How can I explain the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist when people ask about it?
This is a regular question people ask, and with the kickoff this month of the National Eucharistic Revival (see Bishop’s column on page 2), it makes sense to address it now. But in order to do the question justice, we’re taking a few columns to respond to this question.
In last month’s column we began by looking at one of the deep biblical roots of the Mass in the Old Testament in order to see how the Mass did not appear out of thin air, but in fact has ancient origins in the Word of God. This month, we’re going to continue to explore some of those other Old Testament roots.
Two of these roots are closely associated with the Exodus, the key moment in the history of Israel when God saved them from slavery in Egypt and led them eventually to the Holy Land. Near the beginning of that journey, God gathered his people together at Mount Sinai, in the Sinai Peninsula. We read about this gathering of God’s people in Exodus 19, which tells us several things.
The first thing to note is that in coming to Sinai, the Israelites are following God’s command: He calls the people to come to Sinai. Why? In order to hear his word. That is, God calls his people to come before him to receive his word at Mount Sinai.
When the people are assembled by God at Mount Sinai, the following happens. First, the people prepare to receive God’s word through a series of actions of praise, adoration, supplication, fasting and purification. At the climax of these actions comes the reception of the word of God: the Ten Commandments.
Once God’s word was proclaimed, it was solemnly accepted and agreed to by the entire people; it was with this acceptance the covenant between God and his people was constituted. It still needed to be ratified, however, and this required a sacrificial offering. In that sacrifice, the people pledged themselves to the word of God that they had received, and then God sealed his word, and this pledging occurred by the sprinkling of the sacrificial offering on the people. Thus were the Israelites established as the people of God.
This kind of ritual gathering of God’s people would be repeated in Israel’s history, with similar elements: God calling his people together, the proclamation of his word, prayer and praise to God, and the offering of sacrifice (or in some instances, a formal prayer of thanksgiving) to formally renew the covenant.
We see here the very same structure we find in the Mass: God calls us together, we repent of our sins and give praise to God, his word is proclaimed, and then a thanksgiving sacrifice is offered that the people partake in.
And this points us to the other Old Testament root we’ll consider this month: the Passover sacrifice and meal itself, which the Israelites celebrated the night before God led them out of Egypt and then every year since then, for over 3,000 years.
In the Passover, the Israelites sacrificed an unblemished (i.e. flawless) lamb, and then roasted and ate the lamb, together with wine, unleavened bread and bitter herbs. In so doing, they celebrated (and still celebrate today) their freedom from slavery in Egypt. In fact, the Jewish belief was and is that in the Passover ritual, they are themselves participating in that historical event: they are present at that event, even though it happened thousands of years ago.
We see this, for example, in the writings of the first century Jewish rabbi Gamaliel, who’s mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles; he was a great scholar among the Jews of the time. St. Paul notes that he himself learned at the feet of Gamaliel, and he was the one who cautioned the Sanhedrin to be careful about how they treated the Apostles after Pentecost. Speaking of the Passover and its annual celebration, Gamaliel wrote: “Every man in every generation must consider himself as having been personally delivered from Egypt. Every Israelite must know that he personally has been freed from slavery.”
So in the Passover sacrifice and meal, a flawless lamb is consumed, together with bread and wine, and in this ritual, God’s saving action in the past is made present so those celebrating can participate in it and, in a sense, receive its benefits.
It was precisely this sacrificial meal that Jesus celebrated at the Last Supper, with a crucial deviation: at the point during the meal when the sacrificed and roasted lamb would be consumed, Jesus instead took the unleavened bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples to consume, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you.”
We can see here the basis for the Catholic teaching that at the Mass, we participate in Jesus’ saving work for us in his crucifixion and resurrection: he is the unblemished, flawless, sinless Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, and at the Mass, we both participate in those events 2,000 years ago and consume the Lamb of God in holy Communion.
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Chris Burgwald holds a doctorate in theology and is the director of discipleship formation for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.