For Roman Catholics, we have three pillars on which we find our strength and our knowledge of God’s love and law. These are The Holy Scriptures, the Magisterium or teaching office of the Church and the Sacraments. As Catholics, we should be interested in studying or informing ourselves of these gifts to the people of God. We will be studying, by way of this website, the Sacraments (7) of the Roman Catholic Church. We will also offer a four week course on the Sacrament during our Adult Continuing Education program in the early spring. (Check here for dates and times).
The practice of baptism was a common rite of initiation in many religious expressions in the ancient Mediterranean world. From the time of Jesus, Christianity also expressed through water baptism freedom from sin, union with Jesus Christ and all other baptized persons, our participation in the salvific death and resurrection of Jesus and our new life in the Spirit.
St. Paul, the first great theologian of baptism, expressed its meaning in terms of a break with the old and beginning of new life in Christ. He understood well the reality of the relationship that baptism establishes between us and God and his Son Jesus. The New Testament provides the basis and focal point for the Church’s understanding of baptism.
Jesus’ own baptism, to which all four Gospels make reference (John less directly than the other three), provides a starting point for any serious study of the sacrament.
Contrary to some writers’ opinions, Jesus’ baptism was not simply an affirmation of his messiahship, but rather a proclamation of his relationship as Son to the Father. In the baptismal scene in the Gospel of Mark, for example, God speaks directly to Jesus: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:11). In Matthew, the voice addresses the crowd: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17). In Luke, again the voice is directed to Jesus: "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:22).
Here we find the basis for the meaning of baptism as the ritual in which one becomes a child of God. Just as Jesus is God’s Son, so also the baptized person is a daughter or son of God and is called by God to take on the family resemblance in living and loving as Jesus did.
It is a very human trait to treasure the last words of a dying person. In the case of Pope John Paul II, his encyclical The Church of the Eucharist, published in his final year, aptly captures his desire to awaken in the Church a new appreciation of the Eucharist.
“I have been able to celebrate Holy Mass in chapels built along mountain paths, on lake shores and sea coasts; I have celebrated it on altars built in stadiums and city squares. This varied scenario of celebrations of the Eucharist has given me a powerful experience of its universal and, so to speak, its cosmic character. Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation (The Church of the Eucharist, 8).
In this issue of Catholic Update we respond to Pope John Paul’s eucharistic desire with this reflection on six stages in the history of the Eucharist in the Western Church.
1. From Passover to Eucharist
Whatever changes and variations occurred in history, the Church has always preserved the core ritual. Early Christians viewed the Last Supper from the viewpoint of the Passover meal. It was held in an “Upper Room,” a place often used for rabbinic Scripture discussions. The apostles would have seen a short-legged table surrounded by cushions where they would sit. On the table was a bowl of saltwater in memory of the tears shed during the slavery in Egypt. A dish of bitter salad recalled their crushing slave days.
A container of mashed apples, raisins and plums coated with cinnamon looked like the bricks they made. Platters of unleavened bread stood next to the large Cup of Blessing filled with wine. A roasted lamb (part of a lamb sacrificed at the Temple) symbolized the sacrificial quality of the meal and recalled the blood of a lamb on their doorposts that saved them from the avenging angel in Egyptian times.
Jesus opened the meal with a psalm that praised God for his mighty deeds of salvation in the Exodus. Then he took the bread, gave thanks for it and, breaking tradition, followed this with new words: “Take and eat. This is my body that will be given up for you.” This bread was now his body. It would be given up, that is offered on the cross. Pause for a moment to consider what the apostles might have felt and thought at participating in the first Eucharist in history.
At the end of the meal, Jesus took the Cup of Blessing filled with wine and instead of making the usual toast he again broke tradition and said, “Take and drink...This is my blood. . . It will be shed for you and for all for the forgiveness of sins.” Once more Christ referred to his forthcoming passion where he would shed his blood. As they drank of the one cup and ate of the one bread they experienced their unity in Christ. Finally, Christ gave them and their successors the power to celebrate Eucharist: “Do this in memory of me.” They all sang a psalm and Jesus went forth to his saving death and resurrection.
In this event Jesus gave us the sacraments of the Eucharist and the ordained priesthood.