Exodus 16:2-4, 12-15; Psalms 78:3-4, 23-24, 25, 54;
Ephesians 4:17, 20-24; John 6:24-35
This week, and the next few that follow it, we will be proclaiming the Bread of Life discourse from the 6th chapter of St. John in our Gospel readings. There are innumerable points of doctrine that emerge from this chapter, but as a whole, the Church has received it as Jesus’ main explanation of what the Eucharist is.
In today’s Gospel, when Jesus speaks about Bread from Heaven, the crowd immediately recalls the Mana from Heaven that fed the Israelites in their 40 years in the desert. …Bread and sacrifices were no strange topic to the Jews. What they didn’t realize at the time was that their history was full of moments of prefiguration of the Eucharist, preparing them for the Sacrifice of the Mass to come.
The best guides to understanding this prefigurement of the Eucharist in the History of the Israelites is our Eucharistic Prayers. We have four main prayers available for us. While all four help us to understand the place of the Eucharist in Salvation History, Prayers 2, 3 and 4 only have 50 years of use. Eucharistic Prayer 1, the Roman Canon, has almost 1,700 years of documented use in the Church, and has helped people understand this prefigurement for as many years…so we will use this Eucharistic Prayer as our guide today.
The “Supra quae” paragraph of the Roman Canon has the priest pray Be pleased to look upon these offerings with a serene and kindly countenance, and to accept them, as once you were pleased to accept the gifts of your servant Abel the just, the sacrifice of Abraham, our father in faith, and the offering of your high priest Melchizedek, a holy sacrifice, a spotless victim.Here we see where God prepared the Israelites for the Eucharist in the early part of their history, found in the book of Genesis.
Abel, the son of Adam and Eve offered a good sacrifice, but his brother Cain did not. Genesis chapter 4 tells us, “In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard.” (Gen 4:3-4) Abel offered the best of his flock, while Cain only offered the ordinary fruits of his harvest. (Cf. CCC 1863,2569) God let us know that he expects a perfect offering, accepting a sacrifice from man only when he had the best to give. We never really had the best to give Him due to our sinful nature, so God in His mercy gave us His only Son, to be the perfect Sacrifice, which God accepted for our sins.
Next, the Roman Canon tells us of the sacrifice of Abraham. When Abraham withheld nothing from God, not even his son Isaac, he showed himself to be a symbol of God the Father while Isaac was a symbol of Christ. The sacrifice Abraham was prepared to give to God shows us the stakes involved in our salvation, when God the Father would give his only Son for our salvation, and Jesus, would give himself freely for us and in obedience to the God the Father. It was also no coincidence that Mt. Moriah, the site of Abraham’s sacrifice would later become the site of Solomon’s Temple. (Cf. CCC 2572)
Finally the Eucharistic Prayer speaks of Melchizedek, a figure in Genesis not often spoke of. In the 14th chapter of Genesis, Lot is taken into captivity. Abraham goes into to battle to free his kinsman. After this victory, Abraham is met by Melchizedek, the King of Salem, who is called the priest of God the Most High, and presents Abraham with bread and wine. In return, Abraham gives him a 10th of everything he gained in battle. The Epistle to the Hebrews tell us “that He, [Melchizedek,] is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without fatheror mother or genealogy, and has neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.(Heb 7:2-3) Melchizedek teaches us that the perfect Sacrifice that was to come would be by a priest different than the Levitical priests of the Temple, who would offer bread and wine. We should also notice that Salem, where Melchizedek was King later became Jerusalem.
…And then we come to Moses in the desert in today’s first reading. The Israelites, having been ransomed from Egypt have a long 40 year journey in front of them. They demand to know how they are going to eat. In response they are given Mana. Bread that literally falls from Heaven and forms on the ground, given for the purpose of nourishment and allowing the Israelites to make the journey to the Promised Land.
Jesus would have expected the people demanding answers from Him in today’s Gospel to know all these lessons and when he begins to explain to them what the Mana from Heaven really meant, it was also an invitation to look back and to see what all of the Old Testament pointed to. When you pull it all together, you end up with a robust Eucharist theology.
Putting together the theology of the Eucharist from the Roman Canon, as understood through the Old Testament, we can begin to explain what the Eucharist is. First, it is a perfect offering, acceptable to God as Abel’s sacrifice was. Abel was only able to give of his flock, but Jesus in the Mass gives Himself, the best possible offering. Second, it a willing offering of God the Son to God the Father, freely given at a cost beyond description; God the Father, like Abraham, giving us something beyond understandable value. Next the Eucharist is an offering of a perfect priest. It is not the sacrifice offered by you or I, but rather by a perfect sinless priest, whom you see and hear in the person of the imperfect priest standing at the altar, who through the grace of ordination can speak and act in the place of Christ, the perfect priest. Finally, the Eucharist is spiritual food. Mana gave the Israelites strength to make it to the Promised Land, the consecrated bread and wine give us strength to make it to our true homeland, Heaven, if we persevere in grace.
What an amazing gift the Eucharist is…may we never stop letting its mystery and graces unfold in our life.