Wednesday, March 28, 2007

On the Eucharist as Memorial and Sacrifice

In light of my previous post, the following paper from my twin brother Matt seems particularly appropriate. Please leave him some words of encouragement on his blog, and pray for him as he marches slowly but surely towards the priesthood.
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And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”... And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
-- CCC, #1339; cf. Lk 22: 14-15, 19[1]

With this excerpt from Luke’s Gospel, the Catechism, in its treatment of the Institution of the Eucharist, reveals not only the first of the most important words of consecration but also the roots and the meaning of this Mystery that our Lord celebrated at the Last Supper. We see first in its reference to the Passover the important context in which it was celebrated, a context rich with history and significance. Second, in our Lord’s words, “given for you,” we find a pointer to the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist and in his command to “Do this in remembrance of me,” its memorial aspect. In this essay we will look at the Jewish Passover and these words of our Lord to see how they can guide us toward the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist as memorial and sacrifice.

First it is important to have an adequate understanding of the Passover, what it is, and how the Jews approached its celebration. For 400 years, the Israelites were in the bondage of slavery in Egypt under the despotic rule of Pharaoh until the Lord initiated his final plague and Passover to set them free. So we see in the Book of Exodus that the Israelites – commanded by God through the detailed instructions of Moses and Aaron – were to sacrifice a lamb, and “take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat them” (Exodus 12:7). And the Lord said to the Israelites, “the blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt” (v. 13).

This set in motion their freedom, the most significant event in their history. Therefore the Lord repeatedly insisted that the Israelites never forget what he had done for them. In the twelfth chapter of Exodus, verse 14, we see that “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever.” And in verse 24: “You shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and for your sons for ever.” He even anticipates their children some day questioning their parents of the significance of this ritual. Therefore its meaning must be ever in place, “for ever” in their minds and in their practice, so that they can give their children a ready answer: “It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses” (v. 27). Notice here another clue: their response is to refer to “our houses” rather than the expected “their houses.” Finally, in verse 42, the Passover must always be “a night of watching kept to the Lord by all the people of Israel throughout their generations.”

These instructions are important because they empower the Israelites and their descendents to celebrate the Passover not merely as a nostalgic remembrance of God’s saving hand but as a present reality of the same. When they celebrate the Passover, they do not merely reminisce of their release from the bondage of slavery but they re-call it in a way that makes it present and effective in their own time and place throughout salvation history: “[The Lord] spared our houses.” Scott Hahn and Mark Shea, in their study of the book of Exodus, make the following point:
The Passover event is inaugurated with the Passover liturgy itself and the Feast of Passover is commanded in the very hour that the Passover and the Exodus begin. The liturgy of the Passover is precisely the way in which the nation, throughout history, is to participate in the events of the Exodus itself. This is why the Passover liturgy, to this day, teaches Jews to say that “we” were slaves in Egypt. Mystically, Jews in all times and places are to see themselves as being present at the events of the Exodus. (p. 115)[2]
Here we see what the Passover meant to the Israelites as a whole: the memorial of their freedom from slavery. Let us take a closer look now at what was memorialized in each element of the ritual, continuing toward an adequate understanding of the Passover and looking forward to the Eucharist as memorial and sacrifice.

First, the lamb to be sacrificed must be “without blemish” because, quite simply, it is God to whom it is offered and God demands and deserves only the best offering. This is witnessed throughout the Old Testament. God did not accept Cain’s sacrifice “because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” (1 John 3:11-12)[3] Also, “David refused to offer a sacrifice that cost him nothing” (cf. 1 Chron 21:22-25).[4] And the prophet Malachi addresses the abuse of offering impure sacrifice (Mal 1:6-9):
…O priests, who despise my name. You say, ‘How have we despised thy name?’ By offering polluted food upon my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it?’ By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that no evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that no evil?... And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us.’ With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you?”
This and other examples reminded the Jews, then and now, that they must always offer only the best sacrifices to God.

But not only does God demand and deserve pure sacrifice he also demands and deserves singular worship; to Him alone is sacrifice made. The prophet Ezekiel writes:
Thus says the Lord God:… Cast away the detestable things your eyes feast on, every one of you, and do not defile yourselves with the idols of Egypt; I am the Lord your God. But they rebelled against me and would not listen to me… “Then I thought I would pour out my wrath upon them and spend my anger against them… But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they dwelt... So I led them out of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. (Ezek 20:5-10)
Hahn and Shea add that one of the reasons the slaughter of the lamb is so important is that it “symbolizes the rejection of Banebdjedet (Ba-neb-Tetet), a ram-headed Egyptian god who supposedly created mankind and even other gods on his potter’s wheel.”[5] Therefore the unblemished lamb also reminds the Jews of their single-heartedness for God. Finally the bitter herbs reminded them of the bitterness of bondage in Egypt and the unleavened bread, “loins girded,” “sandals on feet,” and “staff in hand” of the haste with which they left Egypt when Pharaoh drove them out (Ex 12:8, 11).

“But, in addition to the memorial aspect of the Passover, there is also a deeply prophetic aspect. For the Passover looks forward in a profound way to the coming of Christ and of the establishment of the New Covenant in Christ’s body and blood.”[6] Here, Hahn and Shea make the connection between the memorial aspect of the Passover and the memorial aspect of the Eucharist, the former prefiguring the latter and the latter fulfilling the former. Let us now look at how Sacred Scripture makes this connection as well.

Our introductory passage from Luke showed us that the Lord’s Last Supper, his institution of the Eucharist, was in the context of a celebration of the Passover.[7] Hahn, in A Father Who Keeps His Promises, also sees a connection in the very structure of the Passover ritual, divided into four parts or four cups. First, there is a blessing over the first cup of wine followed by the dish of bitter herbs. Second, the Passover narrative from Exodus 12 is recited and a psalm is sung followed by the drinking of the second cup. Third, the meal of lamb and unleavened bread is served followed by the drinking of the third cup, the “cup of blessing.” Finally, the climax of the Passover came with the singing of another hymn and the drinking of the fourth cup of wine, the ‘cup of consummation.’” (pp. 228-229)[8]

Many New Testament scholars see this pattern reflected in the Gospel narratives of the Last Supper. In particular, the cup that Jesus blessed and distributed is identified as the third cup of the Passover Haggadah. This is apparent from the singing of the “Great Hallel” which immediately follows: “And when they had sung a hymn” (Mk 14:26). Paul identifies this “cup of blessing” with the cup of the Eucharist (see 1 Cor 10:16).

We also see a connection made in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, in the “Bread of Life” discourse. In the beginning of the chapter, in verse four, we are told that “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.”

John shows how Jesus miraculously provided bread for five thousand after “he had given thanks (eucharistesas),” (v. 11) evoking eucharistic imagery. Jesus then identified himself as the “true bread from heaven” (v. 32) and the “bread of life” (v. 35), drawing the parallel with Moses, through whom God supernaturally fed manna to the Israelites while forming a covenant with them after the first Passover (Ex 16:4ff.).

Indeed, St. Paul concludes, in his first letter to the Corinthians, “For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven… but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:7-8).

Before we enter into our discussion on the sacrificial aspect of the Passover and the Eucharist we too must finally conclude, with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, what it is the Eucharist of the Last Supper memorializes: “In order to leave them a pledge of his love, in order never to depart from his own and to make them sharers in his Passover, he instituted the Eucharist as the memorial of his death and Resurrection, and commanded his apostles to celebrate it until his return”[9] or as St. Paul stated it, “until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

The command of Jesus to repeat his actions and words “until he comes” does not only ask us to remember Jesus and what he did. It is directed at the liturgical celebration, by the apostles and their successors, of the memorial of Christ, of his life, of his death, of his Resurrection, and of his intercession in the presence of the Father.” (CCC, 1341)

And here too with the Eucharist, as with the Passover’s sense of “presence” that we established above, “both Jews and Christians enter into and participate in the great drama of God’s saving work in the world.”[10]

This mystical awareness of our eternal presence at God’s saving acts is only accentuated when [the Lamb of God][11], at the Passover Feast known as the Last Supper, takes the bread and the cup of the Passover and transforms it into his Body and Blood, becoming Really Present to us and making the one historical event of his Passion and Resurrection eternally present to us in the Sacrifice of the Mass.[12]

At this point, Fr. James T. O’Connor, in his comprehensive work on the Eucharist, The Hidden Manna, offers the following caution that leads us nicely into our discussion of the Passover and the Eucharist as sacrifice.

There is much [in the above discussion] that enriches the theology of the Eucharist, but it must be remembered that there is a uniqueness to the Eucharist that goes far beyond the Old Testament concept of memorial. The Eucharist is an effective memorial of Christ’s saving action because the Priest-Victim is himself actually and corporeally present, thus memorializing his own work in a manner not possible for other memorial celebrations (p. 243).[13]

The memorial aspect of both the Passover and the Eucharist, as discussed above, is distinct from their sacrificial aspect but not separate. Indeed, they are one in the same – both the Passover and the Eucharist – both memorial and sacrifice. As Fr. O’Connor alluded, Christ is the Priest-Victim in the sacrifice of His “New Passover,” the “new covenant,”[14] the Last Supper, the Eucharist. But how does the “Old Passover” point us to this reality? The Navarre Bible Commentary, commenting on the account of it in Exodus 12, says: “The victim will be a lamb, without blemish (v. 5) because it is to be offered to God. Smearing the doorposts and lintel with the blood of the victim (vv. 7, 13), an essential part of the rite, signifies protection from dangers. The Passover is essentially sacrificial from the very start.” But, this sacrifice and our connection of the Passover with the Eucharist would not be complete without the cross. Otherwise how could it be a memorial of his “death and Resurrection” as stated above?

At the inaugural Passover of the Israelites, the unblemished lamb was sacrificed for the salvation of their nation from the final plague and for their freedom from the bondage of slavery. But the sacrifice is such in both the object, the lamb, and the subject, the nation, because they had to make a sacrifice; they had to take from their own flocks, and the best at that. And if a family was too small to consume all of the lamb, as they were directed, then they shared a lamb with their neighbor. The nation made a collective sacrifice to provide the sacrifice offered for their salvation and freedom.

But just as the memorial aspect of the Passover points too and is expanded and fulfilled in the Eucharist, as indicated by Fr. O’Connor above, so too is the sacrificial aspect. In the Eucharist of the “New Passover” the subject and the object, the sacrifice and the offerer, the Priest and the Victim are one in the same Person of Christ. In describing the Mass, the Catechism explains, “The terms holy sacrifice of the Mass, ‘sacrifice of praise,’ spiritual sacrifice, pure and holy sacrifice are also used, since it completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant.” (CCC, 1330)

Also from our introductory passage, are the words of institution, “This is my body given for you.” In the Eucharist Christ gives us his very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (1365) The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit. (1366) The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” (1367) The Catechism summarizes nicely what we have said:
“At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, Our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet ‘in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.’” (1323)
Fr. O’Connor also presents three “tendencies” in theology following the Council of Trent in explaining exactly how the Eucharist was a sacrifice or, to be more precise, how the Cross, the Eucharist, and the Mass were related. The first tendency is exhibited by St. Robert Bellarmine. According to him, for the Mass to be a true sacrifice there must be an offering and some destruction of the victim. As we have said above, Christ is both the Priest and the Victim. And through the consumption of the Eucharist by the priest, the victim is destroyed when the form of his sacramental existence is destroyed. Thus reception by at least the priest was necessary for the existence of the sacrifice. (p. 237-239)[15]

The second tendency is held by one of the most preeminent scholars of the Eucharist as sacrifice, Maurice de la Taille, S.J. (1872-1933)[16]. Here it is believed that there does not need to be a destruction for there to be a true sacrifice but rather a new offering is required. “At the Last Supper, Christ made the offering of himself as the Victim ‘to be immolated’; on Calvary he offered himself by immolation; in the Mass, the Church offers him ‘as immolated’. (p. 240) The latter is seen in light of the eternity of Christ’s sacrifice. As the letter to the Hebrews says, Christ is our high priest at the right hand of God in heaven (cf. 8:1-2). If “every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices” (8:3) then Christ’s “once and for all” (7:27) sacrifice must be that very thing, but a never-ending or “perpetual” self-offering to the Father in heaven. And in this we participate on our altars on earth through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The third tendency is one we have used above when citing the Catechism and is most common in modern theology of the Eucharist as sacrifice. Its most prominent proponents are Pope Pius XII, A. Vonier, O.S.B.,[17]and Matthias Scheeben (1835-1888)[18] Here, “the Mass is a sacrifice because, in it, in a sacramental and mystical manner, Christ’s offering, immolation, and priestly activity in heaven become effectively present for us, while he simultaneously subsumes into his unique sacrifice the sacrificial offerings of the Church.” Thus, “the Mass is therefore neither a new sacrifice [nor] a part of the one sacrifice; it is the one sacrifice in its totality, present under a sign.”(p. 241)

Thus far, we have looked at the Jewish Passover and how it was understood by the ancient Israelites and Jews today as a present, effective celebration of God’s saving hand from the bondage of slavery, never to be forgotten. We then looked at the memorial aspect of the Passover and what each element of the ritual brought to mind for he who celebrated it. In this memorial aspect the Passover looks ahead to Christ’s New Passover of the Eucharist that has a similar but unique and fulfilled memorial aspect. Therefore, guided as we were by the Passover, we looked at how the Eucharist is a memorial. Finally, we looked at the sacrificial aspect of the Passover and how this too directed us toward and was fulfilled by the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist. And we explored briefly how this sacrificial aspect has been explained through Tradition, modern theology, the Catechism and Scripture. In so doing we give glory to God who from all time planned to share his superabundant love by making man in time and then preparing for him from his very beginning the most August Sacrament and Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, God made Man so that Man could be made “little less than God.” (Psalm 8:5)
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[1] All Scripture verses are from the Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition
[2] Exodus Study, Lesson 11, “Passover,” Catholic Scripture Study International, © copyright 2004, emphasis mine. See also
[3] The Navarre Bible Commentary on the Pentateuch adds for Gen 4:3-8: “Assuming that Cain was ill-intentioned in his offerings, St. Bede the Venerable comments that ‘men often are placated by gifts from those who have offended them; but God, who ‘discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart’ (Heb 4:12), lets himself be placated by no gift as much as by the pious devotion of the offerer. Once he has seen the purity of our heart, he will then also accept our prayers and our works” (Hexaemeron 2: in Gen, 4:4-5).”
[4] Exodus Study, p. 116
[5] Exodus Study, p. 117
[6] Exodus Study, p. 117
[7] Luke 22:7-15. See also, Matthew 26:17-19 and Mark 14:12-16
[8] A Father Keeps His Promises: God’s Covenant Love in Scripture, by Scott Hahn, Servant Publications, ©1998. Hahn continues with an explanation of the problem of the fourth cup: “Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mk 14:25-26). But, this problem is beyond the scope of the present essay.
[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1337
[10] Exodus Study, p. 115
[11] Cf. John 1:29, Rev 5:6, etc. It is interesting to note that the latter reference is the first of 28 times among the first 22 chapters of Revelation in which Christ is referred to as “the lamb.”
[12] Exodus Study, p. 115. Here, Hahn and Shea actually refer to “God Incarnate” but I chose the title “the Lamb of God” in brackets in order to further our point.
[13] The Hidden Manna: A Theology of the Eucharist, by James T. O’Connor, Ignatius Press, ©2005, 2nd ed.
[14] Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24 (note, in Matthew and Mark: “Other ancient authorities insert new”); Luke 22:20; and 1 Cor 11:25
[15] The Hidden Manna
[16] The Mystery of Faith, vol I and II
[17] A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist
[18] The Mysteries of Christianity

1 comment:

Seven77 said...

I don't think your brother left anything out! Excellent work!

This made me ponder today's Gospel reading--some Jews tell Jesus "we have never been enslaved to anyone". Wow...what a crazy thing for a Jew to say in light of the Passover!

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