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Biblical Background to and Reflection on the Eucharistic Liturgy

Posted on: 1 Dec, 2014

Modified on: 1 Dec, 2014

By Fr. Shailendra Bara S.J.

The common expression for celebrating the Eucharist in German is “die Messe lesen”. That means ‘to read mass’. In Hindi we use the expression ‘missa sunana’ for taking part in the mass. If the German celebrants read mass, the faithful among us hear the mass. Are the expressions – “to read the mass” and “to hear the mass” – apt for the Eucharistic celebration? I guess you will agree with my answer “NO”. But I’m afraid that the usage of these expressions conveys the reality about our participation in the Eucharist. We priests may be just reading the mass and the faithful may be only hearing the mass. In English we use another expression for our participation in the Eucharist – “to attend mass”. “To attend” means ‘to be present at an event,’ or ‘to be with somebody and help him/her.’ So, the expression “to attend mass” might be an expression of being present at the mass and assisting the priest. Is this what the celebration of the Eucharist or participating in the Eucharist means? I believe we should ask in the first place what the Eucharist is.
With the passage of time it often happens that the meaning of a ceremony/celebration loses its meaning. The celebration becomes a performance of some rites and rituals with certain words and formulae accompanying them. The rites and the whole liturgical act lose their significance. So those who are present no longer ‘participate’, but they become onlookers and hearers. They simply assist, like the deaf man who does not hear, like the stranger who does not understand, like a non-believer who assists out of courtesy. The whole celebration, with its words and gestures, becomes closed in on itself, and far from putting people into relationship with God it locks them into an empty ceremony. The people, including the celebrant, carry out the celebration, correctly keeping to the traditional ways, but empty it of meaning. IF THE LITURGY IS NOT A CIRCLE OF PRESENCE AND OF CONTACT WITH THE DIVINITY, the circle must be broken. The very purpose of any liturgy is to establish a communication and communion between us and God. So let us see what we are celebrating in the Eucharist and why we are celebrating it the way we are celebrating.
In my brief presentation I intend to underline certain aspects of the Eucharist and present their biblical background and understanding. The way we celebrate the Eucharist is made up of two components or of two loaves or one loaf in two forms: the bread of the word and the bread of the Eucharist. The Second Vatican in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says:
The two parts which, in a certain sense, go to make up the Mass, namely, the liturgy of the word and the Eucharistic liturgy, are so closely connected with each other that they form but one single act of worship (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 56)

The Liturgy of the Word begins with, or perhaps it is better to say that it is preceded by, the Penitential Rite and Eucharistic Liturgy with the Offertory. We should not forget, however, other details like the Entrance Hymn, the Sign of the Cross. It is because they too have special significance. But et us proceed to answer the questions – What the Eucharist is and what its meaning is.
A partial answer to the first question is that the Eucharist is a Sacrifice. We need only to be attentive to the words during the mass to verify this. After the Offertory we have the following invitation and reply:
Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.
May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands for the praise and glory of his name, for our good, and the good of all his Church.

Then the first Preface of the Eucharist summarizes the essentials with remarkable precision:
He is the true and eternal priest who established this unending sacrifice. He offered himself as a victim for our deliverance and taught us to make this offering in his memory. As we eat his body which he gave for us, we grow in strength. As we drink his blood which he poured for us, we are washed clean.

All the Eucharistic Prayers refer to the passion and death of Christ implying the theme of Sacrifice. If the Eucharist is a sacrifice what kind of Sacrifice is our Eucharistic Sacrifice? We need to ask this question because the Old Testament speaks of different kinds of sacrifices. Psalm 40:6 speaks of four different kinds of sacrifices:
Sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire; but thou hast given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering thou hast not required.

The Jewish Liturgy had developed a complex and varied cultic system, in which different terms were used for different sacrifices. They used the words zebah and minha for sacrifice and offering. In the former an animal was offered as victim, in the latter there was offered bread or flour. Our gifts at the time Offertory may resemble minha. The word minha means tribute, that is, the offering of the vassal to the sovereign; it is at the same time both an act of recognition and of contribution. The word zebah signifies killing an animal to eat it, and the noun can mean a banquet. This aspect appears in our Eucharistic banquet. Zebah can be of two types – Holocaust and Communion sacrifice (Ôla and zebah shelamim). In the first the whole victim was burnt (Ôla comes from the root ‘lh = go up: either because it goes up onto the altar, or because it goes up on high in the form of smoke or aroma). In the Communion Sacrifice a portion belonged to the Lord. The blood flowed around the altar, the fat and other parts were burnt, the meat was roasted and divided among the participants or guests at the sacred banquet. Our Eucharist reproduces elements of both types. The total offering of Christ to the Father is like a holocaust. Metaphorically, ‘he is burnt out’ and goes up like fragrance to the Father. In his death he is ‘burnt’. Our Eucharist opens up into a banquet for Christ is the lamb that was slain, who gives himself to us in the form of body and blood. In this respect it comes quite close to the communion sacrifices of the Old Testament.
Both types of sacrifice are offered in different circumstances and for various reasons. There is, for example, the covenant sacrifice. It is a communion sacrifice and a holocaust. The blood is divided and sprinkled on the altar and on the people. The meat is eaten as a sacred banquet – ‘the covenant sealed with a sacrifice’ (Ps 50). Our Eucharist is explicitly a sacrifice of the ‘new covenant’, sealed with the blood of Christ and authenticated with the banquet of his body and blood which makes us table-companions of God.
Explanation of the Covenant: the whole Mass as a Covenant
Sacrifices were also offered for the ‘atonement for sins’. The most important was that which is offered on the Day of Atonement (yom kippur). Our Eucharist mentions it explicitly: ‘It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven’. The penitential liturgy is linked to the Eucharistic banquet. It comes before it, because no one who is blemished may sit down at this table. Moreover, the shared banquet ratifies the reconciliation. Still another purpose of the banquet can be thanksgiving (Lev 7:12f). It is obvious that the Eucharist comes into this group, as its name indicates, that is, thanksgiving (beraka).
Although it is not a sacrifice, it is worth remembering at this point the offering of the first fruits (Deut 26). Since Christ is the first-fruit of creation, the first-born of humanity and those risen from the dead (see 1 Cor 15:20; Rom 8:29; Col 1:15.18), it follows that in the Eucharist we offer the Father our absolute first-fruit.
If the death of Christ is a sacrifice, it does not follow cultic ritual; it even contradicts it. Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree (Deut 21:23). The form seems to be a point by point negation of the ritual – not the temple, but the hill of executions, not an altar, but an ignominious cross, not an animal, but a condemned man; still less is there burning or a banquet. With such a denial of the ritual the authentic meaning of sacrifice seems to be saved.
So, what is the authentic meaning of sacrifice? We need to remind ourselves of human sacrifice, known in antiquity and in various cultures. The trace of this we find also in the Old Testament – the story of Isaac’s sacrifice. The story depicts the sacrifice God wanted from Abraham, namely, the submission and personal offering of the patriarch. It signified the death and sacrifice of his personal will. It is an offering that can have sacrificial value. This is how we can understand the verses of Psalm 40:
Sacrifice and offering thou dost not desire;
but thou hast given me an open ear.
Burnt offering and sin offering thou hast not required.
Then I said, ‘Lo, I come; in the roll of the book it is written of me;
I delight to do they will, O my God; thy law is within my heart.’ (Ps 40:6-8).

The full acceptance of God’s will in his person is equivalent to a sacrifice of himself. It substitutes holocausts, sacrifices and offerings. The total offering of Christ to the will of the Father to the point of death, even death on the cross, is sacrificial in a profound sense, and can abolish and replace all the preceding sacrifices. Now, we offer this oblation of Christ to the Father as the Eucharistic sacrifice. We can unite ourselves to it only if we take the will of God on ourselves, sacrificing our rooted interest and egoism. We need to remember the classical quote of Samuel to Saul (1 Sam 15:22), “Obedience is worth far more than a sacrifice, to be submissive is better than the fat of rams.”
Even in modern languages a ‘sacrifice’ means any renunciation which a person makes for a higher value. It is frequently used when referring to the good of others. This aspect, namely, the sacrifice for the neighbour, united with other more biblical aspects, can help us understand the Eucharist as sacrifice.
The primary thing in a sacrifice is the reality and its expression. The Israelite slits the throat of the victim and burns it on the wood of the altar. In this way he expresses his nothingness before God, recognising that his whole being comes from, depends on and is from God. It is not something he possesses, it is himself – or a self which he possesses through consciousness and freedom. He gives himself as an interior holocaust which is expressed in the real holocaust of the offered victim. The human being experiences him/herself as ‘dust and ash’ (Gen 18:27; Job 30:19; 42:6), the dust which s/he was before becoming a human being, the ash into which he returns after being burnt. In this spiritual reducing of oneself to dust and ash, the human being opens her/him-self to dust and ash, the human being opens her/himself to transcendence and is led to God like the victim accepted in the form of aroma. This is what we are supposed to do when we participate in the Eucharist.