The Eucharist as Sacrifice

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)

In my last two posts here and here I’ve reviewed the Passover of the Old Covenant and how it foreshadows Christ, who becomes the Passover Lamb of the New Covenant with the offering of himself.  And as the Passover of the Old Covenant was a singular event that was both a sacrifice and a covenantal family meal, Christ not only offers himself as a sacrifice on the cross.  He also offers himself to us under the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist, to become our shared communal meal.  And he unites that meal with his passion on the cross into a singular event.  He joins the offering of himself under the form of bread and wine to the offering of himself on Calvary.   Both actions say the same thing – this is my body given for you for the forgiveness of sins.   The offering of himself to us in the form of bread and wine is not just a symbolic action of how he was to die, but a prophetic sign that sets his passion and death in motion.  

When we study ancient Jewish traditions we know that by the time of Christ the Jewish Passover meal had become a formal liturgy – a ritual that was known and shared across the culture.  They no longer ate the meal with their “loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste.”  (Exodus 12:11)   Instead they ate in a reclined position, as this highlighted their freedom.  They also no longer marked their doorposts with the blood of the lamb.  They added questions that children were to ask that night, and the answers explained to them the story of the exodus of their people from slavery in Egypt.  And four cups of wine were added to the liturgy, each with a distinct meaning and purpose, and associated with a particular promise from Exodus 6:6-7.  The modern day seder meal the Jewish people celebrate is very similar in form to what was happening at the time of Christ.   However, since the destruction of the temple the seder meal is no longer both a sacrifice and a meal as it was at the time of Christ.

The first of the four cups of wine is associated with the Kadeish, which is a special blessing for Passover that is normally said by the father of the house.  The promise associated with this cup is from Exodus 6:6“I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”  This a promise God made to the Israelites regarding their future deliverance.

The second of the four cups of wine is associated with the Magrid, which is the telling of the story of Passover and the exodus from slavery to freedom.  The Magrid concludes with drinking the second cup of wine.  And the promise associated with this cup is also from Exodus 6:6 —  “I will deliver you from their bondage.”  This again is a promise God made to the Israelites regarding their future deliverance.

The third cup of wine is associated with the Bareich, which is the prayer after the meal.   The third cup is poured before the prayer and is also known as the “cup of blessing,” which is also common in other Jewish meal traditions.   When we align the ritual with the Gospels, we can know this is the cup of consecration.  From Luke 22:20“And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”  St. Paul also identifies the cup of consecration as the “cup of blessing” when he says in 1 Corinthians 10:16 The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”  The promise associated with this cup is also from Exodus 6:6 and is quite profound as we consider the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross  – “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.”  Again, a promise of future redemption.

After the third cup of wine in the Passover liturgy, the great Hallel is recited or sung.   The first two Psalms of the great Hallel were recited before the meal (Psalms 113 and 114).  The remain psalms of the Hallel (Psalms 115-118 and 136) are recited after the Barech and the third cup of wine.   That is then followed by the fourth cup of wine which completes the meal.   But the Gospels record that the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with the apostles is not completed – it is left unfinished.   Matthew 26:27-29 tells us “And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you;  for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’”  Once the cup of blessing, the third cup of the liturgy has been consecrated, Jesus makes it a point to tell the apostles that he will drink no more wine until he drinks it new with them in his Father’s kingdom.  Verse 30 then says that “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”  They sing the Hallel, but they do not finish the meal with the fourth cup of wine.

In the garden of Gethsemane, is it recorded in every Gospel that Jesus speaks of the “cup” he still has to drink.   “And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with me one hour?  Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done.” (Matthew 26:39-42, as well as Mark 14:36, Luke 22:42 and John 18:11).   The “fourth cup” of the Passover liturgy becomes Christ’s passion.   Jesus incorporates his sacrifice on the cross into the Passover meal.   They now become a singular event, just as the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb in the Old Covenant and the communal meal where the flesh of the lamb was consumed was a singular event.  He extends the Passover meal he celebrates and transforms with the apostles to include his own suffering and death. 

When Jesus reaches Calvary he is offered wine to drink immediately before he is crucified, but he refuses.  “And when they came to a place called Gol′gotha (which means the place of a skull), they offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it.”  (Matthew 27:33-34).   But in his last act on the cross, St. John records in John 19:28 that Jesus says “I thirst.”  I believe we can be certain that Christ would have experienced physical thirst long before this time.  But he has yet one more action to complete to fulfill the Scripture.   When he expresses his thirst, we read that “A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”  (John 19:29-30

One of the most profound moments I experience in our liturgical year is the reading of the Passion of Christ from John’s Gospel during the Good Friday liturgy, and how we pause at those words  — “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit,” to kneel in quiet adoration and prayer.  I am reminded of our prayer from the stations of the cross – “We adore you oh Christ and we praise you, because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”  May we never read these words without experiencing a deep and profound moment of thanksgiving. 

While this translation says “vinegar” was given to Christ to drink, multiple other translations say “wine”, or “sour wine.”   As Jesus completes his passion on the cross, he consumes the fourth and final cup to end the Passover meal.  It is truly “finished.”  The Old Covenant with its foreshadowing of the Passover Lamb and exodus journey has been fulfilled.  The New Covenant, the inauguration of his “Father’s kingdom” has arrived.  As Dr. Brant Pitrie says in the book “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist,” “by means of the Last Supper, Jesus transformed the cross into a Passover, and by means of the cross, he transformed the Last Supper into a sacrifice.”   And the promise associated with this fourth cup of wine Jesus consumes at the end of his passion – “and I will take you for my people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.”  (Exodus 6:7)  Past tense – a completed action.   The offering of himself he began in the Upper Room is indeed finished.

This is why from the Catholic perspective the Mass is not simply another religious service.  It can’t be seen as just one of many different kinds of religious services.  It is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant Passover event that Christ initiated the night of the Last Supper.  It is a singular event that is both our participation in the passion and death of Christ, and our sharing of Christ, our Passover lamb as a communal meal, and it is necessary.  And as we recognize that the fulfillment of the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb was fulfilled quite literally by Christ on the cross, we also recognize that he quite literally gives us his flesh to share in the Eucharist.

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