Two weeks ago, five of our young parishioners received the Sacrament of Confirmation. In the United States, the conferral of the Sacrament of Confirmation is a conflicted and disjointed process. I try to make the preparation for, and celebration of, the Sacrament as helpful as possible for the students and their families.
The proper order of the Sacraments of Initiation is: Baptism first, followed by Confirmation, and concluded by the reception of Eucharist. The genius of this order of Sacraments is that Baptism and Confirmation are one-time-only events that bring an individual into the Covenant of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and Eucharist is the weekly strengthening of that Covenant relationship. This pattern of initiation dates to the time of the Apostolic church and was practiced universally in the Church for almost nineteen centuries. In 1905, Pope Pius X moved the minimum age for the reception of Eucharist from ten years to seven. Unfortunately, he failed to include Confirmation in his policy change. Prior to that time, children who had been baptized as infants were confirmed first and then given Holy Communion. The result of Pius X’s omission is that Confirmation lost its proper place in the order of initiation; it lost its proper meaning, as well.
Having been separated from its proper relationship to Baptism, the Sacrament of Confirmation became, successively, the conferral of an ecclesial mission, a sign of Christian maturity, an invitation to make a personal act of faith, and recently, dismissal from the obligations of faith. For most Catholic families today, Confirmation is like a Catholic Graduation ceremony; it celebrates the end of attending religious education and Sunday Mass.
In response to this latter version of Confirmation as permission to cease Mass attendance, some parishes require students to participate in weekly Youth Ministry activities continuously throughout their senior high school years. This has added a new false understanding of Confirmation as an act of coercion on the part of parish clergy and ministry staff.
This latter version of Confirmation, in which clergy and youth ministers coerce participation in youth ministry activities by withholding Confirmation until the end of high school, comes rather easy to Roman Catholicism. The Church has a long-standing tradition of understanding the Sacraments as coercive. Today’s feast of the Body and Blood of Christ directs the attentions of the baptized to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which is often an act of coercion directed toward God.
The typical Sunday celebration of Eucharist in parishes contains prominent elements of passive-aggression, phobia, and consumerism; all of these serve as ways to manipulate and coerce God. An unbiased observer of a typical Sunday congregation at a Catholic parish will notice the steady stream of people wandering in and out of Liturgy; for a certain segment of the Catholic population, Sunday Mass is like shift work at a factory: about the time the late shift has arrived, the early shift begins to depart. Another segment of a typical parish puts in what they judge to be sufficient time to preserve themselves from the likelihood of eternal punishment. Then, of course, there are the savvy shoppers who plan sufficient time in their busy weekend schedules to pick up Eucharist between dining out and engaging in outdoor recreational activities.
All of the people above would be much happier if there was drive-thru window service for receiving Holy Communion. None of them understand Eucharist as an act of worship directed to God; rather, their worship is directed to their own dysfunctions, anxieties, and appetites. Because this idolatry of self has been practiced by multiple successive generations of the baptized, the Church’s actual understanding of Eucharist might seem shocking and foreign to many Catholics.
The Scripture readings this Sunday highlight the Church’s central beliefs about the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The first reading is a short excerpt from a significant event in the life of Abraham the Patriarch. He had defeated a vast army and rescued his nephew Lot from captivity. In gratitude to God, he found the nearest holy man, a fellow named Melchizedek. The holy man gave Abraham bread, wine, and a blessing. The sharing of bread and wine was meant to ensure peace and friendship between Melchizedek and the warrior Abraham who had proved himself to be a formidable foe.
The second reading contains the earliest written description of the celebration of the Last Supper. Paul writes that Jesus intended the bread and wine he shared with his disciples to be a “remembrance” of his sacrificial death. (1 Cor. 11:24-25) Here, the word “remembrance” means a ritualized memorial that causes the participants in the ritual to be participants in the event signified by the ritual. That is to say, that by participating in the Lord’s Supper, his disciples were given a participation in the redeeming effects of his death.
The Gospel reading recounts an event that has come to be laden with a great deal of emotional baggage from the modern era. In the late nineteenth century, it became popular to interpret Jesus’ miracles as artifacts of the superstitions of an ancient primitive culture. Many modern scripture commentators reasoned that, because the laws of nature cannot be suspended, the so-called miracles of Jesus could not have occurred. With regard to the event in today’s Gospel reading, the “modern” interpretation says that the abundance of food that fed five thousand people was the result of everyone being so moved by Jesus’ preaching that they became willing to share with one another the food they had brought along with them. This might sound intellectually satisfying, but it is not. Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the huge crowd is intended by the Gospel authors as validation of the crowd’s assessment of Jesus, namely, that he was a prophet. The feeding of the crowd was a prophetic sign that announced the proximity of God’s Kingdom to those who believe. Sharing one’s private hoard of food might qualify as a prophetic sign in our individualistic culture, but it would not have been considered so in Jesus’ culture.
Taken together, these three Scripture readings depict Eucharist as an expression of gratitude to God (Gn. 14:18-20), a divinely instituted ritual that joins the baptized more closely to the redeeming death of Jesus (1 Cor. 11:24-25), and an eschatological sign of the coming of God’s Kingdom. (Lk. 9:11-17) In Catholicism, Eucharist is an act of worship directed to God because of God’s great mercy. This is a far cry from the more common understanding of Eucharist as an object of desire by ingrates, an obligation to be fulfilled as quickly as possible, and a sign of no significant change in one’s life.
Contemporary society’s overarching sense of entitlement makes it difficult, if not impossible, to understand Eucharist as an act of gratitude directed toward God. Pop culture’s obsession with self makes the idea of selfless sacrifice seem undesirable, if not oppressive. The post-modern polarized assessments of organized religion make some people obsess about the other-worldly nature of miracles while other people see that sort of belief as primitive and preposterous. As it is no longer possible to interpret Eucharist as a ritual experience of Jesus’ own self-understanding as the eschatological prophet, I’d like to propose a post-modern perspective on the Eucharist.
Abrahams’ unlikely victory over a much larger army allowed the priest-king Melchizedek sufficient intellectual and emotional freedom to bless and share fellowship with Abraham, a foreigner in Melchizedek’s kingdom. (Gn. 14:18-20) The unfathomably generous forgiveness that Jesus demonstrated to the men who would betray him allowed them the freedom to repent of their betrayal and become his emissaries to the world. (1 Cor. 11:24-25) Jesus’ empathy for the crowds which followed him allowed them the freedom to listen to his teaching without anxiety over the necessities of physical survival. (Lk. 9:11-17)
I propose that Eucharist is a sacramental sign of the freedom of God and the freedom that can be experienced by those who put their faith in God. The Lord’s Supper, which is memorialized weekly at Sunday Liturgy, represents the infinite freedom of God the Father who gave his Only Son into the Incarnation, the selfless freedom of the Son who accepted the Father’s will unquestioningly, and the liberating gift of the Spirit which is offered freely to all. Eucharist is the offer and pledge of being freed from the self-concern, anxieties, and obsessions that prevent one from having just, righteous, and consoling relationships with God and one’s fellow human beings.
Catholicism says that, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the sacrificial elements of bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The reality of that transformation remains nothing more than a conceptual reality unless one allows oneself to be transformed by participation in the Eucharist. If the baptized can find the freedom to be transformed by God, perhaps the whole of society would be transformed by witnessing such a miracle.