The Eucharist as Remembrance

“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)

When Christ institutes the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, he says “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)  Today when we speak of “remembrance” we usually tend to think back on a specific time or event.  In general in the Protestant world these words of Christ are seen to have that meaning – “Today, the Lord’s Supper is when believers reflect upon Christ’s perfect sacrifice.”  (

But as always when we seek to understand Sacred Scripture, the question is not what those words would mean to us today, and especially when we have to rely on a translation of a word from 2000 years ago.   In this particular instance the question should be this — what would being told to do this in “remembrance” of Christ have meant to twelve Jewish men celebrating the Passover?  Men who had annually celebrated the Passover for their entire lives as the most sacred night of the Jewish year?  Consider insight from these Jewish sources:

What should Jews expect about Catholic guests at interfaith Seders? Jews who invite Christians to share in a Seder can expect that the Exodus story is familiar to them. The Jewish conviction that at the Seder past events become present today is something that can resonate strongly with Catholics. The Catholic concept of anamnesis corresponds to the Hebrew term zecher. Both refer to the use of ritual to make the past a lived present reality.

One of the most constricting elements of the human condition is the phenomenon of time. Time carries off the past and holds off the future, confining our lives to a temporal sliver of “present.” But on the first night of Passover we break the bonds of time, having received a mandate to experience the Exodus “as if he himself has come out of Egypt.” We recall the Exodus in our minds, verbalize it in the telling of the Haggadah, digest it in the form of matzah and wine. As we passover the centuries, memory — those faded visages of past that generally constitute our only answer to the tyranny of time — becomes experience, and history is made current and real.

Judaism is, among many other things, a religion of memory, of zakhor. Memory is the fuel of the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. It is now commonplace for studies of Judaism to point out that the liturgical cycle, part of the system of mitzvot (commandments), reenacts sacred Jewish history and thus brings the past into the present. Most notably, in the Passover liturgy, the Jew of today is commanded to see him- or herself as one of the people at Mt. Sinai.…-a058621584

Participation in the seder lets one symbolically and vicariously relive the Exodus, where past and present merge.

From above — “The Catholic concept of anamnesis corresponds to the Hebrew term zecher. Both refer to the use of ritual to make the past a lived present reality.”   The Greek word used in the text for “remembrance” in the Last Supper narrative is anamnēsin, and it is a word that doesn’t have a particularly good English translation.  I am not aware of an English word that has the same concept to use ritual to make the past a “lived present reality.”   Sometimes “it got lost in the translation” is a very real thing. 

We see the same concept in the Catechism that is expressed from the Jewish sources:

 CCC1363  In the sense of Sacred Scripture the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them.

 CCC1364 In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present. “As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.”

One of the common claims made against Catholics is that we “re-sacrifice” Christ at every Mass and ignore the Biblical truth that Christ was sacrificed “once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).  The question I am usually most tempted to ask in return is “Do you actually believe that Christ can be re-sacrificed?”  Because most certainly they would answer no.  So to me, the question seems to be if we agree that Christ can’t be re-sacrificed, and if the Catholic Church does not teach that we “re-sacrifice” Christ at every Mass, then what is the basis for such a claim?  What the Church does clearly teach though is that “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice”  (CCC1367).

In fairness I can understand the confusion.  If you’ve grown up in a faith tradition that has no concept of “the use of ritual to make the past a lived present reality,” the idea would be very foreign, limited by your own experience, and easily misunderstood.   But the apostles would have been very familiar with this understanding of liturgy.  Being told to “Do this in remembrance (anamnēsin) of me” (Luke 22:19)  would have led them to understand that they would celebrate Eucharist as they had been taught to celebrate Passover – that past and present would merge.  This is why as Catholics when we celebrate Mass we understand that we are indeed present for these great events of salvation history – the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.  They are not a mere “reflecting” on something that has happened in the past.  It is our active participation in these events.

We see in Sacred Scripture where God sets the stage for this understanding when He established the Passover to be an annual memorial.  “You shall observe this rite as an ordinance for you and for your sons for ever.  And when you come to the land which the Lord will give you, as he has promised, you shall keep this service.  And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’  you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he slew the Egyptians but spared our houses.’ And the people bowed their heads and worshiped.”  (Exodus 12:24-27)  Note that the response to the question by the children in future celebrations when asked about the meaning of this service.  The answer is not that the meaning of this service “was” the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, but rather that it “is.”  A lived present reality.  

St. Paul would also have had this understanding from his Jewish roots and so we see him profess that “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?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).   There was no “reflecting back” in his view but an active participation in these sacred events that are the fulfillment of the Passover he had always known.

While the celebration of the Holy Eucharist happens many times throughout physical time and space, each time we enter the sanctuary doors to celebrate Mass we should understand that we are truly participating in the one heavenly liturgy that is the eternal offering of Christ as our redemption.  By his single sacrifice and offering at a specific time in history, he perfects all those who draw near to him throughout time and space, to reach each one of us (Hebrews 10:12-14).    Scott Hahn’s book “The Lamb’s Supper” is an excellent resource to help understand this concept, and especially how St. John’s vision in the book of Revelation expresses the union of heaven and earth we experience through the Mass.  The first time I read his book was at a time in my life shortly after my mother had died, and my brother 14 months before that.   I remember walking into Mass one day and felt this huge urge to wave at them, knowing they were joining together with us to celebrate this one divine liturgy.  The picture below reflects this reality of how we should experience Mass.   There are often many earthbound things that can keep us from fully taking that step out of time and space to be present at this heavenly liturgy, but with the Holy Spirit’s help may our eyes and heart become ever more open.   As we pray in Mass “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” may we be able to experience being at the foot of the cross with Mary and St. John and all the saints who have gone before us and will follow us in a profound act of worship and thanksgiving.  Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb! (Revelation 19:19)

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