Jewish Roots of the Eucharistic Covenant

Digoy Fernandez

It may come as a surprise to many that our Eucharistic Liturgy is rooted in the Temple Liturgy of the Jews. What we call Mass that our Eastern Catholic brethren refer to as the Divine Liturgy has all aspects of the Temple worship in Jerusalem of the past, with priest, altar and all four elements comprising the offering in its Jewish antecedent: memorial, thanksgiving, sacrifice, and communion, as well as the pattern of synagogue service.

John Paul the Great once said that there are no coincidences in the events of Salvation History. It is in this context that we view the development of man’s relating to God that had for its cumulative conclusion our Eucharist.

Intrinsic to man’s religious psyche is union with a deity. In ancient, prehistoric past primordial man’s yearning for the divine was made via offerings to many different deities he worshipped. As a hunter-gatherer his offerings at first, consisted of game or what could be foraged from the land. Later, as a tribal herdsman, came the idea of a sacrificial offering which he made for his clan or himself. Over time, as nomadic tribes settled into a more stable, agrarian existence the offerings evolved with the emergence of religious rites and a mediator – a priest – who performed the rituals.

Offerings were made to curry favors from the gods. The notion of an offering as a memorial, thanksgiving, or communion were as of yet unheard of, though the latter, was a practice in the ancient world between parties sealing covenanted agreements. The participants took oaths of loyalty to one another over a shared meal that quite often included a blood compact, signifying filial bonding of highest friendship – a communion – in and exchange not only of intimate loyalties but of persons. It was like saying, “You will be mine and I will be yours.”

In the ancient world, a covenant with a god was unknown, even unthinkable, though God had made a covenant with the first man from the very beginning of creation. The first man, Adam, woefully failed to live up to his part of the covenant by allowing an interloper, Satan, into his life and creation of which he was the steward, resulting in loss of his filial relationship with God. The devil gained mastery over him, an imperfection that was passed on to all his descendants.

Nonetheless, the innate yearning for God was not lost in his fallen nature. Man always sought God but as a result of ignorance in the absence of grace, he resorted to imagining many gods. Worship to a deity which in ancient times was synonymous with an offering. The practice was to burn the offering on an altar which was administered by a priest; smoke rising from the holocaust signified acceptance or consummation of the offering by the deity.

Eons pass and the all-loving, all-merciful, all-patient One Triune Deity to whom a thousand years are a day and a day a thousand years and who does not renege on a promise took the initiative of renewing the covenant, first with Noah who found favor with God (Gen 6:8). Following convention of the primordial world, Noah offered burnt offerings on an altar he had erected. God had condescended to man’s understanding of an offering, and He would – in the fullness of time – perfect it.

God renewed the covenant a second time, with Abram (Abraham) and gave him a three-fold promise: land and nation; kingship and name; blessing for All Nations. These would be fulfilled in subsequent covenant renewals; the first with Moses, second with David, and finally with Jesus in whom the covenant would reach its ultimate fulfillment.

The descendants of Abraham’s son, Isaac and generations engendered through Jacob, and the land they settled in was partial fulfillment of the first part of the promise; the possession of the land would come with Moses. The Chosen People was by this time a Tribe and they had the land to form the foundation of their nation. As fate would have it, they temporarily lost possession of it when they moved to Egypt, where they stayed five hundred years.

At first the twelve tribes enjoyed hospitality of the Pharaohs. Eventually however succeeding generations lived in toil and hardship as slaves. Worse, the Chosen People had all but forgotten the God of their forbears, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as most fell under the Egyptian influence of pagan worship.

God conveyed to the people through Moses that He would be their God and they were to be His people (Exo 6:7; Lev 26:12). He demonstrated His mercy and goodness first by liberating them, then renewing His covenant. The Ten Commandments became their guide and rule as people of God. The priesthood was institutionalized (Exo 32:29) and the offering evolved to a memorial (Exo 12:14) and thanksgiving (Lev 7:13) of their deliverance from bondage and slavery. Moreover as a covenanted people they were to have communion (Lev 7:15) by partaking of the lamb offering as at Passover.

Mosaic Law prescribed that the annual Passover memorial, the sacrificial offering be eaten by the priests with unleavened bread. Thus was the mandate observed by the Hebrews around the time of fulfillment of the second part of the promise of a Kingdom Nation, under leadership of King David, and His son Solomon and successor who built the Temple as a place of worship for the people.

It is interesting to note that the Passover Lamb offered in the Temple was called “Lamb of God” by priests. The liturgical practice was to confess the sins of the people in sacrificial offerings. In the Passover memorial, the lamb sacrifice was a thanksgiving of their deliverance; half was immolated and half eaten by the priests, as a covenanted communion with God. It was this liturgical milieu that Jesus came to fulfill in initiating the new and eternal covenant at the Last Supper thru Calvary.

Note that at the start of His ministry John the Baptist cried out, “There is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” when he saw Jesus approach along the bank of the Jordan (Jn 1:29). Here was the true Lamb of God. The sacrifice in the Temple worship that was supposed to take away the people’s sins only prefigured the True Lamb. Christ’s offering put an end to all bloody animal sacrifices that prefigured His crucifixion.

At the Last Supper Christ instituted the priesthood of the New Covenant with a mandate, “do this in remembrance of me” – the memorial. He offered a thanksgiving in the bread and wine representing His sacrifice at Calvary, an offering reminiscent of the bread and wine offered by the priest-king Melchizedek. He gave us His body and blood as our food in communion so that we may have life.

In the Temple only priests partook of the unleavened bread; in the New Covenant it is our privilege as Catholics – the fulfillment of God’s Chosen People – to partake of communion – the closest relationship that man aspired for to be with God earth but never dreamed of since time immemorial. We as the Church comprise the New People of God through all nations are blessed; the fulfillment of the third part of the promise made to Abraham.

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