You wouldn't know it from this Sunday’s excerpt from 1 Corinthians, but Paul is hopping mad when he writes this community about their way of celebrating the Lord's Supper in that town. As it happens, the words cited comprise the earliest account of the Last Supper. But Paul rehearses this institution narrative, as it is called, not out of archival interest but to make a powerful point in his critique of the Corinthian Christians' treatment of one another.
Paul's intent, then, in quoting the tradition of the Last Supper, is not to develop a Eucharistic theology but to remind them of the loving behavior entailed in the meaning of the Lord's Supper. Retrieving Paul's context offers a powerful reminder to us that our Eucharistic celebrations commit us to truly behave as the one body we have become through baptism into the body of Christ.
Thus, the fuller context (1 Cor 11:17-34) is crucial to our understanding of Paul's intent in recalling what happened “on the night [Jesus] was handed over.”
Several facts regarding the social setting need to be taken into account. First, we need to remember that at the time Paul writes, there were as yet no buildings specifically constructed for Christian worship. Christians gathered in the homes of people wealthy enough to have sufficient room for such a gathering (places like Philemon's in Colossae, for example). Second, the scene implied in Paul's letter implies the early Christian practice of combining the Lord's Supper with a normal meal.
And third, archaeologists tell us that the dining area of a larger Roman home—and Corinth was, at this time, a Roman colony—included a triclinium, which was, as the word suggests, a three-sided chamber in which the more privileged guests (typically, nine) could recline around a low table; then there was a larger area, the atrium, where other, less important, guests could gather to eat. In other words, as in our airplanes today, there were first-class guests and then there were second-class guests, with the quality of the service and the menu graded accordingly.
The scene Paul addresses fits such a set-up exactly. He notes that in their “coming together” they do not really come together at all. For the more privileged and wealthier among them eat heartily and get drunk, whereas the poorer members get less, and some are even left out. The social gap between rich and poor becomes evident in their celebration of the Lord's Supper.
It is precisely to confront this scandal of division where there should be unity that Paul recites the tradition that he had already passed on to them when he had originally catechized them. The rehearsal of the solemn account of the Last Supper is meant to shock them into the realization that their failure to care for one another's needs in their practice of the Lord's Supper flies in the face of the very meaning of that ritual enactment. The Lord's Supper—what we have come to call the Eucharist (from Greek) or the Mass (from Latin)—commemorates Jesus’ “handing over” of himself for our redemption; thus our celebration of that event should be evident in our “handing over” of ourselves to one another, at least in seeing that each is decently fed.
Paul drives this point home a few lines later, when he says, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:29, emphasis added). The fuller context of his passage (especially 1 Cor 10:17, “because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf”) makes it clear that by “discerning the body” Paul means seeing the believing community as the one body of Christ. And so, however the rest of their culture may discriminate between privileged and non-privileged guests at dinner gatherings, Christians, when they come together for the Lord's Supper, are to “receive” one another as mutual guests. The kind of equality expressed in Paul's motto quoted in Galatians 3:28 (“neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free person, … not male and female … ” ) is to be evident especially at the Lord's Supper.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
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