Discover the Old Testament Roots of the Eucharist
The doctrine of the Real Presence of the Eucharist has been similar to St. Paul’s preaching of the cross: a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Once the theological battle between Martin Luther and Catholicism picked up steam in the early 16th century, the Eucharist became one of the key battles. Boiled down, the question was: what is it? The Catholic teaching that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ, and a re-presentation of His sacrifice on Calvary? Or is it a mere symbol, or something even less? Catholic teaching on the Eucharist didn’t change in the 16th century, nor has it since.
The question for this article is not asking what is the Eucharist, but how to better understand it. One of the best ways to understand this great sacrament (as much as we are able) is not to go to proof texts in the New Testament. It’s turning our gaze to the Old Testament. Pope Benedict noted that, “it must be said that the message of Jesus is completely misunderstood if it is separated from the context of the faith and hope of the Chosen People.” (Quoted in Brant Pitre’s “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist,” pg. 9) All of the great mysteries of God’s love and saving work are best seen in the whole context of salvation history, from Genesis to Revelation. There are four key themes hidden in the Old Testament that shed dramatic light on the Eucharist: the priest, the sacrifice, the lamb, and the bread.
Out of the 12 tribes of Israel, those of the tribe of Levi were the priests. From the time of the exodus (since the aftermath of the golden calf incident, Exodus 32:29), the priestly duties on behalf of all of Israel were the unique heritage of the tribe of Levi. Levites served in the temple in Jerusalem, offering sacrifices to the Lord. In Jesus’ time, the priests were divided into rotating groups that served certain weeks out of the year. St. Luke briefly notes this rotation in the first chapter of his gospel (1:5-9); it was on his annual rotation that Zechariah encountered the Archangel Gabriel.
Jesus was from the tribe of Judah (Heb 7:14) and had no claim to a priestly title through His human family. “Although modern readers sometimes forget the fact, in ancient Israel, no one but a priest could offer a blood sacrifice. That is what priests did; they were set apart for sacrificial worship” (Brant Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, pg. 52). If the Eucharist is indeed a sacrifice following the prescriptions of Jewish law, it would have to be offered by a priest. Where did Jesus’ priestly credentials come from?
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews gives us the answer: “Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘Thou art my Son, today I have begotten thee’; as he says also in another place, ‘Thou art a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek’” (Heb 5:5-6). The citations within the text are from Psalm 110, and the figure of Melchizedek, the priest-king of Salem (the city that later became Jerusalem) is full of eucharistic foreshadowing. Melchizedek’s priesthood pre-dated the high priesthood of Aaron and the priesthood of the tribe of Levi; Jesus’ priesthood similarly comes directly from God. Jesus was on a mission of giving Himself, saying that he had “come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Melchizedek offered bread and wine to God; Jesus consecrated bread and wine at the Last Supper, and offered the perfect sacrifice—Himself—to God.
Sacrifices were one of the primary ways to live out the covenants that God made with His Chosen People. There wasn’t just one type of sacrifice, there were multiple: thanksgiving, atonement, sealing a covenant, collective sacrifices for the nation of Israel, individual sacrifices for various needs, and more. Many sacrifices required animals, but others offered grain, meal, wine, or incense. While the Temple in Jerusalem stood, the entire sacrificial observance of the Israelites was done at the Temple. Solomon’s Temple lasted from about 960 B.C. until its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 B.C. (cf. 2 Kings 25). The second Temple was built by returning exiles from Babylon in 516 B.C. and stood until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.
The Temple was important because sacrifices had to be offered to God, and had to be offered according to specific prescriptions. While the Temple was standing, it was the only place for a sacrifice. A later prophecy from the prophet Malachi might have sounded odd in that regard. God’s message through Malachi was that “from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering” (1:11). Catholics should recognize an allusion within Eucharistic Prayer III that directly quotes this passage. In its historical context, however, this probably raised some eyebrows. Malachi prophesied while the Israelites were toward the end of the Babylonian Captivity. The Temple in Jerusalem had been burned to the ground. Incense offered everywhere to God? While the Chosen People languished by the streams of Babylon? Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6), but in the middle of a desolate time?
Enter Our Lord Jesus. His sacrifice on the cross was an eternal moment, and the perfect sacrifice that would be offered from the rising of the sun to its setting: “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all… But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb 10:10-14). There was no further need for the various sacrifices required by Jewish law; they had reached their fulfillment in Jesus.
What connects this notion of Jewish sacrifices and the Eucharist is the unity of Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary and the offering of the Eucharist. These are not two separate events but a single one. We repeat the words of Jesus at every Mass: “this is my body, which will be given up for you... this is the chalice of my blood… which will be poured out for you and for many.” When Jesus spoke those words, Calvary was already present before it happened chronologically. Theologically, at every Mass, the priest and all of the faithful enter into the eternal sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary.
And, the missionary efforts of the Catholic Church throughout history have fulfilled Jesus' prophecy of the universal nature of the sacrifice: “men will come from east and west, and from north and south, and sit at table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:29).
In ancient Israel, lambs were a frequent victim of different types of Temple sacrifices. The most impactful sacrifice, though, was the Passover. The feast of Passover commemorated God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Exodus 12:1-6 lays out some specific requirements for the Passover lambs: it must be a male sheep or goat, one year old, and without blemish. The last point is a rather easy connection to Jesus: He was like us in all things but sin (Heb 4:15). St. John the Baptist called Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” upon seeing Him walk by (John 1:29, 36), and St. John the Evangelist saw Jesus as a Lamb who had been slain in the Book of Revelation (5:6, 13:8). In every Mass, the priest holds up the Precious Body of Christ and says the very words of St. John the Baptist, to which the assembly responds with the words of the centurion—Lord, I am not worthy to receive You.
To see Jesus as the Lamb of God, the perfect fulfillment of the Passover lamb, is very familiar territory for any reasonably practicing Catholic. But wait, there’s more!
Pope Benedict XVI cited a timeline of events in St. John’s Gospel that lines up the crucifixion with a significant eucharistic detail. The Pharisees didn’t want to go into the Pilate’s Praetorium for fear of making themselves unclean (John 18:28) on the morning after the Last Supper. That would indicate that the Jewish celebration of Passover hadn’t happened yet. “According to this chronology, Jesus dies at the moment when the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple” ("Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week," pg. 108). The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke don’t include that aspect of the Passion, but the connections between the Passover lambs and Jesus don’t depend on this detail.
The lamb’s blood was shed and spread on the doorposts of every home. On Calvary, Jesus’ blood was shed and “spread” on the doorposts of each human heart that receives Him in the Eucharist. “The ultimate goal of the Passover sacrifice—as well as its ultimate effect—was deliverance from death through the blood of the lamb” (emphasis in original, Brant Pitre, "Jesus & the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist," pg. 55). Jesus the Lamb didn’t save us from iron chains, but from our slavery to sin.
Receiving the Eucharist and thereby taking part in the sacrifice also ties back to the Passover meal. After being slaughtered, the lamb was roasted and eaten by the family. Exodus 12, in the instructions regarding the Passover, states five times how the family should eat the lamb. “The Passover sacrifice was not completed by the death of the lamb, but by eating its flesh” (Pitre, "Jewish Roots" pg. 56). That is, if a Jew didn’t eat the lamb, he/she did not participate in the feast of Passover nor share in its benefits. In consuming the Eucharist, Catholics also eat the sacrificial victim and thereby gain great grace. Jesus said very directly, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
The Bread of Life
Out of the instances of bread within the Old Testament, the one most directly connected with the Eucharist is the manna during the Exodus. As the Israelites meandered from Egypt to the Promised Land, God blessed them with manna—“bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4).
In John 6, just after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus was asked for a sign. “Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (6:31). Jesus reminded them that God was the one who gave them the manna, and that He Himself was “the bread of life” (6:35). Earthly food satisfies for a short time, but the bread that Jesus gives, provides eternal life.
The Eucharist gives us an incredibly intimate communion with Christ, the priest—we are joined to His Mystical Body, and can offer our own sacrifices in union with His. In the Eucharist we eat the Lamb, intimately participating in the sacrifice: “those who eat My flesh and drink My blood abide in me, and I in them” (John 6:56). This background of the Eucharist should give us a greater appreciation for the Old Testament. The next time you’re at Mass, think about the Eucharist through this lens. And rejoice that we have a Father Who keeps His promises!