Bread From Heaven: Is the Mass Truly Biblical?

    Has Christianity lost its moral relevance in the modern world? I live in a state where two thirds of the electorate recently agreed that physicians ought to be allowed to prescribe a lethal toxin to a dying patient as a substitute for pain medication. Apparently the Christian message no longer resonates with a large percentage of the populace. Could this possibly reflect a fragmented Christianity whose continued doctrinal and moral disunity has reduced even the Ten Commandments to debatable talking points? After all a church itself splintered by countless divisions can hardly expect to hold the attention of the masses. But until the rupture in this body (of Christ) is truly resolved, there seems to be little chance that Christianity can ever heal itself much less the world.

    In order to correct such problems one must first address the fundamental cause of that religious cleavage. Ironically, it is the very thing that ought to unite Christians that has proven to be the most significant stumbling block to unity. For it is the Eucharist itself that has polarized Catholics and Protestants into opposing camps for 500 years now. And yet, the Eucharistic Liturgy, or Mass, is central to understanding Christianity. Since the time of Martin Luther, various sects have interpreted it in different ways, and not a few have regrettably abandoned it altogether as somehow un-Biblical. But without the Eucharist can Christianity ever hope to prosper? Is it just “some Catholic thing” or does it have a firm basis in Scripture?

    Certainly one can find many references to and images of the Eucharist in the Bible. And while most Christian traditions would agree that the Eucharistic liturgy commemorates the Last Supper of Christ and his apostles in some sense, what is generally disputed among various Christians is the nature and meaning of the Eucharist itself. Is it real or symbolic? Is it a spiritual or a physical presence?  Was Christ being figurative or literal when he commanded his disciples to eat his body and drink his blood?

    I suggest that in order to fully answer these questions one needs to go further back in history to the Old Testament itself. It is there, at the heart of the Jewish religion, that the Eucharistic liturgy is implicitly outlined as a preface to its formal institution by Christ many centuries later. From the Pentateuchal books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers the primordial forms of today’s Christian liturgy first took shape. For the story of the Hebrew’s exodus from Egypt is what underpins both Jewish and Christian religion. In other words, the Mass is not just a commemoration of the Last Supper but also a solemn re-enactment of that beautiful story of God delivering his chosen people from bondage. Christianity, at its core, is essentially a revised Jewish cult whose central act of worship is integrally tied to the Jewish Passover. We call this solemn re-enactment of Israel’s history the Mass or Eucharistic Liturgy.

    It is not simply that the Mass has some vague, ancestral Jewish connections. Rather, every Mass is a virtual re-living of that first Passover. In other words, it not only projects us forward from the Last Supper in anticipation of an eternal heavenly banquet, it also retroactively manifests the great events recounted in Exodus. The Mass ritually presents the grand sweep of salvation history to our senses through a single concise, penetrating liturgical action. It IS the New Passover. To either deny or ignore this essential act of public Christian worship is analogous to a devout Jewish family refusing to celebrate the Seder meal at Passover.

    The problem really began centuries ago when Christians began to forget, or were never taught, about their Jewish origins in the Old Testament. After the first century or so, the Church gradually slipped away from its Jewish roots. This process of de-Judaizing represented a sharp departure from St. Paul whose anguished exhortations reveal an unbounded affection for his fellow Israelites. “I have great sorrow and constant anguish in my heart… They are Israelites; theirs the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of law, the worship, and the promises; theirs the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh is the Messiah.” (Rom. 9: 2, 4-5) Paul, thoroughly convinced that the remnant of Israel was eventually to be grafted back “onto the olive tree,” (Rom. 11: 24) would have been horrified by this drift in later Christians centuries away from our primal Jewish origins.

    The issue was further exacerbated by Martin Luther’s notorious anti-semitism which may have desensitized his followers to that powerful connection between the Hebrew Passover and the Eucharistic celebration. Transforming the altar into a table was just one way of disconnecting the Mass from the obvious sacrificial nature of Passover, for instance. The Old Testament is filled with prototypes which are later fulfilled in the New Testament and sacrifice is fundamental to Old Testament liturgy. Still, Luther refused to attach any notion of sacrifice to the Eucharistic Liturgy of the New Testament. But to ignore Old Testament prototypes is to overlook a large part of the meaning which the New Testament clearly manifests.

    When Christ says, “I have not come to abolish but to fulfill the law,” (Mt. 5:17)  he is referring to the Mosaic law with its many sacrificial prescriptions. Christ himself can do this because he is the New Moses. Moses is an archetype whose perfect fulfillment is Christ. This illustrates a general rule when comparing the Old and New Covenants. Nothing in the Old is ever greater or more perfect than its fulfillment in the New. This axiom will shed its light later on when we are talking about the Eucharistic bread.

A New Passover

    But first let us review the Book of Exodus to see how it correlates with Christ’s later institution of the Eucharist. Anticipating their departure from Egypt, Moses instructs the people, even before the actual Passover event, “You shall observe this as a perpetual ordinance for yourselves and your descendants. Thus you must observe this rite when you have entered into the lands which the Lord will give you as he promised.” (Ex. 12:24-25) Similarly, at the last supper Christ exhorts his disciples thus. “Do this, in memory of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes,” (1Cor. 11:25-26) Does the first rite not anticipate the second? And what is it that both rites being referred to here are commemorating? The imminent deliverance of God’s people, the first from slavery to the Egyptians, the second from slavery to sin which is synonymous with slavery to Satan.

    So Christ’s institution of the Eucharist parallels and indeed surpasses in its perfection Moses’ institution of the Passover. Satan is a far more formidable foe than the Egyptians, after all. Was it mere coincidence that Christ made his ultimate sacrifice to deliver mankind from sin at the time of Passover, or that his final farewell to his closest disciples occurred during the Passover feast? Was it a coincidence three years earlier when the last great Jewish prophet, John the Baptist, singled out Jesus as the “Lamb of God?” Why not refer to him as the Lion of Judah, a more commanding and dignified appellation? But it is only in the context of the Exodus story, where a lamb is slaughtered for the deliverance of the Hebrews, that we can understand Christ’s being sacrificed to deliver his people.

    But not only is the lamb slain, it must also be eaten, “…with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. You are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those in flight.” (Ex. 12: 8,11)   Likewise Christ publicly states, “Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” (Jn. 6: 53) And like their Hebrew forebears, the apostles, within hours of that eating that Paschal supper, were in full flight from their enemies. Coincidence, or a part of God’s eternal plan?

    The amazing story from Exodus is more than a history of the birth of a Hebrew nation. Exodus is also a prophetic book which prefigures, in remarkable detail, the actual founding of Christ’s Church and its mode of liturgical expression.  The Church’s liturgy is a Jewish liturgy whose roots go back to the Passover as outlined in the Book of Exodus. The Mass is not just some Catholic rite invented to commemorate the Last Supper or Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection. Although it clearly encompasses those things, in a much fuller sense it is also a ritual which binds the Old and New Covenants together into a seamless pageant of salvation history. For what was the first Passover but a sacrifice, and what is the Mass but the one sacrifice of Calvary which fulfills what the ancient Passover could only anticipate?

    The Eucharistic liturgy with all of its trappings is the Book of Exodus writ large and conclusively. Christianity is not some new religion but the very religion of the Chosen People brought to fulfillment. Passover is the religious prototype while the Mass is its completed manifestation. Moses is a human archetype; Christ the supreme fulfillment of that archetype.

Heavenly Manna a Foretaste of the Eucharist

    This brings us to the key question of that primary substance, bread (and wine), which plays such an integral role in the Mass, and likewise figures in the controversy surrounding it. Why does Christ, as the New Moses, refer to himself as the “Bread of Life?” Is he using the term metaphorically as many Christians insist, or does he intend a literal meaning? Consider this text: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate manna in the desert but they died; this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” (Jn. 6: 48-51)

    First, our Lord compares this “bread” to the manna that came down from heaven, an event also recorded in the Book of Exodus. What kind of bread was manna? Certainly it was not ordinary bread for we read that it appeared on every day but the Sabbath. Nor could it be preserved into the next day except on the eve of the Sabbath when it would miraculously tide over through that solemn day of rest. Manna was literally the bread which rained down daily from heaven. (Ex. 16: 4) It was white and could be baked or boiled and tasted like honey. This daily descent of manna on the Hebrew camps continued for forty years until the day when they entered the Promised Land when it suddenly ceased.

    At God’s command a bit of this remarkable substance was preserved for posterity by the priest Aaron who placed it in an urn for safekeeping. Eventually this urn was placed in the Ark of the Covenant alongside the stone tablets of the law and deposited in the Holy of Holies where it remained for centuries until the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 587 B.C. Clearly this was no ordinary bread but a miraculous substance.

    Now recall Christ’s words regarding manna. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died.” (Jn. 6: 49) Go back to our axiom that no prototype in the Old Testament can be greater or more perfect than its fulfillment in the New Testament. Can the bread that Christ consecrates at the Last Supper as his own body then be inferior in any respect to the ancient manna? Absolutely not, even though we know the manna to be miraculous. Bearing that in mind, when Christ refers to his own body as bread, is it likely that he is speaking symbolically? He clearly states that this bread is superior to the manna which the Israelites ate in the desert but later died. And no symbol (manna) can be considered superior to the thing it symbolizes (the Eucharist).

    There is another kind of sacred bread found in the Old Testament, the so-called “Bread of the Presence” which indicated the presence of God in that sacred space called the Meeting Tent or Tabernacle. This was a special bread that was consecrated to the Lord every Sabbath by the Levitical priests. It consisted of 12 cakes, representing each tribe of Israel, and was placed on a golden table in the Tabernacle, next to the Holy of Holies. (Ex. 25: 23-30) Every seven days the Bread of the Presence was replaced by newly consecrated bread and the former cakes consumed, but only by the priests.

    Curiously, this Bread of the Presence was attended in the enclosed tabernacle by a golden lamp-stand with seven perpetually burning lamps, the familiar Menorah. Of course, in every Catholic church today one finds a tabernacle containing consecrated bread and next to it a constantly burning lamp. Another coincidence perhaps? It was this Bread of the Presence that King David and his men famously ate when they were hungry and being pursued by enemies, but only after the priest found them to be worthy. Again, can the Eucharistic bread of today be something less than its Old Testament counterpart, or must it necessarily be something far greater?

“Epiousios” and the Lord’s Prayer

    In the New Testament we find Jesus consciously referring to bread in the Lord’s Prayer. It is here that a particularly unfortunate corruption of the Biblical text has, I fear, created a grave and debilitating popular misconception of our Lord’s meaning. Matthew’s original text of the Lord’s Prayer literally goes something like this, “Give us this day our epiousios bread, and forgive us our debts, etc.” (Mt. 6:11) The controversy turns on that shadowy Greek word epiousios. The gospels were originally written in Greek and later translated into Latin by St. Jerome. This “vulgate” version was later re-translated into the various modern languages including English. But somewhere along the way that critical adjective epiousios modifying the key word “bread” got rendered as “daily.” Could not such a seemingly small error change the perceived meaning of this section of the prayer?

    I believe it not only could but has in fact done that very thing. The Greek word epiousios, which St. Jerome translated to mean “supersubstantial,” bears little definitional resemblance to its later substituted form, “daily.” Granted, supersubstantial is quite a mouthful to insert into a popular prayer that one is trying to teach small children. But by inserting “daily” one literally changes the whole sense of things. Daily bread implies something ordinary and common, not something that exists beyond the pale of our comprehension or even normal physical principles. (By the way, the old Douay-Rheims translation of Matthew’s Gospel does in fact utilize the word supersubstantial.)

    What was St. Matthew really trying to convey when he used that word epiousios?  Incidentally, St. Luke uses the very same word in his iteration of the Lord’s Prayer. Could Our Lord have meant something entirely different from today’s common interpretation of this phrase, due to subsequent word play? Was Jesus referring to ordinary bread or something much more sublime when he taught his followers how to pray? Manna was arguably a kind of “daily” bread because of the frequency with which it appeared (excepting the Sabbath), but it was also a bread which came down from heaven in a miraculous manner, and so it was anything but ordinary. If that is the case, and Our Lord were using the Hebrew experience of manna as his precedent, then wouldn’t it make more sense to construe that mysterious word epiousios as “heavenly” rather than “daily?” While still not an exact lingual rendition, “heavenly” is a far friendlier word which nonetheless refers to a supernatural order, not mere earthly things. It also appears implausible for Christ to indulge in a linguistic redundancy such as “give us this day our daily bread,” for no apparent reason. What would you make of a recipe instructing you to add ½ tsp. of salt that is very salty? Most of us would read that as a nonsensical statement.

    Perhaps generations of Christians have been deprived of some fuller meaning in the Lord’s Prayer by an inadvertently careless, yet faulty, translation that appeared somewhere along the pathways of time. A second problem naturally arises from this first observation. Over time, common usage breeds familiarity which, in turn, makes it exceedingly difficult for us today to even make an objective assessment. Our ears have heard the thing said one way far too long. But try for a moment to step back from the dictates of habit and consider another more faithful rendition. Which of the following conveys to you the better sense of this sublime prayer as Jesus himself might have articulated it?  #1: “Give us this day our heavenly bread, etc.” or  #2: “Give us this day our daily bread, etc.”  The word heavenly certainly appears to be much closer in meaning to epiousios or “supersubstantial” than the word daily.

    This revised interpretation raises another interesting point. Was our Divine Savior making an oblique reference to the Eucharist within the Lord’s Prayer itself? If so, then early Christians surely understood the connection, including the evangelists Matthew and Luke. Why else would they both choose to use that mysterious word epiousios to explain what sort of bread Jesus was speaking of in this petition? Somehow the bread that Saints Matthew, Luke, and Jerome all described as supersubstantial was basely reduced to daily bread. Jerome’s voice as a highly regarded fourth century scholar of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin carries great weight here. And the modern sense that this bread from our Heavenly Father is something commonplace and ordinary, even though Christ himself imbues it with a sacred meaning far greater than the manna of old, can only coarsen our spiritual sensibilities.

    If there is a loss of faith today, even among Catholics, in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, it may well be that such imprecise language itself has been a contributing factor. In view of his subsequent actions, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that Christ was speaking directly of his Eucharistic body when he gave us the Lord’s Prayer. The Eucharist is, in a very real sense, Christ’s last will and testament to his disciples. It is the gift that he left us as a keepsake, on the night before he died, to remember him by.

    Imagine that your favorite grandmother left you a valuable personal heirloom in her will. Would you hide that heirloom in a trunk or a closet or would you set it on the mantelpiece so that every time you walked through the living room you would be reminded of how much your grandmother loved you? That is what the Eucharist is, and much more. It is the most valuable heirloom that Jesus could have left each one of his followers to remind us of his constant and eternal love for us. He left us the most sublime and personal of all possible gifts, a new manna that will never corrupt, which is his own body. If the old manna that was preserved in the Ark of the Covenant and resided in the Holy of Holies was sacred to the Israelites, how much more sacred is the new Bread from Heaven to the New Israel?

    But if Christians fail to put the Eucharist into its fuller historical and theological context, even going back to the days of Moses and the Exodus, we are impeding Christianity and contributing to its continued fragmentation. And the less unity we exhibit the more susceptible we become to the enemy’s attacks. The Eucharist is the one true sacrament of unity. Luther’s Sola Scriptura has not brought Christians together but instead has had the opposite effect over the past 500 years. 2017 marks a half millennium since that fractious division began. This break will only ever be healed by all Christians accepting once again the central role of the Eucharistic mystery for what it truly is: the New Passover instituted by Christ so that, like our Jewish forebears, each generation can personally ratify that New Covenant with God.

 Francis J. Pierson,    +a.m.d.g.


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