Our Passover Eucharist

On Good Friday Jesus offered on the Cross the one sacrifice which is the root of every ritual and of all Christian religion.

Our Lord did not give his Eucharist to the disciples in a lonely place one day during their Galilean wanderings, as he delivered many of his other teachings. He did not speak about it in the Temple court, or in his sermon on the mount. He gave us the Eucharist during the Passover meal. The purpose of this article is to reflect on the setting of the first Eucharist, and what it tells us about the Eucharist today.

Do this in memory of me

It is a striking fact that the matter of all seven sacraments of the New Law is borrowed from somewhere in the Old Law. For example, throughout the Torah we find that a person who is ritually unclean must bathe, not to wash away dirt, but to become ritually clean again. This ritual bath was an everyday reality for Israelites of Jesus’ day; archeologists have found that Jerusalem is dotted with bathing pools meant for ritual bathing—the unclean person must bathe in running water, which required a special designed pool if a stream was not nearby.1 (Recall that John baptized in the Jordan, and Jesus promised “living water”.) By the time of Jesus, this ritual bath was called a baptism in Greek. John’s baptism interpreted accurately the Old Law: ritual uncleanness was symbolic of sin, and the ritual bath was symbolic of cleansing away sin, and so the purest form of the ritual bath of the Old Law would be John’s baptism of repentance. Just as this symbolic baptism formed part of the rites of initiation when a Gentile converted to Judaism, so Christ took it over as the matter for his new sacrament of initiation. (It is in an interesting fact that the Rabbis recommended bringing in new converts by means of the ritual bath and circumcision at the time of Passover, just as we baptize converts at Easter.)

The oil we use in Confirmation and in the Anointing of the Sick can be found in the Old Law, where it was used for ordaining priests and for cleansing lepers. These may be more parallel than they look at first: like the other two sacraments conferring characters, Confirmation conforms us to the priesthood of Christ, and the Anointing of the Sick is more powerful and all-purpose than the old anointing used strictly for lepers, but it is not difficult to see a connection. The matter of the sacrament of penance is confession and contrition, and these are certainly found in the Old Law: when a man sinned, he had to confess his sin to the priest and bring the appropriate sacrifice. In Holy Orders, the gesture we use is the laying on of hands: one sees this gesture in the Old Law mostly in connection with a priest laying his hands on the sacrificial animal, but it was also used to appoint a successor, as Moses laid his hands on Joshua. Lastly, marriage today is much the same as marriage then in terms of its matter: a man and a woman promised covenant fidelity to one another and raised children together.

Given this fact, that the matter of our sacraments is built, so to speak, out of blocks taken from the sacraments of the Old Law, one can ask the question: Which rite of the Old Law will our Lord choose as the matter for his Eucharist? The key to the answer is the fact that Christ meant to give us a sacrifice we could offer to God, the sacrifice of the New Law.

Now, Christ’s death on the cross is the all-sufficient sacrifice for our sins. Having died once, he has no need to die again and again, the way the priests of the Old Law offered bulls and goats repeatedly. If his death cannot be repeated, it follows logically that the sacrifice of the New Law cannot stand on its own, but will have to be a memorial of his one death on the cross. And this is what he says to the disciples in the upper room: “Do this in memory of Me.”

In the entire Law of Moses, there is only one ritual which is a memorial: the Passover, which was a memorial of the exodus from Egypt. Not only was the Passover suitable because it was a memorial, but it was a memorial of the exodus, which of all the events in the Old Testament was the one most suited for prefiguring the crucifixion of Jesus. The exodus was the time when God claimed a people for himself, snatched them out of slavery, and covenanted them to himself. As the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus dominate the New Testament and form its perspective, so the exodus from Egypt dominates the Old Testament and forms its perspective. When Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on Mount Tabor, they speak of his coming death and resurrection as his “exodus” (Luke 9:31, Greek text).

The Peace Offering

Besides being a memorial the Passover was also a sacrifice, but to appreciate this side of it we will have to back up and talk about the sacrifices of the Old Law at a more general level. Leviticus 1-7 gives the rules for the various types of sacrifice: burnt offering, cereal offering, peace offering, guilt offering, and sin offering. In practice, no one of these kinds of sacrifice was offered in isolation, rather in every actual ritual several of the kinds of sacrifice were combined to make the liturgy. This indicates that each of the kinds of sacrifice expresses only a part of the total reality of sacrifice, just as all of the kinds of sacrifice together were required for an adequate foreshadowing of our Lord’s one perfect sacrifice on the cross.

The pagan nations who were before Israel thought of sacrifices as food for their gods. In one Babylonian account of the Flood, the gods are sorry they have destroyed all mankind because now no one offers them sacrifice and so they are perishing of hunger!2 Israel understood (or was supposed to understand—see Ps 50:12-14) that God did not need their sacrifices, that he would not feel any hunger pains if he had to blot everyone from the earth. (Just contrast the Biblical Flood story with the Babylonian on this point!) Nonetheless, Israel did either think of sacrifices as food for God, or at least used that language as a metaphor. Consider the descriptions of sacrifice such as, “And the priest shall burn it on the altar as food offered by fire to the LORD” (Lev. 3:11); “You shall not . . . let the fat of my feast remain until morning” Exod. 23:18); “My offering, my food for my offerings by fire, my pleasing odor, you shall take heed to offer to me in its due season” (Num. 28:2); or this from one of the prophets, “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” (Mal. 1:6-7; “the Lord’s table” is evidently the altar); texts like these could be multiplied, but it should be enough to recall that constantly recurring phrase in the description of sacrifice, “…as a pleasing odor to the Lord.” The offering of incense is never described as a “pleasing odor,” but only the offerings of food: the odor is “pleasing” because it is the smell of good food. (This fits well with that Babylonian story I mentioned above.)

Theologically, we know that God has neither mouth nor nose, and needs neither food nor enticing aroma, but we understand what these texts are driving at. Just as God will consider us as having “given” him something if we deprive ourselves of something we value, for example by burning it or pouring it out on the ground, and we can consider him as having “taken” it, so if Israel “gave” foodstuff to God in this fashion, his “taking” of it could be considered as “eating” it. As we shall see in a moment, there is good reason to speak of sacrifice by the more concrete metaphor of “eating” rather than by the more abstract “taking.” The notion of eating provides a richer symbolism.

When we think of the sacrifices as the “food of God,” then we are struck by the fact that the priests were allowed to eat from the food of the altar. This served a double function: not only was it a practical way to feed those whose clerical duties prevented them from farming or going into business, it also gave the priests of God a kind of table fellowship with him. It expressed the bond of fellowship between God and his priests, and in fact one could say that in a sense it caused this fellowship, in the same way that our sharing a table together as a family expresses but also maintains our bond of fellowship. While the burnt offering in its pure form was given over entirely to God, the priest ate a share of all the other sacrifices—food from “the Lord’s table” (see Mal. 1:6-7 quoted above).

There was one kind of sacrifice, and one only, which a lay person could eat: the peace offering. This was in fact an expression of the lay person’s priesthood, because the whole of Israel was a “kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:6); just as we have an ordained priesthood and the priesthood of all believers, so Israel had a specially consecrated class of professional clerics as well as a sense that the people as a whole were consecrated as priests. The lay person was a priest, not in the sense that he could enter the temple and sprinkle the sacrificial blood, but in the sense that he could take part in the sacrificial rites. This lay priesthood reached its climax in the peace offering, in which the lay person, like the priest, entered into table fellowship with the Lord. One can see the peace offering as expressing the community of Israel: those who were clean were all in fellowship with God and therefore with each other, while those who were unclean were temporarily “excommunicated” from the privileged priestly fellowship of the people.

However much the peace offering expressed the community of the people with the Lord and with each other, only once every year did all the people come together and together sacrifice the peace offering: at Passover. The Passover sacrifice was, according to all experts in the Law, a species of the peace offering, and the Passover meal was that eating of the sacrifice I have described above. At the Passover, all the people came together and simultaneously entered into table fellowship with God and therefore with each other: it was therefore the greatest expression of the communion of Israel with God and with each other—as was only appropriate, since we have seen above that the Passover ritual commemorated the day when God chose and covenanted Israel to himself and created them as a people.

Into this context our Lord chose to insert the sacrament of the Eucharist. Is it not obvious that no better time could have been chosen, no better element of the Old Law chosen, than the Passover? The sacrament which expresses and in fact causes our communion with God and with one another in the Mystical Body, the Church, could only have been instituted on this day. The sacrament of the Old Law is transformed into a sacrament of the New Law, and this is how our Eucharist takes on its element of table fellowship—with each other, to be sure, but above all with God. It is in this light that we can understand 1Corinthians 10:14-21 (I have modified the RSV to bring out the consistency of the word koinonia, “communion”):

Therefore, my beloved, shun the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices communicants in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be communicants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

One sometimes hears a priest give a homily in which he emphasizes the “communal meal” aspect of the Mass instead of the sacrificial aspect. So much so, that those of us who value the Mass as a sacrifice may cringe when we hear a priest stress the table fellowship side of the Mass at all. But there is no need. The Eucharist is only a communal meal because it is first a sacrifice. Take away the sacrifice, and the theological rationale behind the communal meal is gone. Those who exalt our communal meal to the detriment of the sacrifice fail to comprehend the very thing they value so highly.

Now in pagan circles, one could expect that eating of the sacrifice might be seen as a magical, life-giving act, because the consecrated sacrifice had become food of the gods, and therefore might impart divine life. This understanding was not possible in Israel, who could not see the sacrifices as giving life to God. Instead, the idea of manna as “food from heaven” was developed into the idea of “food of heaven” and thus the “bread of angels,” and in the non-Biblical Israelite traditions manna came to be seen as a divine food eaten by angels and imparting life and immortality. (I have just recently read Joseph and Aseneth, a non-Biblical but pre-Christian Jewish writing which speaks frequently of “eating the bread of life, and drinking the cup of blessing/immortality”.) This line of thought was eventually Christianized and brought to expression in John 6, where Jesus is described as the true manna, the bread from heaven which imparts eternal life. This is why John 6 is the clearest text in the New Testament on the Real Presence and the benefits of communion for the individual.

A True Sacrifice

I have stressed that the Eucharist is a sacrifice before it is a meal. As all-important as receiving communion is to us, even more important is that aspect of the sacrament by which we give honor to God. However, this would not be true if the Eucharist were a sacrifice only in a metaphorical sense, only in symbol. Now we must examine the teaching of the Council of Trent, that the Eucharist is a sacrifice in the true and proper sense of the word.

As before, we must return to Leviticus 1-7, the heart of Old Testament teaching on sacrifice. There we see all the rules for all the kinds of sacrifices spelled out. All the animal sacrifices follow the same six steps. Now it is important to notice that the first three steps are carried out by a lay person, while only the last three steps are carried out by a priest:

  1. The lay person brings the sacrifice to the Tent of Meeting (or the Temple);
  2. The lay person lays his hands on the animal;
  3. The lay person slaughters the animal, cuts it up, and drains its blood;
  4. The priest takes the blood of the animal and sprinkles it on the altar;
  5. The priest takes the flesh of the animal and burns the appropriate parts on the altar;
  6. The priest cleans up the remains.

Let me repeat the point I want to make clear: the priest does not slaughter the animal. The priest takes the blood and the flesh of the animal into the Tent to the Holy Place and offers it there, sprinkling the blood on the altar and either waving or burning the flesh, but he does not kill the animal.

Now suppose that a priest took the flesh and blood of an animal into the sanctuary, offered them appropriately, cleaned up, left the sanctuary, and lo! — by some wizardry, the self-same flesh and blood of the self-same animal was waiting for him outside. So he takes the flesh and blood again and re-enters the sanctuary and offers them again, cleans up, exits to the outer court and—marvel of marvels! There is the same flesh and the same blood yet again! Back he goes into the sanctuary with the flesh and the blood to offer them again, wondering if he will ever be done with this sacrifice. You can see in this fanciful example that there is only one sacrifice because there is only one animal which died only once, and yet the same sacrifice is being offered again and again; and every time the priest offers it, he is offering a true and proper sacrifice.

In a more marvelous manner, this is what happens at Mass. By the words of consecration the priest causes the flesh of Christ to be present under the appearances of bread and the blood of Christ to be present under the appearances of wine and by that very fact brings them, so to speak, into the sanctuary. There is only one Christ, and he died only once, and so there is only one sacrifice; and yet this one sacrifice is offered again and again, a true and proper sacrifice every time the priest offers it.

The full reality of our Christian sacrifice can only be seen when we appreciate what the Council of Trent teaches about “concomitance.” When the priest says, “This is my body,” the sacrament causes the body of Christ to be present—and does not cause anything else! The words “This is my body” do not cause Jesus’ soul or his blood to be present, but only his body. Now of course the fact is that Jesus’ body as it exists in heaven is together with his blood and his soul, so when the body comes to be present under the appearances of bread then the blood and the soul come along for the ride, so to speak—this is what “concomitance” means. But if one of the apostles had consecrated the Eucharist on Holy Saturday, while Jesus lay in the tomb, then only the body of Christ would have been present under the appearances of bread: the words of consecration simply cause the body to be present, and at that time the body as it existed on earth was not united with the blood or the soul.

The same thing is true of the words “This is my blood.” These sacramental words cause the blood of Jesus to be present under the appearances of wine, and do not cause anything else. Because Jesus’ body and soul are in fact united to his blood in heaven, the body and soul are also present under the appearances of wine by “concomitance,” but not by the power of the sacrament. The sacrament only causes the blood to be present; the rest of Jesus comes along because it is attached to the blood.

So if we think in terms of what the sacrament itself causes, then the body of Jesus is present under the appearances of bread and the blood of Jesus under the appearances of wine. Even though the whole Jesus is present under both appearances, body and blood, soul and divinity, nonetheless we can say that, sacramentally speaking, the priest really brings Jesus’ flesh into the sanctuary separately from Jesus’ blood. Not only is the sacrificial victim truly present in the sacrament, but he is present in the manner of a sacrificial victim, present sacramentally as flesh over here and blood over there.

Think back to our Old Testament priest of Leviticus 1-7. Suppose that the lay person brought the victim to the tent, laid hands on it, and slaughtered it, and suppose that the priest then took a picture of the animal’s flesh and a picture of the animal’s blood into the sanctuary to offer it. There might be something sacrificial about the priest’s intentions, and we might call his action a sacrifice by some metaphor, but clearly he has not offered a sacrifice in the true and proper sense of the word. Really to offer the sacrifice, he needs to bring the flesh and bring the blood. Steps 1 through 3 of the ritual do not make a sacrifice without steps 4 through 6.

This truth carries over to the sacrifice of the New Law. If the priest offered bread and wine as mere tokens of Christ’s flesh and blood, then the sacrifice would be a metaphorical one. The Council of Trent teaches that the Mass is a sacrifice in the true and proper sense because the victim is really and truly present in the sacrament. The reality of the sacrifice is dependent on the reality of the Presence.

I have said that steps 1 through 3 of the ritual do not make a sacrifice without steps 4 through 6, but I could have said the same thing the other way around: steps 4 through 6 of the ritual do not make a sacrifice without steps 1 through 3. That is to say, slaughtering the animal without really offering it at the altar does not make a sacrifice, but offering the body and blood without slaughtering it does not make a sacrifice either. When the priest brings the body and blood into the Holy Place, it has to be the body and blood of an animal which has died.

With respect to the New Law, this means that the Mass would be no sacrifice at all if Christ had not died for us on the cross. Even though we offer our sacrifice newly many times a day, it is unavoidably attached to a historical event in the past. The Mass is not its own sacrifice in addition to the cross: it is a re-presentation or re-offering of the crucified victim. To make this concrete, we can say that the sacrament offered at the Last Supper would not have been a sacrifice if Jesus had not continued on to die on the cross.

One more note on my fanciful story about the Israelite priest’s encounter with wizardry. We saw readily that the same sacrifice was being offered again and again as the unfortunate priest trudged back into the sanctuary again and again with the same flesh and the same blood of the same animal. But what would happen if a different priest barged in, snatched up the flesh and the blood, and carried it into the sanctuary? Would it continue to be the same sacrifice, or would the difference in priests make for a difference in sacrifice? It is difficult to sort out.

Fortunately, we do not have to sort it out, because the sacrifice of the New Law is always offered by the same Priest. While this or that ordained priest may offer the Mass, he can only offer the sacrifice because he has been empowered to act as Christ’s representative. It is as when a king authorizes many representatives to sign documents in his name: there may be many servants acting as his representatives, but there is only one king who signs all the documents. If many representatives were to sign the same document, it would not be more signed or more authoritative than if one only had signed it, because all have only the one authority of the king. The same is true of priests offering the sacrifice of the Mass. For example, if many priests concelebrate a Mass and so all offer the same sacrificial Mass, the Mass is not more offered or more sacrificed than any other Mass, because all offer it in the name of the one Priest, Jesus Christ.

These are the elements which make up the teaching of Trent: the sacrifice of the Mass is a sacrifice in the true and proper sense of the word because the priest really offers the real body and real blood of a victim which was really slaughtered. Moreover, the Mass is the same sacrifice as the sacrifice of Calvary, because the same priest really offers the same real body and the same real blood of the same Victim Who died once on the cross.3

More Than a Communion Service

In the course of this article, I have tried to bring out the beauty, coherence, and importance of our Catholic belief that the Mass is a true sacrifice. This truth was clear to everyone in days previous, but these days we have developed the custom of receiving Communion every time we go to Mass. While this is a good custom in itself, it has left Catholics with the impression that Mass is all about receiving Communion, that Mass is in fact not very much different from an elaborate communion service, to the point that one often hears even pious Catholics say, “Oops, I forgot and ate something and now I can’t receive communion; I had wanted to go to Mass, but I guess I’ll have to go another day!” As though the Mass had nothing to offer but Communion!

We often hear it said that at the Last Supper Jesus left us the sacrament of his body and blood so that he might “remain with us always,” that we might not be left abandoned. This is very true. But the Council of Trent says something more:4 man by his nature needs to offer visible, tangible sacrifice to God; it is part of his innate response to the Deity. Had Jesus left us without a sacrificial ritual, we would have to admit that in this respect at least the Old Testament is superior to the New. But on Holy Thursday, Jesus ordained his new priesthood and gave them the sacrificial ritual of the New Law, superior in every way to the rituals of Leviticus 1-7. Then on Good Friday, Jesus offered on the Cross the one sacrifice which is the root of every ritual and of all Christian religion.

  1. Ronny Reich, “The Synagogue and the miqveh in Eretz-Israel in the Second-Temple, Mishnaic, and Talmudic Periods,” in Ancient Synagogues: Historical Analysis an Archaeological Discovery (ed. D. Urman and P. V. M. Flesher; Leiden: Brill, 1995), 296. For a discussion of the cautions in archaeological interpretation, see Benjamin G. Wright, “Jewish Ritual Baths–Interpreting the Digs and the Texts: Some Issues in the Social History of Second Temple Judaism,” in The Archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past, Interpreting the Present (JSOT Supplement 237; ed. N. A. Silberman and D. B. Small; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press), 193-96. 
  2. The Atrahasis Epic, ANET 95A. 
  3. Trent, Session 22, chapter 2. 
  4. Session 22, chapter 1. 
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avatar About Dr. Jeremy Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, and the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria. He did his doctoral work in Scripture at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is now assistant professor of theology at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, where he resides with his wife Jacinta and their four children.

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