Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Original Eucharistic symbols
by Father Jan Larson
(From the Dec. 18, 2008 edition of the Inland Register)
I have discovered over the last few decades that some, if not many, Catholics have some difficulty understanding in what way the Church’s explanation of the Eucharist is any different today than it was before the Second Vatican Council. After all, are not the basic teachings about the Eucharist unchanged? Then why do priests and teachers and theologians talk about things like “the renewal” of our sacramental theology. What do we have now that we didn’t have four decades ago? These questions come not only from older Catholics, but not surprisingly, from an increasingly number of younger Catholics.
Renewal, of course, does not have to imply new teachings. Renewal, as we have experienced it since Vatican II, most often means the recovery of something that we already had, but that became lost as history unfolded. For example, Vatican II allowed us to worship in our own language, as we used to do for centuries. We now have the option of receiving Communion from the cup, which used to be the common practice in early centuries. Even simple things that we take for granted now were allowed by Vatican II, such as the members of the assembly presenting the gifts of bread and wine, or the opportunity for everyone in the assembly to exchange the sign of peace. These rites, which can be very powerful expressions of liturgical prayer, were not new, but were recovered. They were lost through history, but the reforms of Vatican II recovered and restored them.
Today we not only enjoy rites and rituals that have been restored from our past heritage. We also enjoy a renewed understanding of the meaning of our liturgical practices. For example, if someone asked us the question “What are the original Eucharistic symbols?” we might not hesitate to answer “Bread and wine.” After all, Catholics are quite accustomed to have special prayerful focus on the consecrated bread that we call the Blessed Sacrament, on prayer before the tabernacle, and on various Eucharistic devotions. But important historical and liturgical studies over the last ten or fifteen decades has taught us that the original Eucharistic symbols were not objects but actions - not bread and wine, but rather the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup. The original symbols are actions, not things.
Until such a way of thinking sets in, our liturgical celebrations will remain a bit impoverished. Concern for the location of the tabernacle is praiseworthy, but our authentic Catholic tradition tells us that what we do with bread – bringing it to the Lord’s table and transforming it, breaking and sharing it there – is more important than where it is stored after the liturgy is over. More attention has to be paid to action items like proclaiming the word, setting the table, taking and blessing and sharing bread and wine, and doing these things in ways that vividly involve the entire praying community. But isn’t it true that, in so many of our parish communities, respect for the consecrated bread and wine so often takes precedence over the community’s act of thanksgiving and sharing?
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)
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