In God’s request that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac (Gen. 22:2) we find the second of two Eucharistic types in the book of Genesis. The first was the bread and wine offered by the priest king, Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18), which is memorialized in our first Eucharistic Prayer. Isaac and Christ share many similarities. The birth of both was supernatural (remember, Abraham was a hundred years old and Sarah an elderly woman when she bore Isaac). Both are sons of promise. Both were called “the only begotten son.” Both carried the wood of their own demise up the same mountain, Moriah. Both consented to endure death. Both were bound. Both were offered by their fathers. Both were laid on the wood. Both were in the vigor of life, and both lived again after the offering. Jesus and Isaac were both dead three days, though Isaac only figuratively. Isaac also prefigures Christ in the unique relationship each had with his bride—Isaac with Rebekah and Jesus with the Church.
In the sacrifice of Isaac and the offering of Melchizedek there is a Eucharistic imprint that deserves serious consideration and prayerful meditation. In fact, the Eucharist is present in the three distinct stages of salvation history: In the Old Testament it is present as a type; with the arrival of the Messiah it is present as the event; and in the age of the Church it is present as a sacrament. The purpose of the figure or type was to prepare for the event, and the purpose of the sacrament is to continue the event by actualizing it in Jesus’ mystical body, the Church.
From the marital-covenantal theme that the Holy Spirit inaugurates in Genesis and develops in the succeeding books of the Bible until its culmination in the marriage feast of the Lamb (Rev. 21), the Eucharist is seen as the sublime consummation of Christ’s marital oneness with his bride. This union is anticipated in the covenants God established with the human race through Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Esra, and Nehemiah, all of which find their fulfillment in the marital covenant that Christ established with his church: “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:20).
In a profound sense, as Raniero Cantalamessa points out in his book The Eucharist, Our Sanctification, the “entire Old Testament was a preparation for the Lord’s Supper” (p. 6). In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus proclaims the parable of the “king who gave a marriage feast for his son and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast” (Mt. 22:2–3). In this light, those servants can be seen as the Old Testament prophets.
The first of these was Melchizedek. St. Paul declares that Jesus is “a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 6:20) who, in offering bread and wine, is clearly a type of Christ (Heb. 7:1 ff; Ps. 110:4; Gen. 14:18). John’s Gospel (6:31) makes the connection between the Eucharist and the manna Yahweh sent to feed the Israelites in the desert (Ex. 16:4 ff), but it is Jesus who shows that the manna is a mere foreshadowing of the “true bread from heaven” (Jn. 6:32–33).
The greatest Old Testament figure of the Eucharist is the Passover (Ex. 12:23). That night when God smote all the first-born of the Egyptians, he spared the first-born of Israel. Why? “The blood shall be a sign for you upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you (Ex. 12:13). But was it the blood of the Passover lamb alone, into which a hyssop was dipped to sprinkle blood on their doorposts, that saved the Israelites? No. This was a type: What God foreshadowed by it was the blood of the Lamb of God—the Eucharist.
When Jesus, like other observant Jews, celebrated the Passover, it took place in two phases and in two different places. The first was the slaying of the lamb, which took place in the temple. The second was the eating of the lamb during the Passover supper, which took place in the home or in some other suitable place outside of the temple. This meal was a memorial, not only of the Passover and exodus from Egypt but of all God’s merciful interventions in the history of Israel. Cantalamessa tells us the Passover celebrated four great events: the creation of the world, the offering of Isaac, the exodus out of Egypt, and the coming of the Messiah (p. 7).
The memorial of the Passover looked forward as a prefigurement to mankind’s exodus from the slavery of sin. We are left with a sense of wonder and awe as we contemplate the mediator of the new covenant holding the unleavened breed in his sacred hands and saying: “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Lk. 22:19). The tragic irony was that, after centuries of longing for the Messiah’s coming, the Jewish authorities crucified him during the Passover feast. Their closed minds and hard hearts made them unwilling to recognize that on Calvary they immolated the true Lamb of God (Jn. 1:29, 36; Rev. 5:6).
Jesus’ use of the words “remembrance” and “new covenant” (Lk 22:19–20) would remain forever fixed in the minds of the apostles, reminding them that in instituting a new Passover Jesus was perfectly fulfilling the old Passover. The world had arrived at the “fullness of time” (Eph. 1:10) in which the type became the reality, “for Christ our Pascal Lamb has been sacrificed” (I Cor. 5:7).
The four evangelists explicate in complimentary ways the event that brought the new Passover, the Eucharist, into existence. The beloved disciple John interweaves throughout his gospel the Passover theme (1:29, 36; 2:13, 23; 6:4; 11:55; 12:1; 13:1; 18:28, 39; 19:14). In unfolding Jesus’ first miracle John develops the Eucharistic motif he introduced the chapter before from the lips of John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (1:29, 36). In one sublime verse he shows how Jesus identifies his mother, “woman,” with the “woman” of Genesis 3:1 whose “seed” will crush Satan’s head, and the event of that crushing, “[m]y hour” (2:4). The same Jesus who by a miracle changes water into wine will by a deeper miracle change wine into his blood.
John also employs the Passover motif prior to the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves (6:4), which in turn introduces Jesus’ bread of life discourse (6:26–71). Here Jesus connects the Eucharist with its Old Testament type, the manna in the desert (6: 31–35). In the second reference (12:1) John connects the resurrection theme with that of the Passover by his citation of Lazarus’ rising from the dead.
It is John who confirms that Jesus died on the cross at the precise hour that his Old Testament type, the Passover lambs, were being slain in the temple (19:14). In the Passover liturgy God instructs the Jews not to break a bone of the sacrificial lamb (Ex. 12:46); it is John who makes the connection with that rite and Jesus’ death on the cross: “For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘Not a bone of him shall be broken’” (19:36). Here John is quoting Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12, and Psalm 34:20. And it is John’s alone of the four gospels that touches on the Passover significance of the hyssop: “Jesus, knowing that all was now finished said, ‘I thirst.’ A bowl full of vinegar stood there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (19:28–30).
Matthew, Mark, and Luke (called the synoptic Gospels because they take a common view regarding the events of Jesus’ life) focus on the other part of the Passover ritual, the supper. They portray the Eucharist as the transformation of the old Passover to the new. They understand that the Eucharistic consecration already contains the event of Christ’s immolation on the cross, just as future Eucharistic celebrations are inseparably linked to that same event. Jesus’ words and actions are literally creative—that is, they produce what they signify.
Thus in the consecration at the Last Supper and in the breaking of the bread, which became synonymous with the consecration of the Eucharist (Lk. 24:35), we have the supreme symbolic and prophetic action that restores mankind in a new covenant (Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:6; Heb 8:8, 13; 12:24). In breaking the bread Jesus breaks his body on the cross. The words of consecration constitute the moment of the mystical immolation of Christ which (in the sense in which we have used the word) “figures” Jesus’ real immolation on the cross. The great event of all history is that moment when Jesus allowed his own death on the cross. His death and subsequent resurrection constitute the event that institutes the Eucharist and ushers in the final stage of salvation history, the Church.
And so we come to the time in which we live. The Eucharist is present to us sacramentally. As a sacrament it is in the signs of bread and wine which were instituted by Christ at the Passover supper with the words: “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. . . . This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:19–20; 1 Cor. 11:24–25).
The difference between Christ’s death on the cross—the event—and the Eucharist—the sacrament—is the difference between history and liturgy. The historical event happened once and it will never again be repeated (Heb. 9:25–26). The liturgical sacrament, however, not only keeps the past from being forgotten; through it the Eucharist of history—Jesus’ passion and death—is made present again. We are brought to the foot of the cross and invited to witness with Mary, John, and the holy women. The old spiritual asks the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Through our participation in the sacrament of the Eucharist we can answer: “I was there at the foot of the cross.”
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is concluded as an event, but through the Holy Spirit it continues in time sacramentally and in eternity mystically. This insight provides the key to understanding John’s heavenly vision of the resurrected Jesus, who appeared as “a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev. 5:6). While his act of physical death will never be repeated, Jesus’ act of total self-giving to the Father for us (Rom. 8:32) continues eternally in Love—that is, the Holy Spirit.