Every week, we Catholics go to Mass and receive the Eucharist. We go up the aisle to the priest or Eucharistic minister to receive a small, circular wafer to eat, and then we walk back to our seats. Judging by appearances alone, this can seem like a dry, mundane, and even trite ritual, but it’s actually one of the most important parts of our week. When we eat that little wafer, we are consuming powerful spiritual food that will strengthen us to face the temptations, trials, and hardships of the coming week. Just like our bodies need physical food to stay alive and strong, so too do our souls need the Eucharist to maintain their spiritual life and strength.
An Allegory in Acts
This truth is brought home to us in a clever way in the Acts of the Apostles. Towards the end of the book, we find St. Paul being brought to Rome, and on the way, he is shipwrecked on the island of Malta in a big storm. Before the storm comes, Paul says that God won’t let anybody on the ship die (Acts 27:22), but that doesn’t mean that they can just sit back and let him do all the work. No, they have to do their part as well, and to that end, Paul urges them to eat some food so they can have the strength to survive the wreck. After this prompting, Paul takes some bread and begins to eat, and everybody else on board follows his lead (Acts 27:35-36).
On the surface, this looks like a simple story that doesn’t have much to do with our spiritual lives. However, if we look closely at some of the details, we can see that it is actually an allegory for the importance of the Eucharist. Luke tells the story in a way that intentionally calls to mind the Eucharist in order to draw a parallel between its role in our spiritual lives and the role of this meal in Paul’s and the crew’s physical lives.
For Our Salvation
The first significant detail comes when Paul urges the crew to eat. He tells them:
“Therefore I urge you to take some food; it will give you strength, since not a hair is to perish from the head of any of you.” (Acts 27:34)
In the original Greek, the phrase translated “it will give you strength” is literally “this is for your salvation,” and this is an important clue to the deeper meaning of the passage. In both the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, the word used here for “salvation” often refers to our eternal salvation (for example, Luke 19:9, Acts 4:12), and I would suggest that in its deeper significance, the word has that same meaning in this verse. However, we don’t want to overstate the case. This word can refer to a physical rescue or deliverance (as it does, for example, in Acts 7:25), so it does not prove anything by itself. Rather, it is just the first clue that there is more going on in this passage than meets the eye. By using the word “salvation,” Luke is subtly telling us that this story has a deeper spiritual meaning, and the rest of the passage will confirm this.
Four Key Actions
Next, we have Luke’s description of Paul’s actions before starting to eat. We read in the next verse:
“And when he had said this, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat.” (Acts 27:35)
Again, on the surface this does not seem to have much to do with the Eucharist, but if we look at these words closely, we’ll find a pretty strong allusion to it. To see this, let’s turn to Luke’s description of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper:
“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them.” (Luke 22:19)
At the Last Supper, Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and then gives it to the Apostles. Similarly, during the storm, Paul takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and then begins to eat. Luke is intentionally describing Paul’s actions in a way that calls to mind what Jesus did at the Last Supper. He is highlighting the similarities between their actions with the bread in order to tell us that the meal Paul shared on the ship has a connection to the Eucharist.
The Breaking of the Bread
To confirm this connection, let’s take a look at another meal that looks a lot like the Last Supper. After Jesus rose from the dead but before the Apostles knew about it, he appeared to two of his disciples as they were traveling to a place called Emmaus. They did not recognize him, so without knowing who they were talking to, they invited Jesus to stay with them when they reached their destination. He obliged, and while they were eating, he did something that should look very familiar to us:
“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.” (Luke 24:30)
We see these same verbs here again (some of the Greek verbs are slightly different in this passage, but they are similar enough to unmistakably call to mind Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper), and this time Luke explicitly points out the Eucharistic nature of this meal. In the very next verse, we read that the disciples recognized Jesus once he performed these actions (Luke 24:31), and then a few verses later Luke reiterates that they recognized Jesus “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35). This last verse is important because “the breaking of the bread” was an early name for the Eucharist. In other words, Luke is telling us that these two disciples recognized Jesus precisely because of his Eucharistic actions. They recognized that he was repeating what he did at the Last Supper, which means that the succession of verbs in this story is in fact a clue that Luke is describing a celebration of the Eucharist.
An Allegory for the Eucharist
When we turn back to the story about Paul and the shipwreck, we can see that by including those same verbs, Luke is telling us that the meal Paul shared with his companions on the ship was also Eucharistic. But there is a problem here. In his letters, Paul is very clear that participating in the Eucharist is incompatible with participating in pagan sacrifices (1 Corinthians 10:21), so it’s unlikely that he would have celebrated the Eucharist with a group of non-Christians (Paul was the only Christian on the ship).
How then do we reconcile that tension? I would suggest that Luke doesn’t mean that this was literally the Eucharist. Rather, by alluding to it and saying that this meal would be for people’s “salvation,” he is telling us that this story is an allegory for the importance of the Eucharist in our spiritual lives. Just as this meal was essential to the physical survival of the people on the ship, so too is the Eucharist essential to our spiritual survival. Just as the meal would strengthen them to survive the storm and the coming shipwreck, so too does the Eucharist strengthen us to survive whatever trials, tribulations, and temptations we may encounter in our lives and to stay faithful to God through them all.
Simply put, God gives us the Eucharist for our salvation. It is a treasure trove of grace that sustains our spiritual lives like nothing else can, and it is imperative that we take advantage of this gift. Just as Paul urged the other people on the ship to eat some food to survive their shipwreck, so too does Luke urge us to receive the Eucharist in order to strengthen our souls to spiritually survive whatever hardships we may face on our journey to heaven.