My favorite television show went off the air a few months ago. The BBC used to broadcast a weekly program called “Top Gear.” Ostensibly, it was about cars, but in reality it was something like Monty Python’s Flying Circus on wheels. The three hosts of the show were journalists and car enthusiasts. They test drove cars, and reported automotive news. Mostly, however, they had fun – the very quirky, irreverent, slightly rude brand of fun that is characteristic of British humor.
The show ended as a result of one of the things that made it the most watched program on the BBC. The unruly behavior of one of the hosts was one of the most entertaining aspects of the show, but eventually it got him fired from the cast. The final episode of the show featured the two remaining hosts (the ones not fired by the BBC for outrageous behavior). In the background of each scene, behind the two remaining hosts, was a life-size model of an elephant: the absence of the fired, third host was visibly evident.
Just as there was “an elephant in the room” of the final episode of Top Gear, there is “an elephant in the room” every time we gather to celebrate Eucharist. In every Catholic parish, every time Liturgy is celebrated, there is a life-size reminder of what is missing from the gathering.
Last Sunday, someone asked me if the people who arrive late for Mass are the same ones who leave early. While there are those Catholics who make up for being late by leaving early, it is my observation that the arrival of the final latecomer is the cue for the early departures to begin. Sunday Mass is something like a shift change at a factory: as the evening shift arrives, the morning shift departs.
The primary reason for this “revolving door” spirituality is the poor quality of catechesis about Eucharist that has been in vogue for over a hundred years. For much too long, Eucharist has been portrayed as primarily a thing to be obtained, a blessing to be grasped and/or a perfunctory obligation. This version of catechesis about the Eucharist makes Mass attendance something like a time-card for an hourly worker or a rewards-card at a casual restaurant: as long as you show up in time to get your card punched, you can go home free of any further obligations.
The elephant in the room becomes very noticeable in light of this Sunday’s Scripture readings. The first reading, from the Book of Exodus, depicts God’s response to the complaints of the Israelites. The people complained that the privations of the desert were unbearable, and that they would have been better off remaining in Egypt. God responded solicitously by sending both manna and quail for the people to eat.
Many centuries later, rabbis began to interpret the manna as a sign representing the Torah: just as God had satisfied the hunger of God’s People in the desert, so God also satisfied the human desire for wisdom and justice by giving the Law. This representational (typological), interpretation of the manna is the background of the events in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus had left the crowds behind after the miraculous feeding in the desert. The crowd found where he had gone, and Jesus warned them, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” (John 6:27)
Jesus’ miracles had the same meaning and message that was contained in his preaching. The feeding of the five thousand in the desert was a prophetic sign that presented Jesus as the source of new manna, a new Law of wisdom and justice. The crowds would have been satisfied only to receive another free meal; Jesus had hoped to engender in them a hunger for God’s Word. He fled their presence because he did not want to feed their lack of faith.
Eucharist is our weekly celebration of the Baptismal Covenant. In Baptism we became God’s People by adoption. In order to keep our faith fresh, alive and growing we re-commit ourselves on a weekly basis to live up to our Baptismal promises. The Eucharist is intended to be a visible representation of our communal identity as God’s People; it is also our individual ratification of the vows of Baptism. Eucharist is God’s promise to be present always in our lives, and it is our promise to remain engaged in the lifelong process of repentance and conversion.
On your way out of church today you’ll see notices from our St. Vincent de Paul Society regarding their annual collection of school items for needy students in our local neighborhoods. There are printed lists of needed items. Taking home a copy of the list implies an obligation to make an actual contribution to the collection. All of us know that our conscience nags at us when we make a commitment to be charitable but fail to fulfill the commitment. For that reason, the St. Vincent de Paul Society provides printed lists of needed items: to prompt your conscience to act.
The reception of Holy Communion at Sunday Liturgy has the same purpose as that list of needed school items; it is intended to prompt our consciences to fulfill the promises we made at Baptism. Eucharist is a sacramental sign of commitment, fidelity, transformation and communal identity, but all of those are absent when Eucharist becomes merely a thing to get, a blessing to grab or a burdensome obligation to fulfill.
When Eucharist is merely something to be taken in the quickest, most efficient and least demanding manner possible, it becomes a spiritual revolving door that leads no where. When our weekly celebration degenerates into a habit done with no conscious thought, Eucharist becomes the elephant in the room, a visible reminder that faith is missing.
We will have the opportunity, in just a few minutes, to receive the pledge of God’s mercy and forgiveness; at the same time, we will make a pledge to commit our entire lives to God’s service. Before we come forward to receive Eucharist we might ask ourselves what we have to offer as a fulfillment of our pledge. Today’s celebration of Eucharist promises to help us encounter Jesus, who is the “food that endures for eternal life.” (John 6:27) The manner in which we participate in today’s Eucharist will determine whether God’s promise will be made visible in us or remain the elephant in the room.