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Three Keys for teaching the Eucharist: Story, ritual, life

Develop a strong Catholic identity by exploring the deep meaning of liturgy with your learners

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By Michael J. Daley

One of my earliest memories of the Eucharist comes from my first Communion. I can still picture myself wearing my brother’s disco-inspired, second-hand leisure suit. Freed from the 1970s, I thankfully have come to a deeper understanding of the Eucharist. For me, three things are key: the power of story, the importance of ritual, and the connection with life.

The power of story
Often the most colorful newspaper page, the comics, sometimes are also the most theological. In one Hi & Lois strip, just before church began, the pastor announced: “The children can all go to Sunday school with Mrs. Fletcher.” On the way out, one of Hi and Lois’s kids asked, “Why can’t we stay here?” The pastor replied, “Uh…you can if you’d like. But you have to be very quiet during my sermon.” With more theological critique than he knew, the boy asked, “Is that when God takes his nap?”

Sadly, far too often, the answer is yes. The great stories of faith become cures for insomnia. It is interesting to note, however, that no one ever fell asleep when Jesus told stories.

In this age of competing stories, we must tell well and invite our learners into the narrative of the Last Supper. Otherwise, Ronald McDonald’s Happy Meals, with their throwaway toys, are going to win easily over the bread and wine of eternal life.

I offer this brief meditation for your consideration: Call your learners to sit at the table of the Lord and open up their imaginations. How do they feel entering the room—nervous, reluctant, excited? What does it look like? How does Jesus greet them? Who’s there with him? Are Jesus’ words of coming betrayal and suffering understood? What does the bread and wine Jesus gives them feel, smell, and taste like? (Allow time for reflection and sharing of responses.)

The entertainment culture
One thing that works against full participation in the Eucharist is the entertainment culture we are all a part of. Oftentimes we approach liturgy thinking of ourselves as an audience instead of an assembly; passive viewers instead of active participants. In the Eucharist, Christ invites us into his life, death, and resurrection as disciples on pilgrimage. This is not a one-way relationship. It is a dynamic process whereby we’re asked to respond to Jesus’ offer of eternal life—represented most visibly in the sharing of his body and blood.

The importance of ritual
“This is boring.” “Why are we doing this again?” These are some of the responses often heard surrounding ritual. The desire for novelty brings fear of repeat performances. Yet, key moments of life—birth, marriage, death, even meals—all center upon ritual. Common and practiced words, gestures, movements, and people give rise to symbolic meanings, which communicate the presence of God in our midst.

In our culture, we prioritize privacy and individualism. Rituals call us to participate in community. The question is how “full, active, and conscious” is this participation?

There is a way to say the Pledge of Allegiance that is rote and meaningless; there is a way to say it that is expressive of deep respect and love for one’s country. Likewise, with the Eucharistic ritual—“the source and summit of the Christian faith”—the meal can take place in such a way that we want to get up and leave the table. However, it can also be the case that as the bread and wine are being transformed—transubstantiated—so are we.

This is the potential and importance of ritual. As one noted liturgist said, “Little by little, day by day, we rehearse the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus such that one day we will be closer to it than we are now.”

In order to prepare for this Sunday’s Eucharist and demonstrate the importance of ritual have your learners practice the Sign of Peace. First, ask them to do it the way they usually do. Then, ask them to do it more mindful of the person and the words they are saying. I think you and they will see a difference.

The connection with life
Now for the hardest and most exciting part. We have to find a way of connecting the Eucharist with our lives. As a figure of speech, the Eucharist is both a noun and a verb. It calls us to action. Rather than be a once-a-week, one-hour affair, it must become a way of life.

This action and way of life is found in the very meaning of the word Eucharist; “thanksgiving.” We have been given many gifts and talents. In light of the Eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus, we’re called to share our gifts and sacrifice ourselves for others.

Ask your learners to name the gifts and talents that they’ve been given—for example, health, intellect, financial security, a loving home, or athletic ability. Go a step further and invite them to consider how they’re sharing these gifts with others. Or, perhaps they could name some obstacles they face in living a life of thanksgiving.

Taken together, these three keys provide an opportunity for learners to experience the central and indispensable role that the Eucharist plays in our Catholic faith.

Michael J. Daley

Michael J. Daley is a teacher at St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. His latest work is Vatican II: Forty Personal Stories, Twenty-Third Publications.

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