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.

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