The Eucharist and the Letter to the Hebrews

In writing an e-mail to a Protestant friend about the sacrificial character of the Mass, I did a google search on my confrère here in Heiligenkreuz Pater Robert Abeynaike, O.Cist., to see whether any part of his brilliant dissertation on the Hebrews as a commentary on the Mass was available on the web. I wasn’t able to find any extracts from his dissertation, but I found a brief summary that he wrote for L’Osservatore Romano a few years ago, which Sandro Magister posted to his blog. I paste it in full below. Contrary to what Magister writes, Pater Robert is not African but rather Sri Lankan.

The essence of the Eucharistic celebration according to the New Testament: Last supper and sacrifice

by Christopher Robert Abeynaike, O.Cist.

The Letter to the Hebrews contains what may be considered a genuine commentary on the actions and words of Christ at the last supper. This statement may be surprising at first, since the author of the Letter to the Hebrews does not seem to make explicit and direct reference to the last supper.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews is the only writer in the New Testament who attributes to Christ the titles of “priest” – or, rather, “high priest” – and of “mediator of the New Covenant.” The author, as a Jew steeped in Old Testament thought, in fact reinterprets the salvific action of Christ in the context of two important events or ceremonies from the past: the inauguration of the first covenant by Moses on Mount Sinai, and the ceremony of the purification of the people from their sins carried out each year by the Levitical high priest on the great Day of Expiation, Kippur.

Both of the ceremonies were based on animal sacrifice. In the first, Moses ratified God’s covenant with the people of Israel by sprinkling the people with the blood from the sacrificial victims, and pronouncing the words “Behold the blood of the covenant” (Exodus 24:8; Hebrews 9:18-22).

In the second ceremony, on the other hand, the high priest, after sacrificing the victims, took their blood and entered alone into the sanctuary – the “Holy of Holies” – where he sprinkled the blood, thus carrying out the expiation of the sins of the people (Leviticus 16; Hebrews 9:6-10). But according to what our author says, “it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4), and therefore these sacrifices remained ineffective, not capable of giving the desired access to God, blocked by the awareness of sin (Hebrews 9:6-10).

The author of the letter to the Hebrews, in any case, found in the Scriptures the foretelling of:

– a new priest – “The Lord has sworn and will not waver: ‘Like Melchizedek you are a priest forever’ (Psalm 110:4);

– a new sacrifice – “Sacrifice and offering you do not want; but ears open to obedience you gave me. Holocausts and sin-offerings you do not require; so I said, ‘Here I am; your commands for me are written in the scroll. To do your will is my delight” (Psalm 40:7-9);

– a new covenant – “The days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers. For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

He saw Christ as this new priest, who would offer a new sacrifice consisting of his own body, thus inaugurating a new covenant.

So then, summing up the substance of his teaching, he says: “But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that have come to be [. . .] he entered once for all into the sanctuary [of heaven], not with the blood of goats and calves but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. [. . .] The blood of Christ, who through the eternal spirit offered himself unblemished to God, [will] cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God. For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant” (Hebrews 9:11-15).

At this point we must pose a question. Where in the life of Christ could our author have seen him in the role of high priest, in the act of offering a sacrifice for the expiation of sins, and, at the same time, in the role of mediator of the new covenant in the act of inaugurating this covenant? In all probability, at the Last Supper, where Christ had pronounced the words: “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:28).

In fact, in saying the words “This is my blood of the covenant,” Christ manifested himself as the mediator of a covenant founded on his own blood, and therefore counterposed to the one inaugurated by Moses with the words “Behold the blood of the covenant” (Exodus 24:8).

In adding the words “shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins,” he was implying that the covenant that he was inaugurating was precisely the New Covenant proclaimed by Jeremiah, in which the remission of sins would be assured: “For I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more” (31:34).

Moreover, the words: “my blood shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” – where the idea of a sacrifice for the expiation of the sins of the people is extremely clear – could not have helped but remind our author of the sacrifice offered by the Levitical high priest on the great Day of Expiation.

With the death of Jesus after this and his ascension into the invisibility of heaven – “He entered once for all into the sanctuary” (Hebrews 9:12) – the author would have been struck by the parallel with the action of the Levitical high priest, who after immolating the victims entered into the invisibility of the earthly sanctuary in order to carry out the expiation of sins by sprinkling the sacrificial blood.

We can therefore affirm that the last supper was precisely the moment in Christ’s life in which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews could have recognized him as the new high priest, and, at the same time, as mediator of the New Covenant.

The words of Jesus over the chalice alone would have been sufficient for this. While the words over the bread – “This is my body” – must have reminded the author of the prophecy of the Psalms, of a new kind of sacrifice in contrast with the sacrifices of the Old Covenant: “you did not want sacrifice or offering, but a body you have prepared for me. Behold, I come to do your will, O God” (Psalm 40:7-9).

The author of the letter, in fact, comments in this regard: “By this ‘will’, we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

Finally, the bread and wine of the last supper, the same gifts offered by Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), would only have confirmed for our author that the new priest, by manifesting himself in the offering of his body at supper, was precisely – in fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 110:4 – the priest “like Melchizedek.”

In conclusion, we can say that when the author of the Letter to the Hebrews – in the heart of his epistle, in verses 11-15 of chapter 9 – speaks of the manifestation of Christ as the new high priest, through the offering of himself to God for the purification of the sins of the people, and, at the same time, as mediator of the New Covenant, he is referring to the words and actions of Jesus at the last supper.

The words immediately following confirm this: “For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant (diathéke): since a death has taken place for deliverance from transgressions under the first covenant, those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance. Now where there is a will (diathéke), the death of the testator must be established. For a will (diathéke) takes effect only at death; it has no force while the testator is alive. Thus not even the first covenant (diathéke) was inaugurated without blood” (Hebrews 9:15-18).

In these verses, the author is playing on the double meaning of the Greek word “diathéke,” used in the version of the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew word “berith,” covenant, while in contemporary Greek it meant a will.

He is, in fact, using an example taken from everyday life. Just as a “diathéke,” a will, becomes valid only at the death of the testator, so also the “diathéke,” the covenant proclaimed by Jesus, had to be followed by his death for its ratification, just as the first covenant was dedicated with the sprinkling of the blood of the victims.

But beyond having in common the same Greek word “diathéke,” a covenant and a will have something else in common: the concept of an inheritance.

Under the first covenant, the inheritance coincided with the possession of the land of Canaan. But under the New Covenant, the inheritance becomes the possession of the kingdom of God. Therefore, we find Christ who at the last supper manifests himself not only in the roles of priest and mediator of a New Covenant, but also in the role of testator who gives his apostles the promise of possessing the kingdom of God: “I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father” (Matthew 26:29; Luke 22:29-30).

Therefore, our author had grounds for saying: “For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant (diathéke): since a death has taken place for deliverance from transgressions under the first covenant, those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15).

As the result of our study, we can affirm that the last supper was:

– a sacrifice in which Christ “offered himself to God” (Hebrews 9:14) for the remission of sins;

– the promulgation of the New Covenant by Christ;

– the disposition of a will, in which Jesus left in “eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15) to his disciples the kingdom of his Father (Matthew 26:29; Luke 22:29-30).

For all three reasons, his death on the cross inevitably had to follow. All of the words and actions of Christ at the last supper were, in fact, predicated on their fulfillment in his death, without which they would have had no meaning or value.

But the death of Jesus did not have to be the end of his work of redemption. Just as, in fact, the culminating moment of the ceremony on the day of expiation was the entry of the Levitical high priest with the sacrificial blood into the earthly sanctuary in order to bring to fulfillment the expiation of sins, so also Christ in his ascension entered into the heavenly sanctuary “that he might now appear before God on our behalf.” (Hebrews 9:24), “thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). Precisely because Christ “through the eternal spirit offered himself” (Hebrews 9:14), his sacrifice has an eternal efficacy, and He remains “high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 6:20).

We therefore have, we might say, a “Day of Expiation” that lasts forever, to which the author refers when he says: “The blood of Christ [will] cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). And again: “Therefore, brothers, since through the blood of Jesus we have confidence of entrance into the [heavenly] sanctuary, and since we have ‘a great priest over the house of God’, let us approach . . .” (Hebrews 10:19-22).

On another occasion, the author speaks of Christians as a people who have approached “Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and God the judge of all, and Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and the sprinkled blood” (Hebrews 12:22-24). The “blood of Jesus” is for our author an overarching symbol indicating the fruits of the redemption, meaning those goods to which Christians have access, an access that from the context of these passages can be seen as referring to the Eucharistic celebration.

The enduring redemptive work of Christ, which the author of the letter to the Hebrews expresses with the symbol of the continual sprinkling with his blood, can be found expressed in another way in the liturgical prayer in which it is stated that every time the Mass is celebrated, “the work of our redemption is carried out” (cf. “Presbyterorum Ordinis” 13). In the passages referred to above, we can also note that, during the Eucharistic celebration, Christians in a certain way seem to transcend the boundaries of this world and approach, by means of Christ, God and the heavenly world.

Finally, the Eucharist is also a sacrificial banquet, to which our author refers in saying: “We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat” (Hebrews 13:10). St. Paul clarifies the meaning of these words when, in the first Letter to the Corinthians (10:14-22), he compares the Eucharist to both the sacrificial meals in the Old Testament (Leviticus 7), and to those of the pagans, affirming that eating sacrificial flesh necessarily implies entering into communion (koinonía) with the divinity to which the sacrifice has been offered. He therefore prohibits Christians from participating in the body and blood of Christ at the Eucharistic table, and, at the same time, continuing to participate in the sacrificial meals of the pagans.

John, in his Gospel, further develops the Pauline concept of the communion with the body and blood of Christ, saying, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (6:56-57). By eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, the Christian is assumed into the communion of life of the Father and the Son, right now, on this earth. It seems that this is the same concept that the author of the letter to the Hebrews is trying to express when he says – in the context of the Eucharistic celebration, using the language of the Old Testament – that Christians approach, through Christ, the heavenly sanctuary and the presence of God.

This study on the teaching of the New Testament concerning the Eucharistic celebration shows us how great and profound is the mystery that it contains. The Eastern fathers rightly called it “sacrificium tremendum.”

It is clear that the manner in which the Eucharist is celebrated – the “ars celebrandi” – must always be in harmony with its true substance, and must fully reflect this to the participants. This is, in fact, the main preoccupation of Benedict XVI, and must also be the preoccupation of all the pastors of the Church, bishops and priests, in a particular way during the Year for Priests now in progress, since, as Vatican Council II reminds us, “Priests exercise their sacred function especially in the Eucharistic worship” (Lumen Gentium 28).

(From “L’Osservatore Romano,” July 24, 2009).


One thought on “The Eucharist and the Letter to the Hebrews

  1. Thank you for posting this. Last year I was discussing a number of the usual questions with a Protestant friend, and when I was looking up early Church writings on the Eucharist, I noticed that while in some writings there was room for argument over their statements on transubstantiation, all the writings I came across spoke about the sacrificial character of the Eucharist, which contradicts the common Protestant (or at least Calvinist) teaching on the matter.

    Liked by 1 person

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