On the night before he faced his brutal execution at the hands of the Roman Empire, Jesus of Nazareth gathered his followers together for a meal. It was at that meal, commonly known as the Last Supper, that Jesus gave himself to those followers in the simple gifts of bread and wine.
His only instructions to those followers came in these words: “Do this in memory of me.”
Overwhelmed by fear, despair and naked terror, the male followers of Jesus — with one exception — all deserted him within the next 24 hours in his hour of greatest agony and need. Only John stayed faithful along with a handful of women disciples, as the Roman authorities tortured, mocked and executed him through crucifixion, which still stands among the cruelest, most horrific methods ever devised by human beings to murder a fellow human being.
It is not unfair to say that the male followers of Jesus proved themselves highly unworthy of the title “friend” much less “disciple” as the final chapter of Jesus’ earthly life reached its tormented conclusion. The inspiration of that last meal with Jesus seemed all but lost on them.
What we know from the tradition of the early Church and the Christian Scriptures, however, is that the story of Jesus did not end on that day we have come to know — with poignant irony — as Good Friday.
Within three days of his death, the followers of Jesus experienced his presence in a transformed way — a way that defies and transcends every attempt of human language or expression to contain it. The accounts in the New Testament, with all their narrative beauty and vibrant images, only serve to point to the numinous, overpowering mystery that unfolded in the aftermath of the death and burial of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the chaos, exhilaration and lingering fear that characterized the early years of the Christian community, Jesus’ words from the Last Supper were never forgotten: “Do this in memory of me.” And the community continued to gather around the bread and the wine, shared the words Jesus had given them, and experienced his presence anew.
Community leaders — male and female — led the nascent Christian gatherings, welcoming all who came, finding strength in the memory of Jesus, the repetition of his words, and sharing the words of the Hebrew Scriptures and the letters of the Apostle Paul, the great missionary who spread the message of Jesus across the Mediterranean Basin.
The glue that held everything together for that besieged community was the celebration of the Eucharist — what we now know as Holy Communion — the gift of Jesus in the bread and wine, the ordinary elements that became the extraordinary gift his living presence in their midst. It was a presence that was real, transformative and resplendent with meaning.
At the heart of the Eucharist are those words of Jesus “Do this in memory of me.” Those words are constitutive of the Church that emerged and has remained for over two millenniums.
From the Last Supper through the long history of the Church it is quite clear that the question of “worthiness” is meaningless — irrelevant at best and scandalous at worst. No one, from the time of Jesus to the present day, is “worthy” of the transcendent gift that has been bequeathed.
The Eucharist is nourishment, sustenance, medicine and spiritual fuel for the demands of human life. It is not a feast for the elite. It is not a prize for the perfect.
As the Catholic Bishops continue their very public debate about who is “worthy” of the Eucharist and who is not, perhaps they should punctuate their discussions with a long look in the mirror every so often. And a quick review of how the theology of Eucharist developed in the life of the early Church — especially in those years of persecution and martyrdom — would not hurt, either.
Reflecting on the invited guests at the Last Supper — men, all too human, deeply sinful and “unworthy” in the extreme — might provoke a healthy dose of humility and insight in the current men who are their successors, the Catholic bishops (and especially the American group).
If it is a matter of categorizing the most unworthy of the unworthy, the old men wearing the pointy hats and lording it over everyone else might best fit the bill.
Stephen J. Stahley (firstname.lastname@example.org) resigned from the Catholic priesthood to marry in 1988, though he continues to officiate at weddings, funerals and baptisms upon request and serves the Catholic LGBTQ+ community, celebrating Mass at inclusive churches in Washington, D.C., and Pikesville, Maryland. While his work as a priest is not recognized as “official” by the Catholic Church, the Catholic tradition has always enshrined the principle “once a priest, always a priest.”