Recently I spent four weeks in Israel digging with
some archaeologists who were uncovering the town of Bethsaida.
While there I was able to offer Eucharist on a number of occasions
for the Catholics present.
One of the most memorable was at Tabgha, a lovely
site on the Sea of Galilee where, according to an old Jewish
Christian tradition, Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes
A mosaic in the pavement of a fifth-century church
there depicts the loaves and the fishes. Nearby, close to the
altar, is a large piece of rock on which Jesus is supposed to
have placed the five loaves and two fishes.
I also visited the Upper Room in Jerusalem that
is believed to be the traditional site of the Last Supper. A
constant stream of pilgrims moves through the room in silence,
many of them prayerfully meditating on what they believe happened
there the night before Jesus died.
Our eucharistic tradition has its roots in these
two events. Jesus— actions at the Last Supper became the basis
for our celebration of the Eucharist. Those actions in turn
reflect the earlier miracle of the multiplication of the loaves
to feed the crowds.
In this issue of Scripture From Scratch we
will take a closer look at the biblical accounts of these events,
as well as other essential passages about the Eucharist from
the Acts of the Apostles and Paul—s writings. In doing so, we
will come to a deeper understanding of our own celebration of
Bread Blessed, Broken and Given to All
All four of the Gospels include the story of
the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The similarity
between this event and the Last Supper is striking. It indicates
the early Christians— belief that the multiplication of the
loaves was an anticipation of the Eucharist, which in turn anticipates
the messianic banquet.
In the Synoptic Gospel accounts of the multiplication
we read that Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the
loaves and gave them to his disciples to give to the crowds
(Mark 6:41; Matthew 14:19; Luke 9:16).
These actions—blessing the bread, breaking it
and giving it to the disciples—will be repeated by Jesus at
the Last Supper, when he will explain the significance of the
bread and wine as his body and blood.
In John—s Gospel, Jesus doesn—t wait until the
Last Supper to explain that the bread he gives is himself. In
fact, John—s most explicit treatment of the real presence of
Jesus in the Eucharist doesn—t take place at the Last Supper
at all. Instead, John uses his account of the miracle of the
loaves to give Jesus— extended sermon on the Bread of Life.
In the sixth chapter of John—s Gospel, Jesus tells
the crowd that he is the living bread come down from heaven.
He explains that just as God gave their ancestors manna in the
wilderness through Moses, so now he gives them the bread of
He goes on to say that the bread he gives for
the life of the world "is my flesh." And when some of his listeners
object to such an unheard-of idea Jesus says, "Very truly I
tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink
his blood you have no life in you" (6:53). The offense taken
by his hearers, many of whom deserted him at this point, stemmed
from the plain meaning of his words that excluded any figurative
understanding. All attempts to interpret Jesus— words symbolically
fail to take in the whole context of the chapter and the practice
of the early community.
John—s account of this story told in all four
Gospels makes clear to us the significance of this event in
the development of our eucharistic theology.
—On the Night Before He Died—
Our Eucharist commemorates the Last Supper Jesus
celebrated with his disciples. What Jesus said and did that
night with the bread and wine forms the basis for the Church—s
sacrament of the Eucharist. What we know about this gathering
comes from two separate traditions.
First we have what is known as the Marcan tradition.
This includes primarily Mark—s Gospel (hence the name), but
it also includes Matthew—s Gospel, which follows Mark—s interpretation
quite closely, with only some slight changes in the wording.
The Lucan tradition includes Luke—s Gospel, and
his sequel to the Gospel, The Acts of the Apostles. It also
includes Paul—s account of the Last Supper in his First Letter
to the Corinthians.
In spite of some variations, the important thing
is that our two independent sources agree that what Jesus did
included four things.
He gave thanks over bread and wine. He identified
the bread and wine with his body and blood. He gave them the
bread to eat and the wine to drink. Finally, he told them that
his coming death was for the forgiveness of sins, and he prefigured
that death by breaking the bread and pouring out the wine.
According to Mark 14:12-16, Jesus and his disciples
gathered for supper in a room that had been prepared for them.
His enemies were encircling their gathering, and the passion
is clearly at hand. Whether this meal was a Passover meal or
not is uncertain from the details in Mark—s text.
Mark interprets Jesus— actions in the light of
the Old Testament sacrifice traditions. Jesus says of the cup,
"This is my blood of the new covenant," a clear allusion to
In that verse Moses takes the blood of the sacrificed
oxen and dashes it on the people, saying, "See the blood of
the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with
all these words."
Mark—s Jesus goes on to say "which is poured out
for many," a clear allusion to Isaiah—s suffering servant: "Therefore
I will allot him a portion with the great and he shall divide
the spoil with the strong because he poured out himself in death
and was numbered with the transgressors, yet he bore the sin
of many and made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah
Luke, like Mark, sets the Eucharist in the framework
of a meal. More clearly than Mark, however, his account follows
the basic sequence of the Passover meal, which began with drinking
a cup of wine. Then a second cup was prepared and the paterfamilias
told the story of the Exodus, after which a second cup was drunk.
The meal proper began with the breaking of the
bread and after the meal a third cup would be consumed. In Luke,
Jesus takes the cup and says, "This cup is the new covenant
in my blood." Thus in Luke—s reinterpretation of the Passover,
Jesus— death becomes the new Exodus—a liberation from sin and
the inauguration of a new covenant that constitutes a new people
—I Pass on to You What Was Handed on to Me—
On the basis of these actions, the theology of
the Eucharist was developed after Jesus— resurrection. It began
with Paul, who taught that the Eucharist was the Lord—s Supper
(1 Corinthians 11:20), the meal where the new people of God
are nourished by spiritual food for their journey. The meal
identifies them as the people of the new covenant (1 Corinthians
Paul tells them, "For I received from the Lord
what I handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he
was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, —This is my body that is for you. Do this
in remembrance of me.— In the same way also the cup, after supper,
saying, —This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this,
as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.— For as often
as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death
of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
Note here the actions of taking, blessing, breaking
and giving the bread. These words have been handed down from
that day to this and at each and every Eucharist the priest
and people call them to mind once again in the institution narrative
of the Eucharistic Prayer.
Paul taught that Jesus is truly and really present
in the Eucharist. He made this clear when he took the Corinthians
to task for their inappropriate behavior at the Eucharist. Some
were starting to eat before all were gathered and some went
hungry and some even got drunk. Paul told them that by consuming
the bread unworthily they were guilty of a serious sin insofar
as they were "answerable for the body and blood of the Lord"
and were "eating and drinking judgment against themselves" (1
Corinthians 11:27-29). The obvious explanation of these words
is that Paul identified the bread and wine with Jesus himself.
According to The New Jerome Biblical Commentary,
"One cannot argue away the realism of the identity of Christ
with the eucharistic food in Paul—s teaching, even if he does
not explain how this identity is achieved." Later theologians
would develop the explanations and understandings that Paul
Paul also taught that the Eucharist makes present
the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. He told the Corinthians,
"As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim
the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26).
In other words, he told them, you make Jesus present
in the act of offering himself for us; you are showing forth
God—s saving love as embodied in his Son—s sacrifice.
The Eucharist, then, must be celebrated in the
same spirit of love that Jesus showed if it is to be truly a
showing forth of God—s love. How can it show God—s love if you
are mean and nasty to your neighbor—getting drunk, gulping down
the meal before all are present and so on. In doing so you are
"eating the bread and drinking the cup of the Lord unworthily"
by not discerning the body of the Lord—not relating lovingly
to Christ—s body—that is, the members of his body. You are therefore
answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.
Finally, Paul brought out the eschatological aspect
of the Eucharist, for he held that the proclamation of the Lord—s
death must continue "until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26).
From the very beginning of the Church, the Eucharist
formed the center of its life of worship. This is clearly indicated
by the Acts of the Apostles. In the second chapter we hear that
the 3,000 people baptized by the apostles on Pentecost devoted
themselves to "the breaking of the bread," a Lucan term for
the Eucharist. To this day, each time we gather for Eucharist,
we remember and make present the Lord as Christians have done
since Jesus first said, "Do this in remembrance of me."
Next: A Contemplative Journey With Jesus (by
Armand Nigro, S.J.)