The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic Church, and it is also one of Her greatest mysteries. Yet many astonishing elements of the Eucharist can be found by examining its Jewish roots. The Last Supper did not stand on its own as a precedential event; rather it has deep origins within the Jewish tradition. The Eucharist, instituted by Christ at the Last Supper, is the new Passover, the new Manna, and the new Bread of the Presence, all of which the Jews expected at the coming of the new Exodus and the Messiah.
At the time of Jesus, the Jews were not only awaiting the Messiah, they were awaiting a new Passover as well- the Passover of the Messiah. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus established this new Passover at the Last Supper. In fact, the CCC explains, “By celebrating the Last Supper with His apostles in the course of the Passover meal, Jesus gave the Jewish Passover its definitive meaning” (Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, 178). Jesus Himself was the Pascal lamb who was sacrificed at the Passover meal, although the completion of this sacrifice took place not in the Upper Room but on the Cross. As per custom, at the Last Supper, Jesus explained the meaning of the meal, but He shifted the focus from the lamb’s flesh and blood to His own. When He instituted the Eucharist “by means of his words over the bread and wine of the Last Supper, Jesus [said] in no uncertain terms, ‘I am the new Passover lamb of the new exodus. This is the Passover of the Messiah, and I am the new sacrifice’” (72). Jesus became the new, unblemished Passover lamb who was crucified- for the Passover lambs at the time of Jesus were, indeed, crucified- as a sacrifice so that others might live. He gave His Body and Blood to be consumed in the Eucharist.
Eating the flesh of the sacrificial lamb was a necessary step for participation in the Passover. In fact, “in both the Old Testament and ancient Jewish tradition, the sacrifice of the Passover lamb was not completed by its death. It was completed by a meal, by eating the flesh of the lamb that had been slain” (74). The importance of the meal could not be overlooked: in order to participate in the Passover, the Jews had to eat the lamb. Furthermore, they had to eat the real lamb, not a symbol of it. If the flesh of the Passover lamb had to be eaten for the sacrifice to be complete, it follows that in order for the sacrifice of the new Passover Lamb, Jesus, to be complete, one must eat His Flesh and drink His Blood- the real thing, not a symbol of it. Anything less would not be a true participation.
This is essential, because participation in the Passover was significant. Not only were the Jews partaking of a family meal in their own generation, they were, in some mysterious way, actually participating in the first Passover during the exodus from Egypt. This meal did not merely function as a re-enactment or re-telling of the story, but the first Passover itself was made present in each subsequent Passover celebration. Moreover, “just as the ancient Jews saw their Passovers as a participation in the exodus from Egypt, so, too, Saint Paul and other early Christians saw the Eucharist as a real participation in both the Last Supper and the death of Jesus” (76). The celebration of the Eucharist at Mass makes present and active the events of the Last Supper and Pascal Mystery each time it is celebrated.
The Eucharist is often described in terms of a new manna, including by Jesus Himself. In fact, “the whole context of Jesus’ bread of life discourse is centered on the Jewish hopes for the coming of a new Moses and the return of the manna from heaven” (98). The Jews were expecting to be given a new manna at the time of the new Exodus. As a result, the Eucharist makes sense when considered from the perspective of Jesus as the new Moses. The first manna was considered to be a miracle, when God rained down both bread (manna) and flesh (quails) for the Israelites to eat in the desert. The Eucharist brings both these elements to fulfillment, as it exists under the appearance of bread and wine but is, in reality, the Flesh and Blood of Jesus. The manna also provided sustenance for the Israelites so that they would have earthly life, though they ultimately died. The Eucharist, on the other hand, provides sustenance for eternal life, and all who partake of it will never die.
Furthermore, the manna given to the Israelites by God was considered to be supernatural bread from Heaven. This has important implications for the Eucharist, because the manna is a type of the Eucharist, and “Old Testament prefigurations… are never greater than their New Testament fulfillments” (103). The new manna must surpass that of the old. “From a Jewish perspective, if the Eucharist of Jesus is the new manna from heaven, then it can’t just be a symbol. It must be supernatural bread from heaven” (102), the very Flesh of the Word Incarnate. This is a point that Jesus emphasized clearly in His teachings, and refused to back down on, even when His own followers left Him because they found the teaching too hard. The Eucharist is Jesus’ Body and Blood, and all must eat and drink of it in order to attain eternal life.
Finally, the Jews expected that at the time of the new Exodus, the Messiah would need to institute a new way to worship, because worship was an essential part of Jewish life. At the time of Jesus, during the three great Jewish feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles, all Jewish men would go to Jerusalem, to the Temple, to “see the Face” of God (132). On those three days, the Temple priests would bring out the Golden Table of the Bread of the Presence for all the pilgrims to see, and they would raise it up, saying “Behold, God’s love for you!” (131). This is because the Bread of the Presence was a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites, which is often described as a marriage covenant. In this way, the Bread of the Presence served as a sign of God’s love for His Bride. Likewise, the Eucharist is a sign of God’s new covenant with His people, now extended to all nations, and of His ultimate saving act of love for all mankind. When He instituted the Eucharist, “like the priests in the Temple before him, by means of the Last Supper, Jesus was saying to the disciples: ‘Behold, God’s love for you’” (144). The great mystery of God’s love is contained within the appearance of a small piece of bread.
The ancient Jews held the Bread of the Presence in high regard. “The Bread of the Presence was extremely sacred- but only after it had been offered as a sacrifice to God in the Holy Place. Before being offered in sacrifice, it was just ordinary bread… But once it had been offered in sacrifice, it was now ‘holy’” (129). The same thing happens with the Eucharist at Mass. Ordinary bread and wine are taken and offered as a sacrifice (and not just any sacrifice, but the sacrifice of the Last Supper and Cross). They are consecrated, and at that point, they become sacred, for they are now Christ’s very Flesh and Blood. Both the Bread of the Presence and the Eucharistic host retain the appearance of bread, yet each has undergone a fundamental change. Both are miraculous food given from heaven. However, while the Bread of the Presence was found only in the Temple in Jerusalem, the new Bread of the Presence, the Eucharist, is found in tabernacles all over the world for all to partake of daily.
The Last Supper fulfilled the Jewish hopes for a new Passover, a new Manna, and a new Bread of the Presence. Yet at the same time, Jesus and the Eucharist far exceeded anything the Jews had celebrated before. In the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the Incarnate God is sacrificed for all who believe to consume. The Flesh of God feeds the world as daily bread, a supersubstantial reality at which even angels can only stare in awe. The Eucharist is no ordinary bread; it is truly the Body and Blood of Christ given for the world as sacrifice to be consumed.
Pitre, Brant, 2011. Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. New York: Doubleday.