For 500 years now the Eucharist has been a source of contention and doctrinal division among Christians. Yet it is entirely Scriptural. In fact Catholic Eucharistic Liturgy boasts of its deeply Jewish roots going back to the very first Passover. From its very institution at the Last Supper it has been understood as the New Passover which institutes a New Covenant just as the Mosaic Passover instituted the Old Covenant. By reviewing the Book of Exodus, we can see the close correlation between that first Passover and 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 are actually commemorating? It is the imminent deliverance of God’s people, the first from slavery to the Egyptians, the second from that slavery to sin which is synonymous with bondage 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, and it requires someone more powerful than Moses to dispossess him of those enslaved to him. Was it mere coincidence that Christ made his ultimate sacrifice to deliver mankind from Satan and sin at the time of Passover, or that his final farewell to his closest disciples occurred during the actual 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 though more in fear than in faith. Coincidence, or a part of God’s eternal plan?
That amazing story from Exodus is more than a history of the birth of a Hebrew nation. Exodus is also a prophetic book which pre-figures, 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 Jewish rite 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.
A Daily or “Heavenly” Bread?
This brings us to the key question of that primary substance, bread (combined with 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 physically incorrupt , literally for centuries, until the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 587 B.C. when it is carried off and disappears from history. 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 also 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?
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 translated from the original Greek into Latin by St. Jerome in the late 4th century. This “vulgate” version was later re-translated into the various modern idioms including English. But somewhere along the way that critical adjective epiousios modifying the key word “bread” was rendered as “daily.” And could such a seemingly small error not 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 translating it as “daily” bread, one literally changes the whole sense of things. Daily bread implies something ordinary, common, mundane; not the mystery that lies beyond the pale of our comprehension and normal physical principles. (Incidentally, the older Douay-Rheims translation of Matthew’s Gospel in fact uses the original word supersubstantial.)
What was St. Matthew really trying to convey when he chose that nebulous word epiousios? Incidentally, St. Luke uses the very same Greek word in his iteration of the Lord’s Prayer. Could Our Lord have intended an entirely different sense than today’s common interpretation of this phrase implies, 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.
Assuming that our Lord was using the Hebrew experience of manna as a touchstone, then wouldn’t it make more sense to construe that mysterious word epiousios as “heavenly” rather than “daily?” After all the source of manna was in fact heavenly. Like so many Greek words exacting translations often challenge scholars, nonetheless, “heavenly” appears to be a far friendlier rendition as it refers to the supernatural realm, not merely to earthly things. It also seems implausible for Christ to needlessly 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.
How many 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 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 more aligned with epiousios or “supersubstantial” than the word daily. For Christ himself tells us, “This is the bread that came down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die.” (Jn. 6:50)
Such an 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 had all construed to be 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, then 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. We are now a half millennium into this fractious division which can only be healed by all Christians accepting once more 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 and every individual can personally ratify in his heart this New Covenant with God.
Francis J. Pierson, +a.m.d.g.