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  • Sean O'Leary

The Power of Communion

Every single word in the Bible is rich with meaning. Even small details can capture our attention and help us make sense of the world we live in and discover the deeper meaning of our own lives.


Scripture recounts that on the night before he died, Jesus blessed bread, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given up for you’. He was speaking about himself and the sacrifice he would make the following day so that by making us members of his body, we would live.


Following his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, Jesus appeared on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and called to his disciples who’d been unsuccessfully fishing from a boat. He told them to: ‘Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some’. Following Jesus’ command, the disciples caught 153 large fish.


The number 153 is an unusual number to record and its symbolic meaning has long been speculated over. Most scholars agree that the number represents the universal Church. While it is impossible to be certain about the real significance of the number recorded by St. John the Evangelist, it has always struck me as important from a scientific perspective.


Religion has a deep evolutionary significance throughout the history of our species. Not only can we explore the meaning of biblical traditions stretching back thousands of years, we can also ponder the significance of meal-sharing to the very first modern humans who emerged about 200,000 years ago. Amongst closely related species, we can also examine the importance of meal-sharing, throughout an evolutionary story spanning millions of years.


In this epic story; sociability, meal-sharing, brain development and other adaptations enabled people to come together peacefully, which also involved the emergence of a shared moral sensibility. Authors differ on the role of religion in this story, but it is likely that religion led to evolutionary benefits that nurtured the development of human civilisation.


From an evolutionary point of view, the development of early religion will always be somewhat of a mystery. However, an evolutionary perspective can broaden our thinking about religion from ‘what good is it to me?’ to ‘what good is it to us?’. Religion is not about the individual; it is always about the group.


Modern humans are unique amongst primates in being able to form large socially-cohesive groups. It is thought that the average human social group of each individual person is 150, known as Dunbar’s number, named after the anthropologist Robin Dunbar. This number of people can form stable enough relationships for a group to remain cohesive.


Modern religious practices developed from far older rituals that have their beginning in the story of evolutionary history and even in cosmological history itself. To modern eyes aware of the harmony between science and Christianity, even a cursory reading of biblical texts confirms this view.


For me, the 153 large fish caught by the disciples and brought to the shore where Jesus waited for them, represents the social group of a believer. The number illuminates the cohesive strength of stable social relationships within a typical group.


The story speaks to me of evangelisation. Jesus himself made each one of us members of his body. For each one of us, we form social relationships with an average of 150 people (according to Dunbar’s number). Sociability, relationship-building and meal-sharing throughout our evolutionary history points to the existence of spiritual communion.


Just like the disciples who navigated across the Sea of Galilee in their boat, we also navigate a world of social relationships and have done so from the earliest moments of human history. In a very real sense, the group of people that we belong to becomes our spiritual troop.


When we share in the body of Christ, we have the potential to share that gift with many people. If the harmony of biblical accounts with modern scientific thinking is possible, as I firmly believe it to be, this number amounts to 150 people. This tells us something important about the power of communion and our evangelical mission in this life. Even when we help many people, the bonds that connect us don’t break. There is nothing to be afraid of. Remember, the net remained untorn despite the large catch.


For people who appreciate a sense of numerical completion, it is interesting to note that we get the number 153 by adding the number of the Trinity (3) to Dunbar’s Number (150). This analysis hints at something truly wonderful. The Trinity is with us and as we depart the waters of this life for the shores of the next life, the Trinity remains with us. Regardless of the true significance of these numbers, the capture of the 153 fish in the untorn net always leads my thinking towards the Eucharist.


When I contemplate the Eucharist during Eucharistic Adoration or during other moments of prayer, I find myself thinking of unity with Christ, the destruction of selfishness, the preservation of goodness through healthy relationships with all creation, the meaning of a personal relationship with Jesus, the strengthening of God’s grace already within us, the emergence of social bonds through the story of evolution, the unity of our relationships with all the People of God, the potential of spiritual consolation to heal the wounds of all the people of this world or the gift of meal-sharing and peace-making that has been key to the flourishing of human civilisation throughout the history of our species.


Amidst these lofty certainties, I also remember the people who I love who have now sadly departed this life and those who are still here and who I am blessed to be able to have a relationship with. Our lives are not our own for the people we have known and know now help form us as surely as God made us. Through multiple acts of service, we build each other up, a faint echo of Jesus who offered up his body for all humanity.


We are each capable of seeing past our own immediate needs or wants to carry out redemptive acts of forgiveness, kindness and compassion. At such times, we feel more fully alive. This is because such redemptive acts are inspired by the Spirit of God. Through our actions, we can each make known the path of salvation laid down by Christ.


In the Eucharist, there is much to ponder, so much so that it would not be a lie to claim that the Eucharist is everything. Indeed, this statement does not do justice to the Eucharist. It is more than everything. It is everything that we can possibly know enshrined in a much larger mystery that connects all of creation. It is no small thing to realise that this holy sacrament truly does unite heaven and earth.


By making the Eucharist the centre of our lives, we let God shine through our personal relationships within the large social group that we belong to. When we follow Christ, the net that binds our group together in this life does not tear for God desires all of us to make it to the shores of heaven.



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