By David Cooley.
In the first installment of “The Eucharist: The Source and Summit” we focused on the doctrine of Jesus’ Real Presence and on prefigurements of the Eucharist in the Old Testament. In this second installment we now turn to the New Testament and will focus on the scriptural scenes and passages that pave the way for the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper.
Early in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus teaches his disciples to pray the “Our Father.” (Mt 6:9-15) It’s interesting that, in the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invites us to pray for food: “give us this day our daily bread.” This seems the most “human” or “practical” of all seven petitions in the prayer. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to “not be anxious about your life or what you shall eat” (Mt 6:25), yet he invites us to pray for what is necessary each day. Is it possible that Jesus is referring to a “daily bread” that is both physical and spiritual?
The fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ teaching against anxiety acknowledge our earthly needs but they also call us to turn our cares and worries over to God. We rest in God’s providence and we are called to have faith — an attitude of trust in the presence of God and openness to his will. It is not a blind trust, but an assent to what has been revealed to us.
So, while there is clearly a straightforward, earthly sense to this petition, there are deeper and higher dimensions as well.
The earthly sense is that we need sustenance to survive, and we should trust that God will take care of us. As, St. Cyprian (d. 258 AD) observes: anyone who asks for bread each day is poor. In other words, the prayer presupposes the poverty of the disciples — those who have renounced the world, seek no security other than God and pray for the fulfillment of his kingdom
The deeper dimension is found in the context of the Exodus, when the People of God, wandering in the desert, were fed by God himself with “manna from heaven.” Jesus referred back to that story when he said, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4; Deut 8:3). In this context, “our daily bread” is the Eucharist, the new manna from heaven.
In the fifth chapter of his book, “Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration” (Ignatius Press, 2007), Pope Benedict XVI points out that the Fathers of the Church were practically unanimous in understanding the fourth petition of the Our Father as a Eucharistic petition. “[I]n this sense the Our Father figures into the Mass liturgy as a Eucharistic table-prayer (i.e. ‘grace’).” (“Jesus of Nazareth,” pg. 154) In other words, the Our Father is our prayer before the meal at our Lord’s Table.
When Jesus feeds 5,000 people by miraculously multiplying bread we are reminded, again, of the miracle of manna in the desert. In the ancient Jewish tradition it was believed that manna was originally from the Garden of Eden but, after the fall of man, was taken away and stored in heaven. Therefore, manna was a perfect food unaffected by sin, and only appeared when God sent a mediator to deliver his people from slavery. It was also believed that the Messiah who was to come would be a new Moses and would bring with him a new manna. In the Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6:35-59), Jesus repeatedly refers to “manna from heaven,” using it to explain to his disciples how they would be able to eat his flesh and drink his blood. It seems just that the new manna provided by the Messiah would be even more miraculous than the ancient manna provided in the wilderness. Jesus said: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:51) When Jesus was in danger of losing many disciples because of this hard teaching he said, “For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (Jn 6:55)
New Testament scholars widely agree that Jesus is speaking here about the Eucharistic food and drink that he will give the disciples at the Last Supper. If we consider Jesus’ words in the Bread of Life discourse from an ancient Jewish perspective then the Eucharist could never be just a symbol, it must be supernatural bread from heaven. The Eucharist is a gift of himself that Jesus left behind for all time for the people of the New Testament — us. He left us himself in his sacrifice offered under the appearance of bread and wine. It is a manifestation of his boundless love. It is a uniquely intense fulfillment of the promise: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Mt 28:20
In the gospels, when Jesus speaks of bread or uses bread to perform a miracle there is always a transcendent message that mankind’s true food is the Logos, the eternal Word. In the Blessed Sacrament the Eternal Word becomes true manna for us, a taste of heaven that we can experience this very day. Being in communion with God, we are sharing in the life of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. The Eucharist, our daily bread, is spiritual food for our soul, giving us graces for our journey back to God.
David Cooley is co-director and office manager of the Office of Catechesis and Evangelization.