Violence, Jesus, and the Eucharist

Imagine yourself to be Jesus on this very night, nearly two thousand years ago. You’ll soon be betrayed, arrested, and subjected to a horrifically violent death. If you knew that this was going to happen, what would you do? Many people, I think, would want to meet violence with violence. They’d try to rally the troops and start a fight. It wouldn’t have been hard for Jesus to do. Many people in Jerusalem were looking for a warrior messiah. And Jesus, by his own admission, even had angel armies at his disposal!

But Jesus did something very different. With his apostles gathered around him, Jesus insisted that they love one another as he loved them. He washed their feet and told them to be servants. And then he took broke bread and said “This is my body.” He next took wine and said, “This is my blood which will be shed for you.” In so doing, Jesus instituted the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, an act we recall this Holy Thursday night.

Every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we remember that Jesus died a violent death. We “proclaim the death of the Lord,” as St. Paul explained in today’s second reading. However, the Eucharist also reminds us that Jesus didn’t respond to violence with more violence. At his Passion, Jesus practiced non-violence. One might say then, that the Eucharist is a sacrament of non-violence. In fact, this is exactly what Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the official preacher to the Papal Household, proclaimed in his Good Friday homily at St. Peter’s Basilica in 2005. He said: “The Eucharist is the sacrament of non-violence! Thanks to the Eucharist, God’s absolute “no” to violence, spoken on the cross, echoes alive down the centuries.”

But what does this mean for us, who live in a world filled with violence? What implications does our participation in the Eucharist, the sacrament of non-violence, have for the way we live our lives? Fr. Cantalamessa said, “The Eucharist is not only a mystery to consecrate, to receive, to contemplate and adore. It is also a mystery to imitate.” In other words, if the Eucharist is a sacrament of non-violence, we ourselves need to practice and promote non-violence.

For starters, we can reject the glorification of violence in the media, through popular music, graphic video games, movies, and TV. Studies reveal that by the time a typical American child reaches 18, he or she will witness on television 200,000 acts of violence, including 40,000 murders. This saturation exposure leads children to be less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others; more fearful of the world around them; and more likely to engage in aggressive or harmful ways to others. As media consumers, we need to say “no” to this sort of content.

We can also say “no” to the death penalty, as both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict have clearly done. Recently, the Vatican contributed a position paper to the World Congress Against the Death Penalty, in Paris. It described the death penalty as “a refusal of the right to life” and “an affront to human dignity” which contributes to a “culture of violence” and shows “a contempt for the Gospel teaching on forgiveness.” It concludes by stating that the Vatican defends “all human life from conception to natural death.”

Of course, defending human life from the moment of conception would lead us to oppose the violence of abortion. 1.31 million abortions are performed in the US each year, which equates to 24.5 percent of all pregnancies. The majority of these abortions are performed after the baby’s heart has started beating, and many babies can feel pain when being aborted. But the violence of abortion extends to the mother too, who often experiences significant physical or emotional harm.

Another threat to women is domestic violence, which includes physical, sexual, psychological, verbal, and economic abuse. Our nations’ bishops issued a statement entitled, When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence against Women. They encourage victims not to blame themselves, think they’re being punished by God, or fear that they betray their marriage vows if they leave an abusive husband. They challenge male perpetrators to find the courage to seek help and break the cycle of violence. And they call upon the rest of us to compassionately help victims and their children, while we work and pray to stop the violence.

Other forms of violence we encounter today are torture, bullying at school, and perhaps even some forms of child discipline. It goes without saying, however, that the most destructive form of violence in our world is warfare. For a Christian, war is always a tragic last resort, to be used in defense only when all other options have been exhausted. We need to be people who seek to avoid war with every ounce of our strength, by challenging our nation’s leaders to be peacemakers, and asking the Lord to purify our hearts of any resentments or hatred which might lead us to relish war, or be indifferent to its victims. “No to war!” said Pope John Paul II. “It is always a defeat for humanity.”

To say “no” to war requires courage. When Judas and the soldiers came to arrest Jesus, Peter and other disciples drew their swords and attacked- an act of both fear and courage. But when Jesus ordered them to drop their swords, their courage vanished, and they fled into the night. Sometimes a non-violent stance takes more courage than a violent one.

That’s why we need the Eucharist, the sacrament of non-violence, so that Jesus may fill us with the courage we need to be his non-violent disciples. To quote Father Cantalamessa again, “The cry ‘This is the Lamb of God!’ which resounds at every Mass…is an invitation addressed to all believers in Christ not to let themselves be contaminated by the violence of our world, but to respond to it with the meekness and the strength of love.”

Readings for today’s Mass: