A dear friend of mine and I sometimes like to speculate about a cultural “triduum” in the United States that spans Thanksgiving, Black Friday and the First Sunday of Advent. The Church ordinarily reserves the idea of a triduum for the Paschal Triduum that stretches from Holy Thursday and Good Friday through Easter because the story of salvation history plays wonderful tricks with time. Thanksgiving, built on a civil mythology that obscures the wounds of colonization, celebrates giving thanks for gifts one already has; Black Friday, a day named in honor of its profit margins, crowds shopping malls and email inboxes with deals for buying more gifts; Advent begins a period of holiday celebrations-while-waiting. Few tripartite symbols better capture the ironies of American consumerism. Except, of course, that celebration of excess called the Turducken, evangelized by John Madden during Thanksgiving football commentary. The nestling delicacy (so I’m told) consists of a chicken stuffed within a duck stuffed within a turkey. A triduum works like a sort of Turducken for the calendar. Considered part of a single movement in time, last weekend’s three festivals reveal how our national holiday season joins the liturgical invitation for the People of God to turn and look eastward in renewed expectation of the Christ’s arrival.
This time of year brings a cascade of anticipations that might be overwhelming, and the calendars align with an added twist of fate. Recently, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved a document titled “The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Life of the Church.” Consuming thanksgiving might be one simple phrase that summarizes the Eucharist. Primarily, the document seeks to teach and remind the Catholic faithful of the surprising and countercultural reality of the Eucharistic mystery. The Bishops remind the faithful how Catholics believe they truly encounter the living God in the Eucharist. In the holy sacrifice of the Eucharist, ordinary food and drink become “the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ without ceasing to appear as bread and wine to our five senses” (21). While it appears that the faithful consume the host, I think it would be better to say the Eucharist consumes and transfigures us.
Simply snacking on the Eucharist will not transform the world. Many anxiously watched to see if the document would include explicit instructions about whether to bar certain Catholic politicians, President Biden chief among them, from receiving the Eucharist. Aside from a few phrases about the “special responsibility” for laity in positions of authority to “form their consciences in accord with the Church’s faith and moral law” (36), the document offers no blanket denial. Instead, it provides a summary of the church’s teachings about sinfulness and communion and reminders about the sacrament’s centrality to Christian life. It calls for “a time of Eucharistic renewal, a time of prayer and reflection, of acts of charity and sincere repentance” (58). The document reminds everyone, perhaps even the bishops, too, that “Participation in the Mass is an act of love” (28).
To proclaim the meaning of the Eucharist through acts of charity, repentance and love requires reflection on priorities. The reign of God lacks managerial efficiency or militaristic obedience. “Eucharistic renewal” should not mean slick marketing campaigns for social media. Bishops must be shepherds that “guard the integrity of the sacrament, the visible communion of the Church, and the salvation of souls,” but the USCCB rightfully and surprisingly avoids an explicit checklist for what, in fact, constitutes “public actions at variance with the visible communion of the Church and the moral law” (49). The document explains that Christian work to promote life and dignity includes a special dedication to “the most vulnerable in our midst: the unborn, migrants and refugees, victims of racial injustice, the sick and the elderly” (38). Visible communion describes a relationship wrapped in holy mystery and prayerful longing for unity. Therefore, visible communion may not so easily map onto a partisan agenda or search engine optimized branding.
Eucharistic renewal will mean examining the Church’s exclusions and expectations. The Eucharist demands conversion outward, to respond to God’s gift with acts of extravagant mercy and unexpected beauty. The Eucharist, far from a smug reaffirmation of personal righteousness or liturgical taste, sends the faithful in love “to tell other people about it” (57). Eucharistic expectations fit well the joy and the complexity of this season. Any conversation about Eucharistic renewal begins by listening with care to the voices of those harmed by the Church and those left waiting. Only then might Advent excitement about sharing the Eucharist ring true without sounding like yet another ad campaign.
Charles A. Gillespie is a lecturer in the department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.