A Korean holiday helped a Columban priest explain the meaning of the Eucharist.
During my years as a Columban missionary in Korea, I came to a deeper understanding of the Eucharist. I did so by reflecting on the explanations of the Eucharist given to me during my priestly formation then comparing them to what I had seen and heard about the Eucharist in Korea.
That’s when I began to see that God had spoken to the Korean people through their culture about giving thanks and remembering.
Reflecting on what I was taught, I identified the essential elements and moments of the Eucharist. I learned that the Eucharist celebration means to give thanks and remember. The first Eucharist took place at the Last Supper on the night before Jesus Christ died. The breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine became the body and blood of Jesus.
This sacred action is called the “Holy Sacrifice,” because it is seen as a renewal of Christ’s sacrifice in dying on the cross for our sins. Then there is the Communion when we receive our Lord truly present in the Eucharist.
I began to ask: Is there anything similar to this act, at least in part, in the spiritual and cultural life of the Korean people? I was searching for a way to introduce the Eucharist to new catechumens so they could more easily understand and come to an assent of faith.
And so I began to look at one of the ancient Korean customs of giving thanks and remembering, which is called the che-sa. It was the idea of sacrifice as understood in Korean culture.
As I followed each step of the celebration, I saw that God had already opened their minds and hearts to receive a further revelation of God’s universal plan for salvation. I saw that this revelation could be accomplished through the Eucharist.
On the 15th day of the eight month of the lunar calendar, Korean communities gather to celebrate the Harvest Moon Festival, known as Chusok, a type of “Korean Thanksgiving” in which the fall harvest is celebrated and ancestors are honored.
During this three-day celebration, which falls in September or October, the first fruits of the harvest are gathered and food is prepared, enough for the family and clan to enjoy. Then the family visits ancestral graves that overlook the family land.
Led by the eldest son, all gather around the graves and make a profound bow to the ancestors. All then sit and listen to family stories about the ancestors and the great things they have done to make this possible. After some silent reflection, the food is shared by one and all.
A key element of this celebration is the belief that the ancestors are present in spirit among the family, so a special table with food is prepared for the ancestors—unseen but present.
Strength For Our Christian Journey
Gradually, I realized that our Catholic Eucharist celebration has similar elements to the Korean sacrifice of giving thanks and remembering. In our liturgy, our community assembles, just like Korean families do during Chusok.
Gifts of bread and wine are prepared and offered. Faith stories from the Scriptures are shared about our ancestors in the faith. The changing of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ is the supreme moment that we receive in Communion.
We have more than one name for the Eucharistic celebration. It is also called the Last Supper—the sacrifice of Calvary renewed. It is a special moment when God is present among us in a unique way. It is in the Eucharist that we receive the strength and help we need on our Christian journey.
They could easily see why we call the Eucharist the “Sacrifice of the Mass” and how it is a perfect way of giving thanks and remembering.
In the beginning, I thought I would never be able to explain this key teaching of our faith. But God had prepared them in their own way to embrace our great gift.
For this blessing and many others, I give thanks and remember.
Columban Father James O’Brien first went to Korea in 1957 and is a former Mission Education director for the Columbans’ U.S. Region.