Most Catholics know that the word Eucharist means “Thanksgiving.” But have we ever asked ourselves why it’s called that? After I really took this question seriously, I discovered even more deeply the profundity of the Eucharist especially, in light of how the early Christians saw it.
But first, we need to ask why the word Eucharist? Had I been the decision-maker back then, I would have named the Eucharist something like: “true food,” or “true flesh,” or “Emmanuel,” since God really is with is. But I wasn’t an early Christian.
So, why thanksgiving? Why would they name it after an American Holiday in November! Just kidding. They didn’t have Turkeys in Palestine in the first century.
But really, imagine being those early Jewish Christians. You have spent your whole life believing that God is this transcendent being, beyond time and space, who also covenanted Himself with His Chosen people. And this God could not be contained: “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where, then, is a house that you could build for Me? And where will My resting place be? For all these things My hand has made.” (Is. 66:1-2) Israel has such a holy fear of this magnificent God that the Jewish High Priest could only could enter into the holy of holies once a year, with fear and trembling. Most Jewish people would also remember the story of how God even slew Uzziah for touching the Ark of the Covenant.
That is the context in which you lived. Then, beyond all belief, a man named Jesus said he is the Son of God reveals that God is love. Not only that, He claims that he is the Bread of Life, the manna from the sky, the Eucharist! He is the one who is beyond time and space – He who is, who was, and who is to come. This is Jesus. AND He tells us that He wants us to receive Him in our very BODIES. How hard that would be to believe!
In his apostolic letter for World youth day, Benedict XVI uses a powerful analogy to pierce into the profound depth of this mystery: “To use an image well known to us today, this [reception of the Eucharist] is like inducing nuclear fission in the very heart of being.” Fission. A nuclear explosion of power and energy. Perhaps such early Christian had such an inkling that, in receiving this Eucharist, it was like receiving an explosion of energy and love – like receiving the sun itself.
Can you imagine their response to such a gift to be received into their very bodies? The only response would be one of gratitude. I can only imagine them saying again and again through tears of joy, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!” There is no response except “Thanksgiving” to such a gift.
Receiving the Eucharist and giving God the Father praise and thanksgiving for such an overwhelmingly generous gift is right worship. It is at the heart of the Theology of the Body, which is divided into two parts: The Words of Christ and The Sacrament, a snapshot of the Mass. May our hearts never grow cold to this profound reality, a reality at which the early Christians wept upon receiving our Eucharistic Lord.