The Best Explanation for Transubstantiation Yet

In his Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner writes, “However much it involves the individual and brings him time and time again into the community with Christ, it is nevertheless the sacrament of the Church as such in a very radical sense” (424). For Rahner, the Eucharist is, in some ways, much more than the other six sacraments of the Church because it is the sacrament that concerns itself with the deepest mystery of the Church’s faith. The sacrament was instituted by Christ himself at the Last Supper as he celebrated the Passover with his disciples. It is the central sacrament of the Catholic Church and is central to the Church’s understanding of itself and the gift of Christ’s redemption.

As a Catholic, I have often found myself needing to explain the doctrine of Transubstantiation to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. More often than not I have entertained questions about the doctrine of the real presence and whether or not my taking communion is akin to being a cannibal. I often answer such questions with a clear and concise explanation of what transubstantiation is and how the Eucharist continually invites us to participate in Christ’s redemption (more on that later). I have, however, often failed to accurately tie today’s Eucharistic celebration to its Jewish roots. It is simply not enough to connect it to the Passover celebrations that Jesus encountered in his day. There must be a more adequate explanation. Actually, there is one and it is well-researched and quite plausible.

I very much enjoyed Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. In the past year, I have read quite a number of books about the Eucharist and Pitre’s is a refreshing addition to the vast amount of scholarship centered on the Eucharist. Pitre does not purport to add anything new to what we already know about the Eucharist, but he does do something that few books I’ve read have done. Pitre looks outside the Old and New Testaments to Jewish (Mishnah, Talmud, etc.) and Christian sources that provide more insight in how the early Christians understood the Eucharist and how closely tied the sacrament is to Jewish tradition.

It is easy for some to forget that Jesus was Jewish. He was born into the Jewish faith, understood his place in the world in terms of his Jewish faith, participated in Jewish celebrations and traditions, and died on the cross not as a Christian but as a Jewish man. Because of this it becomes important to view the early Christian understanding of the Eucharist in terms of how closely it was connected with the Jewish faith. Pitre does just that—providing us with clear arguments for Jesus as the new Bread of Presence.

There is some solid scholarship here. I was particularly impressed and surprised, I must admit, with Pitre’s explanation of the Bread of Presence that was kept in the Tabernacle of Moses and also elevated at festivals for all to see. I was taken aback by how similar the experience of the Jewish people of that time was to my own experience at Sunday mass. Back then they saw the Bread of Presence elevated—bread that was a symbol of God’s love for His people. Now, the host elevated at mass is the presence of Christ in an act of love for His people. It could not be any clearer that Jewish roots run deeply in the rituals and traditions of the Eucharist today.

Perhaps my favorite section of Pitre’s book focused on the Passover meal. Most of us are familiar with Passover traditions and Christ’s Last Supper, but most of us miss the little treasures found in scripture. One might not bother to count the number of cups had at the supper and one might not connect Jesus’ words at the meal with his actions and words on the cross. But, Brant Pitre did and thank goodness that he did! He reminds us how and why the Last Supper signals the New Passover—the new memorial feast that becomes even more than a memorial.

According to Ray Noll, author of Sacraments: A New Understanding for a New Generation, “Memorial feasts such as these involve the human capacity to reach back in mind to a saving act of God, to bring it out of the past and into the present and celebrate it, to put it on, to make it your own” (51). Each year, Passover is celebrated to commemorate when God spared firstborn male Jews, in Egypt, from death, during the final plague. Such is the commemoration that Christ and his disciples partook in at the upper room. But, Jesus did more than commemorate. By eating together, Jesus and his friends were performing the Paschal peace offering; and it was in this action that Jesus gave new meaning to the sharing of the bread and wine—the moment became a sharing of himself, a new commemoration. Pitre does fantastic work in communicating this to his readers.

I liked Pitre’s book and strongly recommend that anyone who is interested in reading more about the Eucharist pick up the book and take some time with it. While I read Pitre’s book, however, I was left wanting a little more. Understandably, Pitre is a biblical scholar and my interest is more systematic in nature. I wanted to read, after all his careful research, about what the Eucharist means now to us in the here and now. What does this New Passover invite us to do? How do we respond? Are we expected to respond?

I go back to Rahner and his view on the radicalness of the Eucharist. He said it was THE sacrament of the Church because in it the Church becomes more of what it is and should be. What does that mean and how does Pitre’s research fit into the bigger picture? To paraphrase Pitre, the Eucharist is the crucified and risen Christ. How often that is forgotten!

At the Eucharist we are recalling the past in such a way that all God accomplished in Christ’s death and resurrection is experienced in the present in a new act of redemption. In the Eucharist we not only remember the mystery of redemption but we experience and partake in Christ’s dying and rising‚ in such a way that Christ’s unique act of redemption continues to be. To understand this requires us to move beyond our notions of memorial as simply an imitation of the past events we memorialize. Rather, we should remember that past, present, and future are intertwined in the redemption on the cross—ever allowing us to transform, ever uniting us with the Father. This is to say that we bring to the Eucharistic altar all our hopes, fears, joys, sorrows, pain, etc. and we unite with Christ in His redemption—in all of his life, suffering, death, and resurrection. If we share in the experience of Christ then we too die and rise with Christ at the Eucharist because our acceptance of the redemption transforms us anew. At the Eucharistic sacrifice we remember how God redeemed us in Christ and we participate by accepting the love of God that transforms us and allows us to die to self and be reunited with God. We not only remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but we partake in it and we allow Christ to enter into our hearts and transform us. And in the course of doing this, we are community in our churches and in all the altars of the world.

Mother Teresa once said, “When you look at the crucifix, you understand how much Jesus loved you then. When you look at the Sacred Host, you understand how much Jesus loves you now.” At the center of Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist is the message of God’s transforming love throughout history. If there is anything to be learned from the book it is our connection to the first Christians and our connection to what Jesus saw and experienced, because much of it is what we see and experience anew at the Eucharist—God’s presence with us.

Angelica Quinonez is a practicing Catholic. She holds a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Theology. She is an aspiring writer whose has guest blogged at and U.S. Catholic. Currently, she blogs at Through A Glass Onion. Follow her on Twitter at @aquinonez.

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