The Holy Eucharist in the sources of Sacred Scripture
Beginning with the Introduction, the new Encyclical Ecclesia de
Eucharistia cites the texts of the New Testament that refer to the
institution of the Eucharist. Further reference is made later on, with
the addition of other texts which regard this gift of Christ. In fact,
the scriptural sources on this subject are numerous and open the door to
enlightening, consoling and inspiring prospects.
With regard to the historical accuracy of the event, these texts are
exceptionally reliable, since it is based on the convergence of two very
ancient traditions: the tradition of Mark and Matthew and that of Paul
and Luke. Certain divergent details —
especially the words that Jesus spoke over the cup —
show that these two traditions are not interdependent, which makes their
evidence corroborating the main events all the stronger. The date of
Paul's account, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (11:23-25), can
be determined fairly precisely because the Letter was written in about
the year 55 and Paul recalls in it a previous catechesis that he gave on
the Lord's Supper during his visit to Corinth in the years 50-52,
"when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia" (Acts 18:12) —
a Greek inscription, found in Delphi in 1905, informs us of the dates of
the proconsul Gallio. Furthermore, Paul specifies that he himself was
passing on an earlier, hence, very ancient tradition.
With regard to the other traditional form, that of Mark and Matthew,
our information is less precise. We do not know the date when the
writing of these Gospels was completed; it must have been considerably
later than the First Letter sent to the Corinthians, but the Gospel
catechesis was certainly far earlier, as the Semitic tone of the
accounts demonstrates. With all of this we arrive at a time very close
to the event. In the New Testament, cases demonstrating such historical
accuracy are few and far between. The most similar case is that of the
Resurrection of Jesus, thanks to the list of his apparitions given in
the First Letter to the Corinthians (15:4-8). In a different but equally
convincing way, there are abundant attestations of Jesus' Passion and
From the viewpoint of faith, the institution of the Eucharist is a
stupendous source of light. It enlightens the event of Calvary and
reveals its deep meaning to us. The Encyclical clearly demonstrates
this, especially in the chapter on the "Mystery of Faith". The
event of Calvary in itself was obscure, indeed, dark. What does the
death of Jesus on a cross mean? It was the death of a man condemned.
Jesus has "become a curse for us", writes St Paul (Gal 3:13).
We know that his condemnation was glaringly unjust. What is the point of
an unjust condemnation? At first sight, it is meaningless; it is absurd,
scandalous, tragic. The public life of Jesus concluded with this tragic
end, almost a defeat. If we had nothing but the accounts of the Passion,
we would have no explicit basis for the fundamental affirmations of
faith: "Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8); "gave
himself for our sins" (Gal 1:4); "loved us and
gave himself up for us" (Eph 5:2).
On the other hand, the fact of the institution of the Eucharist
radically changes the situation: it shows that the event of Calvary has
an especially positive meaning and not only reveals this meaning
but establishes and enhances it. At the Last Supper Jesus foretells his
death on the cross and, through his gestures and words, gives it a
positive meaning. His gesture was an act of giving: Jesus gives his
disciples, gathered in the Upper Room, the bread broken, the wine poured
out. At the same time, Jesus pronounces the words that crystallized the
mysterious meaning of the gift, which, at first sight, seemed ordinary:
"This is my body which is given for you"; "This cup which
is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood" (Lk
22:19.20). These words showed that his act made the event of Calvary
present in advance, and transformed it into a gift of love and the basis
of a covenant. No more radical transformation of the event could have
been possible. It manifested boundless generosity.
Of the words Jesus spoke at that moment, the most enlightening is
"covenant", because it defines the importance of the whole
episode and reveals what Jesus wanted to achieve and did achieve with
his death. He wanted to establish a "covenant". Here the two
above-mentioned traditions refer to two different Old Testament texts.
The formula of Mark and Matthew —
"this is my blood, the blood of the covenant..." (Mk 14:24; Mt
26:28) — refers to the founding
rite of the covenant on Sinai, when "Moses took the blood [of the
sacrificed animals] and threw it upon the people, and said, 'Behold the
blood of the covenant'" (Ex 24:8). In this way, the
"sacrificial meaning" of Jesus' death is expressed (cf. Ecclesia
de Eucharistia, n. 12); this death is a sacrifice similar to
the sacrifice of Sinai, since it is also made with blood; but at the
same time it is very different, for no longer is the blood of
unintelligent animals used, but the blood of a man, conscious and free,
who gives up his own life.
Thus, the covenant founded in Jesus' sacrifice is a new covenant,
even if the formula used by Mark and Matthew does not explicitly say so.
Instead, the formula used by Paul and Luke does. It says: "This cup
is the new covenant in my blood" (I Cor 11:25; Lk 22:20), and thus
mentions the famous oracle of Jeremiah which announced the
establishment of a "new covenant" which was not like the
covenant of Sinai (Jer 31:31-34). The new Encyclical, in addressing the
"Eucharist in its relationship to the Church", is deeply
linked to this essential aspect of the Eucharist, especially in the
second chapter: "The Eucharist Builds the Church" (cf. nn.
Indeed, in the word "covenant" the institution of the
Eucharist brings the community aspect to the fore. On Calvary this
aspect is not revealed. Jesus dies alone, rejected by the multitude,
forsaken by his disciples. At the Last Supper, on the other hand, he is
with them, in the context of a meal eaten together. In all companionship
at table there is a sense of communication between those present, of
reciprocal acceptance, of affection. In this context, Jesus offers his
body as food and his blood as drink.
It is impossible to imagine a way of creating fuller communion
between every disciple and Jesus, as well as among all the disciples.
This is a reciprocal interiority with Christ ("he who eats my flesh
and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him": Jn 6:56), and of
union among all ("the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a
participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it
not a participation 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":
I Cor 10:16-17).
After showing that Eucharistic communion produces union among
everyone, the Apostle Paul also expresses the demands that the community
life, which results from it, makes on believers. Those who receive the
Eucharist, the source of intense love, no longer have any excuse to live
in selfish egotism (cf. I Cor 11:20-22).
In the Bread of Life Discourse, the fourth Gospel insists on the need
to receive the Eucharist in order to have, from this moment,
"eternal life", which is participation in the life of God
himself and assures believers of resurrection (Jn 6:53-58). This
"eternal life" is a life of love, since "God is
love" (I Jn 4:8.16). As an expression of extreme love, the
Eucharist has multiple connections with all the divine gifts revealed
and communicated in Sacred Scripture. The study of these connections is
a fascinating task. In this sense, one can say that the scriptural
sources on the Eucharist are inexhaustible.