"For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
St. Paul gives us the earliest known written account of the Lord’s words when he instituted the Eucharist. In doing so he teaches us many things about the most Blessed Sacrament.
First, you will notice that it is not something St. Paul has made up. St. Paul received it from the Lord, through Apostolic Tradition.
What he says does not imply another encounter with the risen Lord. It is a way of saying that what he has received through the oral proclamation of the Gospel in Sacred Tradition ultimately comes from Christ. Implied is that of a teaching faithfully and authoritatively received and handed on from one generation to the next. St. Paul by no means follows the false doctrine of Scripture alone, but of Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture.
Second, in recounting the words of institution, this narrative of St. Paul’s implies the overall meaning of the original context of the institution, namely the Last Supper, which was the celebration of the Passover sacrifice. From this we learn a considerable amount.
St. Paul, being a faithful Jew now converted to Christ, would have understood the full significance of all of Christ’s actions during the celebration of the Passover.
What was the Passover? It was the celebration of the delivery of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. It was also their preparation for the final plague of the death of the first-born sons.
The Passover involved many elements, including: a male unblemished lamb with none of its bones broken, the gathering of the assembly, the sacrifice of the lamb, its blood being shed and its flesh being eaten along with unleavened bread. It was the Lord’s Passover. It was a feast of judgment, a memorial feast, a feast of worship, and it was for the circumcised (cf. Exodus 12).
All of this would come to bear on St. Paul’s understanding and handing on of what was handed on to him regarding the Eucharist. St. Paul knows that "Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the feast" (1 Corinthians 5:7b-8).
What feast? The Passover (Paschal) feast as celebrated and transformed by Christ. Christ did say, "Do this in remembrance of me." Christ is the unblemished male lamb, he is the sacrifice, his is the blood that was shed and whose flesh must be eaten under the appearance of unleavened bread by the assembly of the baptized gathered together.
Baptism replaces circumcision in the new covenant as the means by which one enters into the assembly to eat the flesh and blood of the Lamb of God. Christ’s Passover is truly the Lord’s Passover, which is a memorial feast and a feast of worship.
Also, in the Passover the first-born sons of the Israelites are saved if their families fully participated, which means doing everything required, in the Passover rite. In the new Passover of Christ, he is the first-born son who, though he undergoes death, is delivered from death, so that all the sons and daughters of the Father, both then and now, can be freed from slavery to sin and death, and fully participate in the new Passover, the eucharistic sacrifice of Christ, where we are called to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Lamb.
St. Paul also says, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26). The eating of the Lamb was crucial to the survival of the first-born sons, and it is for us now. When we eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ, we proclaim his death because his death is actually re-presented in every Mass because it is a memorial.
The technical theological meaning, and a beautiful meaning it is, of the word zakar in Hebrew, and anamnesis in Greek, is that of a past event made truly present as a sign of future glory. That is what the Passover was in the old, and it is what the Eucharistic celebration is in the new. We kneel at Calvary at every Mass as surely as Mary and John did so long ago. But we also proclaim future glory, when the Lord comes again. Each Mass is a proclamation of the Gospel and a call to each of us to be prepared for Christ’s return.
Only this makes sense out of what St. Paul says after he states the institution narrative. What he says also helps us to understand the Passover, and thus the Mass, as feast of judgment.
St. Paul says, "Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself" (1 Corinthians 11:27-29).
This only makes sense if we are actually eating and drinking the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. We would not have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord, that is, answer for his horrific death because of our sins, if we were not truly consuming his body and blood. This excludes any interpretation of the Eucharist as a merely symbolic. We could not be bringing judgment upon ourselves for merely eating a symbol. This would be a mockery of God’s all-consuming, merciful justice.
Praise God that he also gives us the grace to repent of the sins that make us unworthy, and that he has also given to the Apostles and their successors "…the ministry of reconciliation…" (2 Corinthians 5:18).
Brian writes a monthly column, “Veritatis Splendor,” for The Northern Cross of the Diocese of Duluth and his 33-part series on the sacraments for The Northern Cross have also been posted on Catholic News Agency's website, where he also authors a weekly column, “Road to Emmaus,” on the Sunday Readings, (which are translated into Romanian and posted on www.profamilia.ro).
Pizzalato is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute. He is also author of the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition at the Maryvale Institute.
Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Brian currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Maryvale Institute. Brian is married and has six children.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.