This is a truly joyful time of the Church year as we conclude the long sequence from Advent to Pentecost with these great feasts celebrating central truths of our faith: the Trinity last Sunday, and the Eucharist this week, followed by the Sacred Heart on Friday.
One might ask, What is the relationship between the Trinity and the Eucharist? Why does the one feast follow the other?
There is, of course, a strong inner unity between the doctrine of the Trinity and the doctrine of the Eucharist. It is striking, for example, that Jesus’ clearest teaching on the Trinity—the relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit—is all delivered during the Last Supper Discourse (John 13–17), in the context of the institution of the Eucharist. In a sense, it is in the Eucharist that the reality of the Trinity becomes most personal to us, and is applied to each one of us. Yes, we speak of receiving Jesus “body, blood, soul, and divinity” in the Eucharist, but we must remember that in Christ we also receive the Father, for “the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:38), and the Spirit, who is the bond of love between the Father and Son. So there is a sense in which the whole Trinity comes to live within us through the Eucharist: “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” and, “the Spirit of Truth … dwells with you, and will be in you” (John 4:23 and 4:16).
The readings show us that the Eucharistic meal is the culmination of a tradition of sacred covenant meals throughout salvation history. Since my entire standard commentaries on the cycles of readings are now available, or soon will be, in book form, (click here), I’ll just comment on the First Reading for this upcoming Feast Day, Exodus 24:3-8:
When Moses came to the people
and related all the words and ordinances of the LORD,
they all answered with one voice,
“We will do everything that the LORD has told us.”
Moses then wrote down all the words of the LORD and,
rising early the next day,
he erected at the foot of the mountain an altar
and twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel.
Then, having sent certain young men of the Israelites
to offer holocausts and sacrifice young bulls
as peace offerings to the LORD,
Moses took half of the blood and put it in large bowls;
the other half he splashed on the altar.
Taking the book of the covenant, he read it aloud to the people,
who answered, “All that the LORD has said, we will heed and do.”
Then he took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, saying,
“This is the blood of the covenant
that the LORD has made with you
in accordance with all these words of his.”
This is the covenant making ritual at Mount Sinai, after the LORD had given the Ten Commandments and before the people had sinned with the Golden Calf.
A “covenant” is the extension of kinship by oath. It is a way of taking a non-family member into one’s family. This covenant-making ceremony represents a sort of adoption of the people of Israel by the LORD (Jer 31:20); or from another perspective, a marriage of Israel to the LORD (Ezek 16:8). Adoption and marriage were the primary uses of covenant in the ancient world.
Let’s talk about the blood ceremony Moses performs. The blood is sprinkled both on the altar (representing God’s presence) and the people. This means both God and the people are entering into the covenant together. The blood has at least two meanings. First, kinship: God and Israel now share the same blood. When someone is related to us, we say, “He’s blood to me.” There is also the expression “Blood is thicker than water.” So to this day, we use the word “blood” to denote kinship. In ancient times it was the same. Sharing the same blood, Israel and the LORD are now family.
But the blood has a second meaning as well: the curse of death. The blood came from slain animals, and a secondary meaning of accepting the sprinkled blood was: may my blood be shed, like these animals, if I fail to keep my covenant commitments. The sacrifices that often accompanied covenant-making rituals symbolized the consequences of covenant violation.
More positively, the sacrifices also provided food for a meal. Families eat together, so a common meal often served as part of the ceremony of covenant-making (Gen 31:44-46). Just after our First Reading, if we continue on in Exodus 24, we see that Moses and the elders of Israel have a meal with God on Mount Sinai after the blood ritual (Exod 24:11).
In the meal of the Eucharist, the blood of Christ continues to carry the same meanings as the ancient blood of the covenant: kinship and death. Because we share in the blood of Christ, we become kin to God, we are made into the family of God. We also realize we are entering a solemn commitment to keep the family bond, and the judgment of death remains for unworthy participation. So St. Paul warns very clearly,
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged.” (1 Cor 11:27-31)
This is why bishops will sometimes refuse the Eucharist to persons who flagrantly reject the Gospel and the teachings of the Church by their public words or actions. It is for their safety, so that they do not bring divine judgment on themselves.
Before leaving this reading, we should note the “young men” who assist Moses in the priestly duty of offering sacrifice. Although the text is not explicit about who and how many these young men were, Jewish tradition understood that there were twelve of them—a firstborn son from each of the twelve tribes. The firstborn sons of Israel had been “consecrated,” after all, during the Passover event (Ex 13:2,12), and “consecrated” often has the force of “ordained” in the Old Testament. As I explain in my book Jesus and the Old Testament Roots of the Priesthood, there was a “priesthood of the firstborn son” that was practiced from the time of Adam to the time of Moses. Part of the significance of the Passover was to re-consecrate the firstborn sons of Israel for a priestly ministry, a role that we would think of as the “ministerial priesthood”: “Consecrate to me all the first-born; whatever is the first to open the womb among the sons of Israel .. is mine” (Exod 13:1)
This wasn’t the only kind of priesthood that God intended for the people of Israel. There was also a general priesthood that the whole nation was to receive. The LORD promises Israel at the foot of Mt. Sinai, before delivering the Ten Commandments, “If you will … keep my covenant you shall be to me a kinship of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5-6). The unusual phrase “kingship of priests” can be rendered into English and other languages either as “royal priesthood” (cf. 1 Peter 2:9) or “kingdom of priests” (cf. Rev 1:6). The whole nation partook of a priestly status: they were consecrated to worship God effectively, but they were led in that worship by the ministerial priests, the firstborn sons. This is a proto-type of the Church, where every baptized believer participates in Christ’s priesthood (see Catechism §900-909) but we are led in worship by those in Holy Orders.
There is a close connection between the Real Presence in the Eucharist and the priesthood in the Church. If there is a substantial change in the bread and wine that render them into the sacred Body and Blood of Christ, then you need and order of men to guard the sacred elements and ensure that they will not be profaned, nor will the transformation be effected at an inappropriate time. If every baptized person had the authority to transubstatiate the Eucharist, it would lead to absurd profanations like small children consecrating crackers into the Body in their bedrooms, etc. So it was literally within a few hours after my realization—upon reading St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to the Smyrneans chs. 6-7)—that the Real Presence doctrine was the teaching of Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church; that it also dawned on me that there must also be a priesthood in the New Covenant, an order of men authorized to confect and guard these sacred elements for the rest of the Church.
If nothing “really” happens to the bread and wine during the celebration of the Eucharist, then you don’t need a person consecrated and authorized to preside over the ritual–and that is exactly what we see in Protestantism, where the doctrine of the Real Presence has been abandoned and with it the sense of the priestly status of the clergy. So most Protestant pastors are expected to be good teachers, preachers, and counselors, but they aren’t generally considered to have some kind of sacred authority.
It’s all connected back to a radical under-interpretation of what Jesus is doing in Luke 22 and the other accounts of the Last Supper. He is making the “New Covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). This concept of the “blood of the covenant” echoes Moses’ words in our First Reading. The expression “blood of the covenant” is actually very rare in the Bible and only occurs at Sinai, once in Zechariah, and in the Upper Room. That means that what Jesus is doing in the Upper Room is just as momentous as what Moses did at Sinai. He is establishing something that Jeremiah prophesied about 600 years ealier: a “New Covenant” that would not be like the old one made when they left Egypt, but would replace it. And specifically, it is the Eucharist itself which is this New Covenant: the Eucharist is the kinship bond that joins us to God and makes us the family of God. Thanks be to God!