Dr. Brant Pitre hopes his new book on the Jewish roots of the Eucharist will help Catholics understand the “great gift” of the sacrament, as well as their privileged role in the “divine drama” of salvation history.
In a recent interview with CNA, Dr. Pitre – a professor of Sacred Scripture at Louisiana's Notre Dame Seminary – discussed his latest book, “Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper,” which was released by Doubleday on Feb. 15.
Dr. Pitre said that “excitement” is beginning to hum over the book as people are realizing that “not only is the Eucharist something that's important in their personal lives,” but that all of salvation history held “signs and shadows of what God was ultimately planning to give us in the Eucharist.”
“It makes us realize that we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves,” he said. “We're part of a divine drama that has been in place since the beginning of creation.”
The scholar explained that he was asked several years ago to give a talk on the biblical and historical underpinnings of the Eucharist. What he found during his research for the address, however, was “dynamite – it was explosive,” he said.
“What I began to discover,” he said, “is that there were Jewish expectations surrounding the Messiah” that foreshadowed the Eucharist.
Dr. Pitre recalled that as he studied the historical account of Jewish hopes for the Messiah, three specific aspects of Jewish history and liturgy “really stood out” to him.
The first, he said, was the belief among the Jewish people at the time that the Messiah would institute “a new Passover.” Citing the words of Christ in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6 – often called the Bread of Life discourse – Dr. Pitre said that by telling his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood, “Christ is revealing himself as the new Passover lamb.”
“What does that mean about the way we receive salvation?” he asked. It means “we receive salvation not only through faith in him as the Messiah but also by obedience to his command that we would eat the flesh of the lamb.”
“I think it's an important point for Catholics to understand that the Passover paves the road to our understanding of the Eucharist as really being the flesh of the Lamb of God.”
A second aspect of Jewish expectation of the Messiah that stood out to Dr. Pitre was the “belief that when the Messiah would come, one of the ways you'd know who he was, was that he would bring new manna from heaven.”
As described in Exodus 16, Moses gave the Israelites manna – bread from heaven – in the desert to feed them.
When Christ says in the Gospel of John “that the Eucharist is the new manna,” this “tells us that the Eucharist is not just ordinary bread – it's miraculous,” Dr. Pitre said.
“If the old manna from heaven was miraculous bread from heaven, then the new manna in the Eucharist can not simply be a symbol.”
“The manna helps us see that every single Mass, no matter how simple or grand, is a miracle – the miracle of Christ pouring out his body from the heavenly altar on to every altar in the world.”
The third Jewish expectation of the Messiah that Dr. Pitre found was that he “was going to build a new temple.”
The author explained that one of the most important temple sacrifices for the Israelites was the “unbloody sacrifice known as the bread of the presence.”
“The bread of the presence was this mysterious bread and wine that was kept in the tabernacle,” which the rabbi's called the “bread of the face of God,” he said.
“In the temple in Jesus' day they would actually take the bread out of the temple when pilgrims would come for feasts – and they would lift it so all the pilgrims could see – and they would say 'behold, God's love for you,'” Dr. Pitre said, noting the similarities in the exposition during the Mass.
“This bread of the presence really seemed to me to be a crystal clear foreshadowing of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” he noted.
Another echo of Jewish liturgy found in the Mass today, was standard blessing of the bread and the wine said during a Seder, or a traditional Passover meal.
Dr. Pitre recited the ancient prayers over the bread and wine verbatim, saying “Blessed are you, O Lord God, king of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. Blessed are you, O Lord God, who brings forth the bread from the earth.”
“Do those sound familiar?” he asked, referencing the beginning of the offertory during the Mass.
“As a Catholic when you see these things, it resonates with you – it's all very close to your heart.”
He underscored that the Jewish people “saw the bread as a sign of the everlasting covenant between God and his people.”
“That's the same thing today with the Eucharist – it is a sign that God is with us, he's not abandoned us.”
Dr. Pitre said that understanding the Jewish roots of the Eucharist helps show how “God has had in store for us, since the dawn of time, the great gift that he gives us in the Eucharist.”
“It helps us to realize the great privilege we have to receive this gift – it's very humbling and powerful.”