hunger, poverty, inequality and corruption. For how can one feast on the Lord’s table when the rest of the congregation is poor and hungry?
This was the problem the Paul was angry about in his letter to the Corinthians—the large division between those who have and those who have none; when some are left hungry while the others went home full and drunk (1 Cor 11: 17-33). This is the scandal that makes us receive the Eucharist unworthily, one that leads to blasphemy and our own condemnation! This is the bigger sin — not so much whether we have the proper liturgical songs or prescribed chalices.
St. John Chrysostom’s words ring from centuries back:
“Do you wish to honor the Body of Christ? Do not despise him when he is naked. Do not honor him here in the church buildings with silks, only to neglect him outside when he is suffering from cold and from nakedness… Of what use is it to load the table of Christ? Feed the hungry and then come and decorate the table. You are making a golden chalice and you do not give a cup of cold water? The Temple of your afflicted brother’s body is more precious that this temple (church). The Body of Christ becomes for you an altar. It is more holy than the altar of stone on which you celebrate the holy sacrifice. You are able to contemplate this altar everywhere in the streets and in the open squares.”
As you know, we still have to hear something from Pope Francis about the Eucharist and the liturgy. But the way he celebrates the Eucharist bring us some hopes toward a different direction — washing the feet of a Muslim woman with a deacon’s stole, getting wet as he celebrated Mass under the rain in Tacloban, and many other gestures. What he wrote in Evangelii Gaudium gives us a sense of hope.
“Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason… The Eucharist, although, it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” (EG, 47)
To end, let me refer to a painting of the Last Supper done by a Filipino painter and now deceased friend, Joey Velasco. Some of his models were real children from Payatas. I do not know them personally but Joey says he knows where they live. One peculiar detail: there is
that child clutching her doll while looking at Jesus. Her real name is Tinay. Her mother has been working as domestic helper abroad. Her battered doll is a symbol of herself who is also battered by her own abusive father who is also a drug addict. The painting is entitled “Hapag ng Pag-asa” (Table of Hope). The Eucharistic table is a symbol of hope for the battered, the lost, the hungry, the broken, the excluded, the sinner, the poor.
These were the meals of Jesus. Do our Eucharistic celebrations today resemble these at least in some some little way?