On Maundy Thursday
, which this year falls on March 29, Catholics commemorate how Jesus instituted the Eucharist
by offering himself as the "bread of life" (Jn. 6:35). We Catholics believe the frequent reception of the Eucharistic bread, which is transformed into the body of Christ at the altar of Mass, enhances our spiritual health. But this enhancement is subject to certain conditions, just as material food to benefit our physical health is subject to what we eat and how we eat it. Without fulfilling the essential conditions, the reception of the Eucharist alone will not provide us the "abundance of life" (Jn.10:10) that Jesus has destined for us. There are similarities between the Eucharist and the material food we eat.
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As a theologically trained Catholic mother
, I see the dining table as having the innate capacity to enhance the Eucharistic experience. The merging of the two tables, as Jesus did on Maundy Thursday, will help us experience wholeness. It will enhance our dining table and build us into people who are socially and spiritually healthy. Indian Catholic Priest Susai Kannu offers The Holy Eucharist during the Mass of the Lord's Supper celebrated as Maundy Thursday service at St. Anthony's Church in Hyderabad on March 24, 2016. The ceremony commemorates the symbolic example of Jesus Christ washing the feet of his apostles at the Lord's Supper on the eve of his crucifixion. (Photo by AFP/Noah Seelam)
Jesus celebrated the first Eucharistic meal with his disciples at the dining table on the feast of the Passover, when families gather to share a meal in the Jewish tradition. It comprises certain rituals but remains at heart a family meal. Great emphasis is placed on the food and what it symbolizes. Jesus raised the meal to a spiritual fellowship experience when he broke a single piece of bread — his body — and called his disciples to take a piece from it and eat it; and drink from the same cup of wine — his blood. As such he invited his disciples to sacrifice themselves for others, just as he did. Eating together at home enriches relationships due to the time and care involved in both preparing and sharing a meal. It often involves a degree of self-sacrifice. And if we include the table fellowship of Jesus as part of those special meals shared among the family or community, we are reminded of Jesus' invitation to sacrifice ourselves for others. That poses a challenge for families and communities to accept this invitation and incorporate it into their lives. Can we begin to look at our dining table as a family "Eucharistic" table, where we share food, conversations and so much more? The suggestion is not to replace the Eucharist in parish churches with family meals, but rather to enrich the Eucharistic experience by establishing a truly Christian life within communities. This would provide greater meaning to the dismissal "Go, the Mass is ended," which is indeed a call to "go and live the Eucharist" in the world. Food and gatherings are synonymous in India: They cut across all religious communities and bring people together. For example, the Sikh community has its Langars while Hindus distribute "prasad" at religious functions. Moreover, during the Ramzan month of fasting, Muslims have the Iftaar, when communities share a meal to break their collective fast. Sadly our celebrations of the Eucharist or Mass have become so ritualized that they remain exclusive and in many ways distant. The dining table in Indian culture is generally open to all people who are willing to accept an invitation to a meal, with the sad exception of caste and class. An Indian Catholic Christian receives the Holy Eucharist during an Ash Wednesday service at St. Mary's Basilica in Secunderabad, the twin city of Hyderabad, on Feb. 10, 2016. Catholics began the 40-day Lenten season by observing Ash Wednesday, which culminates in Holy Week. (Photo by AFP/Noah Seelam)
However, this can be overcome when we merge the table fellowship of Jesus with the temporal meal, as Jesus gives himself to all. He challenges us to be inclusive. We take extra care to make sure that food on the family table is fresh, tasty and suitable for all those who are gathered to eat. We also take care to respect religious sentiments and the different tastes of all the parties at the table, bringing in an element of solidarity as well. These positive aspects of sharing a meal are valuable in building a sense of community. Small Christian Community (SCC) meetings often include shared food, and combining the spiritual and material in this way generates a positive feeling. Just as we do at the Eucharist, a fellowship meal can begin by welcoming, then go on to thank those who produced the food, who are almost always inadequately compensated and forgotten — for example, the farmers, vendors, cleaners and cooks. This helps to remind us of our social responsibilities. A fellowship meal can also bring about reconciliation in the community or family. The sharing of the word using one of various gospel-sharing methods reminds us of our moorings with Jesus' teachings. In this setting, the Word of God is better internalized and implemented when shared with others. Sitting around the dining table, members share their joys, successes, disappointments and failures — and receive support and affirmation. This kind of sharing creates a greater understanding. It helps people bond and be more sensitive to each others' needs. It can truly make the home feel like a domestic church, and this is something that can be done once a day or at least once a week within the family. At special occasions, like feasts and birthday gatherings when extended families and friends or neighbors show up, the fellowship can focus on thanksgiving. In the Small Christian Communities, a fellowship meal can be celebrated when the neighborhood community gathers to pray and share experiences based on reflections of gospel. The dining table will effectively enhance our celebration at the Eucharistic table when the sharing of a simple meal is tempered with values that flow into us through Jesus. Virginia Saldanha is the former executive secretary of the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences Office of Laity and a theologian and freelance writer based in Mumbai.