The Mass of the Early Christians

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The Mass of the Early Christians
by Mike Aquilina
(Our Sunday Visitor, 2007)

Beginnings
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)

As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire, Christians “everywhere” were known by their unity and love, and “the breaking of bread and the prayers”. For the earliest Christians, this celebration was “inseparable from the mystery of the Passover”, and when they recognised Jesus in the “breaking of bread”, it was for them the fulfilment of the Jewish rites they had known. In all its glory, this was the new Covenant the Lord sealed with His blood.

Not surprisingly, then, many elements were “transferred” from Jewish practice to Christian worship. Prayers and songs from Jewish liturgy and tradition became part of the Mass, such as the Sanctus from Isaiah 6:3, used in the Sabbath service, the Alleluia from the Hallel Psalms, and various “common refrains”. What was different was that the first Christian liturgies infused Christological and Trinitarian references into the Mass texts.

Meanwhile, the Christian clergy also emerged from Jewish tradition. The “dignity” of the Jewish priesthood, beginning from the time of Moses, was carried over, and early descriptions report how the bishop presided at Mass, assisted by priests.

Records show that wherever there was Mass, the theology, understanding of the Eucharist, liturgical practices and attention to ritual were the same “everywhere”. The Eucharist was always referred to as the Body and Blood of Christ, and it was in the Mass that early Christians “encountered the Scriptures”.

What was it called?
The Mass of the early Christians was known by these terms, which Catholics everywhere now would be familiar with:
the breaking of the bread, the sacrifice, the offering, the oblation, the liturgy (Greek leitourgia – “public service”), the sacrament, the mysteries, the table of the Lord, the Lord’s supper, the chalice, the altar, the passion of the Lord, the presence, the communion, the Eucharist (Greek eucharistia – “thanksgiving”).

“Mass” is from medieval English, derived from the Latin “missa” of the words of dismissal, “Ite, missa est” (“Go, it is ended”).

Growth
Mass was first celebrated in secret, due to active persecution of Christians. After Christianity was legally accepted by the Roman Empire (in 313), the Church was finally able to use and own buildings, many of the early ones provided by wealthy families that had converted. Reverence for everything connected to Mass was preserved, from the words of the liturgy to the altar, chalices, and so on.

Part II of the book, The Testimony of Witnesses, comprises chapters featuring the “witness” from the writings and teachings of the early Christians, including the relevant New Testament texts, teachings from the Didache and the Council of Nicea, sermons and reflections from specific “witnesses”, excerpts of early liturgical texts, as well as reports of pagan rumours about the Mass and “apocryphal and heretical texts”!

Here is a small selection from the section.

The New Testament
The texts quoted here are: The Last Supper (Luke 22:14-20), The Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:25-35), the Bread of Life discourse (John 6:1-14, 22, 25-69), the Eucharist at Corinth (1 Cor 10:1-22, 11:17-34), the Breaking of the Bread (Acts 2:41-47), the Heavenly Jerusalem (Heb 12:18-29), the Liturgy of Heaven (Rev 4:6-11), the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev19:4-9).

The Didache (Greek – “teaching”)
The Didache, The Teaching of the Lord Through the Twelve Apostles to the Gentiles in full, very likely the oldest Christian record besides Scripture, has three chapters on the liturgy. These include prayers as well as advice on preparation and participation of the faithful in the liturgy. There is the Eucharistic Prayer, and a post-Communion Thanksgiving Prayer, which we would recognise some of: “Remember, Lord, your Church, to deliver it from all evil and to make it perfect in your love…” (excerpt from the Thanksgiving Prayer). The Didache also explains the sacrificial nature of the Mass and the need to confess our sins: “Every Lord’s day gather yourselves together and break bread, and give thanks after having confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure.”

St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 107)
St. Ignatius famously referred to the Eucharist as “the medicine of immortality”, and with the Eucharist the “beating heart” of his teaching, he considered the denial of the Eucharist as “the very mark of heresy”. He is known to be the first to use the term “Catholic” for the Church, and to write about the “priest” (presbyter) as part of the clergy.

“So, clothing yourselves with meekness, be renewed in faith, that is the flesh of the Lord, and in love, that is the blood of Jesus Christ.”

St. Justin Martyr
St. Justin gives us the “most complete description” of the early Mass and he is also known as the “first great Christian apologist”. He explained the Old Testament “types” that “foreshadowed” the Mass.

“We do not receive those as common bread and drink. For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation.”

St. Irenaeus of Lyons
In Against Heresies, his refutation of Gnosticism, he produced the first “comprehensive, systematic theological reflection on Christian doctrine”. He explains the Eucharistic sacrifice as the fulfilment of the Old Testament offering of the “first fruits” of the earth. The Eucharist is also the “pledge of the resurrection of the body”, and the Mass is “earthly participation in the liturgy of heaven”.

“Sacrifices… do not sanctify a man, for God stands in no need of sacrifice; it is, rather, the conscience of the offerer that makes the sacrifice holy when it is pure, and thus moves God to accept the offering as from a friend”.

St. Hippolytus of Rome
From St. Hippolytus, we have what is considered the “most complete liturgy” recorded from the first two centuries. This includes the Eucharistic Prayer, and we would recognise most of it, such as this introductory part –

Bishop:           The Lord be with you.
And all shall say: And with your spirit.
Bishop:           Lift up your hearts.
All:                   We lift them up to the Lord.
Bishop:           Let us give thanks to the Lord.
All:                   It is proper and right.

Origen of Alexandria (d.254)
Origen is considered by many to be the “greatest biblical scholar” of the early Church, notably for his “spiritual interpretation of the Bible”. He was another who taught about “types”, and his writing includes explanations of the “foreshadowing” of the Eucharist in the Old Testament.

“… if someone celebrates with Jesus, he is in a great room above, in a furnished room made clean, in a furnished room adorned and prepared. And if you go up with him in order to celebrate the Passover, he gives to you the cup of the New Covenant, he gives to you the bread of blessing, he makes a gift of his body and his blood.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage (d. 222)
St. Cyprian’s works emphasise how “any tinkering with the symbolism of the sacraments will have devastating consequences—in theology and in life”. As bishop, he dealt with many who were persecuted for their faith, including the “confessors”, those who had stayed firm in their faith when tortured, as well as the “lapsi” (“fallen”), those who had survived by giving in to performing “acts of idolatry”. Some of the lapsi sought readmission to the sacraments, and he is known for his teaching on the “pastoral applications of the Church’s teaching on the sacrament”.

“When the water is mingled in the cup with wine, the people are made one with Christ… that mixture cannot any more be separated”.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem
From St. Cyril we have the first recorded explanation of the “Eucharistic species as a change in substance”: “The bread of the Eucharist, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit, is no longer merely bread, but the body of Christ.”

“… you must be clad in the garments that are truly white, shining, and spiritual…”

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The Mass of the early Christians is our Mass. As Aquilina writes, “… we can share in the same table they shared with Christ; for the bread is one, not just everywhere but always; and from one chalice alone has wisdom come to man, from the time of the Fathers to our own day.”

♫ Makes me think of One Bread, One Body

 

The Lamb’s Supper

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The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth
by Scott Hahn
(Doubleday, 1999)

 This was one of the books that got me reading in greater earnest. I didn’t have any idea then about Scott Hahn or his story and I was taken by his tale of his first Mass:
As the Mass moved on… something hit me. My Bible wasn’t just beside me. It was before me—in the words of the Mass! One line was from Isaiah, another from the Psalms, another from Paul. The experience was overwhelming. I wanted to stop everything and shout, “Hey, can I explain what’s happening from Scripture? This is great!”

This kind of reaction to the Mass both saddens yet amuses me because it makes me wonder what exactly people think we are doing at Mass. A more important question, of course, is how we Catholics understand it ourselves, and it was enlightening to read of it in relation to the Book of Revelation.

Right there at his first Mass, Hahn understood that the focus of Mass is Jesus, the “Lamb of God” of John’s Gospel and Who is mentioned 28 times in Revelation. Several Masses along, he recognised in the liturgy more elements of the Bible, especially from Revelation. His book explains this link and it is the fruit of his years of study of Revelation and liturgy, and his coming to the Catholic faith.

Hahn emphasises that the early Church Fathers were the first to explain the relationship between Revelation and Mass. For them, Revelation was “incomprehensible apart from the liturgy”. In the Jewish worship of the Old Testament, Israel prayed “in imitation of the angels” but in the Mass, we worship “together with the angels” (Rev 19:10), as stated in the Preface, and then done when singing Holy, Holy, Holy and in the Eucharistic prayers, hence his view of the Mass as “heaven on earth”.

He acknowledges the “futuristic” sense of Revelation but focuses on how Revelation is relevant to us in the here and now of Mass. On one level, Revelation looks to the parousia (“coming” of Christ; original meaning in Greek – “presence”), the new Jerusalem, and new heaven and earth. At the same time, it also points to Jesus’ “real and abiding presence”, nowhere more “real and abiding” than in the Mass.

A historical nugget recorded by St. Epiphanius was about Hadrian’s arrival in Jerusalem in 130AD. Jerusalem was “still in ruins” and what was left standing were “a few houses” as well as “the little church of God on the spot where the disciples went to the upper room”. The upper room, believed to be the scene of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, had survived the sack of Jerusalem (70AD)…

One of Hahn’s perspectives is of Revelation as a “courtroom scene”, with God as judge and Jerusalem on trial, and the angels helping to “execute” God’s judgment in some clearly liturgical scenes. Every time we attend Mass, we find ourselves within this judgment scene.

The Mass also mirrors the structure of Revelation. The first 11 chapters contain the “proclamation” of the letters to the churches and the opening of the scroll, with the word “repent” appearing eight times in the first three chapters. This is reflected in the Penitential Rite and the Liturgy of the Word in the first part of Mass. From Chapter 11 onwards, we are brought to God’s Temple and move towards the climactic ending of the marriage supper of the Lamb, reflected in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Here is part of his list showing that “the golden thread of liturgy is what holds together the apocalyptic pearls of John’s vision”.

an altar 8:3-4; 11:1; 14:18
priests (presbyteroi) 4:4; 11:15; 14:3; 19:4
vestments 1:13; 4:4; 6:11; 7:9; 15:6; 19:3-14
lamp stands (Menorah) 1:12; 2:5
penitence Chp 2 & 3
incense 5:8; 8:3-5
the book, or scroll 5:1
the Eucharistic Host 2:17
chalices 15:7; Chp 16; 21:9
the Gloria 15:3-4
the Alleluia 19:1, 3, 4, 6
Holy Holy Holy 4:8
Lamb of God 5:6 and throughout
intercession of angels and saints 5:8; 6:9-10; 8:3-4
antiphonal chant 4:8-11; 5:9-14; 7:10-12; 18:1-8
readings from Scripture Chp 2-3; 5; 8:2-11
the priesthood of the faithful 1:6; 20:6
the marriage supper of the Lamb 19:9, 17

Indeed, at every Mass, our Lord says:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” (Rev 3:20)

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Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)

♫ Makes me think of Behold the Lamb

The Church Under Attack

The Church Under Attack

The Church Under Attack:
Five Hundred Years That Split the Church and Scattered the Flock
by Diane Moczar
(Sophia Institute Press, 2013)

In this sequel to her earlier book, Moczar discusses the changes of the 16th century onwards that challenged the integrity and survival of the Church. The general pattern was that in most places, the Church was squeezed out, notably even in France, the “eldest daughter of the Church”. The biggest challenges were dealing with political and social movements throughout Europe, as well as battling the Ottoman Turks, Protestantism and the onslaught of “modern” ideas. Needless to say, the Church was not always left in the best of positions at the end.

Massive social, economic and intellectual changes also emerged and I will focus more on the “intellectual” attacks in my summary because – “Ideas Have Consequences” (one of the book’s subtitles).

As always, even in the darkest times, the Lord to provides, even though His Hand may not be recognised all the time, and perhaps some of us still struggle to see Divine Providence behind the many tragic developments of modern history.

  1. The Busy 16th Century

Protestant Reformation, Catholic Counter-Reformation, Colonialism, Struggle with the Ottoman Turks

  • flourishing of the arts
  • the Council of Trent (1545-1563) and its “great codification of Catholic doctrine”
  • Persecution in strong Protestant areas such as Northern Germany, England and Puritan America and resulting efforts to protect the faith
  • Spanish colonisation of the Americas, presenting an interesting contrast to the English and Americans as colonial masters
  1. The 17th Century

The Scientific Revolution and its consequences

  • Historical approach to science: the study of “all of reality” based on the idea of “causes” (philosophy and theology, for example, were considered sciences); recognised the “distinction” (not “conflict”) between faith and reason
  • New approach: the study of material things, resulting in the eventual denial of any “nonmaterial cause”; the “how” (descriptive) was more important than the “why”

Persecution of Catholics in England and Ireland

  • “hedge schools” which held on to and maintained Catholic life and heritage

 The “classical” period in France

  • flourishing spirituality, mirroring the artistic achievements of the time
  • Saints Vincent de Paul, Francis de Sales, John Eudes, Margaret Mary Alacoque (but the failure of King Louis XIV to consecrate France to the Sacred Heart), Joseph Cupertino, Martin de Porres, Peter Claver, (just some of the more famous ones from this era)
  1. The 18th Century

The Enlightenment

  • search for the ultimate answers to life in the “laws of nature”
  • important features: liberalism, idealism, glorification of human nature, a utopian view of the future, atheism/deism (there was great interest in the occult during this period too)
  • rise of revolutionary ideas about society and government
  1. Revolutionary Catastrophe

The French Revolution

  • political model for Christendom since the 5th century: monarchy (with general recognition of its authority and legitimacy) + self-government of towns and villages
  • traditional view of revolution against legitimate authority: “a great evil”
  • traditional view of “rights”: “rights” are “counterparts of duties”

what the French Revolution brought in (as with the American Revolution):

  • “universal” rights that were “abstract”, compared to the traditional understanding of “rights”, and de-linked from any “social context” or “obligation”
  • Christian Brother Schools founded by St. John Baptist de La Salle
  1. Napoleon and After

The French Revolution and the Napoleonic era with the new catchwords: liberty, equality and fraternity

liberty – “rights of man”

equality – became the substitute for religion in Marxism

fraternity – became the basis for nationalism and “socialist brotherhoods”

  • clampdown on religious orders, thus disrupting their contribution to society in the areas of education, healthcare, care for the poor, etc
  • rise of Romanticism: renewed interest in preserving the past
  1. The 19th Century

Industrial Revolution

– social and economic upheaval with the decline of traditional livelihoods and unprecedented migration to cities

Darwinism and Marxism, which grew out of the Enlightenment obsession with science and the prevailing idea of “determinism”

  • Both the “struggle for survival”-“survival of the fittest” and the inevitability of class struggle ideas deny the role of Divine Providence and human free will
  1. The Late 19th Century

Socialist and Communist revolutionary movements all over Europe, including in France and Germany, and the rise of modernism

  • Saints Catherine Laboure, John Bosco, Anthony Mary Claret
Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Guangzhou (built in the 19th century)
  1. The Century of Total War: Part One

Modernism – “the compendium of all heresies”

  • many of these ideas were not exactly “modern” but rehashed ideas of the major heresies from the Middle Ages through the Reformation; what was “modern” was the idea that doctrine evolves (Darwin link) – what had happened with and to Protestantism had started creeping into the Catholic Church
  • Pope St. Pius X denounced this as man “substituting” himself for God
  • Fatima – Marian apparition like never before or after
  1. The Century of Total War: Part Two

Rise and spread of Communism; advocacy of eugenics and birth control even outside Germany (e.g. in the USA) and before the rise of Hitler

  • examples of perspectives of history, post World War II

initially – the term “holocaust” referred to the loss of life (about 50 million dead) caused by the Axis powers; later – the term was capitalised and referred exclusively to the killing of the Jews by Hitler

initially – it was publicly known that Jews appreciated what the Church had done to try to save them (and the chief rabbi of Rome was baptised after the war!); later (starting in the 1960s) – propaganda portrayed myths about the Church not doing what it could against Hitler or to prevent the killing of the Jews

  1. Postwar and Post-Cold War  

Persecution of Catholics in East Europe, China and other areas under the Communists, Vatican II (not covered in detail in this book)

Something interesting that I learnt was that when the old priests of the Soviet Union finally returned from prison or exile and were all ready to rebuild the Church and the faith, Vatican II had already taken place. How bewildering it must have been for them.

inside the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Guangzhou) today

I didn’t know that many of the cherished ideas and concepts of today’s world have such an anti-Catholic history. The change in the way man viewed himself and his life, vis a vis others, the past and future, and existence, lies behind the modern world. All the major political, economic and social changes grew from there, everything “evolving” and seemingly spinning out of control.

I think that the Church and its teachings, on the other hand, need to remain a rock but being so practically invites very hard knocks (to put it mildly) and, because it is filled with human beings making choices and decisions for all sorts of reasons, the knocks have their consequences. “That is why ideas matter” (as Moczar says).

Still, God is with us. “The Church, after all, is Christ in the world, and He will not be vanquished.” (Moczar again)

Every time the Church is attacked, do we hear the Lord’s call?
Restore My Church

The Scripture Source Book for Catholics

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The Scripture Source Book for Catholics
by Rev. Peter Klein
(Our Sunday Visitor Curriculum Division, 2008)

Simply put, this book is for Catholics who want to know more about Scripture. It explains the many aspects in which the Church is scriptural. Its two broad areas – Scripture from the Catholic perspective and Scripture in the life of the Catholic Church – are covered in seven chapters.

Scripture from the Catholic perspective

  1. Word of God – Revelation

God revealed Himself to Adam and Eve, then by His covenant with Noah, by His promise to Abraham, by His freeing of the Israelites from slavery through Moses and by the Incarnation of His Son, from Whom we receive the “ultimate” revelation of God’s Word. From then, it has been the responsibility of the missionary Church to transmit this divine revelation. This is done through Sacred Scripture and Tradition, what was handed down to the Apostles and through them. Along with Tradition and Sacred Scripture stands the Magisterium of the Church – “no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20).

  1. Words of People – Sacred Scripture

Klein notes that “Christianity is not first of all a religion of the book but of a person” and that for the early Christians, what was “canonical” was what Peter, James and Paul preached, “in continuity with what Jesus had proclaimed”.

After years of depending on oral tradition, people began to write and document so that the teachings could be passed down in a concrete and “accurate” way. The books of both the Old and New Testaments were put together by the communities and edited over many years.

Only “fragments” of written works date back to the time of the Exodus, and these include the Song of Miriam and the Song of Deborah. It was around the time of David’s establishment of his capital at Jerusalem (1000BC) that written records were produced in great earnest.

The earliest Christian Scriptures were the letters of Paul and the others, the first complete one being 1 Thessalonians (around AD50). A first version of the Gospel (Mark’s) emerged around AD70. By around the 300s, the 39-book Old Testament canons were “widely recognised” and by around 400, the 27-book New Testament was “generally accepted”.

There was also other early Christian literature, such as letters, sermons and the Didache.

  1. Book of Covenants – Moral formation in the Old and New Testaments

The Old Testament can “stand on its own” and it “prepares for the New”. The New Testament reveals the fulfilment of God’s divine plan and Jesus’ role in our salvation. Therefore, the Gospels are “the heart of all the Scriptures”. One significant thread that ties the Old and New Testaments is typology, by which Jesus (as well as other New Testament people or events) is revealed in the Old Testament through “types” or prefigurations.

  1. Journal of God’s People – The Word of God

The Church’s mission is: first and foremost, message (kerygma, coming from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition), followed by fellowship (koinonia) and service (diakonia). The Church’s stewardship of the message includes translating, interpreting and analysing the Scriptures, and producing commentaries. Here, the Magisterium functions as “servant” of the word: “it teaches only what has been handed on to it… listens to it devoutly, guards it reverently and expounds it faithfully”.

Scripture in the Life of the Church

  1. The Lectionary – Liturgical catechesis

Scripture is organised in the Lectionary (“collection of readings”) for liturgical proclamation. The three-year cycle of Gospel readings for Sunday Masses provides a “semi continuous” reading of a particular Gospel in the assigned year. Scriptures specific to Advent/Christmas and Lent/Easter are thematically organised for those liturgical seasons.

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On top of this, Scripture features significantly throughout the Mass, from the first Sign of the Cross and greeting, to the end of Mass.

The sacraments are founded on Scripture and so “preaching of the Word is an essential part of the celebration of the sacraments”. Sacramentals, such as anointing, and the use of candles, incense and ashes, also have scriptural foundation.

  1. Prayer Book of the Church – Integration of daily prayer

The Liturgy of Hoursconsecrates to God the whole cycle of day and night, as it has done from early Christian times”. It includes hymns, antiphons, psalms, Gospel canticles, Scripture reading and prayers, with Fridays, Sundays as well as feast days and liturgical seasons given a “special character”.

  1. Light of the Faithful – Personal prayer life of the faithful

The Scriptures underlie devotions such as the Sacred Heart devotion, the Way of the Cross, Litanies, Holy Hours, Novenas and the mysteries of the Rosary. We are also encouraged to pray with Scripture. For example, we might use the Lectio Divina method (reading, meditation, responding, contemplation) or pray prayers from Scripture.

If you happen to read this reference book from cover to cover (which I did!) you will find yourself at the end of it at four very interesting appendices:
– The Four-fold sense of Scripture (literal, allegorical, moral, anagogical)
– Figures of speech in Scripture
– Words & phrases with a Scriptural origin or allusion
– A history of the translation of Scripture into English.

So much to learn!

God dwells in His Word
♫ How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place

Lord, Have Mercy

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Lord, Have Mercy
by Scott Hahn
(St Pauls, 2009; first published by Doubleday, 2003)

Confession is often mocked or misunderstood. Just look at how the confessional is portrayed in shows – such as when people use the confessional to pour out their troubles (rather than to make their confession), or when it is used as a hiding place (so if I’m the bad guy, I’d head straight for the confessional to look for the person I’m chasing!) or a convenient place to dump a dead body.

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This book gives a comprehensive overview of it for anyone who needs to explain confession, or who wants to understand the sacrament better. It covers:

  • Sin, its consequences and making reparation for our sins
  • Confessing, penance and reconciliation in the Old Testament
  • Jesus’ instructions and teaching

Sin, its consequences and making reparation for our sins
We know we have to try to “be perfect… as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48) but invariably we sin. One big consequence is that “sins engender other sins, not only in the sinner but in others as well”. Our perfect heavenly Father provides the way for us to recognise, admit and renounce our sins, and then to repair the damage they cause.

Confessing, penance and reconciliation in the Old Testament
Right from the start, God gently guided the earliest sinners, to show them how they could be healed. His questions gave Adam, Eve and Cain the opportunity to confess and repent but they didn’t and so faced the consequences of their sins.

By the time of the Covenants, there were specific guidelines for confessing one’s sins and making reparations. Acts of sacrifice, fasting, sackcloth, ashes and open weeping showed that while turning away from sin was an individual’s response and responsibility, the public process, “humbling and costly” though it may be, as well as the intercession of the priest were also necessary.

The New Testament era did not do away with this, as Jesus did not come to “replace something bad with something good”.  He came to “take something already great and holy… and bring it to divine fulfilment.”

Jesus’ instructions and teaching
Some points explained in the book:
Binding and loosing
The apostles would have understood what Jesus meant, in their Jewish context. This referred to the authority of priests of the past to “bind” and “loose” – to “judge someone to be in communion with the chosen people or cut off from that group’s life and worship”.

“Do not sin again”
When Jesus forgave and healed sinners, He told them “do not sin again” (such as in John 8:11), which Hahn calls His “absolution”. This “renews” the sinner and restores him/her to the community and it is also an exhortation to turn away from sin.  Thus, as we keep sinning, we need to keep coming back to Jesus for forgiveness and healing.

Reconciliation-related stories
The story of the prodigal son and the last moments of the good thief show God reaching out to sinners “while they are still on the road to true contrition”.

In the story of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-14), the only guest who was thrown out was the one did not wear his wedding garment – the one who was not properly ready for the feast.

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The sacrament of Reconciliation invites us to prepare for the wedding feast of the Lamb. It could be helpful to start with reminding ourselves of what confession is all about, then regularly do our examination of conscience (a version based on the Ten Commandments is included in the appendix) and finally step into the confessional. Our merciful God waits for us.

♫ Makes me think of Loving and Forgiving

Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

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Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist
by Brant Pitre
(Doubleday, 2011)

 A fascinating read!

Pitre draws on material from the different sources in ways that we may not have heard the Eucharist explained before.  His study situates Jesus’ life and teaching within the Jewish culture of His day and this gives us a fuller understanding of the meaning of His words and actions.

His sources are the Old and New Testaments, writings of the Church Fathers, as well as Jewish writings not found in the Scriptures – the Dead Sea Scrolls, the works of the historian Josephus, the Mishnah, the Targums, the Babylonian Talmud and the Midrashim.

The Messiah whom the Jews were waiting for
We are often told that the Jews were expecting a Messiah who would liberate them from the Roman occupation – a political-military sort of leader.

Pitre says that indeed, there were Jews who just wanted to be free of the Romans. From the Old Testament and other Jewish sources, however, he shows that beyond this, the expectation was for a “new Moses” (Deut 18:15-18) who would lead Israel in a “new exodus”. They were expecting a prophet and a “miracle worker” who would provide new manna, one who would bring them into a new Covenant (e.g. Jer 31:31-33), a new Temple (e.g. Mic 4:1-2) and a new Promised Land (e.g. 2 Sam 7:10), which he points out would not have referred to the territory of Israel since they were already living there at the time.

Many Jews who heard Jesus’ teaching were drawn to Him and what He was offering and, Pitre argues, recognised in Him the signs of the Messiah. However, the idea of eating His flesh and drinking His blood was a hindrance as it was understood to be “directly against” what was taught in the Scriptures.

How the Jews understood “bread”
Manna
Manna was seen as “bread from heaven” (Ex 16:4-5, 11-15; God also rained down “flesh” from heaven) and “bread of angels” (e.g. Ps 78:23-25, 29), and the “eternal bread in the heavenly temple” (various Jewish sources). The miraculous bread was one of the holy items to be kept in the Holy of Holies.

Bread of the Presence
The Tabernacle was the centre of worship, the “visible sign of the invisible heavenly place of God”, and in it, Moses was instructed to keep: the Ark of the Covenant, the gold Lampstand (Menorah) and the golden table of the Bread of the Presence, which was also called the Bread of the Face of God, recalling when Moses, Aaron and the other leaders ate on the mountain and saw the Face of God (Ex 24:9-11).

Every Sabbath, the priests were to offer the holy Bread in the Temple. It was a sign of the “everlasting Covenant” (Lev 24:5-7) and was also a sacrificial offering (Ezek 41:21-22). When the Bread of the Presence was in the Tabernacle, the Menorah was to be kept burning (Lev 24:1-4) and when the priests took the golden table out of the Tabernacle, it was to be veiled (Num 4:1-5).

During the holy festivals which the Jews celebrated in Jerusalem, the priests would display and lift up the holy Bread, saying “Behold, God’s love for you.”

Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse (John 6:35-58)
Jesus’ teaching on the Bread of Life:

  • comes after the miraculous feeding of the five thousand;
  • is spoken in connection with the manna of Moses’ time – He begins by addressing the Jews’ question about what sign He was going to perform, after they stated that their ancestors were given “bread from heaven”.

Jesus then explained that He is the bread of life and they had to eat His flesh and drink His blood: “This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (Jn 6:58)

In response, the Jews said, “this is a hard saying”. Pitre argues that it was not because they did not understand what Jesus was saying; they did understand but could not accept it and “murmured”, just like the Israelites “murmured” about the manna. He compares this with other instances when Jesus explains what He said when people did not understand Him, such as the meaning of parables or about the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Mt 16:5-12). However, in this situation, He did not have to explain it to them.

This is also the only instance in the Gospels when disciples left Him because of His teaching. He let them go.

Corpus Christi

The Last Supper as a new Passover
Technically, there are points where Jesus’ last Passover with the twelve looks like the standard Passover – it was celebrated at night (after the time of the sacrifice of the lambs) in Jerusalem, having the unleavened bread and wine that other Jews would also have, with Jesus their leader presiding over the meal as a father would in the family Passover meal, and with the hymns of the Passover.

The annual Passover then required: the sacrifice of unblemished lambs by the Levitical priests in the Temple in Jerusalem (in the 1st century A.D. the lambs were skewered “in a manner which resembled crucifixion”), pouring of the blood of the lambs (collected in containers during the sacrifice) by the priests, then eating the flesh of the lamb in the family meal during which the father would explain the significance of the Passover and of eating the flesh of the lamb (it was never a “symbol” that was eaten but the actual flesh of the lamb).

We know that Jesus instituted a “new Passover”.

What exactly was “new” in Jesus’ Passover?

  • He spoke about the bread and wine as His Body and Blood instead of explaining the flesh of the lamb.
  • He was the unblemished Paschal Lamb, Whose Body and Blood were offered in sacrifice.
  • He spoke of a new Covenant instead of recalling the Covenant of Moses.
  • He told His apostles to “do this in remembrance of Me” (1 Cor 11:25), thus instructing them to keep His memorial and also handing over to them the duty of the Temple priests.

The cups of wine
During the Passover meal, four cups of wine were mixed: the first cup (sanctification) accompanied the introductory rites; the second cup (proclamation) was followed by the proclamation of Scripture; the third cup (blessing) started the actual meal; the fourth cup (praise) accompanied the concluding rites and the singing of the rest of the Hallel Psalms. The Passover meal was completed when this fourth cup was drunk.

Pitre suggests that Jesus and His disciples did not finish the Passover meal as they went out after singing the hymns but before finishing the final cup of wine. It was only when His sacrifice was “complete” and His blood “poured out like that of the Passover lambs” that Jesus drank the final cup (Jn 19:23-30). Thus, the “new Passover” concluded with His Passion and Death.

How does the Eucharist reflect all this?
For the Jews, a proper sacrifice requires a priest, an offering and a liturgy. All of these are embodied in Jesus and this is exactly what the Eucharist “makes present” for us – it is the memorial of Jesus’ words and actions in the Last Supper and His sacrifice on the Cross.

A re-look at a couple of familiar passages, in relation to Jesus the Bread of Life
The Our Father
Pitre discusses the line “Give us this day our daily bread”. Why the repetition – “this day” and “daily”? Was Jesus asking us to pray for “ordinary food and drink” (when He also teaches us not to worry about food but instead “seek first the kingdom of heaven”)? How does this line fall in place with the other petitions of the prayer, which are “focused on things spiritual”?

The Greek word that has been translated into “daily” is “epiousios” but there is no way now to know if it was a literal translation of the original Hebrew or Aramaic, and its use in the Gospels is the first known use of the word! There are some possible meanings, such as “for the coming day”, “for existence” [making it something like “bread for sustenance”, which is found in some translations], or it could also mean “supernatural” (“on, upon or above” + “being, substance, nature”). The Latin Vulgate done by St. Jerome renders the line as “Give us this day our supersubstantial bread” (Mt 6:11).

 [I read elsewhere that this Greek word is “obscure” and has been translated in different ways. A number of the early Church Fathers did see this line as referring to the Eucharist. The Douay-Rheims Bible also uses the word “supersubstantial”.]

The Disciples on the Road to Emmaus
Most of us would know that the two disciples realised it was Jesus when they recognised the pattern of Jesus’ “breaking of the bread” – He took the bread, blessed it, broke it and gave it to them. Pitre points out a detail that I have overlooked all this time – that Jesus did this after they invited Him to “stay” with them.

Luke writes:
He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. (Lk 24:28-29)

The breaking of bread was His response to the invitation to “stay with us”.

That is such an interesting way to look at this passage and we all thought we knew it inside out, right?

IMG_0266

Pitre reminds us that the “Old Testament prefigurations (types) are never greater than their New Testament fulfilments.” Jesus is greater than the Old Testament Temple of God; He is the “very presence of God”, the Lord of the Sabbath Who is greater than the Sabbath. He is the Bread of Life that is greater than the manna and the Bread of the Presence.

The book fittingly ends with Jesus’ words: “I am with you always, even to the end of time.” (Mt 28:20)

♫ What else should I be listening to but Panis Angelicus

[what’s in the square brackets are things I added]; the rest of the content is summarised from the book

 

 

 

The Man I Preach

The Man I Preach

He looked at me and called me by name.
This man, he looked like any of us
But there was something about him I couldn’t see.
What did he know? What did he want with me?

And Jesus looking upon him, said: Thou art Simon the son of Jona.
Thou shalt be called Cephas,
which is interpreted Peter.

Peter & JesusWho was he?
Who spoke with Elijah, who fed the thousands,
Who pulled me out of water,
Who healed the sick and calmed the storm?
Then I thought I knew – He was the Lord!

And Jesus answering said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona:
because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee,
but my Father who is in heaven.

Then he said he was leaving –
What did he mean, to eat his body and drink his blood?
What did he mean, bent before us to wash our feet?

And then I let him down.
Exactly as he had said that I would.

Why was this happening? Where was he going? Why did he say he had to die?
I couldn’t understand it.
I could only cry.

Jesus answered him: Wilt thou lay down thy life for me?
Amen, amen, I say to thee, the cock shall not crow,
till thou deny me thrice.

Then he died.

Would it have been different if I hadn’t denied him?
He was gone, and I no longer understood.
The sun rose and set as always
but each day was dark.
When would these dark days be over? What were we to do now?

But he came back!
And with him by us, we caught more than a boatload of fish!
Was it all well again? Had he forgotten what I had done?
Then he said to feed his sheep, and I knew –
He remembered but he loved me as he did the first day he called me.

And then he was lifted away and we waited.
But there were no more dark days
for we knew what he said would come to be.

And I send the promise of my Father upon you:
but stay you in the city
till you be endued with power from on high.

Then the Spirit came! And I understood –

the Lord is a servant, water becomes wine,
the dead have new life, blessed are the poor!
We had to go to the ends of the earth! The lambs had to be fed!
We had to tell the world: He is Lord – forever!

But Peter said to them: Do penance: and be baptized every one of you
in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins.
And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Peter’s journey to Pentecost

Bible quotes from the Douay-Rheims Bible
Illustration by my talented niece JCT

Written for Spotlight (May 2013)