Category Archives: Eucharist

Lifting the Sunday Obligation

It used to be that every time I got the two-week reminder for my dental cleaning appointment, I would start flossing my teeth again. It wasn’t that I had forgotten to floss, but that I wanted to avoid the floss-shaming from the hygienist.  I thought that floss was overkill seeing as my high-powered electric toothbrush already removed the food particles and plaque from between my teeth.  Then during one appointment the hygienist explained that one of the main purposes was to keep your gums healthy. No one had ever told me why I needed to floss and just assumed I knew why (and didn’t realize I was too proud to ask). Understanding lifted the “obligation” and desire followed.  I stopped doing it merely to keep from getting in trouble with the dentist and started doing it because it was what healthy people do. For many Catholics, Mass is like flossing. They may be aware of the obligation to go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, but because they do not understand why this is so important and the desire is lost.

In an age of exalted personal freedom, obligation is a dirty word—“I shouldn’t have to do anything, especially during my free time on the weekends.”  Not to mention, God doesn’t want people who are forced to go to Church but people who free love Him.  God doesn’t want a bunch of rule-followers but men and women who love Him.  With this as the prevailing mindset, the Sunday obligation conjures up images of the “pre-Vatican II” Church that was overly focused on rules.  Obligations reek of mechanical action and are devoid of love.

Why We Need Laws and Obligations

The problem with this line of reasoning though is that we easily forget why God imposes rules and obligations upon us in the first place. The giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses while the Israelites were reveling at the foot of Sinai was not arbitrary. They were given precisely at that moment because the people are pining for their days in Egypt and are beginning to act just like what they were before—slaves. God gives them the Ten Commandments to show them what they must do to protect their true freedom.  Like the obligation to floss, the obligations imposed by the Decalogue are things that keep the human person healthy and from falling into slavery to sin.

At the bottom of the first tablet of the Law is the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath, the same Sabbath that Christ tells us was made for man (Mk 2:27). In other words, keeping the Sabbath is what a free and healthy person does. By setting aside one day a week to worship God, it keeps us from worshipping the false gods that surround us and continually threaten our freedom. As the Catechism says, “the Sabbath brings everyday work to a halt and provides a respite. It is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money” (CCC 2172).

In truth, God does not need our worship, instead it is us that needs to worship Him. He has made us to appreciate His infinite goodness and we are only truly fulfilled when we do that. Worship is the way we do that. But not any worship will do—this is the lesson of the Golden Calf. There are certain forms of worship that show forth His goodness truly and certain forms which don’t. Worship is not so much us going up to God, but Him coming to us, showing us how He should be worshipped.

Why the Mass is Different

The Mass is the divinely revealed form of worship. God does care how we worship Him or else He would not have gone to such incredible lengths to give it to us. It is the Mass that Our Lord so eagerly desired to give to the Apostles (Lk 22:15) and that received His stamp of approval with His last word from the Cross. It is the most perfect prayer to God, because it is God Himself Who has written it with His blood.

The Law gives us guidance on how to act just as the Mass gives us guidance on how to offer right worship.  But the Sunday Obligation is also different than the giving of the Law because it actually empowers us to love God and move beyond obligation.  Our participation in Mass enables us to take ownership of the greatest act of love for God that mankind has ever offered and make it our own.  Not just by watching but by truly participating; a participation that is consummated in Holy Communion.  The love for the Father that motivated Christ to perform that self-sacrificial act now becomes mine and yours and the stone tablets of our hearts become His flesh and blood.  In short, the Mass is obligatory because there is no more efficacious way to grow in love of God—“He who does not eat my flesh and drink my blood has no life in him” (John 6:53).  We could never come to this conclusion on our own and it is the Church as Mother that commands what is for our own good.  Without this act of obligation we will never come to love God more than we love ourselves.  Obligation gives way to desire through the power of the Cross given to us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Like my flossing revelation, understanding lifts the obligation of the Mass and allows desire to grow to full bloom.  Our Lord “earnestly desired to eat this Pascha” (Lk 22:47) with each and every one of us.  Go and allow your desire to meet His!



Joining the Choir

In the midst of one of the greatest Christian persecutions, Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to the Emperor Trajan seeking his counsel for dealing with Christians.  What makes this letter especially noteworthy is that it is the earliest non-Christian account of Christianity itself, with specific details about the religious practices of the early believers.  In particular, he mentions how those former Christians whom he had met all said that their supposed error was that they “were accustomed to gather before dawn on a certain day and sing a hymn to Christ as if He were God.”  Although understated, it appears remarkable that of all the Christian practices, they remember the liturgical singing best.  It is as if it was so intoxicating that it was a primary cause of their “error.”  They were not alone, even the great St. Augustine expressed a similar conviction, finding the Church mostly vulgar until he heard her singing: “I wept in Thy hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church” (Confess. ix, 6).

Would either of these two pagans would say anything remotely similar if they were to find harbor in a church during Mass in our own time?  More than likely, not.  Like many aspects of the Sacred Liturgy, liturgical music is approaching a crisis point.  Banal at best, many places throw in a dash of irreverence confusing Mass music with the music of the masses.  Liturgical music ought to be different.  No mere sing-along, it is meant to vest and adorn the liturgy by bringing clarity to what is truly going on around the Faithful. Or, as Pope St. Pius X put it,

“Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” (Tra Le Sollecitudini Instruction on Sacred Music)

Bad Theology Leads to Bad Music

This is not really a critique of the skills of choir directors or choir members, but a critique of their underlying philosophy.  Many have been trapped within a mindset Pope Benedict XVI calls a “puritanical functionalism of the liturgy conceived in purely pragmatic terms.”  This pithy explanation is rich in substance, saying a number of things all at once.  Foundationally, it lies in a (mis-)application of the call of the Second Vatican Council for the Liturgy to be marked by active participation of all present.  Many have interpreted this to mean that everyone has a function to perform during the liturgy.  But, as the Pope Emeritus points out, the “earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process.”  That is, we are merely participating in God’s work, a work that is cosmic in its dimension.  Our part(-icipipation) is not merely to do a bunch of external activities, but to actively and internally unite ourselves with this Opus Dei, praying that we will personally take ownership of the sacrifice and make it our own.  It is a sacrifice given in “spirit and truth” and thus, first and foremost, requires hearts that are into it.

Anyone who has gone to a concert knows that attentive listening, even if you are not singing or humming along, is a form of participation.  In fact someone doing that, especially when they are out of tune or otherwise don’t have particularly good voices, can ruin the experience for those around them.  Likewise, with musica sacra—listening intently and devoutly to a choir fits the Council’s call for active participation.  But there are those in the congregation who, to quote Pope Benedict XVI again, “who can sing better ‘with the heart’ than ‘with the mouth’; but their hearts are stimulated to sing through the singing of those who have the gift of singing ‘with their mouths.’”  The flip side is that by compelling those to sing who cannot we are not only silencing their hearts, but those around them as well.

The problem, as I mentioned, is not particularly related to skill but to ideology.  With the goal being external uniformity in activity, sacred music suffers.  Musical selection is based upon the ease in which those present may sing along and its capacity to build community through singing.  These two criteria however conflict with what Pope St. Pius X said was the authentic goal: namely that the music be holy and have “goodness of form.”

What Makes Good Liturgical Music

That the music should be holy simply means that it should be set aside as specifically liturgical, that is “closely connected with the liturgical action and… conferring greater solemnity upon the sacred rites” (SC 112).  “Praise and worship” music, Christian rock, and secular “feel-good” music each have their own place, but the liturgy is not that place.  It should be a musical setting of a liturgical text.  This is why the Church has always given the works of Palestrina and Gregorian Chant pride of place because of it solemnity and close connection to the spirit of the liturgy.

Liturgical music should also have “goodness of form” by which Pius X means it should be of high artistic quality.  He said, “it must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.”  This is where choirs and choir directors should not fear to shine for the glory of God.  They should strive to play and sing beautifully even if the rest of the congregation cannot join them.  They should see themselves properly as sacraments, making the singing of the angels and saints present.  Their music should raise our minds and hearts to the heights of heaven.

When these two criteria, holiness and beauty, are met, then a third one, universality emerges.  This is what St. Augustine experienced early during his conversion.  By universal St. Pius X means it “in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.”  One does not need to understand all the words of the music, let alone the Liturgy itself, in order to participate.  As St. Thomas says, “Even if those who listen sometimes do not understand the words being sung, they do understand the reason for singing, namely the praise of God.  And that is sufficient to arouse men to worship” (ST II-II, q.91 art 2).  If the music has beauty, then the clarity of its purpose will emerge and move all those present to worship God more fully during the Mass.

Music has the power to move us in ways that even the best homily could never do.  This power, once harnessed and properly applied, can be the “heart of the Liturgy.”  The crisis point has been reached—it is time to reclaim liturgical music and restore it to its pride of place.

The Waiting Game

In his most celebrated and enduring work, A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens tells the story of a miserable old miser named Ebenezer Scrooge.  The protagonist is visited by three ghosts, each set on infusing into his heart the “Christmas spirit.”  As frightful as the experience might be, many of us would wholeheartedly welcome the arrival of a specter if it meant being given the Christmas spirit. In hopes of being caught up in the spirit, we try shopping for the perfect gift.  We may turn to Christmas music, but we can only listen to Feliz Navidad so many times (once) before our hearts grow cold.  We might blame the “culture” for the secularization of Christmas, but no matter what we do, the Christmas spirit remains elusive. What if, the problem was something else?  What if we struggle to get into the Christmas spirit because we never “get into” the spirit of Advent?

As the Latin derivation of the name suggests (Adventus for Coming), Advent is a period of preparation for the celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation on Christmas. Although it has been observed to varying degrees and varying lengths of time throughout Church history, it has always been viewed as a “little” Lent because it is a period of spiritual preparation through the disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It was “little” both because the duration of time is shorter (4 weeks vs 40 days) and because the Church does not command the same rigor as Lent. Its “littleness” has always been the reason why it is my favorite liturgical season and why it offers an excellent time for those of us who might grow weary and lose intensity during Lent or even suffer from a little spiritual ADD.

What Are You Waiting For?

Advent is a season of waiting.  Throughout history, God’s people have always waited for Him to fully reveal Himself. The Incarnation may have happened in a specific time and place, but it touches every time and place.  When God pitched His tent among us, time and eternity met—now each moment touches God’s eternal Now.  The season of Advent may end at Christmas—a day that marks the birth of Christ—but Christmas properly understood is meant to mark the three comings of Christ. First, there is His coming in the flesh in the cave in Bethlehem. Second, there is His coming in grace and the Eucharist to us in the here and now. Finally, it is preparation for His second coming when He will judge mankind. Christmas, like all the Christian mysteries, has a threefold meaning in the past, present and future. You cannot separate any of the three elements from the other two without doing harm to the meaning of Christmas. “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”

This threefold meaning of Christmas is what ultimately helps us to “keep Christ in Christmas” by protecting it from simply being a day we remember some past event.  We see it not only as an event in the past that put the world on a different trajectory, but an event that touches each of us individually today and ultimately determines our individual future.  The Christmas spirit is a living spirit.  But we must prepare for it by following the steady path laid out in Sacred Scripture.  The Church borrows the words of the prophets in the Advent liturgies not so much to show they were right, but to make their fervent expressions of longing our own. God’s word is living and active and never returns to Him empty (c.f. Heb 4:12, Is 55:11). We must wrap our hearts around His words through the prophets and make them our own expressions. Advent should be a time in which Scripture comes alive for us, especially by dedicating more time to prayer and study.

Are You Awake?

It is not just the words of prophets that form our Advent, but even the cosmos bids us to “stay awake” as the night grows longer.  It is not until the “Light of the World” enters on December 25th that the days will begin to get longer again.  The Christmas spirit only comes when we have allowed the spirit of vigilance to animate our Advent.  Advent allows us to give expression to that deep yearning for God that we all experience. That desire is so deep within us and such a natural part of our daily existence that we often become drowsy.  Advent offers us both the opportunity, and specific graces, to become vigilant.  In fact we will likely find that we are more vigilant throughout the rest of the year because we have paid our dues in Advent.

Fasting while we await the arrival of the Bridegroom is also a key aspect of Advent. Assuming that His disciples would fast (Mt 6:16), He won many graces for them when He Himself fasted in the desert.  Fasting not only helps us to gain control over our passions, but when done properly actually makes our senses more alert.  This is why fasting from food is such a powerful spiritual practice.  Because food is necessary to life, the hunger we experience in going without, is felt at the core of our being. We give up what is necessary because we want the One Thing that is most necessary.

Advent and the Eucharist

Advent can also be a time in which we double-down on our devotion to the Eucharist.  The Eucharist ensures that Christmas Day is not merely symbolic. We truly receive what we have been preparing for, even if God shields our eyes under the appearance of bread and wine.  The entire purpose of all the season is to receive Christ in His fullness and permanently.  The Eucharist is the Sacrament that truly brings this about.  It is not only Christmas Day but the entire season of Advent that is protected from becoming a symbolic gesture by the Eucharist. Spending more time “keeping watch with Our Lord” for an hour of Adoration ought to be a key practice of Advent. Likewise, we should increase our frequency of Daily Mass attendance, asking for the grace to receive Our Lord more perfectly each time. The Eucharist has a gravitational force about it in that the more you receive Our Lord, the more you desire to receive Him again. There is no better way to make real the goal of Advent than by allowing Our Lord to bestow this gift upon us.

The Heart of Sacrifice

It is part of the canon of frenzied modern man—“showing up is 80 percent of life.”   Whether the percentage is correct or not, rarely do we hear the proverb’s obverse that “20 percent of life requires more than just showing up.”  The challenge, and it is a challenge whose success determines a life well-lived, is to know which arenas to apply the 80/20 rule to.  Unfortunately, for many Catholics, the Mass falls into the 80 percent category.  But the Church, at least according to the Second Vatican Council, thinks it is in the 20 percent exhorting that “fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concillium, 14).  In short, we must do more than just show up.

One could wallpaper the entire Vatican several times over (or, if you prefer, fully clog their sewer system) with all that has been written about the meaning of the phrase “fully conscious and active participation” so I will not add to the growing detritus.  Regardless of how you interpret that phrase, we can all agree that little, if any, headway has been made towards this “aim [that is] to be considered before all else” (SC, 14). Why is this?  Because the Mass, like many parts of our divine faith, has become an ideological battleground whose smoke has obscured the reason that the Mass exists in the first place.

The Sacrament of the Body and Blood

Each of the Sacraments are visible signs, instituted by Christ, by which invisible grace and inward sanctification are communicated to a person.  We all remember this definition from our early Catechism lessons.  But what we may not have grasped is the uniqueness of the Eucharist and the grounds for the assertion that it is the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (SC, 10).  Like the other six Sacraments the Eucharist bestows grace, but it also contains the very Author of grace, Jesus Himself.  The Son is really and truly present upon the altar after the words of consecration.  The truth of the Real Presence is overwhelming, but we must take care to not allow its brightness to blind us to the fact that the Eucharist is also a sign.  It is a sign that points to the reality of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  It is the Divinely instituted sign that invokes His power and makes that same sacrifice present under the form of bread and wine.  It is the Sacrament of His Body and Blood first, Real Presence second—not in the chronological sense but in the order of the Divine intention.  Christ says not, “this is Me” but “this is My Body…this is My Blood.”  This is not to deny the Real Presence, only to frame it within the context of what happens in the Mass.

By turning our gaze upon the Body and Blood of Christ we see the Mass rightly as a sacrifice.  In an age of exaggerated ecumenism it is vital for us to grasp that the “Mystery of Faith” is the sacrifice that occurs on the altar.  It is not the same sacrifice as the one on Calvary; Christ was sacrificed once for all.  Yet this sacrifice is one with that sacrifice in that it is the perfect re-presentation of the same Victim and the same Priest.  The only difference between the two sacrifices are the mode in which they are offered.  The natural mode saw the separation of His physical Body and Blood on the Cross, while the Sacramental mode sees the separation of His Body and Blood Sacramentally—an unbloody offering of the one Sacrifice of Calvary.  As the Council of Trent puts it “[I]n the two sacrifices there is one and the same victim, one and the same priest, who then on the cross offered Himself, and who now, by the instrumentality of His priests, offers Himself anew, the two sacrifices differing only in their mode” (Council of Trent, Disp 13, q. 3, nos 48,50).

This distinction enables us to see a deeper aspect of the Sacred Mystery.  Just as her Divine Head had His natural sacrifice, the Church has her own sacrifice in the Eucharist.  The Sacrifice of the Cross belongs to the world, while the Sacrifice of the Mass belongs only to the Church.  It was instituted by Christ specifically for the members of His Mystical Body.  The Church as the Body of Christ is no mere metaphor, but a profound truth that we are comprised of members who have been bodily united to the Lord in the Eucharist (c.f. 1Cor 6:12-19).  Likewise, Communion as the consummation of the Eucharistic Sacrifice becomes a necessary, and uniquely privileged, element of the sacrificial act.

“Pray Brethren that My Sacrifice and Yours…”

Taking ownership of the sacrifice means not only that we receive sacred benefits from it, but that the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross is put into our hands to use.  The Mass is not just about receiving forgiveness and grace but also about exercising our share of the Priesthood of Christ.  Calvary comes to us so that we might participate in it and have a share in distributing its fruit.  This is why simply mailing it in deprives each of us and the Church as a whole of a great spiritual benefit.  “Fully conscious participation” consists in recognizing “my sacrifice and yours” as an exercise of our own priesthood.  Mary was mankind’s representative at the foot of the altar of Calvary and in that way participated in the sacrifice so that its benefits my spread to her spiritual children.  We ought to have her as our model in participating in the unbloody Calvary of the Mass.  The point is that we must be fully present in order to not only receive its benefits but also to apply them.  As co-sacrificing priests, we ought to have specific intentions for which we offer the Mass—intentions that are distinct from the general intercessions and the special intention of the Priest for the Mass.

Although in some circles the idea of Christians presenting sacrifices to God has the odor of “the Law,” it is something that we are commanded to do.  After preaching the essence of the gospel to the Romans for 11 chapters, St. Paul begins the 12th by exhorting them to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).  According to the Apostle to the Gentiles, the essence of the Christian life is to offer sacrifice.  But it is a sacrifice that on our own we can never offer—this sacrifice must be visible (your bodies), living, holy and pleasing to God.  It is God who supplies the Lamb.  The Eucharist is the only living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God.  By its reception we become one flesh with its Victim thus His Body becomes ours.  The Eucharist becomes the source and summit of all Christian sacrifice.  All our sacrifices—big and small even when mixed with impure motives—are offered in the Sacrament of the Body and Blood and thus become holy and pleasing to God.  All of life finds its meaning and fulfilment in the Mass.  The great challenge of the Christian life—pleasing God—becomes conceivable.  Eighty percent of life may be showing up, but Life itself requires much more.

Catholic Culture and the Filet-o-Fish Sandwich

The Bishops of England and Wales recently made a change to their liturgical calendar, effective the first Sunday of Advent, that added back to the calendar two Holy Days of Obligation—Epiphany and Ascension Thursday.  While this decision obviously only effects those Catholics in England and Wales, their decision is remarkable because it is counter to a trend that has plagued the Church since the Second Vatican Council that has seen the reduction of Liturgical Feasts of Obligation.  One can hope that this will spur other Episcopal Conferences to follow suit.

The Code of Canon Law (1246) has this to say about Holy Days of Obligation:

  • Sunday is the day on which the paschal mystery is celebrated in light of the apostolic tradition and is to be observed as the foremost holy day of obligation in the universal Church. Also to be observed are the day of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Epiphany, the Ascension and the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, Holy Mary Mother of God and her Immaculate Conception and Assumption, Saint Joseph, the Apostles Saints Peter and Paul, and finally, All Saints.
  • However, the conference of bishops can abolish certain holy days of obligation or transfer them to a Sunday with prior approval of the Apostolic See.

In Advent of 1991, the NCCB of the United States (now known as the USCCB) issued a general decree defining the Holy Days of Obligation (in addition to all Sundays throughout the year) for Latin rite Catholics in the US as follows:

  • January 1, the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
  • Thursday of the Sixth Week of Easter, the solemnity of the Ascension
  • August 15, the solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
  • November 1, the solemnity of All Saints
  • December 8, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception
  • December 25, the solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Whenever (1), (3) or (4) fall on a Saturday or on a Monday, the precept to attend Mass is abrogated.  The Feast of the Ascension, in most dioceses in the US, has been moved to the following Sunday, effectively reducing the number of feasts of obligation from ten to five.

Plummeting Mass Attendance

When faith is in decline, the power of binding and loosing enables the shepherds of the Church to make the practice of the Faith “easier.”  Although this is often abused (I will avoid that rabbit hole here), the shepherds may alter Church disciplines in order to keep the sheep from falling to grave sin.  Seeing regular Mass attendance drop precipitously from 55% to 41% in the years from 1965 to 1990, the Bishops thought that by reducing the obligation, it might keep at least some from committing the serious sin of missing Mass.

That this approach proved ineffective seems obvious, especially since regular Mass attendance dropped to 22% in 2016.  Likely, it had the opposite effect by contributing to it.  Removing some obligations is always a danger because it challenges all obligations, especially when their removal goes unexplained.  Perhaps, the thinking goes, if those days really weren’t obligatory, then the ones they say are obligatory now aren’t either.  After all, one can still be “spiritual” without religious obligation.

The crisis in Mass attendance was not really the problem, but merely a symptom of a larger disease that the Doctors of the Church failed to properly diagnose.  While the reasons are legion, the issue was the death of Catholic culture.  There may have been some compromises with the surrounding culture, but Catholics always stood out because of their religious practices. Think of the Catholic practice of no meat on Fridays throughout the year (another one that has been done away with) and how restaurants made special accommodations to win Catholic patronage.  Once that practice was no longer obligatory even the meat fasts of Fridays in Lent went ignored.  The point is that these practices, even when done with less than pure intentions, bind Catholics together.

The point is that there can be no culture without cult so that if you take away from the liturgical life of the Catholics, you will most assuredly do harm to the sheepfold.  It is not only, or even primarily, for the natural reason that it creates, for lack of a better term, Catholic “identity.”  It is also for the supernatural reason of Communion.  The more often the believers come together and receive life from the Altar of Sacrifice, the closer they will be to Jesus.  The closer they are to Jesus, the closer they will be to one another.  The closer they are to one another, the greater their witness to the world.  The Eucharist is like the nucleus of a primordial atom drawing each negatively charged man to Itself.

When faith is in decline you should increase the obligations, not reduce them.  Fear of hell, while imperfect motivation, can still keep you from hell.  Someone may come to Mass out of obligation, but Our Lord will not be outdone in generosity giving actual graces to those present to receive Him more purely.  There are always those who will go to Mass regardless of whether it is a Holy Day of Obligation, but there are also a great number who will only go because it is.

Catholic culture has to be built from the ground up and is something that needs to be instilled in the young.  I find it very strange that Catholic schools all treat the few Holy Days of Obligation as “regular” days, instead of true holydays.  Should they really celebrate Labor Day while simultaneously demanding work from students on the day when we celebrate all those “who from their Labor rest?”  Going to Catholic school in the 1980s was certainly a confusing time, but one thing they always did right was give us off from school on all the Holy Days of Obligation.  That has always stuck with me and left me with the awareness that these days were no ordinary days.

The Fullness of Time

This leads to one further point that could come under the heading of unintended consequences.  One of the great heresies of modern times is compartmentalization, that is creating a “wall of separation” between Church and the rest of life.  God can have Sunday (even if only for an hour) but the rest is mine.  The Incarnation made it glaringly obvious that God is with us, not just on Sundays, but all days.  The Son came in the “fullness of time” not just because everything was Providentially ready for His arrival, but also because when time and eternity meets in His Person time is filled.  This is part of the reason the Church celebrates Mass not just on Sundays, but every day.

If you really believe that God is actively participating in every moment at every time, you will reject compartmentalization.  The great Christian feasts mark those moments in history when God stepped into the ordinary.  They not only mark them, but make them present.  It brings God into the humdrum, or rather, shows that there really is no humdrum.  It shows them to be real, as in really,really real and not just something relegated to the past.  Take away these celebrations and you move God to the periphery.  Move Ascension Thursday to Sunday and you make it nearly impossible to fully prepare for your share in Pentecost.  Pentecost was not a single event, but one that unfolds throughout time and also at specific times on each Pentecost Sunday.  The Apostles and Our Lady taught us how to prepare for it by nine days of prayer.  Seven days may be more convenient, but it isn’t how it’s supposed to be done.  It makes it all seem manufactured (work of man) and just ceremonial rather than truly liturgical (work of God).

Likewise with Epiphany—we complain about keeping Christ in Christmas, but meanwhile we don’t keep Christmas in Christmas.  Want to win back Christmas from the clutches of commercialization, restore Epiphany to its rightful place in the calendar.

Please God that all the Bishops will follow those of England and Wales and reinstate all the Holy Days of Obligation!

Sacramental Momentum

At the beginning of his extended treatise on the Eucharist in the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas draws a parallel between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives that helps explain the inner logic of the Sacraments.  Specifically he says “the spiritual life is analogous to the corporeal, since corporeal things bear a resemblance to spiritual. Now it is clear that just as generation is required for corporeal life, since thereby man receives life; and growth, whereby man is brought to maturity: so likewise food is required for the preservation of life. Consequently, just as for the spiritual life there had to be Baptism, which is spiritual generation; and Confirmation, which is spiritual growth: so there needed to be the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is spiritual food” (ST III, q.73, a.1).  While it is certainly a clever way to teach about the need for the Sacraments, to see it as only that would be to miss an important analogical corollary; one that has practical applications for our apostolic approach to those in various stages of conversion.

In mitigating the factions that had arisen within the Corinthian community, St. Paul reminds them of his (and our) role in the conversion of others.  It is by way of cooperation that we participate in the conversion of another, but it is ultimately God Who provides the growth (c.f. 1Cor 3:6-7).  We all intuitively grasp this and realize that our role is secondary (at best) and that only through grace does another person “grow to the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13).  Nothing new has been said so far.  But how that growth is provided is not at all intuitive.  In fact we might be tempted to think it is a mystery and only according to God’s good pleasure.  As Catholics we do know that there is one sure way that God causes growth—through the Sacraments.


Sacramental Inertia

This is where St. Thomas’ analogy between our corporeal lives and our spiritual lives fits in.  The analogy is not just about the inner logic of the Sacraments themselves but also represent a progression in our Spiritual lives.  Just as a living person has a natural drive toward food, the person who has been born again in Baptism has a supernatural drive to feed on the Bread of Life.  Just as the child who has been born and has nourished his life with food desires to grow up, so too in the Spiritual life there is a supernatural desire for Confirmation.  What St. Thomas doesn’t say, but which is implied, is that this supernatural desire is contained as a grace within the Sacraments.  Baptism leads to a desire for the Eucharist.  Baptism and the Eucharist lead to a desire for Confirmation.  Baptism and Confirmation lead to an increased desire for the Eucharist.  Each reception of the Eucharist leads to a more fervent desire for the Eucharist itself.  And so, through this analogy we see that within the Sacraments there are graces pushing the recipient towards the other Sacraments, most especially towards the “source and summit” in the Eucharist.  It is like Newton’s first law applied to the Spiritual life—that which is set in motion in Baptism stays in motion through the other Sacraments.

Like all theological truths, this (super)natural progression also has practical consequences, one which we ought to make profit of in our apostolic endeavors.  If we know that an infallible means of growth is the Sacraments and follow St. Paul’s model then we ought to push others towards the Sacraments.  When we meet someone who does not know God at all and is unbaptized, our focus ought to be to lead them to the Baptismal font.  Why?  Because the grace of conversion contains within itself a desire to be baptized.  If the person is Baptized, then our focus ought to be on pushing them towards Confession and the Eucharist.  Why?  Because the Baptized person is already being inwardly pushed towards those Sacraments.  They may not be able to identify the specific impulses, but they will know them when they see them.    Lukewarm Catholic already in communion with the Church?  Push them towards Jesus in the Eucharist Who is the fire that will set ablaze the most lukewarm of hearts.

I knew of a man who did nothing else but invite his Protestant friends to Eucharistic Adoration.  He reasoned that if his Protestant friends really knew Jesus, they would recognize Him when they met Him in the monstrance.  It might not happen immediately, but in many of the cases they kept going with him until it did.  If Jesus is really there, and He is, then it is hard to find a flaw in this approach.

Applying the Law Sacramental Inertia

Our apostolic endeavors are only effective insofar as we cooperate with grace already working interiorly in the person.  By making use of this principle of Sacramental Inertia we are assured that we are on the same page as the Holy Spirit.  The Sacraments become a sort of apostolic blueprint that represent a goal.  In Latin, the Mass ends with Ite Missa Est, literally “she is sent,” meaning that we are sent out into the world to bring others back with us.  Like John the Baptist our goal is simply to point out and bring others to Jesus.  If we really believe the Sacraments are what the Church teaches they are, we will make them our apostolic goals.

One last point merits our attention as well, especially if it seems that the picture I have painted is overly simplistic.  It is no coincidence that the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist (and Confession), as next steps are also the biggest obstacles.  The principle of Sacramental Inertia is not foreign to mankind’s greatest spiritual foe.  They are either mocked by direct attack, counterfeited or else indirectly attacked by attacking the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  We should be constantly aware that the last thing the Devil wants is for a non-Catholic to begin a Sacramental life and he will do all that he can to impede that.  Our approach, when not leavened with prayer and sacrifice, will always become mere apologetics.  The Sacraments are the greatest treasure of the Church and we must always recognize that sharing these gifts is our apostolic goal.

Why Many of the Jews Remained Veiled to Jesus

In his Second Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul laments that the Jews of his day suffered ignorance regarding the identity of Christ because “their minds were hardened; for to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away.  Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their minds; but when a man turns to the Lord the veil is removed” (2 Cor 3:14-16).  One can imagine the Christians in Corinth struggling to understand how the Jewish people, steeped as they were in the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament, failed to see how all the prophecies find their fulfillment in Jesus.  The Corinthians are not alone in this, many of us often wonder how the Jews could miss this.

In his writings on the Antichrist, Blessed John Henry Newman has an extensive discussion on biblical prophecy in which he articulates an important principle: “It is not ordinarily the course of Divine Providence to interpret prophecy before the event.”  Newman is referring specifically to what the role of prophecy is in God’s plan.  Although prophecy is often (but not always) directed towards some future contingency, this does not mean that it is akin to being able to clearly predict what is going to happen.  If it were simply to tell everyone what is going to happen in the future, then it would seem that it should be marked by clarity.  Instead we find that prophecies are often obscure.  Prophecy, rather than being primarily for prediction, instead has the purpose of building up the body of believers (c.f 1Cor 12:10).  Its obscurity makes it impossible for those who lack the illumination from the same Spirit that inspired the prophecy to understand it.  With the gift of hindsight and illumination, it seems to us that the Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah are very clear.  But we need only see how much help the first Christians needed (the road to Emmaus and Matthew’s explicit mentioning of which actions fulfilled which prophecies) to see just how difficult this was.  It is only when Our Lord comes to sweep away the clouds of obscurity by opening their minds to the Scriptures that they understood it (Lk 24:45).

There is another practical reason as well that made it particularly difficult and it has to do with the nature of the Messiah.  All too often we over-generalize and say “the Jews were expecting a political Messiah and Jesus came to usher in a different kind of kingdom.”  In an age where we make everything political this offers a clean explanation.  Most of the Jews were expecting that the Messianic Age would follow right on the heels of the Messiah (c.f. Acts 1:6) and when that didn’t happen it shattered many people’s expectations.  But to label their expectations as “political” does not quite capture what they meant.

The difficulty and the obscurity came in trying to somehow reconcile these different views.  We know that they are all true, but one can imagine how difficult it would be to wed them together yourself.  What often happened is that different schools opened up in which one chose only one of them at the expense of the others.  We are often very jealous of our ideas so that once they are challenged we reject everything that doesn’t agree.

Broadly speaking there were six different sets of prophecies concerning the future Messiah:

  • New Adam—based upon the promise in Gn 3:15 of the Seed of the Woman who would crush the head of the Serpent and a promise of a restoration of Eden (Is 11:1-10, Ezekiel 36:33-38)
  • New Moses—based upon Moses’ prophecy that God will raise up a “prophet like me” (Dt 18:1-17). In this way the Jews were awaiting a New Exodus into a New Promised Land, a theme I have written about previously.
  • Son of David, “Son of God”—this is most clearly laid out in Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about their understanding of the opening verses of Ps 110 when Our Lord asks them about the nature of the Messiah as David’s offspring(c.f. Mt 22:41-46).
  • Son of Man—the Messiah is described by Daniel as “one like a son of man” who comes not from the earth but “with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13-15).
  • Suffering Servant—Daniel prophesies that the Messiah will be “cut off” or put to death as an atonement for sin, reconciling it with Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Jesus reconciles this with the previous one by saying “the Son of Man came to serve, not be served and give Himself as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28).
  • Priest of the Order of Melchizedek—this Priest will be a “priest forever of the order of Melchizedek” (Ps 110:1-4), offering the same sacrifice as the Davidic kings did (2Sam 6:13-17).

Although we might easily reconcile these different views of the Messiah now, it was a tremendous challenge for the early Christians and their Jewish counterparts.  It was especially difficult to   The Book of Hebrews, written around 65 AD was composed mainly as a reference for tying all of these strains together.

The final obstacle for the Jews was the Crucifixion.  Although there are some very obvious parallels between the Passover Lamb and Our Lord (e.g. timing, “not a bone shall be broken”, etc), the Crucifixion itself could be an insurmountable obstacle.  It was for the punishment of criminals and would have appeared to be nothing like a sacrifice.  To all appearances, Jesus was a failure and a blasphemer.  Except for one small thing.  He actually called His shot this night before.  What makes the Crucifixion recognizable as the Sacrifice is the Institution of the Eucharist the night before. It is God who institutes each of the covenantal sacrifices and gives them their meaning. He is the One who appoints the priest, the victim and the manner of sacrifice.  It was God Incarnate Who did all those things prior to the event.  Not only does the Crucifixion give meaning to the Eucharist, it is the Institution of the Eucharist by which Our Lord assigns meaning to His death on the Cross.

Catholics and the Seder Meal

In recent years, one of the more popular Lenten practices of Catholics has become to participate in Seder Meals.  Their popularity is driven mostly by a desire to express a solidarity with the Jewish people and to understand the Jewish roots of our Faith.  While it may seem harmless to participate in them, there are some serious reasons why Catholics might want to avoid them all together.

In an age where the morality of a given act is mainly subject to our intention, it is important to begin any discussion on whether Catholics should participate in Seder Meals with a fundamental principle.  St. Thomas puts the principle this way—“external worship should be in proportion to the internal worship” (ST I-II q.103, a.3).  What the Angelic Doctor means by this is that our external acts of worship must always reflect our internal beliefs.  If our act of worship does not reflect our internal beliefs then we are guilty of superstition, that is giving worship to God in, what St. Thomas calls, an “undue mode” or in giving worship to a false god.

Trapped in a dualistic mindset, many of us would think that our external acts are just that—external—and there is no harm done if you do not really mean them.  But intuitively we all seem to think otherwise, especially when we reflect on the witness of the Martyrs.  Many martyrs refused to offer a pinch of incense to the pagan gods because they knew this would be an act of worship, even if they may not have believed in what they were doing.  Likewise there are those who have been tempted to desecrate an image of Christ in order to avoid martyrdom.  All too often the tempters would simply say, “It’s just an image.  All that matters to you is what you believe.”  Those who desecrated the image were considered apostates regardless of what they may have believed.  Not having our exterior acts reflecting our interior beliefs is a form of lying.

The Seder Meal and What it Means to Participate

Returning to the topic at hand, namely Seder Meals, it is without a doubt a religious act.  Many of these are sponsored by different Jewish Synagogues or, when done “do it yourself” follow the existing Seder liturgy.  A Seder Meal is one of the primary means by which the Jewish people hand on their faith.  It also reflects an act in faith in the coming of the Messiah.

For a Christian, that is, one who has faith that the Messiah has come, to participate in a Seder Meal is a false declaration of faith.  It is, as St. Thomas said, an act of worship of God in an “undue mode.”  While our faith in the Christ with the Jewish people may be the same, that faith must be expressed in different ways.  The Jews reflect the faith of Abraham, that is the Messiah to come, through circumcision.  The Christian expresses his faith in the Messiah who has come when they share in His life and death in Baptism.

St. Thomas says that all of the legal ceremonies of the Old Law, including the Passover meal, have passed away because each found their fulfillment with the coming of Christ.  Each of the ceremonies of the Old Law expressed the expectation of the coming Messiah, those of the New Law reflect His having already come.  In the mind of Aquinas, to continue to participate in these ceremonies is a lie and constitutes, at least objectively speaking, a grave sin.  Regardless of what one believes, by participating in a Seder Meal, the Christian is professing through his actions that Christ is yet to come.

The ceremonies of the Old Law were mere “shadows” (Col 2:17) of the Sacraments to come.  The Seder is but a foreshadowing of the Mass.  Why would one participate in shadow when the real thing is available?  Catholics are already participating the True Seder Meal, the Mass.

What if I Just Want to Learn More About Our Roots?

What about those who only do so out of curiosity or as a learning exercise to help them better understand the Mass?  Certainly their intentions do not change the fact that it is objectively wrong to participate, but still it may change their culpability.  This approach is worth unpacking further for a different reason as well.

The problem with this approach is that it denies an important historical fact.  Those who have studied the Passover meal that Our Lord celebrated with the Apostles are quick to point out that it differs from the first Passover as described in the Book of Exodus and not just because Our Lord added the elements of fulfillment.  At the time of Our Lord only the Levitical priesthood existed and thus all sacrifices occurred within the Temple.  What did not change however was that the Passover was not just a meal but also a sacrifice.

Once the Temple was destroyed, Judaism underwent a profound change.  Prior to 70 AD, Judaism was much like Catholicism in that they had priests who lead the worship which was centered upon sacrifice.  After 70 AD it became much like Protestantism in that the emphasis was placed on worship without sacrifice.  Judaism today is not the same Judaism of Our Lord and the Apostles.

In short, the Seder Meal that Jesus participated in the first 32 years of His life is profoundly different from the Seder Meal as it is celebrated within Judaism today.  The key element, the sacrifice of the Lamb, is missing.  With the sacrificial character removed it now bears little resemblance to the Mass which retains its sacrificial meaning.  A Seder Meal, as it is celebrated today, has little value for the Christian for learning the roots of the faith.

Certainly studying (without participating) the Seder Meal as it was during the time of Our Lord has value for us as Christians.  Studying the type or the sign helps us to better understand the archetype or thing signified.  Rather than spending your time organizing or attending a Seder Meal, you would be better off studying Dr. Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist or listen to Scott Hahn’s Fourth Cup.  Although there are more, I have found these two resources invaluable for deepening our understanding of the meaning of the Mass and its relation to the Jewish Passover Meal.

St. Francis and the New Age

Despite the fact that the Church marks the life of Francesco Bernadone by a “mere” Liturgical Memorial, he remains one of the most beloved saints.  Better known as St. Francis of Assisi, he has grown in popularity because he seems to be a saint belonging not to his own times, but ours.  As Chesterton says in his great biography “that St. Francis anticipated all that is most liberal and sympathetic in the modern mood; the love of nature; the love of animals; the sense of social compassion; the sense of the spiritual dangers of prosperity and even of property.”  Francis was a great lover of nature but he was also “spiritual.”  Because he was an ecclesiastical rebel, he was not particularly religious, or at least his modernized version wasn’t.  He became the patron saint of the New Age and like many believers in the New Age he was, “spiritual but not religious.”

To keep the beloved saint from being hijacked by the New Agers, it is important to point out that St. Francis loved those things because he loved the Person who made them.  He loved the poor because Jesus was poor and God is close to those who are poor.  In other words, St. Francis loved those things because he found God in all those things.

At this point, the New Ager might respond “Exactly.  St. Francis found that God is in everything.  That is why we don’t need religion.  We can find Him anywhere.”  And in this, we find the fundamental error in the New Age view of reality.  The New Age view is based upon a profound misunderstanding of what it means to say that God is in everything.  We need an understanding of this not only to refute New Age philosophy but to also develop a deeper understanding of Who God is for ourselves.  St. Thomas thought this idea so important for understanding Who God is, he tackles it at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae (Book I question 8).

To understand this, it is first important to define precisely what we mean by the term essence.  The essence of a created thing is what that thing is; what makes it to be that particular type of thing and not something else.  What the New Age believer says about God is that He is part of the essence of all things.  But because God is simple (i.e. cannot be divided into parts), then everything contains God they argue.  This is where the Church differs from the New Age believer.  Relying on the teachings of Aquinas, the Church says that God is in created things “but not as part of their essence.” Everything is not God.  When we say that God is in everything what we mean truly is that He is present to all things.

We must also make clear what we mean when we say that a spiritual substance is “in” something.  For example, what do we mean when we say that the soul is in the body?  It does not mean that it is found inside the body, but that it acts upon the body.  Death is when the body degrades to the point that the soul no longer can act upon it.  So too with God, we say that God is in something in the sense that He is acting upon it.  When we say that God is in everything what we mean truly is that He is present to all things.


He is present in two ways— as efficient cause in that He is Creator of all and as an object of operation in that He acts on them, holding them in creation.

An analogy will help.  When a man builds a chair, we often say that he put his heart into it.  In that way the builder is in the chair.  This analogously is what we mean by God being in creation in the first sense as the creator.  Now suppose that the chair breaks and he glues it together.  Suppose further that in order for the glue to set properly he has to apply weight by sitting in the chair.   This is the second sense in which we mean that God is in all things holding them together.

In both cases though, the man is not part of the chair itself.  This is very important.  He is not part of the chair’s chairness or essence.  He is in the chair as its creator and as the one holding it together.

In short, the Church teaches that God is transcendent in His nature and immanent in His Presence.  He is wholly other because He is God, He is wholly present as Being itself (“I AM WHO AM”).  In fact, it is only because He is transcendent in His nature that He can be present to all things at all times.  The difference between God and the world is not a spatial one, but modal.  God doesn’t occupy another space but His way of being is qualitatively different than creation.

Furthermore, God is not equally in all things.  To reject this doctrine is ultimately a rejection of the Incarnation and Christianity itself.  Christianity is founded upon the belief that God was most fully present in the created humanity of Jesus Christ.

Because man is an intellectual creature, God is more in him than the rest of visible creation.  Man is the only being in visible creation who has the capacity to know and love God.  In that way God is “in” man as an object known is in the knower and the desired object is in the lover.  This presence is not as perfect as the presence of God in man when he is in a state of grace; for grace is the very life of the Trinity and “adheres” to the human soul.  Sanctifying grace means that God acts directly upon the human soul, making all of its actions God-like.

Above it was mentioned in passing that God is most fully present, in the Incarnation.  He is really and truly present in the Person of Jesus Christ.  His human nature was the one thing in visible creation that contains the very essence of God.  The Eucharist, as the extension in time and space of Christ’s personal sacrifice on the Cross, also makes Him fully personally present.  While in the Incarnation His divinity remained hidden within the human nature of Christ, in the Eucharist not only His divinity remains hidden, but His humanity hides under the appearances of bread and wine.  Although hidden under these signs, He is no less present than He was when He walked the Earth.  This is what we mean when we say that the Eucharist contains the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ.

Herein lies the problem with the effort to associate the New Age with St. Francis of Assisi—the Eucharist.  He may be remembered most for his love of animals and evangelical poverty, but his writings show his greatest love among all of Creation was for the Eucharist.  He believed in the Real Presence, not just intellectually, but with a heart that burned to adore Our Lord in the Eucharist.  In his Letter to All the Friars he implored his spiritual sons to “show all reverence and all honor possible to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in whom the things that are in heaven and the things that are on earth are pacified and reconciled to Almighty God.  I also beseech in the Lord all my brothers who are and shall be and desire to be priests of the Most High that, when they wish to celebrate Mass, being pure, they offer the true Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ purely, with reverence, with a holy and clean intention, not for any earthly thing or fear or for the love of any man, as it were pleasing men.”

Keeping Your Hands to Yourself

The irony is not lost on me that very often the Sign of Peace invokes a chaotic scene during the Mass.  A virtual love-fest breaks out as each member of the congregation must shake hands or hug anyone else within their immediate vicinity.  Adding to the chaos, the priest often leaves Jesus alone on the altar to shake hands with those in the congregation.  Because of its disruptive nature, there are those traditionalists who would want to do away with it altogether.  But the problem is not so much with the Sign of Peace itself.  Instead, it is with the gross misunderstanding of what is actually going on.

By way of reminder, the purpose of the Mass is to re-present the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the altar of the Cross so that we can each actively participate in it.  And because it is a Sacrament or sign of that Sacrifice, we need to wrap it in liturgical form that makes it clear as to what is happening before us.  Each part of the liturgy then must be carefully constructed so that these signs within the Sign act as beacons, pointing to the Reality.

In this regard the Sign of Peace is no different.  It is no mere practical greeting but instead a ritual exchange.  As members of His Body, we are turning to those around us in order not to wish them well, but as a sign of the peace and unity that Christ promised to the Church.  It is therefore meant to convey the truth that when the Body is united under the Head there is communion among the individual members.  There is order within the Body and peace, the tranquility of order, follows.  There may be strife between the members (“look not on our sins”), but the handshake of peace shows that reconciliation has happened.

The people sitting around us are not so much our nuclear family or friends, but representatives of the Body of Christ.  The Sign of Peace conveys the love that the members have for each other as members of Christ’s Body—a love that has its root in the Sacrifice that we have all offered to the Father and that we are preparing to receive.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons (although certainly not the only) we should not hold hands during the Our Father.  It detracts away from the meaning of the Sign of Peace.

Despite becoming a tradition in many churches, the habit of holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer is a rather recent innovation.  Although it is uncertain as to how it started (some say it is borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous or the charismatic renewal) and whether it is licit (in my own Diocese of Raleigh it is “strongly discouraged”), it detracts from the Liturgy itself.  Although we begin the Prayer with the words “Our Father” it is not primarily the unity of being “sons in the Son” that places the prayer here in the Mass.  Instead it is the eschatological nature of the Lord’s Prayer that bears emphasis.  Dr. Brant Pitre has an excellent and accessible article on how the disciples would have viewed the prayer itself as a prayer for the definitive coming of the New Kingdom.  You can read all the details here, but the point is that the Our Father is primarily a prayer we say as “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Chaotic Sign of Peace

Once we have held hands praying the family prayer, the Sign of Peace seems superfluous and loses its nature as a sign.  We now are only able to see it as something practical.  Once we treat it as a practical greeting it loses its effectiveness as a sign and therefore so too does everything else leading up to the reception of the Sign.  It is the Eucharist in which the unity that is expressed in the Sign of Peace becomes a reality on the basis of the biblical principle that:  “Those who eat the sacrifices are partners in the altar” (1Cor 10: 18).  If however we have roamed around the Church for 3 minutes greeting everyone we can get near, we forget this.  The Sign of Peace becomes the basis of the Communion rather than something pointing to its real source.

There is one further practical problem that bears mentioning.  The chaotic nature of the Sign of Peace has gone on long enough that most people act out of ignorance.  Bearing in mind the sensitivity of those around us and not wanting to appear in any way unwelcoming, how can we turn this around?

It begins with a catechetical solution.  We should instruct our children as to its true meaning.  Priests and Deacons can also mention it during their homily.  A quick mention with a brief explanation for several weeks can change the culture within the Parish.  They can also help by staying on the altar and not roaming about, even to offer peace to the altar servers.

For those in the pews, the process of changing the chaos into true Peace means only turning to those directly beside us.  Obviously if someone else offers their hand we should take it.  Some may think you unfriendly, but that can easily be remedied by making it a point after Mass to speak to those around you (and no, not about why you didn’t shake their hand).  Catholic churches are notoriously unfriendly and cliquish places and this habit of making sure we talk to those around us after Mass can kill two birds with one stone.  Having a conversation with them will certainly dispel any whisperings in their mind that you are somehow unfriendly and they might even begin to wonder why (and even ask) you do what you do during the Sign of Peace.

As a kid, and anyone who has young boys has probably said this too, I was told to “keep your hands to yourself” by my Mom.  It seems Holy Mother Church needs to tell her children the same thing during Mass, especially during the Our Father and the Sign of Peace.

Why ad Orientem Matters

In what has become a controversial interview with the French Catholic magazine Famille Chretienne, Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah, encouraged the practice of priest and people facing east (ad Orientem in Latin) together during certain parts of the Mass.  Unfortunately, his repeated calls for a return to the constant practice of the Church until the Second Vatican Council, like those of Cardinal Ratzinger before him, have mostly been ignored.  This is because the idea of the priest “turning his back on the people” signals an antiquated liturgical practice that was left behind with the reforms of Vatican II.  To dismiss this practice solely base on this, misses the  point of the point entirely and so it will be highly beneficial for us to investigate why the Cardinal is right.

It is helpful to begin by looking at some of the recent history.  The Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, is silent on the issue of orientation.  What the Constitution does emphasize is “active participation” of the laity during the Mass.  In order to supposedly facilitate this active participation, the instruction for implementing the Constitution Inter Oecumenici mentions a celebration versus populum (“facing the people”) as a possibility but does not prescribe it.  In the General Instruction for the Mass that followed in 1975, said that:

In every church there should ordinarily be a fixed, dedicated altar, which should be freestanding to allow the ministers to walk around it easily and Mass to be celebrated facing the people, which is desirable whenever possible.

This translation was interpreted by many to mean that Mass facing the people was desirable.  But the phrase “which is desirable whenever possible (‘quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit)’ refers to the provision for a freestanding altar and not to the desirability of celebration towards the people.

Very often liturgical purists will argue that celebration versus populum came out of nowhere.  Certainly there was enough vagueness to open the door for its widespread practice, but the Church did very clearly and validly offer it as an option.  The desire to have Mass offered ad orientem must not be based on a mere love for antiquity.  We must avoid the trap Pius XII warned of related to the “liturgy of the early ages..[It] must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity. . . . [I]t is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device” (Mediator Dei, 61).  The point that the Cardinal is making is a more balanced one in that he thinks this experiment was a failure and that we need to change it.

In his book Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, Abbot Vonier calls the sacrifice of the Mass a “profoundly human thing.”  What he means by this is that despite the fact that it is centered upon a divine act, what surrounds that divine act is done by men and under their control.  More to the point, the Church is the custodian of the Sacraments and she has the power to add to the institutional signification and adorn the action making it a celebration that adds a certain clarity to the divine action.  While the Church cannot change the Sacraments themselves because they are divine instituted, she can and should surround them with meaningful liturgical forms.  These liturgical forms are sacraments of the Sacraments in that they are meant to more fully reveal what is actually happening, always with the goal of making it easier for men in a given culture and time to enter more fully into the mystery of the Sacrament.

This is why we can say that the liturgy is organic and can change based on a given culture and time.  But it cannot just simply be any change that people want to see, but instead each new development must be tested by whether it is in harmony with the essence of the liturgy or whether it detracts from it.  It is only in this light that we can evaluate whether the change in which has been deemed organic enhances the understanding of the Mass or detracts from it.  It is most assuredly the latter for several reasons.

The principle of “active participation” of the faithful requires that first and foremost there be an understanding of what they are actively participating in.  What is primarily going on during the Mass is a sacrifice.  This topic has been covered in other places, but it bears repeating that what is actually going on is Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross being made present to the Church so that the members can personally and actively participate in it.  But most Catholics would associate the Mass with a community meal.  Where would they get this idea?


With priest and people facing each other, it certainly looks like a closed in community with the priest at the head of the table.  This closed in community has come together to share, like all meals do, the sustenance of life.   But the Eucharist is not a community meal in the strict sense.  First of all, not everyone present shares in it.  Second it is based on a misunderstanding of the Sacramental nature of the Mass.  While it was instituted in the context of a Jewish festal meal, what Christ commanded the Apostles to repeat in memory of Him was not the meal, but the new reality He created.  Even if it were viewed in terms of that particular meal, the circumstances of the Last Supper were vastly different.  As was custom, the diners reclined on couches arranged in a semicircle, with small tables being used for holding food and dishes.  In other words the meal had an open orientation with all the diners facing the same direction.

Furthermore, that meal that Jesus shared cannot be understood without the notion of sacrifice.  The Jewish Passover meal was one that centered on the sacrifice and eating of the Passover Lamb.  The meal Jesus shared with the Apostles was marked by the fact that the victim of the sacrifice was Himself.

How would restoring the orientation of the priest change this?  When the priest and people are facing the same direction, there is no question as to the nature of what is going on.  The community is making the offering of the Son to the Father.  The priest serves as representative of the people, conformed sacramental to Christ the Priest and the altar is raised above the people to show the upward motion of the sacrifice.  The liturgy with priest and people facing the same direction then makes evident not just the sacrificial character of the Mass but also the Real Presence.  It is not accidental that in the years since the implementation of versus populum that a belief in the Real Presence has steadily declined—lex orandi, lex credenda—how we worship affects what we believe.

A quick word on the use of the term ad orientem (Latin “to the east).  The reason this term is emphasized is so that we do not fall into the trap of thinking the priest is turning his back on the people.  Like all Sacraments, the Eucharist has not just a past and present orientation, but a future as well.  We are to celebrate the Eucharist “until You come again.”   We are to be on the watch for His return.  To emphasize this connection between the liturgy and the cosmos, our watching ought to be towards the east (or at least towards the apse which represents a “liturgical east” in those churches not suitably oriented).  According to Origen, this eastward direction of prayer is something that has marked Christian prayer from antiquity and was handed on from Christ and the Apostles.  St. Thomas says the facing east during prayer is fitting because

the Divine majesty is indicated in the movement of the heavens which is from the east. Secondly, because Paradise was situated in the east according to the Septuagint version of Genesis 2:8, and so we signify our desire to return to Paradise. Thirdly, on account of Christ Who is ‘the light of the world’ [John 8:12; 9:5, and is called ‘the Orient’ (Zechariah 6:12). Who mounteth above the heaven of heavens to the east (Psalm 67:34), and is expected to come from the east, according to Matthew 24:27, ‘As lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even into the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be’” (ST II-II, q.84, art.3, ad.3).

Cardinal Ratzinger made the common sense observation that ordinarily when we speak to someone we face them so that when we speak to God in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, priest and people is one voice.  Therefore they should be facing the same direction.  This is also why the Pope Emeritus makes a sharp distinction between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  During the Liturgy of the Word, there is a certain dialogue that goes on and thus it is fitting that the priest and people face each other.  But in the Liturgy of the Eucharist the direction changes, something that ought to be revealed in the liturgical form (with the exception of the few times of dialogue).

We can see then that with a proper understanding of an ad orientem posture it helps to more fully reveal what is happening at Mass.  This is at the heart of Cardinal Sarah’s repeated protestations of the current practice.  If our goal is conversion and turning to the Lord, we ought to seriously consider changing our position.

The Sacrifice of the Mass

One of the great advantages that the early Christians had over those “who have not seen and yet believed” is that they questioned many of the things that we merely accept as givens.  This might explain why they were able to endure great persecution; it allowed them to more fully assimilate the Christian message.  If we are to share their deep faith, then we can benefit greatly from questioning our assumptions.  One such assumption that seems foundational is the habit of speaking Our Lord’s action on the Cross as a sacrifice.  Yet, a disinterested observer (either Jew or Gentile) would have seen it merely as an execution carried out in the cruelest manner possible.  How then did the early Christians (and how do we) know it was a sacrifice?

In a culture that is removed from the idea of animal sacrifice, it is first necessary to say a few words about sacrifices in general.  It must be viewed as more than worship owed to God by offering something precious to Him through its death or destruction.  If we use the example given to us in the Old Testament we find that the sacrifices are not some arbitrary slaughtering of the herd, but a pre-arranged transaction between God and man.  Only certain types of sacrifices are pleasing to God and it is not just because of the “heart” of the person offering the sacrifice.  God seems to control nearly all the rubrics of man’s sacrifices.  This is not because He is the Divine control-freak, but because all the ancient sacrificial rites were meant to point and prepare for the definitive sacrifice.  Each sacrifice prescribed in the Old Testament is meant to serve as a type of this definitive sacrifice.  Therefore each of these types of sacrifices served to add clarity to and more fully reveal the definitive sacrifice when it occurs.

What this means specifically is that unless Christ’s death on the Cross was done in a ritualistic manner, then no one would say it was a sacrifice at all.  It is not enough for it to have obvious parallels to the Passover sacrifice such as none of His bones being broken, the time of His death being the same time the Passover lamb was slaughtered, and the blood and water after His death flowing out of His side as it did from the side of the Temple after the Passover sacrifice.   Any number of circumstances can always be explained away, especially when so much is at stake.  What makes it recognizable as the Sacrifice is the Institution of the Eucharist the night before.  It is God who institutes each of the covenantal sacrifices and gives them their meaning.  He is the One who appoints the priest, the victim and the manner of sacrifice.

Sacrifice of the Mass

Therefore it is the Eucharist that gives the sacrifice on the Cross its meaning and the sacrifice on the Cross gives the Eucharist its power.  The two are intrinsically linked and if we reject one, then we are apt to reject the other.  Herein lies the reason why Protestantism is necessarily false in all its forms—it rejects the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Catholics bear some responsibility for this rejection because we do not adequately understand this connection nor explain it accurately.

To understand the link, we must begin by making a very important distinction.  Within visible creation, God has created two orders—the natural and the Sacramental.  While they operate in parallel, they do not follow the same set of laws.  The natural realm consists of those things that our ordinary powers may operate upon.  The Sacramental realm operates on the level of signification.  But they are not like “natural” signs pointing to a thing but are instead perfect signs in that they contain and bring about the thing that they signify.

This principle is helpful because it allows us to add clarity to the notion of the “unbloody” Sacrifice of the Mass.  The essence of a sacrifice consists in the separation of the blood from the body the victim by the priest.  Experience tells us what this looks like in the natural realm.  But in the Sacramental realm it “looks” different and can only be seen through the eyes of faith.  Namely, the element of destruction that is found in natural sacrifices is absent.  Still the essence of the total separation of body and blood of the victim remains the same.

Operating in the Sacramental realm, the Body of Christ is really present through the words of consecration.  So too the Blood of Christ is made present.  And yet because they appear under two separated elements, one can rightly call it a sacrifice.  Recall that in the Sacramental realm the signs contain the thing they signify so that the Body of Christ is truly present separate from the Blood.  The sacrifice that occurs then also contains the historical event in which the natural Body and Blood were separated, namely the death on the Cross.  His sacrificial death is the separation of His Body and Blood and no less than this happens on the Altar during Mass.  But it happens in the Sacramental Realm so that it would be incorrect to say that Christ’s natural Body and Blood were separated again and that He is somehow sacrificed anew.  This Sacramental Sacrifice re-presents Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, but does not cause it to occur again.

There is a danger in all that I have said to think that the belief in the Real Presence is something of an add-on, but it too follows from grasping the difference in the natural and Sacramental realms and calling to mind the Hypostatic Union.  As human creatures, we have complete human natures and at the moment of creation we become persons.  This is not the case with the Incarnation.  The Eternal Son of God who was already a Person, took a complete human nature to Himself.  In that way He is a Divine Person with two natures, human and divine.  Related to the matter at hand, when Christ died on the Cross, His soul separated from His body.  Yet, both of these parts of His human nature remained united to Him.  When His soul descended to the Hades, it was the Person Who performed the action.  While His Body lay in the tomb, it was still united to Him and He is said to have rested in the tomb.  What this means for our investigation is that when Christ’s Body is made sacramentally present, the Person is made present along with it.  They cannot be separated.  So too with the Blood.  This means that the Person of the Son is really present in the Eucharist under both kinds.  But He does not appear as in his natural state with a body, but instead in His Sacramental state under the appearance of bread and wine.  Still, and this bears repeating, His Presence is just as real as when He was with God in the Beginning, walked the face of the earth, rose from the dead, etc.

Seeing the Eucharist as simultaneously Sacrament and sacrifice has a direct bearing on the current debate regarding Remarried and the Eucharist.  By looking at it only as a Sacrament, there appears to be little benefit to those in irregular marriages.  However when we emphasize its sacrificial character we realize it is a benefit not only to the one receiving but to all present (more specifically in the Church).  This is why protecting its sacred character helps not just those receiving but all those in the Church.

In conclusion, it seems that there is a greater need to preach the link between Calvary and the Mass not just for apologetical purposes, but also because it has a great effect on personal devotion.  The Eucharist is the “source and summit of our faith” because the Cross too is the source and summit.

Finding the Thread

In its Constitution on Divine Revelation, Dei Verbum, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council presented an integrated vision of the two fonts of Revelation, namely Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.  For many Catholics however, the font of Sacred Scripture has been reduced to a steady drip.  In a cultural milieu in which we have grown accustomed to deferring to the “expert,” Christians have left the reading and interpretation of Scripture to so called “Scripture Scholars.”  But Scripture is not just the ramblings of an absent God sending (now outdated) messages to His people.  Instead it is meant to play an active role in the life of every believer.  God’s plan of salvation is by no means complete and through His Providential care the Scriptures remain “living and active” (Heb 4:12).  In order for us to turn the trickle into a torrent, we must commit to engaging the Scriptures with regularity.  To this end, I find no more important interpretive key to unlocking the Scriptures than the idea of Covenant.

We need look no further than how we divide the Bible to see the importance of covenant to the plan of salvation.  The word “Testament” is an imperfect rendering of the word “covenant” (Hebrew berit, Greek diatheke).  Despite the difference in terms, it should not obscure the fact that the concept of covenant is central to biblical thought.

Although you will not find the term “covenant” defined within Sacred Scripture itself, recent research into ancient covenants in the biblical world has led to scholars defining covenants as “a widespread legal means by which duties and privileges of kinship may be extended to another individual or group” (Protestant scholar Frank Moore Cross’ definition).  Although similar to a contract in its nature, a covenant is distinct.  As Scott Hahn is fond of saying, “a contract involves an exchange of goods, whereas a covenant involves an exchange of persons.”  In essence, covenants form families.  This is why marriage, until recently, was viewed as the primordial covenant by most people.  In exchanging vows in a covenantal marriage ceremony the spouses are exchanging themselves and thus form a family that cannot be dissolved.  A contractual view of marriage merely agrees to share everything while they are married and split it equitably upon dissolution—unless there is a pre-nup.  It is also why God uses the imagery of marriage for His relationship with mankind (c.f Is 62.5, John 3:22) and the Church herself is so solicitous to protect a true understanding of marriage.

How a covenant was made is also important.  The central act of the covenant making was the swearing of an oath by the parties.  The oath invoked God (or the gods) to inflict some curse on its swearer if he does not uphold his obligations.  It also called upon God for his help in keeping it.  It was usually followed up with a common meal to seal the new relationship.  The meal is meant to signify a sharing of life together because food is a source of life.  As an aside, we see why families eating meals together is so important.  They are truly sacramental (small ‘s’) in that they bring about what they signify—the sharing of food as a source of life leads to the strengthening of that shared life.

A good example of a covenant is found in Genesis 26:27-31.  Here Isaac is approached by a supposed enemy Abimelech and the two make a covenant not to do harm to each other (vv28-29).  They share a meal (v.30) and swear the sacred oaths (v.31) before taking leave of each other.  But this covenant is meant only to be a type of the divine Covenant that God makes with mankind.

Divine covenants act as threads that weave all of the Books of the Bible together.  All total, God makes seven covenants with mankind, each mediated by a different person.  Not coincidentally, the number seven in Hebrew literally means to swear an oath (c.f. Genesis 21).  Each of these covenants contain a liturgical form around their swearing and extend God’s family to more of mankind.  Each contains blessings and curses and each contains a sign that acts as a renewal.

Although the word “covenant” is never used explicitly in the Creation account (Hos 6:7 says “Like Adam, Israel transgressed the covenant”), God makes a covenant with all mankind through Adam.  Once the stipulations of that Covenant are broken (refrain from the eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil—Gn 2:16-17), God re-establishes a covenant with Noah (c.f. 6:18).  This covenant He then renews that covenant with Noah (Gn 6:18) and his family.  From there he extends the covenant to Abraham and his descendants (there are two covenants here) and then to Israel through Moses and David.  Each of these covenants should be viewed as cumulative, each building on the previous one and inviting more people into the familial bond.  Finally, there is the final or “New” Covenant that is Christ, including all mankind through the Church.

Notice that I didn’t say that the New Covenant is mediated through Christ but instead that the New Covenant is Christ.  It certainly is mediated through Him, but not in the same way as the others.  He brings all the blessings of the covenants to the new People of God which is the Church (we are a new creation because of the new Adam Gal 6:15) and takes all the curses of the previous covenants upon Himself (e.g. Israel deserved death for breaking the covenant in Ex 24:8 when they worshipped the golden calf in Ex 32:14 but the price was paid by Christ Himself for Israel in Heb 915).  It is in His name that all mankind is saved.  He, Who is the true Son of God, turns us into adopted sons.

That Christ was instituting this New Covenant at the Last Supper is obvious to anyone who reads the Institution narratives (c.f. Luke 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25).  But I do not think the implications of it are as obvious unless we understand some of the above covenantal theology.  In my opinion a greater understanding of the covenantal nature of salvation history points to an important truth about the Catholic Church as the one true Church formed by Christ.

daVinci-Last Supper

If Christ was making a new covenant between God and mankind then one must be led to the question of how one enters into this Covenant.  To enter into the Old Covenant, a man must have been circumcised (women were Jewish by birth).  St. Paul tells the Colossians that Baptism is the “Circumcision of Christ” (Col 2:11-12).  This points to the necessity of baptism to enter into a covenant with God and explains why Catholics universally advocate infant baptism.  By being baptized, one enters into the New Covenant by putting on Christ.  We literally enter the family of God by being sacramentally conformed to His Son.

But there is an even more important tie to the Eucharist.  Recall what Christ said over the chalice—“this chalice is the new covenant in my blood.”  It isn’t His death on the Cross, but the chalice that is the new covenant in His blood.  Now certainly His death and resurrection are necessary to make His blood efficacious for giving new life, but it is the chalice itself that is the new covenant.

We now begin to see why the Church sees the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian life.  The Church ratifies the Covenant with God each time the Eucharist is consecrated and establishes her power to invite others into this covenant family through baptism.  It also is more than a mere sign.  In human covenants a non-material consanguinity is established between the partners.  While this creates a communion between the parties, they still do not have the same blood flowing through their veins.  But in the Eucharist a true communion greater than any human covenant is created.  God and man now truly have the same blood flowing through their veins.  We partake of the blood of Jesus and have the blood of true sons within us.  As Pope Benedict said in his Holy Thursday homily in 2009, “Can we now form at least an idea of what happened at the hour of the Last Supper, and what has been renewed ever since, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist? God, the living God, establishes a communion of peace with us, or to put it more strongly, he creates “consanguinity” between himself and us. Through the incarnation of Jesus, through the outpouring of his blood, we have been drawn into an utterly real consanguinity with Jesus and thus with God himself.”

Herein lies the profound truth and necessity of the Catholic Church.  Where else does one find all the means necessary to enter into and renew the New Covenant?  Notice how the Mass fulfills all the aspects—liturgical, familial and legal—of the covenant-making ceremony outlined in Exodus 24.  It is the liturgy in which the sacrifice is offered while invoking the Lord.  The familial bond is shown through the shared meal between God and His people.  The oath is expressed in each of our Amens and the pouring out of the blood.

May the Blood of Jesus, poured out for me, flow through my veins!


John 6 and the New Manna

There is an expression among biblical scholars that we would all do well to remember: “A text without a context becomes a pretext for a proof-text.”  The point that they are making is that we must always be on guard when reading and meditating upon Scripture to be sure to understand the context in which it is written.  As Catholics we read John 6 as a proof-text for the Eucharist (which it is) but John includes this chapter in his gospel for a deeper reason than merely introducing the Real Presence of the Eucharist.  As the Church offers us this chapter this week in the Daily Liturgy, it is instructive to examine some of the background.

While it is true that many first century Jews were looking for a political messiah, to paint with a broad brush and say all were waiting for this type of Messiah is not true.  Most were awaiting a new Exodus.  For the Jews, the Passover and the Exodus were (and still are) the central events of their faith because they represented God’s definitive action and future promise to save them.  This would have been readily known by the Jewish Christians in John’s Community and is an important interpretive key for understanding John’s Gospel as a whole and John 6 specifically.

Jesus makes reference to the new Exodus most clearly when He is asked point-blank by the disciples of John the Baptist whether He is the Messiah.   He responds by making reference to one of Isaiah’s prophecies regarding the new exodus—“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Mt 11:4-5)

In the Transfiguration Moses and Elijah were to speaking to Jesus about His “exodus which He was to accomplish at Jerusalem”—this gives us an essential clue to when the new exodus would be fulfilled: during Jesus’ passion and death in Jerusalem.

This new Exodus could be summarized in four key events:

(1) The New Moses—see Dt 18:15-18 where Moses promises a “prophet like me.”   This is a theme throughout John’s Gospel, the most obvious of which is the Woman at the Well where she mentions that she has found “the Prophet.”

(2) “Cut” a New Covenant—the making of the first Sinai Covenant involved a heavenly meal like when Moses and the elders feast in the presence of God—“They beheld God and ate and drank” (Ex 24:11).  The promise of the New Covenant comes in Jeremiah 31:31-33.  Jesus’ fulfillment of it (with its accompanying meal) is done at the Last Supper (Luke 17:14-20) but not consummated until the Cross (John 19:30).

(3) The New Temple—This one is the most obvious from John’s Gospel.  One can see Micah 4:1-2 for the prophecy.  The Cleansing of the Temple is Jesus’ sign that He will fulfill this (rather than chastising Him for cleansing the Temple, the Jews merely ask “what sign do you give us for this?”).  Another significant text that factors into our discussion is Mt 12:1-8 when Jesus says, “Something greater than the Temple is here.”

(4) The New Promised Land—See Is 60:21.  There is more detail on this as well, but for the sake of our discussion we can set this aside.

Any Jew would have known that if there was a new exodus then there must also be a new Passover.  If Jesus saw Himself as inaugurating a new exodus then He would have seen the need to provide food for the journey.  What is often forgotten or overlooked is the fact that not only did manna come from heaven but flesh came from heaven in the evening as well.  If the first Moses gave Israel manna, then it was expected that the second would as well.  The people clearly expect this as well as John 6:22-34 shows.

Another key question is how is God worshipped once the new exodus begins?

Although many Christians are familiar with the animal sacrifice of the Old Testament, there were actually two types of sacrifices performed in the Old Testament.  The first is the bloody animal sacrifice and the second was an “unbloody “sacrifice which consisted of bread and wine.

This second offering is a sacrifice of thanksgiving (the Greek word is Eucharistia) that was offered every Sabbath day (see Lev 24:5-7).  This was a perpetual sacrifice that was to be offered “forever” since it belongs to the Melchizedekian priesthood (see Gn 12, Ps 110, Hebrews 5-8 in which this priesthood is applied to Christ).  It is only the bloody sacrifice for sin that ceased when the Lamb of God was offered “once for all.” A first century Jew would have been well aware of the weekly offering of the Bread of the Presence.

Clearly then the Bread of the Presence (or showbread as some translations [KJV, NAB] call it) was a sacrifice (see Ez 41:21-22 where there is an altar and incense which are obvious accompaniments of sacrifice), but what did the Jews believe about the Bread itself—why was it called the “Bread of the Presence” or more accurately in Hebrew “the bread of the face (panim)”?

During the three main Jewish feasts (Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles), Jewish men were commanded to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in order to “appear before the face of the Lord God (panim), the God of Israel” (Exodus 34:23; 23:17).  If we turn to extra-biblical sources of the time (Babylonian Talmud for example) we find that the priests would raise the bread of the Presence before the people at the festivals and tell them “Behold God’s love for you.” (Babylonian Talmud, Menahoth 29A).

Now it may be granted neither the Old Testament nor the extra-biblical sources tell us whether the Jews viewed the Bread of the Presence as merely a symbol or the actual face of God.  Either way it is important that we come away with the two main points – that it was a sacrifice and (at least) a symbol of God’s Presence.

If we go to any of the Last Supper accounts, we see Jesus equating the Bread and Wine with Himself.  As Christians, we have heard this so often that we do not give it a second thought.  But this is really strange language unless the idea of bread and wine representing a person is not a foreign concept.  With this Old Testament background, we see now why the Apostles have no questions at the Last Supper when Jesus did this.

Feeding 5000

With our first Century Jewish Christian lenses cleaned off, we commence at the beginning of John 6.  We find that the Passover is near.  This is a hint to the reader that Jesus’ sign is intimately tied up with the Passover and that His actions and discourse will give a new and greater meaning to it.  After the miraculous feeding of the multitude, we then find Jesus “parting the waters,” so to speak, and crossing the sea.  Immediately the reader is thinking, “Passover, miraculous bread, walking on water, this must have something to do with the new Exodus.”  Lo and behold, we find that when the people catch up to Jesus they raise the topic of Moses.  “Could this be the new Moses?” is what they are thinking.

Some key verses for us to reflect on:

John 6:25—Jesus asks the crowd why they are truly seeking Him.  Is it because they saw a miracle in the multiplying of the loaves or because they really saw a sign?  It turns out that it was the latter because they make mention of Moses.  But the Manna from Heaven ceased and would perish at the end of the day.  Some people misread this and think that the people just like the idea of getting a free meal.  But these people are seeking the new manna because they want to be a part of the new exodus.  The people want the bread of God that lasts always and not the old manna which perished at the end of the day.

John 6:35—This is the first half of the discourse that serves as an invitation to faith.  Here we find Jesus first introducing the idea of Him as the Bread of Life.  This is meant both as an invitation for the people to come to Jesus and believe in Him for salvation.  But the people do not ask why He has called Himself bread (not such a strange concept given what was said above regarding the Bread of the Presence) but instead how He could be from Heaven.

John 6:48—This is the second half of the discourse in which Jesus is no longer speaking symbolically as He was in verses 35-47.  Instead He repeats several times that the Jews must eat His body and drink His blood.  Again this is not what they question, however.  Instead what they question is how He can give His body to eat.   It seems pretty straightforward in Jn 6:55 that Jesus is saying that His flesh and blood are real food and only those that eat them abide in Him.

John 6:58-59—This is the crux of the issue and proof that Jesus is not speaking symbolically.  He says that the Bread that He gives is the fulfillment of the manna from Heaven.  Remember, this was one of the things that they were awaiting as a result of the messianic age.  What exactly was the first manna?

It was the supernatural “bread of angels” (Ps 78:25) come from Heaven.  The question that one must answer then is this – if the first manna was supernatural bread from Heaven, how could it’s fulfillment that Jesus is bringing about just be a symbol?  In other words, the old manna would be greater than the new if the new manna is just a symbol.  If Jesus was speaking symbolically here, this would be the one and only place in salvation history laid out in the Bible in which the Old Testament prefiguration is something that is greater than the New Testament fulfillment.

“A Hard Saying”—Again the stumbling block for the Jews was not so much that they had to eat his body and drink His blood, but how this could be possible.  Jesus’ response says that it will only make sense when the “Son of Man ascends to where He was before.”   “It is the Spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail.”  What this means is that it is His resurrected (and ascended) flesh that they will eat and not His earthly flesh.  It is His spiritual body that comes under the appearance of Bread and Wine (see Luke 24:35).