Suggested Lenten reading: Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

This year for Lent, we’re reading aloud Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper (affiliate link) by Brant Pitre.  I’m hoping to finish before Easter, so we’ll have plenty to think about over the Triduum. The high school kids are following it fine, and the younger kids are listening in and picking up some, if not all. I LOVE THIS BOOK. Pitre is a teacher, so the book is a pleasure to read out loud.

(You may recall that we were reading Bendict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth. Well, I really dug it, and so did Damien, but the kids were just not into it. So after a few chapters, we gave up. I still heartily recommend it, for high school-aged kids and up. If you’re looking for Lenten reading, you could go with the Holy Week volume of this three-book series.)

Here’s my review of Brant Pitre’s book, which was originally published on Patheos in 2011.

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Having celebrated more than forty Passover Seders with my Hebrew Catholic family, I anticipated already knowing most of what Brant Pitre has to say in Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper I already knew that Moses prefigured the Messiah to come; that the Last Supper was a Passover meal; that Jesus is both the paschal lamb and the unleavened bread eaten by the Jews, and that we celebrate this same mystery at Mass.

But, the details!

Did you know that the Jews’ Passover lamb was commonly nailed to a cross-shaped board? Did you know that the manna which sustained the Hebrews in the desert was thought to have been created before the Fall, and “had existed ‘on high’ in heaven” until God gave it to the people to eat? Did you know that the Bread of the Presence, which was consecrated and reserved in the tabernacle of the Temple, constituted both meal and unbloody sacrifice, and was offered with wine each Sabbath?

Did you know that temporarily-celibate Jewish priests would elevate this bread on feast days, and proclaim, “Behold, God’s love for you!”

All astonishing and illuminating facts. But this book is no mere collection of obscure coincidences and historical novelties related to Christ. Pitre sweeps the reader up in his enthusiastic rediscovery of the glorious symmetry of salvation history. It is a gorgeous, persuasive, and enthralling story that you’ve heard bits of here and there, but never with this cohesion. Pitre puts it all together.

The overwhelming sensation I had on reading this book was one of relief. I had fallen into thinking of the New Testament as the half of the Bible that is bright, hopeful, and fresh; whereas the Old Testament is blood and thunder, irrationality and murkiness, with flashes of half-understood prophecies whose fulfillment could only be appreciated in retrospect. As I read Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, I imagined Pitre’s research and exegesis rescuing generations of pre-Christian believers from that terrifying squalor of the half-life of prefigurement. He shows how all the world always has been, and always will be, loved and guided, and nourished most tenderly by the one true God.

A minor quibble—and I offer it mostly to show some balance to my enthusiasm; in his zeal to illustrate how Jesus’ contemporaries would have perceived his words and actions, Pitre occasionally strays into slightly jarring language. He speaks of Christ “expecting” and “hoping for” future events in His own life to fulfill the prophecies and traditions of the Jews. Although Pitre by no means implies that Jesus was not omniscient, this vocabulary sat oddly with me. It is, perhaps, the natural way to speak about the life of Christ in a book about the fulfillment of promises; but I wish he had made it more clear that the Exodus, the manna, the Bread of Presence, the Passover meal and its fourth and final cup of wine were all ordained expressly for, and in anticipation of, the things to come. Pitre does say this, to be sure (and the evangelist John says the same thing: that Jesus did things “to fulfill scripture”); but his tone occasionally implies that Christ’s actions were cannily calculated to persuade the Jews.

This is, as I say, a very minor and debatable quibble, which is overwhelmed by the true brilliance of the rest of the book.

Although this book is rigorously researched, Pitre’s tone is conversational and appealing. Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist began as a lecture, and reading it is like sitting in class with a gentle and intelligent teacher who anticipates questions, reminds us of what he told us before, and even suggests that we mark certain pages for future reference. The book is highly accessible, but by no means light reading. It is insightful, original, and frequently profound. Pitre shows his sources, and he warns the reader when his ideas are speculative.

This is, above all joyful book. And who may appreciate it? Curious Jews who do not accept Jesus as the Messiah. Protestants who think of the Eucharist as mere symbol. Casual scholars who sanction the mundane dumbing-down of miracles. Indifferent Confirmation students, whose eyes glaze over when they hear the words “sacrifice” and “covenant.”

And most of all, Catholics who desperately want to be more attentive, more engaged in the mystery of the Eucharist, because every time they go to Mass they know it’s really, really important, but it’s so hard to pay attention after all these years.

Pitre’s book will get your attention. With his strange and beautiful story of how God brings us the gift we receive every week, Pitre’s book will make you rejoice again—or maybe for the very first time—for what you have.

 

Yes, you can catch the flu from the Precious Blood (thank God)

It’s flu season, and it’s a tradition: Some Catholic always claims we can’t get sick from drinking the Precious Blood at Mass. Why? Because . . . well, it’s Jesus! Jesus doesn’t make you sick.

And anyway, it’s alcohol, so that should kill any germs. And anyway! I mean really! How can we profess our trust that Christ is life, and then immediately turn fearfully away from receiving the gift of His blood?

At our parish, they stopped offering the cup during flu season, so the choice is out of our hands. There appears to be a fairly low risk of actually contracting an illness from sharing the chalice, because metal doesn’t harbor microbes well, and because the rim is wiped regularly. Still, there is some risk. I decided a few years ago that if I have good reason to worry about my family’s health, then we have good reason to reverently bypass drinking from the cup.

We know that what is inside that cup is actually the Precious Blood. Its substance is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Himself. But it still has all the accidents, or physical properties, of wine: grapes, ethanol, etc. It sloshes like wine; it’s purple like wine; it has a little wobbly reflection of the fluorescent overhead lights in it, like wine; if you drink enough of it, you’ll get drunk, just like with wine.

And if it has other people’s germs in it, you might get sick from putting it in your mouth. Just like wine.

Harumph, you may say. I’m no fool. We most certainly can get sick from drinking from the cup – but that sickness is a small price to pay in exchange for receiving the Eucharist. After all, if Jesus walked through our front door during flu season, would we chase Him off because we might catch something?

To this, I respond: Let’s not invent sins that the Catechism never imagined. There are many reasons that the Eucharist (unlike the unprecedented house call described above) is offered so frequently, and that it’s offered under both kinds. One reason is that, if you need to be prudent and forego this sacrament completely one day (by staying home sick), or forego one kind (by only receiving the more hygienic Host), then the Church, as always, is accommodating. This is for your own benefit, and also for the benefit all the other parishioners. You can come again another day, and our patient Lord – who made the world, germs and all – will be there, happy to see that you’re feeling better now.

We are all called upon to make sacrifices, including mortifying the flesh; but deliberately exposing oneself to potentially fatal disease, and possibly spreading it . . . you know, maybe just put a pea in your shoe, instead, or say the rosary on your knees. Taking unnecessary risks with your health doesn’t sound like piety to me. It sounds like pride.

But what about the original argument, that we can acknowledge it’s possible to transmit germs through the Eucharist, but it’s more spiritually elevated to dwell only on the pure, holy, and edifying aspects of the Eucharist?

That would make Christ something of a fool. Why would He bother to become incarnate, if He expected us to pretend He wasn’t? Why would he bother taking on a human flesh, if He wanted us to flutter our eyes politely and pretend His body isn’t a real body?

Being a Catholic is all about the body. It’s all about manning up and admitting that this hunk of meat we drag around – whether it’s athletic, soft, withered, paunchy, or bouncing brand-new – is what we have to work with. Jesus, like us, saw with His googly eyeballs, all stuffed with jellylike vitreous humor; He moved His limbs with the aid of diarthrotic joints and synovial fluid. He had boogers. Remember? “Like us in all things but sin.”

I have always felt uneasy around the caroling of certain overly lovely traditions: that the baby Jesus, at His birth, filtered through Mary’s hymen like a sunbeam through a window pane; that “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Why shouldn’t He cry? I cry.

When I remember that He is really, truly a human, I remember that he really truly understands the burden of being a human. He doesn’t whisk our troubles away, or dazzle us with His divinity to distract us from the real world.  He sees our burden. He stands alongside us and helps us lift it, because He knows that it is real. Because He is real.

Isn’t our faith strange? It would be weird enough if we taught that the Blood of our Savior gave us mystical immunity from the flu. But the truth is even weirder.

What’s weirder still is that what looks all sloshy and purple, and what smells and tastes like something on sale at the Quik-E-Mart, is what will save our souls.

Weirdest of all: Christ is our Brother. His body had germs. His transubstantiated Blood has germs in it. If we don’t understand this, we’re in danger of making the Eucharist into something a little bit silly – something removed from us, something utterly beyond our grasp, something nebulous and magical, a trick. But the Eucharist is not magic, it’s better: It’s a miracle.  Miracles take nature and form it into something new, like clay becoming a cup. The Eucharist is not removed from the world; it transforms the world.

Well, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe God really does protect those trusting parishioners who hope in His mercy, and maybe He rewards their trust with good health. After all, saints have survived for years with no physical nourishment other than the Eucharist. St. Claire once frightened off an attacking horde of Saracens by holding up a consecrated Host.

But I don’t think I’m missing anything by thinking about germs. Thinking of God’s body, of His brotherhood with us, and thinking most of all of His suffering, and of His sympathy, helps me remember something it’s easy to forget, when I’m worn out, disgusted, flattened, fed up, and exhausted by this world and its disease: He is here with us, right now. He is one of us.

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Image: “The Increduity of St. Thomas” by Hendrick ter Brugghen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A version of this essay originally ran at Inside Catholic in 2009.

What does it mean to be present at Mass?

The great revelation: Whoever we are, whatever we’ve got, it’s still not enough. Whatever preparation we’ve done, it’s not enough. However attentive we are, it’s not enough. There is great peace in letting that knowledge sink into your heart: We’re not enough, and never can be — no, not even if we’re a shoeless Nigerian toiling through the Mangrove to get to Mass.

But Christ is all.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

Image: “Church Pew with Worshipers” by Vincent van Gogh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On fly ashes and flexibility

The Church doesn’t say, “Oh, well, no one should have to swallow a bug, so let’s just say that, if there’s a fly in there, it’s not really Jesus’ body, blood, soul, and divinity. Do what you like.” No. But neither does she say, “If you really, truly believe in the sacrament, then you have no other choice. Down the hatch, or you’re out.” She makes allowances for our humanity without denying Christ’s divinity. She is, in short, incarnational all the way down.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

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Image:  By Aravind Sivaraj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Feeding time in the Father’s nest

Sometimes we’ve developed such a strong taste for unhealthy, unnatural foods that good, plain ingredients taste bland and pointless to us. We have to retrain our palates before we can enjoy or even tolerate the things our tongues were designed to delight in.

And the same is true for the words of God. If the Gospel sounds dull, if the laws of God seem stodgy and arbitrary, if prayer always feels tiresome — well, there could be many reasons for this, but one common reason is that maybe you’ve ruined your spiritual palate by training it only to respond to cheap thrills and passing pleasures. Time to retrain.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Robert Lynch via Public Domain Pictures

Why you should care about gluten-free Communion—even if you eat wheat

After watching many secular media outlets butcher these very ready facts about gluten in the Eucharist, though, and after seeing educated Catholics retreat huffily into their corners, I began to wonder if I have a dog in this fight, after all. Maybe we all do. Because maybe this is not the first time we’ve seen some version of this fight.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

The Church is a big tent. But it does have walls.

Someone’s suffering, veiled abuela hobbled painfully past her contemporary, a fellow sporting athletic shorts and a pendulous ear gauge. A woman hung in the doorway of the Church of Christ, Scientist, gawking through the screen at this Church of Christ, Everyone. The traffic roared, the squirrels groused, and we lurched on, praying as we went.

Read the rest of my latest for Faith in Focus at America Magazine here.

Photo by Nestor Trancoso Creative Commons

Hey, faithful Catholics, why are YOU here?

This plea goes for sinners whose souls are heavy with old-fashioned sins of the flesh, and also for sinners whose souls are heavy with the even older sins of pride and presumption.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here.

And why are you at Mass?

The elderly gentleman thinks Pope Francis is some kind of pinko hippie, and there hasn’t been a real Pope in Rome since Giuseppe Siri, and he will tell you alllllll about it if he can get you cornered in the foyer.

The nun next to him is headed to a pro-choice rally after Mass, and is chilling some champagne for the day when women priests will finally be approved.

So … why are they at Mass?

Because Jesus is here, and He’s giving Himself away.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly here.

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Image: Christ revealed in the breaking of the bread, photo by Ted via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Food, Love, Law, Jesus: It’s All the Same Thing

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What God is trying to tell me is, “Sweetheart, why are you making this so complicated?”

Read the rest at the Register.

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