Jesus ate with sinners. That’s always been amazing to me. In some ways it’s the heart of the Gospel:
For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:7–8, ESV).
I was struck by St. Augustine’s imitation of Jesus in the last days of his life:
As the then Cardinal Ratzinger tells the story,
“When Augustine felt his death approaching, he ‘excommunicated’ himself and took upon himself ecclesiastical penitence. In his last days, he set himself alongside, in solidarity, with the public sinners who seek forgiveness and grace through the pain of not receiving Communion.”
What a gesture! I wonder if that message would come across today. Think about it: your bishop comes to Mass this Sunday and sits in the pews, toward the back. When it’s time for receiving Holy Communion, he stays in his pew and doesn’t receive! When asked, he says he’s trying to show solidarity with those who are divorced and remarried who come to Mass, but can’t receive Holy Communion.
In the introductory chapter to his, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom, the late Orthodox priest, Fr. Alexander Schmemann (+1983) lays out the rudiments of a Eucharistic ecclesiology very similar to that articulated by Joseph Ratzinger. Schmemann’s key assertion as he sketches this vision is that there is in the liturgy an
“undoubted triunity of the assembly, the eucharist, and the Church, to which the whole early tradition of the Church…unanimously testifies” (11).
That said, this unity has been broken apart, not fundamentally, but in the everyday understanding of clergy and laity alike. For Schmemann, such a reunification is the task of liturgical theology as it uncovers “the meaning and essence of this unity” between “the assembly, the eucharist and the Church” (12). The “assembly” or σύναξις is the first move in the liturgy, as it were. This assembling is the action of Christ gathering His people together for communion/κοινονια. So often, Schmemann notes, we look at the Eucharist through individualistic eyes, not seeing that the entire form/ordo of the Eucharist is a dialogical movement between priest and people. In particular, the anaphora or Eucharistic Prayer takes the form of a dialogical synergy or a working together of priest and people whereby they form “one organic whole.” Christ calls out the people from the world and forms them into an assembly to be united to Himself, to be the Church. When gathered together the assembly does not act on its own, but is united with Christ in the person of the priest. This unified working together (synergy) makes new what the Church is by renewing Christ’s unbloody sacrifice in the Eucharist and offering that synergistically to the Father. In the exchange of the offering the Holy Spirit operates in such a way that He both transforms the offerings into Christ’s body and blood and then works a similar transformative action (again, synergistically) on the assembly as they receive the Divine Gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood.