Depending on which church you belong to and what denomination, communion, or the Eucharist, or Mass may or may not play a central part in the lived worship experience you engage in weekly. There are stark differences between the traditions of each church, from the ancient wording and liturgical ‘performance’ of the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Lutheran and Methodist based churches, which has been around since the very earliest days of the church, to the seemingly laissez faire approach of some of the protestant and Pentecostal traditions.
Whether from a formality steeped in tradition with a common cup and unleavened bread, or a short ceremony with cut white loaf and individual thimbles of grape juice, we are wrapped to varying degrees of understanding in the knowledge that this meal is an essential part of our Christian duty and need, after all, Jesus is the one who instituted the Eucharistic meal. I wonder if, for the most part, we have lost our understanding of why this meal, this ‘love feast’ as Paul has called it in Corinthians 11
The word Eucharist; a Greek term, meaning “thanksgiving.” is used in the New Testament for prayer in general, but preferably any prayer giving thanks to God. More specific usage includes a thanks given before a meal which led to the term being used to describe the “Lord’s Supper” at which Jesus gave his last message to his disciples and established the tradition of eating bread and wine “in remembrance” of him and as if they were his own body and blood.
Catholics and some Protestant churches call it the Mass which is any public celebration of the Eucharist. The word mass stems from the Latin term missa, the feminine past participle of mittere, which means “to send away, dismiss” which occurs at the end of the Eucharistic liturgy. After a time of thanksgiving for all that we have received, we stand and pray that we shall take what we have received into the world. A blessing is called down upon us and we are told to “Go”. It may be “Go in the peace of Christ” – or “The Mass is ended, go in peace” or it may be “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord”. Whichever wording is chosen, the emphasis throughout is on the word “Go”. In a very real sense the service never ends – we gather, are sent forth to take out into the world all that we have received and then to re-gather in a weeks’ time.
In what way does scripture inform or shape what we experience in the Eucharist? Although the Eucharist is a Christian sacrament and only spoken of in the Christian scriptures the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with allusion to and what you might understand as ‘shadows’ or ‘types’ that upon reflection can be seen to point to Jesus in the Eucharist.
The earliest shadow of the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood was Abel, the younger son of Adam and Eve. Cain murdered the good shepherd Abel. The Lord told Cain, Gn 4:10 “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.” The Book of Hebrews reminds us of, Heb 12:24 “… [Christ’s] sprinkled Blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.”
Melchizedek is a pre-figuring of Christ. When Abram returned from his victory over Chedorlaomer, Gn 14:18 “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High …” to bless Abram, pre-figuring the bread and wine consecrated by a priest at Mass. The Book of Hebrews tells us, Heb 7:2 “[Melchizedek] is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem [shalom], that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest for ever.”
The Bread of the Presence, in the ancient Tabernacle and later in the Temple, 1 Kgs 7:48 was a shadow of Jesus’ presence in the Holy Eucharist. In the Eucharist Jesus is spiritually present in the bread.
In the Tabernacle God commanded Moses, Ex 25:8 “Let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.” In the sanctuary, in the ark of the covenant, God told Moses, Ex 25:22 “There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you…” God added, Ex 25:30 “You shall set the bread of the Presence on the table before me always.” Jesus told us, Mt 28:20 “I am with you always.”
Abimelech the priest gave David this sacred bread. 1 Sam 21:6 “So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there but the bread of the Presence.” Jesus taught us that it was for all His disciples.Mt 12:1 “At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck ears of grain and to eat. … [Jesus] said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did, when he was hungry, and those who who were with him: how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence … I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.”
Jesus showed us what was greater than the Temple. Lk 22:19 “He took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.'”
The Eucharist is THE central act of worship and communion with God that we encounter as Christians, we even see it prefigured in the Passover ceremonies of Jewish families!
During the Seder, the head of the family takes three pieces of unleavened bread, reminding us of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He breaks in half the second piece, suggesting the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity crucified. He then wraps one of these two pieces, called the afikomen (Hebrew: festival procession), a reminder of Jesus’ constant call, “Follow Me,” in white linen, reminding us of Jesus linen burial cloth, and “buries” or hides it, as Jesus was entombed. Later the youngest at table “resurrects” or finds the afikomen as Jesus rose from the dead. The head of the family then breaks the afikomen and passes it around for all to eat, as Jesus did when He told His apostles, Lk 22:19 “This is My Body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” In that way, Jesus through the Seder calls us to follow Him into His death and resurrection, to become a new person in Christ.
The unleavened bread also reminds us of the haste with which the Israelites left Egypt. The dough that they were sunbaking on the hot rocks of the Egyptian fields was removed before it could leaven, and so remained flat. It represents our need to remain ever alert and prepared for the day when God calls us to our destiny as Jesus told us, Mt 25:13 “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Jesus is also spiritually present in the wine. When the afikomen is broken and passed around for all to eat, Jews drink the third of four cups of wine, called the cup of blessing because it represents the blood of the sacrificed paschal lamb. It is the cup that Jesus gave to His apostles, saying, Lk 22:20 “This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in My Blood.” He did not drink the fourth, the Kalah cup, explaining, Mt 26:29 “I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” But later that evening at Gethsemane, Jesus prayed by moonlight,Mt 26:39 “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me.” After He was captured, Jesus asked Peter, Jn 18:11 “Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given Me?”
I have read some blogs where the suggestion is made that Jesus drank the last cup on the Cross, Jn 19:29 “They put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to His mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, He said, ‘It is finished’; and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.”
So truly – what’s the point of this article? I would love for all Christians to reclaim the centrality of the Eucharistic meal as their right and proper act of worship and communion with Christ, I firmly believe that many have no idea what they are doing each Sunday (or each month in some churches) when they take the bread and wine – not just glibly taking the elements and consuming it without any thought. Take some time to consider what the Eucharist really means – this is Christs very presence – not just bread and wine.