The Bible and the Eucharist: A Symbiotic Relationship
Exploring the intrinsic relationship between the Old and New Testaments and liturgy
From what sources should a deacon’s spiritual and ministerial life be nurtured? Two which are of primary importance are sacred Scripture and the holy Eucharist. The Directory for the Life and Ministry of Permanent Deacons, issued by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy in 1998, exhorts deacons both to “deepen their knowledge of the word, so as to hear its call and experience its saving power” (cf. Rom 1:16) and to “participate with particular faith at the daily celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice” (Nos. 199 and 205). The directory treats these two pillars of the deacon’s spiritual life separately, but it is worth asking: Is there a connection between the two? Is there a common thread linking Word and Eucharist which, when recognized, can lead to a deeper appreciation of both? Indeed there is, and the answer can be found in the symbiotic relationship that has characterized Scripture and liturgy from the beginning.
Scott Hahn speaks of an intrinsic relationship between the Bible and the liturgy that is both formal and material: formal in the sense that the vast majority of sacred Scripture was written for public proclamation in a worship setting; and material in the sense that the content of the Bible is heavily concerned with the proper worship of God.
Already in the Old Testament, the formal dimension of this relationship is evidenced in such passages as Baruch 1:14, where the audience is enjoined to “read aloud in the house of the Lord this scroll that we send you” … on “the feast day and during the days of assembly.”
Similarly, Nehemiah 8:3 depicts the public reading of the Torah to a receptive Jewish audience, who “listened attentively to the book of the law” as it was proclaimed from early morning until midday (a contrast with some contemporary Catholics who balk when the long-form of certain Lectionary readings is proclaimed!).
Perhaps the most significant example of the liturgical provenance of Old Testament writings is found in the Psalter. Nearly all of the psalms were composed for use in the liturgical worship of Israel at the Temple in Jerusalem. For example, Psalm 149, familiar to clergy from its wide usage in the Liturgy of the Hours, presupposes a liturgical gathering in its opening exhortation: “Sing to the Lord a new song, / his praise in the assembly of the faithful.”
The Liturgical Celebration of the Eucharist
“The liturgy of the Word and liturgy of the Eucharist together form ‘one single act of worship’; the Eucharistic table set for us is the table both of the Word of God and of the Body of the Lord.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1346
When we turn to the material relationship between Bible and liturgy in the Old Testament, we find that the worship of God is a primary theme in ancient Israel’s sacred books. The Book of Exodus reaches its glorious conclusion not (as might be expected) with the liberation of Israel from Egypt, but with the construction of the tabernacle and YHWH’s coming to dwell therein.
At the heart of the Pentateuch is Leviticus — a text often neglected by Christians — which for the Israelites was the Old Testament equivalent of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, setting forth detailed instructions for sacrificial worship and participation in the community’s liturgical life. In the narrative books, 1 and 2 Kings, the rulers of Israel and Judah are judged based on their fidelity to right liturgical worship — and nearly all are found wanting. Finally, the prophets of Israel regularly take their contemporaries to task for hypocrisy and infidelity in their worship of YHWH — hypocrisy insofar as there was often a disconnect between ritual and ethical worship (cf. Is 1:10-17) and infidelity insofar as the Israelites repeatedly went after other gods (cf. Hos 11:1-2). These examples alone (from many that could be cited) lend credence to the claim of the late Passionist Father and Bible scholar Carroll Stuhlmueller, that the Old Testament “carries the label ‘made for worship.’”
Before leaving the Old Testament and proceeding to the New Testament, we should note that the writings of ancient Israel not only bear witness to the symbiotic relationship between Scripture and liturgy but also foreshadow the Eucharist itself in significant ways.
Typologically, countless people and events prefigure this great sacrament. One thinks, for example, of Melchizedek, who offered a priestly sacrifice of bread and wine; the manna of the Exodus, the heavenly bread which nourished the children of Israel; and of Woman Wisdom, who invites her children to “eat of my food / and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Prv 9:5).
Moreover, key elements in Israel’s liturgical life laid the groundwork for Christ’s institution of the Eucharist in the New Testament. Of particular import are the sacrificial rites described in Leviticus and, above all, the celebration of the Passover, the rite through which YHWH’s redemption of Israel is both commemorated and made present for future generations of Jewish believers.
Pattern of Continuity
The writings of the New Testament bear witness to a pattern of continuity and fulfillment in relationship to the Old. There is continuity in that the New Testament also reflects the intrinsic relationship between Scripture and liturgy. There is fulfillment in that the prefigurations of the Eucharist found in the Old Testament are realized in Jesus’ institution of the sacrament and its centrality to the life of the early Church.
The texts which make up the New Testament were, like their Old Testament predecessors, intended to be read aloud within a worship setting, specifically, the public gathering for the Eucharist. We find evidence of this in various Pauline letters, which contain directives that the epistles be read aloud in church — for example in 1 Thessalonians 5:27 and Colossians 4:16). The Letter to the Hebrews was also likely written to be read at the Eucharist, which allows for a Eucharistic interpretation of the author’s assertions that his readers have “approached … the sprinkled blood” of Jesus (cf. Heb 12:22-24) and that “we have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Heb 13:10).
The Book of Revelation begins with a benediction upon the lector who will read the work and upon the assembly who will hear it (cf. 1:3), and ends with a pronouncement by Jesus himself that he is “coming soon” (22:20), a statement all the more intriguing if the first public reading of Revelation was followed by a celebration of the Eucharist where the Lord became present sacramentally.
The meaning and importance of Eucharistic worship is a recurring theme in the New Testament. The synoptic Gospels (along with 1 Corinthians) provide the pivotal narrative of Christ instituting the sacrament at the Last Supper, but the Eucharistic content of the New Testament goes much further.
The Evangelists make great efforts to demonstrate that the institution of the Eucharist was not an isolated event at the end of Jesus’ life, but rather was rooted in some of the most significant deeds and words of his public ministry. One thinks immediately of the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, but also of the table fellowship Jesus shared with friend and foe alike and the remarkable account (related in all four Gospels) of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The Gospel writers recount this event using unmistakably Eucharistic language (“he took … blessed … broke … gave”) as a way of drawing a link between Jesus’ miraculous provision of food to the hungry crowd and the equally miraculous means by which he gives himself as sacramental food to believers of every age.
In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes the “breaking of the bread” (his preferred term for what we now call the Mass) as one of four identifying marks of the early Church (cf. 2:42) and later provides the only New Testament narrative description of a Eucharistic celebration, when Paul presides over the breaking of bread at Troas (cf. Acts 20:7-12).
First Corinthians offers a textbook example of a biblical text in which concern for right worship shapes the author’s rhetoric: In this epistle, Paul insists that one cannot participate in Eucharistic Communion while at the same time engaging in pagan idolatry (cf. 10:14-22); he also insists that reverence for Christ’s Eucharistic body cannot be divorced from charity toward the poorest members of his ecclesial body, the Church (1 Cor 11:17-34).
Much more could be said about the Bible and the Eucharist, but this brief overview might provide deacons with several avenues for fruitful reflection.
First, given that Scripture was originally written for liturgy, it follows that the Mass is the Bible’s “natural habitat.” Deacons charged with proclaiming and preaching the Word ought, therefore, to approach Scripture liturgically as much as possible in their prayer and study, being attentive to the liturgical context in which biblical readings are proclaimed today, and becoming familiar with the wealth of Eucharistic imagery in the Bible.
Second, awareness of the liturgical origins and Eucharistic content of Scripture can be a valuable tool for catechesis and evangelization, especially when ministering to potential converts who may not realize how central the Eucharist was to the life and worship of the apostolic Church.
Finally, an understanding of the biblical authors’ concern for right worship can motivate deacons to do their part to encourage such worship in parishes today, both through the celebration of reverent liturgies and the fostering of reverence toward all members of the community (especially the poor), so that “discerning the body” (1 Cor 11:29) both sacramentally and ecclesially becomes second nature for contemporary disciples of Christ.
Dr. Stephen Fahrig, STD, is associate professor of Biblical Theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis and an instructor in the permanent diaconate program for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.