For too many centuries, Christianity – and perhaps especially Catholicism – has been associated with anti-Semitism. This history is well-known, and I will not rehearse it here. But behind all the violence and persecution and bigotry was the blood libel: Jews rejected and killed Jesus Christ, and this crime attaches not only to those who called for the Lord’s crucifixion then but also to their descendants, right down to the present day. To be sure, the Church has always been at least uneasy about the libel and never formally endorsed anything of the kind. Still, it awaited the twentieth century for something closer to philo-Semitism to emerge, especially in the actions of John Paul II, which continues to have effects in the twenty-first and the work of many in the Church who have sought to recover the Jewish roots of the Catholic faith.
This work has been taken up by Benedict XVI and other Vatican officials and by a number of authors, among them: Roy Schoeman, a Jewish convert to Catholicism, in his extraordinary Salvation is from the Jews: The Role of Judaism in Salvation History from Abraham to the Second Coming; Taylor Marshall, an Anglican priest who crossed the Tiber, in his bestselling The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of Catholic Christianity; and now Brant Pitre, a cradle Catholic and professor of sacred scripture at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, in his newest book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist: Unlocking the Secrets of the Last Supper. (There is even an extraordinary recording of Jewish and Catholic canting and chanting, The Sacred Bridge, that demonstrates the intimate musical evolution of the two faiths.) Each of the books mentioned is a truly extraordinary reading experience, but Dr. Pitre’s book, just published by Doubleday, deserves some attention here.
It is extremely rare that a book so clearly based upon extensive scholarly research is as readable as is Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. That scholarship encompasses not only careful study of the Bible, the Church fathers, and the Catechism, but also close readings of Jewish commentaries such as the various editions of the Mishnah Torah, Talmud, and other Hebraic sources, ancient and modern. Pitre’s work is a part of an ongoing and revolutionary revelation (not in a divine but in a scholarly and historical sense) concerning the necessity of understanding the universal in the particular. As Papa Ratzinger has written: “the message of Jesus is completely misunderstood if it is separated from the context of the faith and hope of the Chosen People . . .” Christ spoke to all people for all time, but the words he chose and their likely resonances in the minds of the first-century Jews who heard them are critical to our understanding of the One who truly is the Messiah.
I’m married to a Jew, and the highlight of every spring at our house is the Passover Seder my wife prepares and we celebrate with friends and family, Jews and Christians. The many parallels between the Seder service and the Catholic Mass are clearly evident to anybody who has attended both. And this is because the Last Supper was, for Jesus, His last Seder. What Professor Pitre demonstrates is the extent to which the whole of Jewish history and the whole of the salvation story play out in the Eucharist.
Passover is, of course, a remembrance of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. In the Mass, we celebrate Jesus as the Messiah, a new Moses, who leads us out of the captivity of sin towards our heavenly destiny. But during that Jewish exodus itself – not just on the eve of the journey, when the angel of death took the firstborns from every house not marked with the blood of the lamb – there was bread given by God to sustain the travelers: manna. Long story short, that heavenly bread is very much what Communion is for Catholics: the transubstantial body of Christ, who is God and is heaven. Manna (later the Bread of the Presence) was kept in the Ark of the Covenant during and after the exodus, and consumed in a ritual sacrifice of bread and wine (see Leviticus 24:5-7), as the consecrated Host is kept in Catholic tabernacles today, awaiting the Eucharist.
Among the most fascinating parts of this riveting story certainly, as Brant Pitre tells it, is the question of blood: How could a faithful, pious Jew such as Jesus of Nazareth speak as he often did, not just at the Last Supper, of the necessity of drinking his blood? After all, consuming blood is simply not kosher; drinking human blood is depraved and blasphemous. As Pitre notes, none of the earlier prophets had ever suggested such a thing. But Jesus, as we know, is more than a prophet. Pitre writes:
In a word, the Bread of the Presence was miraculous. After all, it would take just that – a miracle – for bread and wine to be transformed into the body and blood of the Messiah.
Quite obviously, I’m breezing through the arguments of this remarkable book. But as one familiar with living Jewish and Christian history, I cannot begin to describe how thrilling it is to read Brant Pitre’s account of the Last Supper and the fourth cup of Passover wine, the one the Lord said he would not drink until He came into His Kingdom.
It is simply unthinkable that the correspondences between Passover and the Mass, manna and the Eucharist, and the prophets and the Messiah are not in themselves, in both Scripture and in tradition, proof positive that what we Catholics believe is absolutely true. Baruch Shem Kivod Malchuto LeOlam Va’ed! (Blessed be His Glorious Name Whose Kingdom is Forever and Ever!)