“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)
I began this series of posts on the Eucharist to understand how Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophet Moses and is leading his people in a new Exodus – a journey to the Promised Land of heaven. I then focused on one element of the story of Moses and the people of Israel – the Passover Lamb, and how Christ is the fulfillment and our true Passover Lamb, and how that foreshadows our understanding of Eucharist.
But there are other aspects of the Exodus story that also foreshadow the Catholic understanding of Eucharist. One of the most important of these is the “manna” God provided in the Old Covenant for the people to eat as they journeyed to the Promised Land. You can find this story in Exodus 16. Six days a week for the entire 40 years several million Israelites awoke to find “a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground.” (Exodus 16:14). They gathered this manna every day except for the Sabbath, as they gathered two days allotment the day before. If they gathered more than they needed any other day, it would spoil before the following day (Exodus 16:19-30). It would always precisely measure out to be an omer (about two quarts) per person. Even if they gathered more or less, when they measured it, it would always be an omer per person (Exodus 16:17-18). The Israelites were sustained by this manna – their daily bread – as they journeyed to the Promised Land.
We see Christ himself express that he is the fulfillment of the manna when he says that “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever” (John 6:51). This occurs in what is known as the “Bread of Life discourse” from John Chapter 6.
The event that set this teaching in motion is when Jesus feeds the 5000 with five loaves and two fish. As recorded in John 6:2-15 and Mark 6:35-44, we see many parallels with what occured at the Last Supper. Of most importance is to recognize that St. John tells us that this event occurred at the time of Passover (John 6:4), and the Last Supper of course was the celebration of the Passover liturgy (Matthew 26:17-19, Mark 14:12-16, Luke 22:7-13). Both the feeding of the five thousand and the Last Supper take place in the evening. St. Mark records that Jesus blessed and broke the bread (Mark 6:41) just as he did at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22). St. John records Jesus distributed the bread after he had “given thanks” (John 6:11). He then gives the bread to his disciples just as he did at the Last Supper.
St. John’s use of the term “given thanks” is significant. The Greek word used is “eucharisteó” which is the same word used in Last Supper narratives when Jesus breaks the bread and “gives thanks.” (Matthew 15:36, Mark 14:23, Luke 22:17, 1 Corinthians 11:24) This is where the term “Eucharist” originates, which is simply the usual verb used “to thank” within the New Testament. When we celebrate Eucharist we come together as the people of God to “give thanks” for the mighty work of redemption God is carrying out among his people.
In response to the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish that Jesus performed, the people exclaim “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:14) Not simply another prophet, but “the” prophet the people expected. Before Moses died he foresaw that God would send a new prophet like Moses into their midst (Deuteronomy 18:15-18). Although the Jewish people had seen many prophets after Moses, they still had not seen “the” prophet who would perform great signs like Moses. And while not explicitly seen in Scripture, Jewish sources teach that there was an expectation that this prophet to come who would be like Moses would also provide a new “manna.” This view is confirmed when we see the reaction of the people. They had seen a great sign in the miracle of the loaves and fish, and they seek out Jesus looking for more signs. They said to him “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (John 6:30-31) This indicates that they indeed expected “the” prophet who was to come as the fulfillment of Moses to bring forth new manna.
Jesus then began one of the most significant teachings we find in Scripture known as the Bread of Life discourse, and I will go through that in detail in my next post and how as Catholics we understand he is speaking about the Eucharist.
We can find many objections to the Catholic understanding of Eucharist and specifically about what Christ says in John Chapter 6. Here’s an example, although it is no longer present on the site that offered the view:
“By definition, for Jesus to be human He must be located in one place. This is the nature of being human. A human male does not have the ability to be omnipresent. He can only be in one place at one time. To say that Jesus in His physical form is in more than one place at a time, is to deny the incarnation. That is, it denies that Jesus is completely and totally a man — since a man can only be in one place at one time. Therefore, to say that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ is to violate the doctrine of the incarnation by stating that Christ is physically present all over the planet as the mass is celebrated. This is a serious problem and a serious denial of the true and absolute incarnation of the Word of God as a man.”
This is an example that leaves me quite puzzled in many ways. Yes, in general a human male can only be in one place at a time. In general a loaf of bread can only feed a few people. In general it doesn’t rain down manna from the sky. In general a human male can’t appear and disappear at will as Jesus did after the resurrection. The fact that Jesus was able to feed five thousand people with only 5 loaves of bread doesn’t deny that it was really bread. Nor does the fact that Jesus can indeed be physically present all over the planet deny that he is human. There’s a word we use for such events, and that is a miracle. To believe that Christ can be physically present in the Eucharist around the world doesn’t deny that he is human and therefore deny the Incarnation. But it is most certainly a miracle, just as the daily manna that appeared for the Israelites was a miracle and the multiplication of the loaves and fish was a miracle.
We also need to remember that we receive the resurrected body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist according to the teaching of the Church. And while Jesus was most certainly still human after the resurrection (he ate, his wounds from the crucifixion were still visible), there is also a great deal of evidence that his glorified body possesses properties that are not limited by space and time at all. He could be present when and how he willed, and he could appear in ways that the disciples did not always recognize him.
For some, they would question how Christ could give his resurrected body and blood to the apostles at the Last Supper when he had not yet been crucified and resurrected. This comes back to an understanding that God is not, and can not be bound by time. We see an example of this in Scripture, when at the Transfiguration Peter, James and John witnessed Christ as he was transfigured and they saw his glory. (Matthew 17:1-2, Mark 9:2-3, Luke 9:28-29). So yes Christ could indeed give them his resurrected flesh and blood at the Last Supper, just as he could allow them to see his glorified body prior to these events.
In my next post I will go into detail about what Jesus says in the Bread of Life discourse, how those who hear it respond, and why Catholics see this as a sure and certain sign of the Eucharist.