From Jewish Passover Meal To Christian Eucharist


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It is a human trait to treasure the last words of a dying person especially the father of the house. In Igbo land, the words of a parting father are highly sacrosanct and taken with every bit of seriousness. Thus that is always a moment of disclosing the father’s parting desire and gifts to the children. Jesus at the point of departure gave us a parting gift-EUCHARIST. However, an inescapable question arises thus: did Christ actually introduce a new element in the Eucharist or only repeated what was in vogue in the Jewish Passover and daily meals? A critical look reveals that though Christ severed from the traditional Jewish meal system to the Christian Eucharist, he maintained the background of Jewish meal pattern.
For the Jews every meal had a religious solemnity because of the grace that was always said before, during and after the meal irrespective of whether the meal was mere snacks or formal meal with wine. This was always accompanied with the BERAKAH which is Jewish prayer and it is always the distinctive element in the character of Jewish piety. The Jewish meal begins with the washing of hands (Mt.15;1-2) then followed the drinking of wine which Christ religiously observed at the Passover meal (Lk.22:17-18). This ritual is known as the preliminaries to meal because the meal proper doesn’t begin until the father of the family or presiding member of the community had broken the bread which was to be given to the participants. This breaking of bread has its own BERAKAH-a thanksgiving for the bread from the earth and this closes the admission to the meal whereupon no one joins the meal thereafter. After the inaugural breaking of bread, different cups of win were served and the leader blessed each.
The night he was betrayed was the last night that Jesus spent with his disciples before his passion and death. In olden days, people did not write their wills. They spoke their wills, usually as their last words before death. What do these words of 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 tell us when we read them as the last words, the will and testament of Jesus? Remember, this was taking place in the context of the Passover meal. So Jesus was presenting himself as their Passover lamb. The Israelites in Egypt had to eat the flesh of the Passover lamb to identify themselves as God’s own people. They marked their doorposts with its blood as a sign to keep away the angel of death.
Gradually the apostles and their successors developed the Eucharistic celebration into the structure that endures to this day. They first named it the “Breaking of the Bread” but soon they saw the need to separate the rite from a meal, both because of abuses at meals (1 Cor 11:17-22) and because they wanted a more prayerful setting for this act of worship. This development was reported by a late first-century document, the Didache or “Teaching of the Apostles.” Eucharist was moved to Sunday in memory of Christ’s resurrection. In place of the meal the early Christians created a Liturgy of the Word somewhat modeled after synagogue prayer that included readings from Scripture, singing of psalms and an instruction.
Every Israelite was supposed to participate in this ritual every year to renew their identity as God’s people who enjoy God’s special blessings and protection. In the Old Testament the people of God came into being through a covenant. By speaking of a new covenant Jesus is saying that a new people of God have come into being. In the sacrifice that seals the covenant Jesus is both the officiating priest and the lamb of sacrifice. We are just the beneficiaries of a life-giving grace. That is why the name “Eucharist” (“thanksgiving”) is so appropriate. Jesus did it all for us. All we have to do is receive it and give thanks.
The words of Jesus are recorded in the gospels and other New Testament books. But Paul’s letters were written some twenty to fifty years before the gospels and other New Testaments books were written. . “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul did not personally receive this tradition from the Lord, since he was not one of the twelve apostles present at the Last Supper and He never encounterd Christ while He was on earth. He received the tradition from those who were Christians before him, after his conversion to the Christian faith. Now he is handing on to the Corinthians the same tradition that he himself received. The only difference is that whereas up till the time of Paul the tradition was passed on by word of mouth, Paul was the first to put it down in writing because he could not be there physically with the Corinthians. He writes ‘that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me”‘ (1 Corinthians 11:23-25). Though the Bible is indeed an invaluable gift of God, but Jesus did not write a Bible for the church nor did he commission his disciples to write one. The most precious gift that Jesus gave to his church is that which we celebrate today, the gift of his own body and blood in the form of bread and wine.
The Holy Eucharist makes present a triple reality. In the first place we are promised God’s real and physical presence, in his Body and Blood, under the outward appearance of bread and wine. Thus the Holy Eucharist is said to be a sacrament. Secondly, the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass (the act of making God present in what was before bread and wine) re-presents the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is the sacrifice of Calvary made really present to us in our time. Thirdly, we are invited to partake of the Eucharist as physical and spiritual communion with Jesus Christ. Thus the Eucharist is our physical and spiritual food of unity. In this way, the Eucharist becomes our nourishment, our manna in the desert journey of this life.
In his great encyclical on the Eucharist and the Church, John Paul II says that: “Incorporation into Christ, which is brought about by Baptism, is constantly renewed and consolidated by sharing in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, especially by that full sharing which takes place in sacramental COMMUNION. We can say not only that each of us receives Christ, but also that Christ receives each of us. He enters into friendship with us: “You are my friends” (Jn 15:14). In his Odinigbo lectures, Arch Bishop Obinna of Owerri emphasized the principle of oriko in Igbo culture. Thus persons involved in this common meal-oriko- are bound together in love so much so that one should never draw the sword nor seek juju to the detriment of anyone who has partaken of the common meal oriko. This also leaves us a lesson as Christians who partake of the Communion. May the reception of the body and blood of Christ lead us to communion between one another. Amen.
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