Living in Utah, it was only a matter of time before an LDS (Mormon) missionary came knocking on our door. They were very kind, but the conversation quickly moved on to more “ultimate” things. I was honest and said, “I could never leave the Catholic faith because I would miss the relationship to Christ truly present in the Eucharist. It’s a reality that I cannot give up so easily.”
They responded – “O don’t worry! We do that too!”
I followed up – “O great, and what is it exactly that you do?”
They described the liturgical formula that they use, but made sure to mention that this was only a spiritual reality. I explained the Catholic view and offered for us both to do some reading for another meeting the next week.
I was telling someone about the exchange a few days later, and they agreed – saying, “This IS my body…It doesn’t get much clearer!” I was a bit surprised because this person isn’t Catholic and hadn’t been to a liturgical service (Orthodox, Lutheran, etc.) in a long time.
My point is not to look down on their personal faith journey, but it did beg the question – How can we possibly believe the same thing about this? How can we affirm the body and blood of our Lord physically present on the altar as the New Covenant Passover sacrifice and not move Heaven and Earth to go participate?! Surely, any sincere Christian who came to believe that Jesus Christ would be literally present at 10:30 AM at St Mary’s of the Assumption in Park City, UT would drop everything to drive for hundreds of miles to be there! I asked about that and the response was roughly –
At the time – I didn’t have a great answer. Given the 3-year Eucharistic revival underway, I wanted to dive deeper into this essential Truth of the Faith. Let’s rekindle a grassroots devotion to the Eucharist and the mass among the Christian faithful. We need to have a response with the truth of the Christian faith out of love. We need to evangelize those who don’t see this beautiful truth, so that they may be even more fully called into God’s covenant family.
I looked back at the Last Supper account in Luke (Luke 22:1-20) and couldn’t help but notice a similarity to CS Lewis’ famous Trilemma in Mere Christianity that I think is a helpful way to organize our thoughts. In Mere Christianity, we see how Jesus claims to be God and thus is either Lord, a Liar, or a Lunatic. Here, we see Jesus strangely identify a piece of bread as His Body, which will be given up for them and us. If we assume for the sake of argument that we are evangelizing Protestant Christians, then this must be a new Passover sacrifice, a new Parable, or merely a new Present of some kind.
TL;DR – Links to each section
- Passover – the Catholic Understanding of the Passover sacrifice
- Parable – Evangelizing the symbolic view of the Last Supper
- Present – Connecting the Real Presence to the true gift of Christ’s sacrifice made present
Catholic Understanding of the Beauty of the Mass as a Sacrifice
In the Synoptic Gospels, and specifically Luke chapter 22, we read about Jesus and the apostles in the Upper Room sharing the Last Supper. All Christians recognize this as having happened, so how can we all disagree on what exactly was happening here?
Let’s begin with the Catholic understanding.
The CCC (Catechism of the Catholic Church) states the following in paragraphs 1407 and 1410 –
So, what does this mean for us? The short answer is…well… everything!
Jesus said, “and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (John 12:32). He was speaking of his sacrifice of his own body and blood, lifted up on the cross. This was the real and unique act by which he chose to be offered up for the salvation of the world. Isaiah 53:7 says “He was offered up because he willed it” in the Douay-Rheims version. Yet, we can’t fully understand Our Lord’s suffering on the Cross unless we understand what he did before it – when he instituted the holy sacrifice of the mass at the Last Supper.
And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”– Luke 22:15
Jesus’ words show us his longing to offer the Last Supper as his consummate gift to us, revealing the intentions of his life for our salvation. Jesus did not wish to reveal his sacred wounds on the cross without first giving us the Holy Mass, which is the means by which we could have access to his one sacrifice throughout time, until he comes again.
Simply speaking – the Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, is the memorial sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood, presented under the form of bread and wine, which is offered to the Father for the forgiveness of sins. After this offering, the Eucharist is consumed, and through this act it transmits sanctifying grace to those who are properly disposed to receive it. What a gift!
In paragraph 1324 of the Catechism, it reads “For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself, our Pasch”. The word pasch refers to the Jewish celebration of the Passover, which is where I began my journey exploring this area of the Faith.
In Exodus 12, we read the details of the Passover to be celebrated by the Jewish people given by God through Moses:
- They are to take an unblemished lamb (no broken bones) – and have a priest sacrifice it
- They are thankful for God’s help and roast the lamb with prayer
- They take Hyssop branches and coat the doors of their home with the blood of the lamb
- They eat the lamb in a communion meal with God and community
If you miss any of those steps, then you will not be passed over or later be a part of the Jewish nation.
Let’s go back in time to the foot of the cross as one of the Jewish faithful hoping beyond hope that Jesus was, in fact, the Messiah that we had been praying for. We would not have seen Jesus carry his cross and suffer so greatly as a sacrifice: Everyone knew that a sacrifice had to take place within the city walls of Jerusalem, in the temple, on an altar, with a priest standing by to offer it. This was an unjust Roman execution, and a bloody one at that! Jesus on the cross had none of these things in place, so how did this change from a Roman execution to become the once and for all sacrifice for all times?
The only way to illuminate the mystery of the Cross on Good Friday is to look at the Last Supper in the Upper Room on Holy Thursday. He did not lose his life at the hands of Roman violence on Friday if he freely gave it up as a sacrifice the day before.
In Luke 22, we’ve seen that Jesus and the Apostles are celebrating the Passover in the Upper Room. The Passover liturgy had, and still has for modern Jews, 4 cups of wine – each with a different liturgical practice associated with it. Each builds on the one before – after the second cup, the priest reads the Exodus story with bread.
After the 3rd cup of blessing – Psalms 113-118 are sung as hymns of praise, called the Little Hallel Psalms, which is where we get the term “Hallelujah” – Praise Yah(weh). The 4th cup of consummation is the pinnacle of the service and ends with the eating of the lamb in the communion meal.
The Apostles only after the crucifixion came to understand the nature of the sacrifice that began in the Upper Room the night before. Going through the traditional passover of the Old Covenant, Jesus stops after the 3rd cup of blessing (See Mark 14:26 as they leave singing a hymn) and changes the ritual to institute the Eucharist (This my body, etc). This is like the Pope celebrating Easter mass and stopping at the words of Consecration! It’s not recorded, but surely the Apostles wondered what Jesus was doing here – where is the final cup of consummation?
We follow them into the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed fervently, “Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt.” (Mark 14:26, Italics added for emphasis). Wait a minute, what does that mean? What cup? This is definitely a connection to cup of suffering mentioned in the Prophets, however that is not all that is at play here.
As we continue to follow Jesus, he is offered wine/vinegar a number of times and he refuses to drink. When he is close to death, he changes his tune – suddenly he looks out and we read, “After this Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the scripture), ‘I thirst.’” (John 19:28). Do we think that he was not thirsty before that moment having nothing to drink for nearly 24 hours of literal torture and execution? For many non-Catholics he simply needed a drink to speak his final words, but it took 2 more words to get the drink – how trivial! He takes the wine from a sponge on a hyssop branch (see rule 3 of the passover!) and utters his last, “It is finished”.
What is finished? Many would say the saving work of redemption, but that can’t be the answer because Paul tells us that he was “raised for our justification” (Rom 4:25). Heaven is still not open to us at that moment because he had not yet been raised! It wasn’t until I had listened to an amazing talk, and later read the book, by Scott Hahn called “The 4th Cup” that I got the answer. What was finished on the Cross was precisely what began in the Upper Room on Holy Thursday, the fulfillment of the Old Covenant Passover as the New Covenant Passover sacrifice that effectively atones for our sins made available to us at all times in history!
Before we move on, let’s take a closer look at Luke 22 –
“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’”Luke 22:19
In fact, when he says “do this in remembrance of me” – the literal translation of that could easily be “offer this memorial sacrifice for me” – That word remembrance (anamnesis) is used numerous times when referring to Old Covenant memorial sacrifices (Num 10:10, Heb 10:3). Who does the remembering? God does, not us (though not in a literal sense as if He forgot). The word “do” also has a sacrificial overtone and is translated often as “offer” in the Old Testament (Ex 29:38, Lev 9:7, Psalm 66:15). This offering is the thing that makes Jesus’ death a voluntary sacrifice of laying down His life for us out of love, and not simply an execution. He’s completed the Old Covenant passover as the Lamb of God and as our eternal High Priest-King transforms the Old Covenant into the New as only He can.
Evangelizing the Symbolic View of the Eucharist
For people who don’t believe in the Real Presence, how can we share the truth to help bring them closer to Christ? How can we show them that this wasn’t simply another parable to be deciphered?
We’ll start at the most famous of these passages (and one of my favorites) – John Chapter 6. I like to point out the context first, which is often missed in Social Media comment discussions where people skip right to the Bread of Life discourse. In John 6:4, we read – “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews was at hand”. As we go through, keep in mind that this is in that context – the feast of the Passover – that Jesus begins with the miraculous feeding of the 5000.
As we all surely would, the multitude followed Jesus in order to get more of the bread (John 6:26). Once Jesus exposes this, he tells them to work “for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you”. Jesus then tells them that the work of God is to believe in Him who God sent, and the Jews say, “What sign are you going to give us then?…Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness” (John 6:30-31).
In the next few verses (John 6:32-34), Jesus explains that the manna did not come from Moses, but from God. The true bread of God is that which comes down from Heaven and gives life to the world (by the way – the manna came every day. How often do we receive the Bread of Life? Every day). Of course the Jews say – “Give us this bread always”! From here, Jesus takes off on a 3 part sermon that is one of the most disastrous sermons ever if you measure by the number of followers gained…
In Part 1 (v35 – 40), Jesus makes the bold claim – “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst”. He clearly hadn’t read ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ when he follows that up with the explicit claim “for I have come down from Heaven”!
In verse 41-42, we see the Jews understandably confused. They complain amongst themselves, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph whose mother and father we know?”
In part 2 (v43-51), the stakes are raised. Jesus does not correct them, nor does he back down in the teaching. He begins explaining that the grace needed to understand this comes from God – this was not to be understood purely from human reason. After this explanation, he gets one step more explicit:
”I am the living bread that came down from Heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world IS MY FLESH”John 6:51 (Emphasis added)
We don’t have to wonder what happens next – the Jews are taking Jesus at his word and are scandalized by this, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” This is cannibalism! Barbarism! Sin of the highest order to be sure.
In part 3 (v53-59) Jesus corrects them saying “That’s gross! I obviously meant this as a metaphor.” Wait a minute… No, he actually increases the scandal yet again!
”Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”John 6:53
Notice – we now have to also drink his blood! To drink the blood of an animal was explicitly condemned in Leviticus as the blood was the life of the animal (Lev 17:13-14). In the following verses, Jesus says 6 more times to eat his flesh and drink his blood – as he changes the word ‘eat’ to something more carnal that could be better understood as gnawing or chewing.
Even the disciples (who already believe in Jesus) say “This is a hard saying, who can understand it?” Jesus, of course, does not back down from the teaching, and in verse 66 we see many of the disciples turn away and no longer walk with Him – the only time we see Him lose a follower.
Now a few closing remarks here – First, many try to nullify all of that with verse 63 – “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail”. However, this is a Hebrew idiom that simply means that this is not to be simply understood by the human mind and is a mystery of faith. Further, to understand this as Jesus saying the literal flesh is unimportant and the words are all that is needed is to nullify the words themselves! If Jesus simply meant here that we just need to believe in Him, then why are the disciples (who watched him feed the 5000 and walk on water the day prior) so scandalized?
Second, remember that all of this is 1 year prior to the Last Supper during the Passover. The apostles must have thought to themselves – ‘How are we going to eat his flesh and drink his blood…?’ One year later, when Jesus begins the sacrifice in the upper room, he shows them as the New Passover Lamb of God – “This is my body”. In context, that cannot be understood coherently as a parable.
Connecting the Real Presence to the true gift of Christ’s sacrifice
Now, there are many Protestant Christians who would agree and believe in a similar version of the Real Presence. However, some more evangelical flavors of these groups would still hold to some of Martin Luther’s original comments on the nature of the Mass.
Luther believed in the Real Presence very strongly as a gift we receive from the Lord. It was a source of great disagreement among the early Reformers, especially between Luther and Zwingli the Swiss Reformer. While Luther believed strongly in the Real Presence – he rejected the priesthood and the sacrifice of the mass.
“The Mass is the greatest blasphemy of God, and the highest idolatry upon earth, an abomination the like of which has never been in Christendom since the time of the Apostles.”Table Talk 1566
Originally, this idea stemmed from the idea that offering the mass indicates that we need to do something to “earn” salvation, which was a major focus for Luther. However, as Lutheran theology developed and careful study of the words used by the Church, many confessional Lutherans today agree in principle to most of the elements of the mass. In the words of Hermann Sasse, a prominent Lutheran pastor and theologian, we may confirm: “Where our wisdom comes to an end, there theology begins …. A non-repeatable historical event ceases to be past and becomes present. This is what happens in the divine service… As the past, the future becomes present in the liturgy of the Church, in the celebration of the Eucharist.” (This is my Body 1959/2001 ed).
If we mostly agree, then why are we bothering with talking to them about this? Let’s refocus on the original question that created this whole train of thought:
Let’s take a look at the rest of the New Testament then to draw some conclusions, beginning with the book of Revelation and closing out with the book of Hebrews.
There’s so much we could look at in the book of Revelation, but I want to point your attention to the beginning of Revelation 5.
John is brought up into the Heaven in a vision and sees a scroll sealed with seven seals with a strong angel proclaiming – “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (Rev 5:2). The word used for scroll is βιβλίον (biblion), which in context is a covenant document. This is likely the scroll which connects all of salvation history from the old to the new.
In his tape Answering Common Objections – the Eucharist, I love how Scott Hahn illuminates the rest of the story. Putting ourselves in John’s shoes, we see that “no one in Heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll” (Rev 5:3). John begins to weep at this realization – we’re so close to seeing this foundational revelation, but no one is found worth.
Then one of the priest (presbyterón – where we get the word for presbyter or priest for short) turns and says “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev 5:5). Picture yourself standing next the beloved disciple who is weeping bitterly (verse 4) – and you both turn to see Christ in His Heavenly glory. This feels nearly like the climax of the Chronicles of Narnia or the Lord of the Rings. Who do you see when you turn – is it Aslan the Lion? Is it Gandalf the White come to save the day? Is it Christ in kingly robes of David? No – it is not. We turn and see:
Wait a minute – you’re telling me that in his Heavenly glory, our Lord chooses to share himself to his beloved disciple as a Lamb that looks slaughtered? Why a Lamb? Why not clean off the blood?
The Church would say that there is a great reason for this – It’s clear from this chapter that the Lamb was slain, past tense. However, in the present tense, this sacrifice is continually offered and re-presented to the Father by our eternal High Priest in his Heavenly glory along with the prayers of the saints (side note – don’t let anyone tell you that the saints can’t intercede for us)!
Moving on to Hebrews – we get to a common text that many people use as a blanket proof text against the Catholic understanding of the mass:
“Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.”Heb 7:27
“He entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.”Heb 9:12
It’s certainly understandable how you can read those in isolation to negate everything we’ve already looked at. Let’s not look in isolation though and step back to chapter 8 and see what we can find out.
Chapter 7 compares Jesus in his high priestly ministry to Melchizedek of Genesis and over the course of the chapter through the beginning of chapter 8 – we see a contrast between the old and new covenant promises. Specifically, we see the description of how the Lord removes the need for the Levitical priesthood after the golden calf incident in Exodus. We see that the old covenant law made nothing perfect, but we have a better hope through which we approach God (Heb 7:18-19).
Chapter 8 continues on this line, but adds an interesting detail –
“Now the main point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and the true tent that the Lord, and not any mortal, has set up. For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices; hence it is necessary for this priest also to have something to offer.”Heb 8:1-3
What does Jesus have to offer – his own sacrifice. He died once and for all, but it is necessary for him to also offer it continually to the Father according to the author of Hebrews! Chapter 8 concludes with an extended quote from Jeremiah 31, which coincidentally is the only time in the entire Old Testament where we hear anything about the coming of a new covenant (Heb 8:8-12).
Specifically, we read in verse 8 that Jeremiah says, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah”. We hear this phrase “New Covenant” all the time during mass, reading the Gospel, etc, so we can become a bit numb to how radical that truly is. When is the only time we hear about this new covenant? When Jesus instituted the Eucharist in the Upper Room!
In Chapter 9 we read a description of the Old Covenant tabernacle and sanctuary, which, according to verse 9, could not perfect the conscience of the worshipper, but “deal only with food and drink and various baptisms, regulations for the body imposed until the time comes to set things right” (Heb 9:9-10). In contrast, Jesus then enters the Holy Place in the Heavenly sanctuary with his own blood (Heb 9:11-12), which CAN perfect the conscience of the worshipper. The author of Hebrews writes:
“For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!”Heb 9:13-14
If the old covenant sacrifices could purify someone’s flesh from ritual impurity, how much more can the offering of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice purify our conscience from dead works/sin? What a gift! The rest of the chapter expands on Jesus’ role as the mediator of the new covenant, so that we who are called receive the promised inheritance (Heb 9:15).
So what is once and for all then? How do we understand this? Well, clearly the bloody death sacrifice of Jesus was once and for all – He is not still dying and bleeding on the cross. However, it is also the once and for all nature of how he replaces the Levites as a Father/Son priest to offer himself continually (Heb 9:23-26).
Why then does the Church require mass participation? Is this not an arbitrary rule to get tithes or is there something deeper here? I believe Hebrews chapter 10 has our answers.
Chapter 10 continues the explanation of how Christ’s sacrifice is both real and effectual, not like the old sacrifices, but rather God desires covenant relationship and communion with his covenant family. We read in verse 5 that “Sacrifices and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me”.
The author of Hebrews then exhorts us all to persevere in this great hope that we have to approach the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus. The “new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh)” is open for us to approach in full assurance of faith “with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies wash with pure water” (Heb 10:19-23).
We then come to one of the darker Bible passages, that you don’t find Protestant pastors preaching on particularly often: Hebrews 10: 26-38. Verses 26 and 27 make it very clear, “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgement, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb 10:26-27).
So does this mean that there’s no chance of repentance? If you sin once, then there’s no sacrifice for you, you’re dead? If you read it out of context, that is what it means. However, let’s step back and see – what is the sinning deliberately we’re talking about?
“And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”Heb 10:24-25 (emphasis added)
From the earliest times, we can see Christians gathering on the Lord’s Day – Sunday. What is the sinning deliberately referring to here? Neglecting to meet together! It hasn’t become the habit of some Catholics to neglect meeting together to offer the Eucharist has it?
God help us.
Why does the Church mandate participation in the mass? The reason is simple – in the context of the passage, to neglect to meet together on the Lord’s Day is to spurn the Son of God and turn our back on the greatest truth that has ever been given to humanity! Not only does God love us, but there is a sacrifice that can perfect the conscience of believers all across the world!
Now, this is not scary and dark. What an incredible gift! We who are called can approach the throne of grace with full assurance of faith that God keeps his promises.
“We are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved” (Heb 10:39)
What can we make of all of this?
As Catholics, we can be confident in our understanding of this foundational truth of the faith. This is the ancient understanding of the Christian faith that goes back all the way to the Apostles walking with our Lord. When we encounter people with these negative pre-conceptions about Catholicism, I find it easier to ask questions to figure out where they’re coming from. In context of the Eucharistic Revival, here are a few questions that we can pose the next time we get into these situations:
- How do you read the Last Supper – what do you think is happening there? It’s a weird thing to say, right?
- Hey – I was reading about the Passover and there are so many interesting connections between Jesus and the Passover seders in the Old Testament (list a couple). It’s really cool to see the Old Testament fulfilled in the New so explicitly, have you heard of that before?
- In John 6, why would Jesus let so many 100s of disciples walk away from him over his teaching, can you help me understand what you think happened there?
As Hebrews 10 says, let’s use this Eucharist revival to stir one another up to love and good works. Get involved at your parish bible study. Proclaim the Real Presence boldly. Adore the Blessed Sacrament as often as you can!
To close, when I finally got back to my friend, I had learned so much, but in particular – one fact stood out among the rest. The word covenant in the greek is διαθήκη (diathēkē), which can mean covenant, will, or testament. In fact, the King James Version translates this sentence as such:
“Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.”Luke 22:20 KJV
The next time someone asks “Where is the Catholic mass in the New Testament?”, you can simply say – “The Eucharistic sacrifice IS the New Testament, according to the New Testament!”
That should start an interesting conversation.
Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash