THE INSTITUTION OF THE EUCHARIST
Required Reading: John, chapter 6; Joshua, chapter 5; Exodus, chapter 16
THE JOURNEY TO THE WEDDING FEAST
After the Transfiguration, the Christ of God journeys from Mount Tabor to the Holy City,
toward the exodus which Moses and Elijah spoke of on the Mountain. “As with the first exodus of Israel,” states Tim Gray, “there cannot be a new exodus without a Passover meal.”[i] It is time for the marriage supper of the Lamb. In the account of the Last Supper, as well as in the bread of life discourse of the Holy Evangelist John, we must maintain our original interpretive paradigm, the images of Eden. It is here in the institution of the Holy Eucharist that the Luminous Mysteries culminate. It is here in the breaking of the bread that we will recognize the full effects of the restoration of Adam’s robe, of the re-consecration of the Sabbath, of the recapitulation of the marriage of Adam and Eve at the wedding of Cana. It is in the Holy Eucharist that the intended festival day of the universe will be realized. It is here that the tree of life will come into view. The wedding feast is prepared, and the guests are invited. Let us put on our finest garments, light our torches, and “put out into the deep” one last time, as we find our way through the dusk of the setting sun to the great feast of God. There, at the Eucharistic banquet, we will find the heart of Christ shining forth as a lamb to enlighten the world (Rev. 21:23); there the Luminous Christ will enlighten the darkness of sin forever.
THE EXPECTATION OF THE JEWS
The idea of a Messianic banquet, of a covenant meal, is nothing new to Israel. Eugenio Zolli explains that “to the Jewish people, taking a meal together is equivalent to the contracting of a friendship, to a pact of alliance that imposes the duties of fidelity.”[ii] Throughout the Old Testament, God had prepared his people with the promised hope of an eternal feast, where hunger ceases, and man is called a friend and son of God once more and is invited to join his Father at the family supper. The Prophet Isaiah relates, “On this mountain [Jerusalem] the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast” (Is. 25:6). Again the Prophet writes the words of God, “Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness. Incline your ear and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David” (Is. 55:1-3).
THE EUCHARISTIC BREAD AND THE MANNA OF MOSES
In the Gospel of John, Christ’s comparison of the ‘bread of God,’ of which he speaks, with the manna of the desert is not a surprise to the Jewish audience – Jews who were looking for the promised Messiah. The reaction of the listeners to Jesus’ initial words shows their hopeful acceptance of the heavenly bread of Jesus: “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’ Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Lord, give us this bread always’” (Jn. 6:31-34). As Cardinal Danielou explains, “Judaism had already given to the manna an eschatological significance. As God had nourished His people with a miraculous food in the time of the Exodus of old, so would He do again in the time of the new eschatological Exodus.”[iii] It is most likely that this Messianic hope, hitherto encouraged by prophets like Isaiah, underlies the reaction of the people at the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes just prior to the Bread of Life discourse. The reaction of the crowds to this miracle implies that the people saw the significance of Jesus’ actions: “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king (heb. Messiah), Jesus withdrew again to the hills by himself” (Jn. 6:15).
The revelation of the Eucharist in John 6, itself points to the Old Testament, to a day when God provided mystical bread for His children in the desert:
[So they said to him] Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger . . . . Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn. 6:31-51).
By recalling the image of manna, the Evangelist points to the book of Exodus so that we may see through the eyes of the great prophet the bread that God sent from heaven. “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove to them, whether they will walk in my law or not” (Ex. 16:4). This “heavenly bread” (Ex. 16:4, Ps. 105:40), “was already something other than ordinary profane food.”[iv] Saint Augustine explains that, though the Eucharist of the Christians is different than the manna, “the spiritual nourishment is the same.”[v]
MANNA AND THE FRUIT OF THE PROMISED LAND
Moses describes the manna in these words: “Now the house of Israel called its name manna; it was like coriander seed, white, and the taste of it was like a wafer, made with honey.” In the book of Numbers, there is a further explanation of the manna touching directly upon the thesis developed thus far: “Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its appearance like that of bdellium” (Num. 11:7). Bdellium is mentioned only one time previous to this in the Penteteuch, in Genesis 2, where it is one of the stones of the Garden of Eden.[vi]
The manna of the desert immediately took on an eschatological significance for the Jewish people, whose eyes gazed hopefully toward the land of their Fathers. The hope enkindled by the heavenly manna was well founded, for God, appearing to Moses in the burning bush, had promised: “I have come down to deliver them [Israel] out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8). Thus the manna, which tasted like honey and looked like a jewel of Paradise, reminded the people of the goodness of the land which God was giving into their hands.
After the Exodus from Egypt, Israel made her way through the Sinai Desert to the gate of the Promised Land in the south, and encamped in the wilderness of Paran. God instructed Moses to send spies into the Land, and ordered them to bring back “some of the fruit of the land” (Num. 13:20). “And they came to the Valley of Eschol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they brought also some pomegranates and figs” (Num 13:23). When the spies returned to the camp, they reported to Moses, saying, “We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey and this is its fruit.” We can imagine what the reaction of Moses and the Israelites in the desert would have been. They had found the land promised to Moses at the burning bush, a land truly flowing with milk and honey, with grapes the size of watermelons, so large that it takes two men to carry a single cluster. The Israelites no longer see their hopes in the form of the manna alone, for now before their eyes are succulent figs and ripe, red pomegranates dripping with sweet nectar. Like the manna in the desert, which gave the Israelites spiritual nourishment, the fruit of the Promised Land is not “profane food.”[vii]
After the forty years of punishment, incurred for failing to enter the Holy Land from the encampment at Paran, Joshua led the people across the Jordan river and into the Land of their Fathers:
While the people of Israel were encamped in Gilgal they kept the passover on the fourteenth day of the month at evening in the plains of Jericho. 11 And on the morrow after the passover, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and parched grain. 12 And the manna ceased on the morrow, when they ate of the produce of the land; and the people of Israel had manna no more, but ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year. (Joshua 5:10-12)
This text explicitly unites the fruit of the Promised Land and the manna of the wilderness. The “fruit of the land,” which the manna prefigured, must evoke the description given in the book of Numbers: ripe clusters of grapes, figs, and pomegranates, rivers of honey and pools of milk. This was the fulfillment of the first Sinai promise: “I have come down . . . to bring them to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:8).
ENCOUNTERING THE ANGEL OF EDEN
When Joshua had partaken of the mystical fruit of the Land, he lifted up his eyes and, “Behold, a man stood before him with his drawn sword in his hand; and Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but as commander of the army of the LORD I have now come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and worshiped, and said to him, “What does my lord bid his servant?” 15 And the commander of the LORD’s army said to Joshua, “Put off your shoes from your feet; for the place where you stand is holy” (Joshua 5:10-15).[viii]
Meditating upon the images of Paradise after the fall, this man with his “drawn sword” may be readily identified as an angel of God, a cherub with a flaming sword, placed before the gate to guard the way to the holy place.[ix] Here the location of Eden considered in chapter one must be recalled. The Jews living at the time of Christ believed that the Promised Land into which their forefathers had entered and to in which they now lived was the actual Garden of Eden, and this text seems to support that belief. The fruit was divine, the waters were placed under the dominion of man, and the Cherubim were in place at the east gate, “to guard the way to the tree of life” (Gen. 3:24).[x]
THE EUCHARIST AND THE FRUIT OF PARADISE
By contrasting the bread that He will provide with the manna of the desert, Jesus makes His meaning clear: Jesus is the new manna, the hidden manna, of which the old manna was a type. But, as was shown above, manna was itself a foreshadowing of the fruit of Paradise, and, thus, Jesus’ comparison of His flesh with the bread of the desert ultimately must be seen as a comparison with the fruit of Eden. It is, therefore, in the mystical fruit of Paradise that the revelation of the Holy Eucharist must be understood, and there is no fruit of Eden more rightly called mystical than the fruit of the Tree of Life.[xi]
The Tree of Life, the fruit of Eden par excellence, which was a key reason for Adam’s exile from the Garden once he had sinned, is ultimately the image behind John’s comparison of manna with the flesh of Jesus.[xii] In the book of Revelation, the Eagle of Patmos draws the necessary connection when he writes, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev. 2:7). And a few verses later we read: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna” (Jn. 2:17). Thus, we see through the eyes of the beloved disciple that the “hidden manna,” a clear reference to the Holy Eucharist, is the fruit of the Tree of Life, the tree of God planted in the middle of the garden.[xiii]
THE MESSIANIC MARRIAGE BANQUET
The institution of the Sacred Eucharist on Holy Thursday is nothing less than the restoration of the fruit of the Tree of Life from which man may “eat, and live forever” (Gen. 3:22). The event of the Upper Room, however, is contingent on Calvary, making present in advance what Christ will accomplish on the Cross. It has long been Church tradition to see in the cross of Christ the replanting of the Tree of Life, from which the fruit is provided for the life of the world. Saint Ephrem the Syrian explains:
Greatly saddened was the Tree of Life when it beheld Adam stolen away from it; it sank down into the virgin ground and was hidden – to burst forth and reappear on Golgatha; humanity, like birds that are chased, took refuge in it so that it might return them to their proper home. The Chaser was chased away, while the doves that had been chased now hop with joy in Paradise.[xiv]
The Lord Jesus explains that his flesh is truly the food that is unto life eternal: “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last days” (Jn. 6:53-54). With these words, Jesus restores to man that which Adam and the whole of the people of the Old Testament had longed for, the medicine of life, the mystical fruit of the Garden of Eden. With these words, God has given back to man his original place at the covenant banquet of the Father, the eternal wedding feast of God and man. This was the table set for the Sabbath of old, and this is the table, richly laden, of which the Holy Apostles partook in the Upper Room. This is the feast of which Isaiah had prophesied, and this is the feast re-presented in the Divine Liturgy of the Catholic Church. The covenant feast of the Sabbath day of Paradise, forsaken by Adam and Eve, is restored in the cross of Christ replanted in Eden, for the life of the whole world.
“Let us keep our lamps filled and our wicks trimmed. Let us stand with our Holy Mother and the beloved disciple in the Garden of Eden, at the foot of the cross, the tree of life, gazing upon our savior ‘as the pleasing cluster of the true vine,’ waiting to partake in the Holy Inebriation.”[xv]
[i]Gray, Mission of the Messiah, 115.
[ii]Eugenio Zolli, The Nazarene: Studies in New Testament Exegesis, trans. Cyril Vollert (New Hope, Kent.: Urbi et Orbi/Remnant of Israel, 1999), 224.
[iii]Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, 149-150.
[iv]Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, 149.
[v]Augustine, Tract. Joh., XXVI, 6, 12; P.L., XXXV, 1612, as quoted in Danielou, The Bible and the Liturgy, 149.
[vi]Though the precious stones of Genesis 2 are mentioned as being in other lands, the traditional viewpoint sees these jewels as flowing forth from the garden into the other lands through the rivers of Pishon, Cush, Gihon, and Tigris. C.f. Ez. 28:11-14.
[vii]Based upon the Semitic interpretation of the Holy Land as the location of the Garden of Eden, it is interesting that the spies sent by Moses to scout the promised land report that they saw men of great stature, “the Nephelim” (Nm. 13:33). The only time that the giant men of old appear in the Sacred Scripture prior to this sighting is in the book of Genesis, “when the sons of God came to the daughters of men and they bore children to them” (Gen. 6:4). Since the Genesis reference is prior to the flood, it is not possible that the Nephelim were a particular race of men, for, they reappear in the days of Joshua. Saint Ephrem the Syrian explains that the Nephelim who were born from the illicit union of the sons of God, the tribe of Seth, and the daughters of men, the tribe of Cain, were of great stature because of the food that they ate. The sons of God, St. Ephrem teaches, “were dwelling in the land along the boundary of the fence of Paradise, their produce was abundant and full of strength.” Thus the children that they bore were of great strength and size, the Nephelim. In considering the reappearance of the mighty men in the days of Joshua, it is interesting that these men were living near the valley of Eshcol, on the boundary of Paradise, and the fruit of the land which the Israelite spies discovered was of mystical appearance.
[viii]It is interesting that the Hebrew word for holy, vdq(qodesh), used in the Joshua text quoted above, which itself parallel’s the word of God to Moses at the event of the Burning Bush (Ex. 3:5), is only used by the author of the Pentateuch one time prior to Ex. 3:5, in Gen. 2:3 with reference to the holiness of the seventh day, the covenant day.
[ix]In considering the appearance of the “commander of the LORD’s army” in Joshua 5, two similar occurances aught to be brought forward in order to complete the picture. First, in the book of Numbers the ass of Balaam,when traveling in the proximity of the location of the revelation in the Joshua text, meets a similar figure: “And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand.” Second, when Jacob was making his way toward the Holy Land after his twenty year stay with Laban, he “went on his way and the angels of God met him; and when Jacob saw them he said, ‘This is God’s army!” (Gen. 32:1-2) The revelation of the “commander of the Lord’s army,” united with the identification of the “angel of the Lord,” in Numbers, which seems to parallel “God’s army” in Genesis, all of which is understood in light of the “drawn sword,” is clearly reminiscent of the cherubim with the flaming sword in Genesis 3, and is further substantiated by the location and movement of the people in all three texts.
[x]By the water that was “under the dominion” of man is meant the Jordan River, which parted at the moment that the feet of the priests touched the water (Josh. 3:15-16).
[xi] St. Ephrem the Syrian makes the explicit connection between the fruit of the Promised Land which Joshua, Caleb and the Israelite scouts plucked in the Valley of Eshcol and the Tree of Life, which Ephrem identifies as Christ. “Kaleb, the scout, came carrying, the cluster on a pole; he anticipated seeing the Grape Whose wine would console creation. . . . That Joshua who also plucked and carried with him some of the fruits anticipated the Tree of Life Who would give His all life-giving fruit to tast (Hymns On the Nativity, Hymn 1, Ln. 30-31.)
[xii] Cf. Gen 3:22, and see chapter one.
[xiii]Bernard Orchard and others, eds., A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture (New York: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1953), 965b.
[xiv]St. Ephrem, “Hymn on Virginity,” XVI.10, quoted in the introduction to St. Ephrem, Hymns On Paradise, 60-61.
[xv]Sebastian Carnazzo, “Second Thursday of the Great Fast,” in Journey through the Great Fast: A Daily Meditation (Farfax, Va.: Eastern Christian Publications, 2001), 60-61.