On Sunday, June 10, the Church celebrates a Solemnity dedicated to the “body and blood” of Jesus. This solemnity recalls, of course, the Cross: the sacrifice Jesus made to save us. This Sunday, in particular, is dedicated to remembering the relationship between the Cross – the Paschal mystery – and the Eucharist. We should keep in mind that it was not the apostles, nor the Fathers of the Church, nor later Popes or bishops, who established the connection between the Cross and the Eucharist.
The connection between the Cross and the Eucharist has clear scriptural foundations, and the connection is made, repeatedly, by Jesus himself. In each of the synoptic Gospels, Jesus tells us during the Last Supper that the bread represents his body, and the wine represents his own blood. In chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples that they must “eat of his flesh” and “drink of his blood” (John 6:53). In Luke’s Gospel, we are told that two disciples, who encounter Jesus after the resurrection, only recognize Him after Jesus breaks bread with them and blesses it (Luke 24:35).
Remembering the Passover in Exodus 12
The Eucharistic symbolism of bread and wine is most evident in the Last Supper. Jesus gathers the twelve (Mk 14:17; Mt 26:20) and breaks bread with them. Though there is no mention of the particulars of a passover meal, Mark the Evangelist strongly implies (Mk 14:12) that the Last Supper is a Passover meal. And in the interest of full disclosure, Luke’s Gospel (22:7-8) actually does say the Last Supper is a Passover meal. This is ironic, since some scholars reject Luke’s explicit assertion.
Given the fact that the Jews are gathering in Jerusalem for the Passover during the week when Jesus celebrates the Last Supper and is then arrested, we should review the story of the first Passover, from Exodus 12. Here is an excerpt from Exodus 12:3-12,
Tell all the congregation of Israel that on the tenth day of this month they shall take every man a lamb according to their fathers’ houses, a lamb for a household; and if the household is too small for a lamb, then a man and his neighbor next to his house shall take according to the number of persons; according to what each can eat you shall make your count for the lamb. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats; and you shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month, when the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs in the evening. Then they shall take some of the blood, and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat them. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it…
In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste. It is the LORD’s passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.
The Passover meal, then, celebrates and remembers the fidelity of God towards his chosen people. God’s chosen people were spared the death of the first-born, and then allowed to leave a land of slavery, and permitted to cross the desert and into the promised land. We can see parallels between the paschal mandate in Exodus 12:8, you shall eat of the flesh of the sacrificial lamb, with the Paschal command of Jesus in John 6:53, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man… you have no life in you. The odd, seemingly bizarre language used by Jesus in John 6 can only be understood by a first century Jew the context of Exodus 12. Even if the language is fully symbolic, as some scholars suggest, the phraseology eat the flesh of the Son of Man still makes sense, even symbolically, only if Jesus understands himself as being the fulfillment of a paschal sacrifice whose importance trumps even the Exodus event. In fact, the Gospels independently confirm this understanding, as John the Baptist, the “greatest prophet,” calls Jesus the Lamb of God in John 1:29.
Remembering the Last Supper
At the Last Supper, though, Jesus redirects the memorial of the meal away from the liberation event of the Old Testament – the Passover – and towards an impending event – his own Passion. Thus, the Passion of Jesus becomes the new “Pasch,” the paschal event where a first-born is sacrificed to spare the lives of others. Note what Paul says in I Corinthians 5:7… for Christ our paschal lamb has been sacrificed (also, cf. Jn 1:29; Jn 11:49-52, Eph 5:2; Heb 10:12).
Jesus anticipates his own death, and He tells the twelve that the bread he takes represents his body, and the wine he takes in the cup represents his blood (Mk 14:22-24). At the Last Supper, Jesus repositions the fulcrum of salvation history. For those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, the fulcrum is no longer the Exodus event. It is, instead the Paschal Mystery – the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Saint Paul & The True Presence
The Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus celebrates the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Christian understanding of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is categorically not a later development in the understanding of the Christian faith. Christ himself anticipated his true presence in John chapter 6, and Jesus explicitly mentions the true presence at the Last Supper. The earliest Christians, including Saint Paul, acknowledged the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (c.f. 1 Cor 10:16; 1 Cor 11:24-27).
The True Presence of Christ is a tautological compliment to the faith-statement that “Christ is risen.” Saint Paul teaches us, for whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26). Unstated by Paul (who often assumes that his readers are theologians on par with his own understanding of the faith) is that we remember the Resurrection as well. Because Jesus rose from the dead, he is present in the Eucharist. Because Christians believe Jesus is present in the Eucharist, we acknowledge that he rose from the dead on Easter morning.
Christ assures us of his “True Presence” in Matthew 28:20 when he says, in the present tense, lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. Sometimes we take for granted that Jesus is present with us as person, not Spirit. And yet he most obviously present with us as a person, as Saint Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 11, in the Eucharist.
On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,
when they sacrificed the Passover lamb,
Jesus’ disciples said to him,
“Where do you want us to go
and prepare for you to eat the Passover?”
He sent two of his disciples and said to them,
“Go into the city and a man will meet you,
carrying a jar of water.
Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house,
‘The Teacher says, “Where is my guest room
where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”‘
Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready.
Make the preparations for us there.”
The disciples then went off, entered the city,
and found it just as he had told them;
and they prepared the Passover.
While they were eating,
he took bread, said the blessing,
broke it, gave it to them, and said,
“Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them,
and they all drank from it.
He said to them,
“This is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed for many.
Amen, I say to you,
I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine
until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
Then, after singing a hymn,
they went out to the Mount of Olives.