We see from the First Reading today that the Eucharist has roots which go back deep into the Old Testament. Abraham has got himself involved in a war. It seems that a group of kings had ganged up on the King of Sodom and defeated him and in the course of this battle Abraham’s nephew Lot was captured. Abraham therefore takes up arms against these rebel Kings and defeats them and rescues Lot. He then meets up with the King of Sodom to discuss affairs and it is at this point that Melchizedek makes his appearance.
It seems that this short passage was not part of the original account of these battles and their aftermath but was inserted some time later although no one is clear about the reasons for this. Anyway, the point is that Melchizedek is both a King and a High Priest and he comes bearing gifts of bread and wine. He then calls down a blessing on Abraham from God the Most High, the creator of heaven and earth. We can presume that he is referring not to any local God or idol but to the one true God whom Abraham believes in.
This brief action is therefore seen as a foreshadowing of the Eucharist which involves bread and wine and it conducted by Christ who, like Melchizedek, is at the same time both High Priest and King and whom Melchizedek identifies as creator of heaven and earth. As if to underline the connections Melchizedek is referred to as King of Salem and this is understood to mean Jerusalem which is, of course, the scene of the Last Supper. Although we know practically nothing about Melchizedek he is invoked in the first Eucharistic Prayer as being a sort of archetypal High Priest.
Normally speaking the great feast of the Eucharist occurs on Maundy Thursday, the day on which we mark its institution at the Last Supper. But because of its importance the Church gives us this second celebration in the course of the year so that we can further reflect on the meaning of the Eucharist. Interestingly the account of the Last Supper is taken from the First Letter to the Corinthians and not one of the Synoptic Gospels as we might have expected.
For the Gospel we are given the account of the Feeding of the Five Thousand from the Gospel of Luke. The reason for this is that this great miracle also has strong Eucharistic overtones. First there is the sequence of actions occurring in the Feeding of the Five Thousand which are exactly the same as those of the Last Supper: Take, Blessed, Broke, Gave.
More importantly perhaps is that unlike the Last Supper, which involved only Christ and the Apostles, the Feeding of the Five Thousand involves a vast number of ordinary people. We have five thousand men but we can presume that there were even more women and children present. It is commonly understood that this great miracle prefigures the Banquet of Heaven at the end of time to which the Eucharist is intimately connected.
One difference that stands out is that here it is not bread and wine but bread and fish that are blessed and one might wonder why this is so. Perhaps it is because the people are very hungry and merely bread and wine will not satisfy, a dietician would understand well that the people needed protein in order to satisfy their hunger.
But maybe it could be meant as an allusion to the fact that the early Christians took the fish as a symbol because in Greek the initial letters of the words ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God Saviour’ make up the Greek word Icthus which means fish. The early Christians in times of persecutions used the fish as a secret sign.
It is interesting to note that St Paul was writing his Letter to the Corinthians well before any of the Gospel writers took up their pens. So what we are presented with is probably one of the first written accounts of what happened at the Last Supper and Paul must have got his information directly from the Apostles who were present at that wonderful feast. In the text what is underlined is the connection between the Last Supper and Christ’s death which was to take place the following day. We see therefore that the Eucharist is intimately connected with Christ’s great work of salvation.
Another interesting feature is that Judas was present who was to go directly from the Upper Room to betray Christ. Not only that but we realise that Peter was there too and he would in the coming hours deny Christ three times. Most of the other Apostles would also desert Jesus and run away rather than witness his death on the Cross.
Ordinarily no one presents traitors with gifts, but here we see that Christ does so. Of course, Judas hadn’t actually betrayed Jesus at the moment of the institution of the Eucharist but clearly it was in his mind to do so. But, of course, Jesus understands very well that every single person will at times come to betray him. The Eucharist becomes then a sign of Christ’s love for the people of the world, us weak and very fallible human beings. And it becomes an even greater sign of the salvation he is about to bestow on us.
There is no end to all the various insights that we could come to about the Eucharist. But the important thing is that we understand just how important it is, how necessary it is that we cling on to this wonderful sacrament which feeds both our bodies and our souls. We cannot stress how vital it is that we maintain our commitment to a weekly celebration of the Eucharist. Here in the Eucharist is the unique place where we can listen to God’s word in the scriptures, where we can reflect on the meaning of the Gospel and where we can participate in the Church’s sacramental life.
Here in the Eucharist we are drawn together as a community to worship God in beauty and in truth. Here in the Eucharist we find rest and nourishment for our souls. Here in the Eucharist we are drawn ever more closely into the great mystery of our salvation. And so for the Eucharist we give praise and thanks to God our Father and resolve to deepen our understanding and our participation in this great sacrament of love, healing and unity.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket