As you may recall, the Second Vatican Council spoke of the Eucharist and its celebration as being the source and summit of our faith. Having just celebrated the Christmas Season and spent time pondering the mystery of the Incarnation we are called to ponder the reality that Christ is as really and truly present in the Eucharist as He was present in the manger in Bethlehem. This is an amazing reality – one that we can scarcely comprehend – that the Lord is present to us every time we are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. A lifetime of reflection and prayer could be spent on this mystery and gift!
To start our reflection now, let us turn to the Old Testament and see the various ways the Eucharist was prefigured. Saint Augustine once wrote that “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.” We see a number of events in the Old Testament which prefigure the institution of the Eucharist. The first such event is the mysterious figure of Melchizedek. Melchizedek was the King of Salem, the town that would eventually come to be known as Jerusalem. In Genesis, Chapter 14, Abraham has an encounter with him, in which he approaches Abraham and bears with him both bread and wine. Melchizedek is not only the King of Salem, but is also a high priest and so we see an offering that connects both bread and wine with the priesthood and the worship of the God. Then, as quickly as he appears on the scene, Melchizedek disappears into the mists of time, but not before he makes such a distinct impression that one of the Psalms, would talk about “being a high priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek.”
We also see the prefiguring of the Eucharist during Israel’s experience in the desert – as they move from captivity and slavery in Egypt into the Promised Land and freedom. There, in the desert, they find themselves dying from hunger and plead with Moses to intercede on their behalf with God. And God responds by sending manna from heaven. This manna appears on a daily basis and is sufficient to provide for the needs of the people, but it will not last until the next day. Each day they must have the faith and confidence that God will provide for them and, of course, He does. We see this manna truly is “daily bread” nourishing the People of God on their journey from slavery into freedom. It is not hard to see the allusion to the Eucharist that will be the true bread come down from heaven.
Perhaps the greatest prefiguring, however, is in the Passover. On the night before the people of Israel flee Pharaoh’s oppressive rule, the Lord asks the people to celebrate the Passover meal. It is prepared by using unleavened cakes of bread. Along with this, the blood of the lambs which have been sacrificed are spread over the lintels of the doors, protecting the people of Israel from the avenging Angel of the Lord. Here, in this sacred meal of our Jewish forefathers we see another prefiguring of the Eucharist – here we see the ritual use of bread which carries with it significance beyond its mere physical form and nourishment and we see, mixed in with this ritual, the use of the blood of the lambs to protect people from death. Once again, it is easy to see how this Jewish ritual meal prefigures the advent of the Eucharist and it is the Passover meal that Jesus celebrates with the Apostles which we know as the Last Supper.
(This article is part of a series of articles on The Sacraments which will appear in the bulletin over the course of this year.)