Britain and Ireland can hold a special place for weary European travelers who are often frustrated on the continent in trying to make themselves understood using their Italian, French, German or Spanish apps on our iPhones! Unless one is conversant in one of these languages, it can be pretty tough sometimes communicating especially in restaurants with waiters looking on and thinking to themselves, “what is this person trying to say?” However, arriving in England or Ireland, there is this wonderful sense of being at home - at least with the Language. Though the English and Irish may find our accents and turns of phrase a bit odd at times, nevertheless, we Americans can generally be understood. For us as Catholic Christians, a common language in these lands is not the only reality that binds us together. Our common faith heritage as Catholics is a reality that was rooted in these ancient lands from the dawn of the Christian message.
While St. Augustine has traditionally been called the great evangelizer of the British Isles, arriving there in the 7th century from Rome, historians now tell us that Christianity most probably arrived in England centuries before the arrival of St. Augustine. Merchants from Rome traveling to this outpost of the Roman Empire were the first evangelizers to bring the new teachings of the Galilean rabbi to this far off land. Within the past 50 years, archeologists have unearthed valuable artifacts in Britain that now date the coming of Christianity to as early as the late 2nd century to early 3rd century.
One of the most fascinating archaeological finds in recent years was a Roman Villa obviously owned by a wealthy Roman merchant in Lullingstone which is in Kent. It is built in the typical Roman manner with a large open inner courtyard with rooms on all four sides. One of the rooms has captured the attention of Christian archeologists for on the wall is the large symbol in mosaic of the first two letters of the Greek name for Christ - Chi and Rho. On another wall there is a fresco of a man with arms raised in prayer. Archeologists have concluded that this room was undoubtedly a Christian house chapel where the community gathered around the holy table to celebrate the Eucharist. It was here that the merchant together with his household that might even have included slaves, gathered to do what Christians have done for nearly 2000 years.
These early Christians, often fearful of persecution for following the new way of Christ, were faithful to the words that we have heard today from the 6th Chapter of St. John’s Gospel:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
Through the intervening years of the Christian Tradition, it has been the Eucharist that has anchored our faith and shaped our identity as the followers of the Lord. Theological reflection by the wise and great theologians of the Church has attempted to unpack for us the meaning of this central aspect of our Catholic way of life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes much of this theology when it reminds us that in the Eucharist we celebrate a reality that is a meal, a sacrifice and a presence.
First of all, the Eucharist is a meal. One of the most characteristic gestures of the Lord Jesus was his preoccupation with sharing meals with others. To share a meal for Jesus was more than just to satisfy a biological need but rather an opportunity to share his life with others. In the midst of a meal Jesus taught compassion and forgiveness. In the midst of a meal he showed us how to love one another in simple and humble service as he washed the feed of his disciples. And finally, in the midst of a meal - the great Passover meal of remembrance - he spoke of bread and wine as his very own body and blood given as a perpetual remembrance of who and what He is for each of us.
Second, the Eucharist is a sacrifice. The deepest meaning of the Last Supper gift of the Eucharist cannot be fully understood without setting our eyes on what was to take place the next day at Calvary. Love without sacrifice is counterfeit. When we love, truly love another, we are willing to give of ourselves often in heroic and utterly selfless ways. As he hung upon the Cross with arms outstretched, Jesus was saying to each of us that his reconciling and healing love for us went beyond mere words to sealing it in his own death which would eventually be transformed to life unending in the Resurrection. Greater love no one has than to lay down one’s life for a friend.
Finally, the Eucharist is a presence. The holy bread which we break and the cup that we share at the Eucharistic celebration are viewed in Catholic Tradition to be the “real presence” of the Lord, His Risen body and blood, soul and divinity. That holy presence is not merely an empty sign remembering a past event, but rather the living reality of a God who cannot be contained by time and space and whose love continues to embrace us as food for our journey back to Him. For, the one who feeds on this bread shall life forever. It is important to keep in mind that our Catholic Tradition teaches that this presence is not contingent upon the faith of the believer – that is, if one truly believes it to be the living presence of the Lord, then it is. If one does not believe then the elements remain simply bread and wine. Catholic doctrine teaches that the holy presence of the Lord is an objective reality that transcends the subjective belief of the individual. It is a substantial presence given to us by Jesus first and foremost as an opportunity for loving communion with him and secondly as a living presence for prayer and contemplation.
Whether in a house church in 3rd century Britain, a great Cathedral in France, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or this place that is holy by our gathering in faith - the Lord continues to be with us in the Eucharist which remains a holy meal of sacrificial love which celebrates His abiding presence with us until He comes in Glory.