Most Christian churches (whether Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) recognize that the Eucharist looks forward in some way to Jesus’ second coming and the consummation of God's plan of salvation. This is taught pretty explicitly in Scripture. For example, when talking about the Eucharist, St. Paul says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:26). In other words, when we celebrate the Eucharist, not only are we looking back to the Last Supper and remembering Jesus' death on the cross, but we are also looking forward in hopeful anticipation to his second coming in glory at the end of human history.
However, what many people don't realize is that the Bible also takes this one step further. In the Eucharist, we don’t simply hope for Jesus' second coming; we actually get a foretaste of what that second coming will be like. This teaching is presented very subtly, so it’s easy to miss. To catch it, we need to pay very close attention to some details we might otherwise just pass over as unimportant.
A Strange Parable
To begin, let's look at a parable in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus compares his second coming to a man returning home from a wedding feast. He uses this image to exhort us to be ready for him just like the man's servants should be ready for their master's return from the feast (Luke 12:35-36). That’s fairly standard, but in the next verse, the parable takes an odd turn.
When the man gets home, he doesn’t tell his servants to come and serve him like we would expect. Rather, he does the exact opposite. He dresses himself and sits his servants down, and then he serves them (Luke 12:37). This is extremely unusual, so it cries out for an explanation.
Serving in the Eucharist
I would suggest that the key to understanding this unexpected detail lies in Luke's account of the Last Supper, which contains a similar line. After Jesus institutes the Eucharist, the Apostles begin to argue about which of them is the greatest (Luke 22:24), and Jesus takes this as an opportunity to teach them about the kind of leadership he wants them to exercise. He tells them:
[L]et the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:26-27)
This passage is interesting because Jesus is telling the Apostles that they are to serve others just as Jesus has served them, and he specifies that he serves them at table, which in context has to refer (at least in part) to his serving them the Eucharist just a few verses earlier (Luke 22:17-20). The Eucharist is the place where Jesus serves his followers, just like the man in the parable who served his servants when he got home.
Now, the Gospel of Luke is a very carefully composed document, so this connection is not coincidental. No, Luke knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote these two passages. He was telling us that while Jesus will serve us when he comes again at the end of human history, he already does that in a preliminary way every time we celebrate the Eucharist.
A Foretaste of Eternity
In other words, the Eucharist is a foretaste of Jesus' second coming. Yes, we look forward in hopeful anticipation to his coming in glory and splendor at some unknown time in the future, but we shouldn't forget that he comes to us at every Mass in the humble form of bread and wine. Until he comes in glory and we can be with him forever, we have his presence in the Eucharist to hold us over and sustain us as we journey toward our heavenly homeland.
So the next time you're at Mass, remember that you're experiencing a foretaste of the final goal of all of human history. You're getting a little sneak preview of the ultimate purpose of our very existence. Our ultimate goal is to be united to Jesus in perfect, loving communion in the new creation (Revelation 21:1-4, 22; 23:3-5), but until then, we can be in his presence and unite ourselves to him in the Eucharist.