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Saturday, June 23, 2018
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Holy Spirit Interactive: Eucharist: The Biblical Roots of Ecclesia de Eucharistia

The Biblical Roots of Ecclesia de Eucharistia

In his 2003 encyclical “On the Eucharist in its Relationship to the Church” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, [EE]), Pope John Paul II wants to rekindle the “amazement” of the Church for the Eucharist, which is the “source and summit of the Christian faith” (no. 6). As I have read and reread this encyclical, I was indeed amazed, not only by the mystery of the Eucharist itself, but in particular by the Holy Father’s use of Scripture to illuminate its various aspects.

In this article, I would like to highlight and reflect on three points he makes concerning the Eucharist. First, the Eucharist takes us “back” to the Cross. Second, it takes us “forward” to our bodily resurrection. Third, it reveals to us the “face” of Christ. Each of these ideas is rooted in Sacred Scripture and can help us to deepen our understanding of the mystery of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

The New Passover

In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II emphasizes the fact that, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we are in some way brought back to the Passion and death of Jesus. As many Catholics know, the Mass is not a re-sacrificing of Christ, but a re-presentation of the one sacrifice of Christ, begun at the Last Supper, completed in everlasting glory when the Risen Lord ascended to offer himself to the Father in the Heavenly Temple (see Catechism, nos. 1364-67).

In recent years there has been a common tendency to de-emphasize the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist in favor of its celebratory dimensions. Pope John Paul II recognizes this and so begins by emphasizing two key points of Eucharistic doctrine.

First, he calls our attention several times to the “mysterious ‘oneness in time’” that exists between the Eucharist and the Passion of Christ (EE, no. 5). He reminds us that in the Eucharist we are “spiritually brought back to the paschal Triduum: to the events of the evening of Holy Thursday, to the Last Supper, and to what followed it” (no. 3, emphasis added). Indeed, the Eucharist is nothing less than “the sacrifice of the Cross perpetuated down the ages,” so that each of us can personally participate in it, “as if we had been present there” (no. 11).

Second, he emphasizes the paschal nature of the sacrament: The Eucharist is intrinsically tied to the Passover—in Greek, the word for “passover” is pascha—which was celebrated by Jesus on the night of the Last Supper. Indeed, Pope John Paul II declares that the “mysterium paschale,” (the “Passover mystery”) and the “mysterium eucharisticum,” (the “eucharistic mystery”), are really one and the same: They are the mystery of Christ’s Passion, death, and Resurrection (no. 2). For this reason, we can even say that “the Church was born of the paschal mystery” and that “the Eucharist . . . is in an outstanding way the sacrament of the paschal mystery” (no. 3).

What is fascinating for me as a scholar of both Scripture and ancient Judaism is that this idea of being brought back to the Passover of Jesus is precisely what ancient Jews believed about their own Passover liturgy and the Exodus from Egypt.[1] This can be seen in one of the most ancient Jewish descriptions of the Passover liturgy, the Mishnah, which states with regard to the Passover meal: “In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt’ (Ex. 13:8, emphasis added).”[2] In other words, with every Passover sacrifice, the ancient Jews knew that they were somehow participating in the first Exodus, the first Passover. They saw the redemption that had been accomplished on that fateful night as one which was won for them, for each one of them personally, although they themselves had not been born until centuries after the event.

The significance of these ancient Jewish roots is quite simple: In the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we not only participate in the liturgy we see before us with our eyes, but, in some mysterious way, in the Passion and death of Christ Himself. He is the new Passover Lamb, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). What is a marvelous privilege, a marvelous dignity bestowed by Our Lord on those of us born “too late” to sit with Him at the table of the Last Supper. In a real way, no one of us is excluded from being with Him in His final hours when, as St. Paul says, He “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). This should rekindle in us not only “amazement,” but awe, humility, contrition, and reverence.

The New Manna

The story does not stop at Calvary, of course. And as soon as Pope John Paul II reminds us that the Eucharist allows us to participate in the Passover of Christ, he also goes on to teach: “The Eucharistic sacrifice makes present not only the mystery of the Savior’s passion and death, but also the mystery of the resurrection which crowned his sacrifice” (no. 14, emphasis added). Indeed, the Eucharist is not only connected to Christ’s Resurrection, but to our own: “in the Eucharist we also receive the pledge of our bodily resurrection at the end of the world: ‘[H]e who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day’” (Jn. 6:54; EE, no. 25, emphasis added). In other words, the Eucharist, which is the mystery of the Body of Christ, is not only a mystery of the death of His Body, but of its Resurrection, and thus is also a “foretaste” of our own bodily resurrection.

Again, Scripture can help us illuminate Pope John Paul II’s description of the Eucharist as a “foretaste” of the final resurrection. It is no coincidence that when the Holy Father wants to make this point about the Eucharist and the Resurrection he quotes John chapter 6. For it is in this chapter that Jesus describes the Eucharist not in terms of the Passover but as the new Manna, the new bread from heaven.

And again we are taken back to the Exodus. After God delivered Israel from Egypt by means of the Passover, the people cried out for food in the desert. In response, God gave them manna each day, as they journeyed through the wilderness (see Exodus 16). What is fascinating about the manna is that there are several striking parallels between it and the Eucharist. First, it was daily—it came each day in the morning. Second, it was from heaven; it was supernatural in origin, the “bread of angels” (Ps. 78: 25). Third, it was a foretaste of the Promised Land, the “land of milk and honey”—for it tasted “like wafers made with honey” (Ex. 16:31). In short, the manna was food from heaven, meant to strengthen the Israelites each day on their journey home and to be a reminder that God was with them and that He would ultimately bring them home to the Promised Land.

In the same way, the Eucharist is our manna, the new Manna. As Jesus Himself said, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die” (Jn. 6:49-50). And also, we pray at each Mass: “Give us this day our daily bread.” To an early Christian, this prayer for “daily bread” would have called to mind the image of the manna. And just as the Old Testament manna was a foretaste of the paradise of the Promised Land, so too, as Pope John Paul II points out, the Eucharist is a foretaste of the final paradise of God: “The Eucharist is a straining toward the goal, a foretaste of the fullness of joy promised by Christ (cf. Jn. 15:11); it is in some way the anticipation of heaven, ‘the pledge of future glory’” (EE, no. 18, emphasis added).

In a way, then, Jesus is saying to us in each and every Eucharist, as He said to the thief on the Cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” To every Mass, then, we should bring with us both the solemnity of Our Lord’s Passion and death and the joy of His Resurrection, as well as our own joyful hope for “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

The New Bread of the Presence

The third and final image of the Eucharist used by Pope John Paul II that I would like to call our attention to is the connection between the Eucharist and the “face” of Christ. One of the Holy Father’s main goals in Ecclesia de Eucharistia is to call the Church back to the devotional practice of Eucharistic adoration. Indeed, one of the “dark clouds of unacceptable doctrine and practice” that Pope John Paul II wishes to help “banish” with this encyclical regards the abandonment of Eucharistic adoration. In recent years in some places the practice of adoration “has been almost completely abandoned” (no. 10). In response to this, he strongly enjoins both pastors and the faithful to engage in the practice of Eucharistic exposition and adoration.

What is fascinating to me about this injunction to renew Eucharistic devotion outside of Mass is the image that Pope John Paul II uses to describe it: that of “contemplating the face of Christ” in the Holy Eucharist (no. 25). Indeed, he expressly declares that “[t]o contemplate the face of Christ, and to contemplate it with Mary, is the ‘program’ which I have set before the Church at the dawn of the third millennium. . . . To contemplate Christ involves being able to recognize him wherever he manifests himself, in his many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of His body and blood” (no. 6).

Again, the beauty of this image of contemplating the “face” of Christ in the Eucharist can be deepened by examining its biblical roots in the Old Testament. Although Pope John Paul II himself does not explicitly make this connection, the notion of contemplating the “face” of Christ in the Eucharist has an ancient precedent in the Old Testament “Bread of the Presence” which, translated literally from the Hebrew, is also “the Bread of the Face.”[3]

A description of the bread of the presence can be found again in the story of the Exodus. Once Israel had escaped from Egypt, God called Moses up to the top of Mt. Sinai and gave him very precise instructions on how to build the tabernacle, a kind of portable temple where the Lord would dwell with Israel as they traveled through the wilderness (see Exodus 25). Inside the Tabernacle, in its inner court, the Holy Place, there was a golden table on which sat “the bread of the Presence” (Ex. 25:30).

This bread of the presence is perhaps one of the most fascinating and most overlooked prototypes of the Eucharist in the Old Testament,[4] although the Bible describes it in great detail (see Leviticus 24:1-9). Twelve cakes of it were set out each Sabbath by the priests as “a perpetual due” that was to be “continually” before the presence of the Lord atop the Ark of the Covenant. Additionally, there was a golden lampstand of seven candles which was “to be kept burning continually” alongside the bread of the presence in the Holy Place. Finally, whenever the bread was carried outside of the Tabernacle, it was to be veiled, as were many of the other sacred objects (cf. Num. 4:1-15). Of all burnt offerings, the bread of the presence, the bread of the face, was “most holy” to the Lord (Lev. 24:9).

It does not take much to see here the ancient biblical roots of our own practice of Eucharistic adoration— from the veiling of the sacrament in Benediction, to the candled lamp that must always be kept burning alongside the Eucharist, to even the very language of the “tabernacle” as the sacred dwelling place of Christ in the sacrament. All of this flows out of the Old Testament prototypes which meet their fulfillment in the true bread of the presence, the true bread of the face: the Eucharist.

When we look at the Eucharist in terms of the bread of the presence, we are reminded that there is not only past redemption and future resurrection: There is also the present. And it is in this present, this vale of tears, that most of us live most of the time. What the Holy Father is reminding us is that in this, our journey through the wilderness, away from Egypt and toward the Promised Land, we not only need deliverance from sin as well as daily bread, we need to be with God. This is why he is calling for all of us to “contemplate the ‘face’ of Christ” in the Eucharist, “to spend time with him . . . in silent adoration, in heartfelt love” (no. 25).

This, to me, takes on new meaning in light of the Old Testament “bread of the presence,” the “bread of the face.” Although Jesus’ face is veiled under the appearance of bread and wine, it is still His face. It is indeed the face of God. He is here with us, as he was with Israel, in the tabernacle, although far more powerfully. He has not left us orphaned, not left us alone to journey in the wilderness. We can go to Him, and be with Him, and look lovingly upon Him as we await His coming in glory.

For there will come a time when, just as the old manna ceased coming down from heaven when Israel crossed over into the Promised Land, the New Manna will also cease. On that day, our Exodus, our journey, will be complete. We will then have reached the new Promised Land, the new temple, the Paradise of God. And on that glorious day, the veil of bread and wine that covers His presence will be lifted, and we will no longer see Him as in a mirror, dimly, but we will be with Him and we will see Him, at last, “face to face.”

[1] See Exodus 12 for a detailed description of the Passover sacrifice.
[2] Mishnah, Pesahim 10, citing Exodus 13:8, from The Mishnah (trans. H. Danby; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933).
[3] The same word in Hebrew can mean both “presence” and “face.”
[4] See, however, Thomas J. Nash, Worthy is the Lamb: The Biblical Roots of the Mass (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004), 115-16.