The Bread of Heaven and the Blood of the Covenant

The Eucharist has always stood at the center of the life and worship of the Christian Church.  The sacrifice of the Eucharist is the preeminent act of Christian worship, the central focus of Christian life, and the constituent element of the church as community.  Sacrifices are meals, meals shared together by the community with the community’s God.  Several past posts have focused on the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and its nature as a meal.  There is also much to be said about the elements themselves, the food which constitutes this meal.  Beginning by at least the seventh century and especially in the West, there has been considerable discussion and debate as to how the body, blood, and indeed the whole person of Christ relate to the elements of bread and wine before and after the consecration of the gifts.  This discussion of the mechanics of the mystery is ultimately unfruitful in that it detracts from the more vital understanding of what the Eucharist, as ritual, does.  The significance of bread as body and wine as blood in the ancient world generally and the Biblical world, in particular, is central to the institution of the Eucharist and its practice.  Understanding these conceptual origins makes the Eucharist’s proper recipients, for example, as defined by the apostolic testimony, completely clear.

Permeating the earliest known human literature is the horror produced by the shadow of death.  Life for our most ancient ancestors was, as Thomas Hobbes put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”  In their earliest stories, immortality was viewed not as something to be attained through a religious system or valiant deeds.  Rather, it was something that had been lost in the past.  It was a hope that had failed.  And while the central drama of many of these stories surrounded the quest to reacquire eternal life, these quests inevitably failed.  After all, even the divine kings of the first cities died and took up their abode in the dark underworld.  One thread which connects many of these early epics and stories, from Gilgamesh to Adapa the Sage, is that the key to this immortality is the eating of a particular food, the food of the gods, over against the food which comes from the earth.  The Greek gods ate ambrosia, nectar whose name means ‘immortality’.  The story of Persephone inverts this imagery, with the food of Hades binding those who eat it to death.  In Anglo-Saxon tales, the goddess Idun is the bearer of apples that bestow eternal youth upon the gods.  The Scriptures speak of the tree of life in Paradise, whose fruit has the potential to bestow immortality.  Humanity is expelled from Paradise explicitly to bar access to this fruit (Gen 3:22-23).  Cut off from the tree of life and the other trees of Eden, humanity eats the food brought forth from the ground of this world.  This food comes from the earth from which humanity was taken and to which humanity returns as a mortal creature (v. 24).

After bringing the nascent people of Israel out of the land of Egypt, they began to complain that they had had food in abundance in Egypt, the land of death.  In response to their complaints, Yahweh promises that he will send them bread from heaven (Ex 16:4).  He promised to give them this bread daily.  It would fall upon the earth for them to gather each day and only a day’s worth could be gathered, the rest would spoil.  The exception to this rule was the day of preparation for the Sabbath, on which they could gather for two days.  This bread became known as ‘manna’ (v. 31) and a pot of it, as a witness to Yahweh’s provision, was placed in the holy of holies within the tabernacle (v.33-34).  They received this heavenly bread for the entirety of their wilderness wanderings, ending as they approached Canaan under Joshua’s leadership (v. 35; Josh 5:12).  This manna would later be called by the Psalmist the food of the angels (Ps 78/77:23-25).  Josephus describes manna as divine food and speaks of its sweetness, the connection to ambrosia’s nectar likely in view (Antiquities, 3.1.6).  Manna is not only food provided by miraculous means but is itself spiritual food with miraculous preservative effects.  For the forty years of wandering in the desert wilderness, the clothing and shoes of the people did not wear out (Deut 8:4; 29:5).  Nehemiah would later connect the provision of food and the duration of this protection (Neh 9:21).

In chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel, Christ delivers his great discourse on the Eucharist.  Unlike the other three Gospels (and 1 Corinthians), St. John does not record Christ’s words instituting the Eucharist at the Mystical Supper.  Instead, St. John describes the washing of the disciples’ feet.  The apostle’s sense of the Eucharist is rather discussed in this earlier chapter and in terms directly related to manna.  Here Christ contrasts the food of this world, which is brought forth from the soil through the labor of humanity since the expulsion from Paradise with the heavenly food which produces eternal life (6:27).  His hearers respond that they would receive this bread and that Christ should do this sign as their fathers had eaten the heavenly bread, manna, in the wilderness (v. 30-31).  Christ replies that not Moses but the Father gives bread from heaven (v. 32) and that Christ himself is the bread who has come from heaven to give life to the world (v. 33, 25).  While the manna preserved the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness, in the end, they all died (v. 48).

While this produces confusion among Christ’s hearers, that Christ continues to say that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life, that he is the heavenly food of immortality, that he will offer himself as the sacrifice for a sacrificial meal, causes disgust and open disdain (v. 50-58).  Human sacrifice and the cannibalism that accompanied it were considered monstrous through most of the ancient world, though it was acknowledged by all that it had taken place in their ancestral past and might, should sufficiently dire eventualities come to fruition, be practiced again.  Places where such acts had taken place, as Mt. Lykaion for the Greeks, were places of darkness and dire prophecy. It is not coincidental that after the coming of Christianity, Lykaion’s peak was re-consecrated to St. Elias.

Beyond even this offense, Christ’s reference to the drinking of his blood was particularly offensive to Jewish sensibilities representing a violation of one of the core commandments of the Torah.  As seen in Acts 15, there were four commandments of the Levitical holiness code which applied to all humanity, both Jew and Gentile.  Two of these concerned the violation of consuming even animal blood.  This commandment is retroactively issued in Genesis following the flood account where it is paralleled with the crime of murder (9:3-6).  This prohibition is related here to the identification of the blood as the life of a creature.  This association was near-universal in the ancient world.  The Israelites were forbidden to use the blood beyond specifically prescribed rituals (such as ordination and the Day of Atonement).  In all other cases, they were to pour it out at the base of the altar.  In pagan practice, blood was sometimes ritually drunk or allowed to remain in slaughtered meat.  More commonly, however, it was poured into the graves of the dead.  In Greek practice, for example, temples typically contained both an altar to a god and the shrine of a hero, founder or another ancestor.  The blood of that temple’s sacrifices was poured on the grave of the hero and was seen to extend the life of his shade in the underworld.  Homer dramatizes this in the Odyssey 11.

There is, therefore, a clear sense in which the drinking of Christ’s blood can be seen to be imbibing his life, the eternal life of God himself, as he shares that life with human persons.  Beyond this, however, Christ’s words in instituting the Eucharist as preserved by other apostles clearly bring the Eucharist into parallel with another set of sacrifices from Scripture, not pagan human sacrifices.  Christ identifies his blood as “the blood of the new covenant” (Matt 26:28; Mark 14:24; 1 Cor 11:25).  The entirety of Hebrews serves as a meditation on the sacrifice of Christ and frequently uses this “blood of the covenant” understanding (Heb 9:20; 10:29; 12:24; 13:20).

In using these words, Christ connects his sacrificial self-offering as participated in through the Eucharist to events at the foot of Mt. Sinai surrounding the giving of the Torah as a covenant.  After receiving the covenant from Yahweh, the people are commanded to offer whole burnt offerings, animals given entirely to God, as well as peace offerings, a communal meal shared by them with each other and with God (Ex 24:5).  This festal meal celebrated the gift of the covenant from Yahweh in gratitude and thanksgiving, the latter of which is the origin of the word ‘Eucharist’.  The people gave thanks not only for the great deeds of Yahweh, the victory he had won over the gods of Egypt and their deliverance from slavery, and the further deeds which were to come.  They also gave thanks for the commandments of the Torah which represented the rule of God over their lives as persons and as a community.  This latter took the form of an agreement to keep these commandments which was sealed through their sprinkling with “the blood of the covenant” (Ex 24:7-8).

This, then, has given an outline to the celebration of the Eucharist.  Through the sacrificial meal of the Eucharist, human persons come to participate in the sacrifice of Christ and thereby also become recipients of the new covenant prophesied of old and fulfilled in Christ.  This takes the form of thanksgiving, of a Eucharist, for the great deeds of Jesus Christ.  His victory over the powers of sin and death and the Devil is celebrated as well as that great deed which is to come, his glorious appearing to judge the living and the dead.  Further, however, participation in the Eucharist contains an element of repentance and recommitment to keeping the commandments of Christ which are likewise good and the source of life.  Just as those sealed in the covenant through Moses made themselves liable to the curses of the Torah for disobedience, so also it becomes possible to participate in the Eucharist without this repentance and therefore do so unworthily.  The consequences of such participation are, in fact, even more dire for those who have “tasted the heavenly gift” and then “profaned the blood of the covenant” (Heb 6:4-6; 10:28-29).

At every Divine Liturgy of the Church, human persons are invited to “taste the heavenly bread and the cup of life and see how good the Lord is.”  They are invited to “receive the body of Christ and taste the fountain of immortality.”  The fruit of the tree of life, the food of immortality, is offered to us as Christ offers himself to us.  Christ who has conquered death offers to us his invincible life.  The deepest and most ancient of human yearnings since the expulsion from Paradise is fulfilled in the Eucharist.  The Eucharist, therefore, forms the center of life for a new kind of human person living in a new kind of human community, a life which has no end.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you, Father, this is very good and helpful. My first thought was that this ancient understanding of food and drink and death, while helpful in framing the Eucharist, is foreign to our contemporary world.

    It’s not though, is it?

    Death is still the problem and ingestion is still the solution. Blood is still life. There are people right now trying to outpace death until technology can keep them alive “forever.” At least here in the west, I don’t know anybody who doesn’t talk about their diet or their weight or their vitamin regimen or what they put into their body. Death doesn’t put us into a dark underworld anymore, it just ends us completely. We don’t make sacrifices anymore, but we still want the benefits. The colors have changed, but the shapes are the same. I’m sure this is something you’ve talked about in other posts.

  2. Thank you Father Stephen.
    I have longed to understand, beyond faith, what it is that I am doing when I proceed up to the Cup and receive Christ’s body and blood. Not that having faith is not enough. But I wondered what it is that makes the Eucharist the center of the Divine Liturgy. How did this come to pass. There was something missing in my understanding and I knew this because even after accepting in faith what I have been taught – that it is indeed His body and blood and that this sacrament is the means to life in Christ, repentance, a “new” life – I still wouldn’t be able explain this beyond saying ‘this is what we believe’. And that is how I gauge my understanding…whether I am able to relate clearly why it is we do what we do.

    So rather than rehash all you have said in this post and the links you provide, I will say that beginning this post with mankind’s “quest for immortality”, the pagan approach to the food of the gods, the sacrificial rituals set by Yahweh, where there are restrictions on the handling of blood (dietary vs sacrificial), the covenant at Sinai fulfilled in Christ’s atoning sacrifice – all of this has shed a great deal of light! The link to Acts 15, including the comment section, was a great help as well.
    I must also mention that the night this post arrived, I had just finished listening to your podcasts on John 6. Now that was pretty good timing! Glory to God. He really does know what we are in need of!

    Thank you again, Father…very much.

  3. Isn’t there a connection between the Priest/King Melchizedek of Genesis 14, who made an offering of bread and wine, and the Eucharistic meal established by Christ? Hebrews 7 connects the two, at least implicitly, or am I misreading that text?

    1. There is certainly a connection there. Hebrews is primarily focusing not on the elements of bread and wine, but on the fact that Melchizedek was both king and priest. The Levitical priesthood of the old covenant were from a different tribe than the kings of Judah and kings were forbidden to perform priestly functions. In Christ, priest and king are reunited.

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