By Rev. Michael W. Panicali
Playing the keyboard and organ in churches for over a decade before finally taking the leap and entering the seminary, I always made it a point to slow down and accentuate the last few lines of the hymn, “Look Beyond,” so as to capture the potency, and sadness, of the request Jesus makes of His disciples to not abandon Him, as others had done, as He reveals Himself — and doesn’t speak metaphorically — to be the very Bread of Life that is going to feed them as they journey to eternal life.
This poignant moment in the Gospel of John, upon which we focus this Sunday, speaks to us these two-thousand years later as we too are asked to accept this difficult proposition, that Jesus desires us to literally feed on His Resurrected Body and Blood as we ourselves journey to eternal life.
This teaching of course continues to this day to separate Christians. It makes sense that it would cause upheaval and disagreement within the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, since it similarly provoked upheaval for Christ’s followers — and detractors — when He first made this claim. The words of Christ cannot be taken lightly. As is consistent with the four Gospels, a close examination of them reveals layers of historical meaning.
Much like Christ Himself, many parallels can be drawn between the Eucharist and what is described or occurs in the events of the Old Testament. Something as profound as Christ’s body remaining with humankind, so that it could have new life in Him, surely could not occur without humankind being prepared for it. Just as the Old Testament prophets delivered the message, teachings, and reality of God to the Israelites, in order that the world was eventually prepared to receive Christ, so too were the people of God prepared for the Eucharist by the events of the Old Testament and experiences of the Hebrew people.
I would like to draw upon the excellent work of scholar Edward Kilmartin, The Eucharist in the Primitive Church (Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J., copyright 1965) to illustrate how the Old Testament shows how God prepared the Israelites for the fulfillment of Christ, and that one should expect to find in the Old Testament some signals of the fundamental characteristics of the Messianic age.
As the Eucharist is such a fundamental characteristic of the era ushered in by Christ, “it would not be surprising if there were some hints, however vague, of this gift which is destined to represent the redemptive act of Jesus in the midst of the community of the new covenant until the Second Coming” (p. 2).
Firstly, as Kilmartin explains, the Eucharist is prefigured by references to a heavenly banquet that is much alluded to in the Old Testament, and referred to as the Messianic Feast. Contributing to the concept of the Messianic Feast are 1) references in Exodus of a sacred banquet in the presence of God taken by Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 of the ancients of Israel; 2) God satisfying the hunger and thirst of the Israelites wandering in the desert in an extraordinary, awe-inspiring way; and 3) the references to the tradition of having sacred meals in the place of sacrifice (pp. 6-7).
Kilmartin adds that several Old Testament texts “describe the blessings of the Messianic age in terms of a banquet of which the ritual feast of the law was a figure.” For instance, Psalm 22:26 refers to the Messianic banquet shared by the rich and poor alike, Psalm 23:5 to a banquet that the shepherd will serve, and Isaiah describes the gladness and contentment of the Messianic age as a banquet (p. 7).
Kilmartin further explains that the Messianic Feast, as found in Old Testament texts and noncanonical Jewish literature:
1) has the setting of a liturgical meal (such as on the mountain with God, as in the mount of Sion)
2) is depicted as a nuptial meal calling to mind a covenant and indicating the time for a close and personal encounter between God and the faithful
3) takes place with the Messiah
4) has a transcendent quality in which both the excellence and overabundance of the food signify that it occurs in a transformed time and place, and that one gains spiritual blessings from it
5) that it is intended for all people (pp. 9-10).
It is easy to see the parallels between this heavenly, Messianic banquet described in the Old Testament and the celebration of the Eucharist, Jesus’ Body and Blood, that is at the center of the life and worship of a Catholic. It is also easy to see other parallels in the actual experience of the Israelites. Kilmartin points out that the manna in the desert that the Israelites received from God is both “superior nourishment which gives [them] great strength” and also a “type of spiritual food, the word of God, which preserves the spiritual life” (p. 20).
Kilmartin explains that Jesus, however, introduces a new reality to His followers — the Incarnate Word of God in His Eucharistic presence (p. 13). As manna gave superior nourishment and strength to the Israelites, the Eucharist, which the early Church clearly recognized was foreshadowed by manna in the desert, must also be superior and extraordinary sustenance — a “spiritual food which preserves supernatural life.” Furthermore, it is understood to be a component of the Messianic age, furnished by the Messiah at the occurrence of Passover which ushers in the new age (p. 20).
An additional parallel pertains to the blood that is routinely sacrificed in the Old Testament and the Blood that is shed in Jesus’ sacrifice of His life for the forgiveness of sins. As Kilmartin explains, “the sacrificial blood of the Old Law is a type of the sacrificial blood of the New Law.” However, it takes on greater meaning with Christ.
It is “when the redemptive significance of the sacramental participation in the sacrificial blood of the New Law is revealed, the meaning attributed to sacrificial blood in the Old Law throws light on the meaning of participation in the sacramental blood of Christ.” Participation in the sacramental blood of Christ by a believer entails a more profound participation in the new covenant between Jesus and the Church and is reflected in the believer’s relationship with his fellow man and community (pp. 20-21).
With all that was foreshadowed of the Eucharist before it was instituted by Christ, and all that can be said of its supernatural nature, the Eucharist is nothing short of God’s miracle on earth and a testimony of His unwavering love for humankind. It signifies that God is al- ways present with us. There can be no greater comfort and sustenance to the weary traveler journeying onto the greatest of destinations — eternal life with Almighty God, in Heaven.
Readings for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
Joshua: 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b
Ephesians: 5:21-32 or 5:2a, 25-32
Father Panicali is the parochial vicar for St. Mark-St. Margaret Mary Parish, Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach, and local chaplain of Rosary for Life.