Jesus instituted the Eucharist in the context of, and at the end of, the annual Jewish Passover meal.
There are four distinct narratives of the Last Supper, usually divided into the so-called Petrine and Pauline accounts.
* Matthew 26:26-29 and Mark 14:22-25 emanate from St Peter's Jewish-Christian circle.
* Luke 19:19-20 and Paul 1 Corinthians 11:23-29 emanate from St Paul's Gentile-Christian mission.
In the spring of the year 55, St Paul wrote to the church of Corinth which he had founded. Christians were a small minority in the city, and in general from the relatively poorer part of the community. However, some were wealthier than others and there were serious abuses at their assemblies.
In the context of correcting these abuses, Paul gave the earliest account available of the Eucharist. He refers to the 'foundation event' which he had 'received from the Lord.'
The Pauline account reads as follows: 'The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said: 'This is my body which 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 Lord's death until He comes.'
Matthew and Mark
The accounts in Matthew and Mark are similar, with the same sequence as follows:
* Jesus took bread, then a cup of wine.
* He gave thanks, or pronounced the blessing.
* He broke the bread.
* He gave the bread and the cup to His disciples.
The final editing of St Matthew's Gospel may have occurred about fifteen years after Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Matthew wrote:
'Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them saying, 'Drink 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 the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in my Father's kingdom'.'
At this point, neither Matthew, Luke nor Paul referred to the fact that Jesus had promised the Eucharist to his apostles and disciples a year or so previously.
In these writings we see the promise of the Eucharist realised, for during His public life Jesus foretold this event.
The promise itself is contained in chapter six of St John's Gospel.
By the miracles of the loaves and fishes and by walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus prepared His circle of apostles and disciples for the sublime discourse foretelling the Eucharist. The miracles themselves signalled to them that He possessed - as Almighty God made man - a power superior to, and independent of the laws of nature. Jesus could, therefore, provide such a supernatural food, none other than His own Flesh and Blood. Jesus' language is striking and unambiguous:
'Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has everlasting life and I will raise him up on the last day. My flesh is meat indeed and my blood is real drink.'
In the course of His address, Jesus made numerous allusions to figures of the Eucharist in the Old Testament:
* The bread and wine offered by Melchizedek.
* The manna which fed the wandering Israelites in the wilderness of the Sinai desert.
* The loaves of proposition which the Jewish priests offered in the Temple.
* The paschal lamb offered annually to God by each household and eaten by the family which made the sacrifice.
A 'hard saying'
Consequently, 'eating' and 'drinking' are to be understood as the actual partaking of Christ in person, quite literally. This accords perfectly with the conduct of those who heard Jesus speak. And while many doubted, Jesus' attitude was clear regarding their objections and doubts. He did not apologise, nor say He was misunderstood. He did not offer a clarification which denied most of what He had said already. He repeated His original statement in a most solemn manner.
Many of the disciples who had been interested in Jesus' teaching and signs to this point were scandalised and are reported as commenting: 'This saying is hard and who can hear it?' However, Jesus did not take back what He had said, but criticised them for their lack of faith, by alluding to His divine origin and his future ascent to heaven.
There was an impasse. Many of the disciples drifted away so Jesus turned to the twelve apostles with the question: 'Will you also go away?' Peter, already the natural leader among the apostles, replied for them all: 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.'
Jesus had made His statement; in His own time, He fulfilled the promise at the Paschal meal the night before His crucifixion.
However, long before, there had been allusions to both sacrifice and communion in the Old Testament.
Over many centuries Yahweh had prepared the Israelites for the coming of His Son as the Messiah. The sacrifices of the Jewish people prefigured and prepared for the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross with the institution of the Eucharist also anticipated in these sacrifices.
A sacrifice is an act of worship of God which was done by making over a victim to Him. Jewish sacrifices were of two kinds. In some the victim was completely destroyed: animals, flour and incense were burnt, wine was poured on the ground. In others, only part was destroyed, the remainder was used for a solemn meal eaten by those who made the offering.
The first type of sacrifice is sometimes known as a holocaust, a Greek word meaning 'whole-burnt offering'. A precious possession, usually an animal, was dealt with in such a way that it could no longer be used by people in any manner; it was a gift given to God entirely. A holocaust of a lamb was offered every morning and every afternoon in the Temple at Jerusalem.
The second kind of sacrifice, in which part of the victim was eaten, is sometimes called a 'peace-offering' in the Bible, but it was really a kind of communion service. The blood and fat of the animal were regarded as containing the life of the victim. Since this belonged to God alone, the blood and fat were set apart for Yahweh by being placed beyond people's use; the blood was poured on the ground and the fat burnt. By eating the remainder of the animal, the offerers signified their union with God with whom, as it were, they shared this meal.
These blood sacrifices finished forever when the Roman army destroyed the Temple at Jerusalem in 70 AD. It was never rebuilt. By then, the blood sacrifices had been replaced - for Christians - by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who was 'the Lamb of God'. His sacrifice is both holocaust and peace offering.
It is easy to see that the sacrifice of 'peace offerings' prefigured the Eucharist. And there are other signs associated with the idea of 'sacrifice' and 'communion':
* Cain and Abel, the first sons of Adam and Eve, offered sacrifice to Yahweh. Abel's sacrifice was the best lamb in his flock. The sacrifice was acceptable to God, and is recalled in the liturgy of the Mass.
* Melchizedek, 'King of Salem', is the first priest mentioned in the Old Testament. His offering of bread and wine to God is referred to in the modern liturgy of the Mass.
* Abraham, in obedience to God, was prepared to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. In the event, Isaac's life was spared. The liturgy makes reference to Abraham's trust in God and this sacrifice.
After recalling the types of the Eucharist to which reference is made during the Old Testament formation of the chosen people, we return to the origin of the Christian Eucharist at the last (Passover) meal of Jesus with his disciples before His crucifixion. Mark's account is as follows:
'As they were eating He took bread and when he had said the blessing, He broke it and gave it to them: 'Take it', He said, 'this is My Body'. Then He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He handed it to them: 'This is My Blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many. In truth I tell you, I shall never drink wine any more until the day I drink the new wine in the kingdom of God'.'
The Apostles and disciples were asked to 'do this in memory of Me.' The development of the Christian liturgy commenced at that point.
The leaders of the young Church who were assembled in Jerusalem for several years after Jesus' Ascension considered ways of carrying out the Lord's command, 'Do this in commemoration of me'.
It is important to remember that these first Christians were Jews by birth and that they were steeped in Jewish prayers and customs.
Their Jewish ritual at a meal consisted of a thanksgiving prayer over bread at the beginning, and if the meal was a special occasion, a longer thanksgiving prayer at the conclusion of the meal over a cup of wine. Jesus had, at the Last Supper, used a particular thanksgiving prayer prior to 'the breaking of bread'. This term is used in a summary of the life of the first Jewish Christians in and around Jerusalem: 'They remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, to the brotherhood, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers' (Acts: 2:42).
At this early stage, the first Christians still observed their Jewish religion but celebrated the Eucharist in small groups in their homes: 'They went as a body to the Temple each day, but met in their homes for the breaking of the bread' (Acts 2:46).
Time passed and the numbers of converts grew with Paul commencing his ministry to the gentiles. Soon gentile Christians outnumbered Christians of Jewish birth and the leaders of the gentile converts decided that a supper was the most suitable way in which to celebrate the Eucharist. There would be a joyous community meal, an agape, to which the actual celebration of the Eucharist would be a fitting climax.
Jesus had given his followers the Eucharist in the context of a ritual meal. Hence an agape, followed by a celebration of the Eucharist, fitted the world of house churches in which the early Christians assembled.
Over time, as we shall see later, the developing eucharistic liturgy - deeply influenced by the Jewish synagogue service - had two parts.
There was the Proclamation of God's word, comprising prayers, readings from Scripture and a homily, which was attended by the baptised and those preparing for baptism. The preparation was a lengthy experience.
The other, the Eucharist, was attended by only baptised Christians. In the literature of the early Church, references to the Eucharist are often veiled, with 'the breaking of the bread' for the initiated only.
Dr Barry Coldrey is a former teacher in Catholic secondary schools, a prolific writer and lecturer, and presently active in youth ministry. His second article on the Eucharist will appear in the February 2010 AD2000.