Last week, we began our reflections about the Eucharist and the Mass by taking an overview of them; now, we'll explore the Eucharist and the Mass as a meal - a sacred or special meal.

This is a good starting point, because the Eucharist is founded upon the "Last Supper" that Jesus celebrated with His disciples. So, let's reflect a bit more on meals and eating together and what we then understand by calling the Mass a sacred meal.

Meals and eating are vital - literally - to our human life. We eat to survive, of course, but eating together is so much more than this. It is rich in meaning and symbolism.

Eating together builds up connections and relationships; often, we share memories and new ones are made, and we can build up bonds and strengthen ties and identity. This is why key moments or events in our lives are often sealed with some sort of meal: weddings, anniversaries, graduations.

It should not surprise us that God has taken this very human action of eating together, with all its deeper significance and associations, and chosen it as the way of being with us and of building up our Church family.

In fact, God has done this over the ages. In Israel, there were many types of sacred meals. Many meals involved giving thanks to God for the good things of creation and for all that He had done for His people. God sealed the covenant with His people with a meal (Exodus 24: 9-18) and the annual Passover meal remembered in a real and living way that God had rescued His people from slavery, that He had made them His people and led them to the promised land.

All this is also true for the Eucharist that we celebrate and that was instituted by Jesus Christ, where He used the staple food of bread and wine. We gather, we celebrate, we remember and we give thanks for all that God has done for us; we deepen our bonds with God and each other - which is why we offer each other the sign of peace just before going to communion - and we have our identity as disciples of the Lord (or the Church, the "body of Christ") strengthened and affirmed.

The high point is that we are fed by Jesus Christ Himself: "This is my body; this is my blood." In this feeding, we also become like the one we receive. St. Thomas Aquinas once commented that the Eucharist differs from ordinary food: When we eat food and digest it, it becomes part of us; with the Eucharist, we become part of the one we have received and consumed.

Therefore, we really do enter a "holy communion" with the Lord. Of course, we are not worthy of such a great gift, which is why we echo the words of the centurion in the Gospel: "Lord, I am not worthy..." (Matthew 8:8).

In our busy lives, we don't always have the opportunity with family or friends to sit down and to eat together. We can also easily forget the rich symbolism of the Eucharist as a sacred meal, since most of us are blessed with plenty of food, it is easy to take food and eating for granted. The same can be true for the Eucharist. We can forget what a great gift it is, what is happening when we celebrate this sacred meal, what it means - and who we are receiving.

A Muslim student at Boston College asked his professor, "Do Catholics really believe that the little white thing they receive is not bread, but Jesus Christ?"

"Yes," the professor replied, and he gave the usual explanation about the real presence.

The student interrupted this and said, "Forgive me, professor, for I do not doubt God's power to do this if He chooses, but this is not my problem. I went to Mass and observed the reverence of some, but also that others seemed unaffected or left early. If all that you say about the Eucharist is true, then I would not get off my knees!"

Last week, we recalled a hymn written by St. Thomas Aquinas. Let's end with another verse from it:

"O thou, our reminder of Christ crucified,

Living bread, the life of us for whom He died.

Lend this life to me then, feed and feast my mind,

There be thou the sweetness, man was meant to find."

(Father Barratt is pastor of St. Ambrose parish in Latham. He holds a doctorate in theology and was a professor at St. John's Seminary in England before coming to the U.S. in 2004. His previous series for The Evangelist on the creed won a national journalism award; read that series and another on coming back to reconciliation under Specials: Religious Education at www.evangelist.org.)