Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 2

Author: Albert Vanhoye, S.J.


Albert Vanhoye, S.J.

The Holy Eucharist in the sources of Sacred Scripture

Beginning with the Introduction, the new Encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistiacites 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 crucifixion.

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 meaningand 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 Jeremiahwhich 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. 21-22).

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.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 July 2003, page 10

L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:

The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
320 Cathedral St.
Baltimore, MD 21201
Subscriptions: (410) 547-5315
Fax: (410) 332-1069