Friday, 7 February 2014

Prefigurations of the Sacrament of the Divine Eucharist in the Old Testament

The sacrament of the Divine Eucharist was prefigured by a variety of events in the era of the Old Testament. These events were investigated from as early as the time when the New Testament was being written. They were interpreted and analyzed by the writers of the New Testament, and thereafter by the Fathers of the Church, not only because they’re noteworthy in themselves, but also because they were harbingers of the Truth. The advent of Christ didn’t mean a commentary on the old, nor a transfer from the relative to the relative, but a progression from the old (enslavement) to the new (liberty. His presence “makes all things new, and the very fact of His incarnation is “The only new thing under the sun”.

1. The first historical event through which the Divine Eucharist is prefigured is the offering of bread on the part of Melchizedek. In his letter to the Hebrews, the Apostle Paul interprets this and says that Christ became a High Priest “after the order of Melchizedek”[1], who was “without father, or mother, without genealogy, with neither beginning of days or end of life”. Melchizedek is a model of the Son of God[2]. Along the same lines as Saint Paul, Clement the Alexandrian considered the oil and wine offered to Abraham by Melchizedek to be a prefiguration of Jesus as the Eucharistic Bread and Wine[3]. “Melchizedek, the king of Salem, the priest of God the Most High, who gave the food of the oil and wine as a model of the Eucharist”.  Kyprianos of Carthage also considered Melchizedek to be a model of Christ, and his offering a type of that of Christ: “In the priest Melchizedek, we see the mystery of the sacrifice of the Lord prefigured”[4].

In line with this tradition, Saint John Chrysostom writes of Melchizedek: “Moved by the spirit of prophecy, when he had grasped the offering that would be given in the future for the Gentiles, he praised God with wine and oil, imitating the Christ Who was to come”[5]. So the offering of bread and wine on the part of Melchizedek was no accident. It was an action inspired by the spirit, which heralded the sacrifice that would be offered on the part of the whole world. Melchizedek received “in a mystery” the grace of the unique sacrifice, “of the slaughtered lamb from the beginning of the world”[6]. In the Holy Spirit, he was able to understand an event that had not yet occurred in time and many centuries before the advent of Christ, Who imitated his offering. Chrysostom writes that Divine Scripture “by revelation and in advance manifests that which is to occur in the future”[7].

Comparing the Jewish sacrifices and the offering of Melchizedek, Efsevios (Eusebius) of Caesarea tells us that at three points the latter was superior to the former: a) it was offered by a priest who didn’t belong to the family of Levi: “because he was not chosen by people, nor was he revealed by a manufactured unction, not did he belong to the tribe of priests, nor did he serve God in the Highest with sacrifices and libations”; b) Melchizedek’s offering took place outside the temple in Jerusalem: “ nor did he make his offering in the temple in Jerusalem, and c) it was a bloodless sacrifice: “Nowhere does it appear that he used material sacrifices”[8].

            But if the sacrifices of the Jews differed from the offering of Melchizedek, how much more were they different from the offering of Christ. “For in the Old Testament, because people were less accomplished spiritually, the blood they offered to the idols was accepted by Christ, in order to remove it from the idols, an act that was the result of indescribable affection. For here the ritual was subsumed into the more dread and magnificent sacrament, so that this sacrifice changed and He gave the command that they should offer Himself instead of  the slaughter of animals”[9]. “For  this, (the Jewish sacrifice, was made by hands, whereas that of Christ was not made by hands.

The former had blood, the blood of goats, whereas the latter had the blood of the Lord”[10]. “Because you do not have cherubim (in the Christian sacrifice), but the Lord of the Cherubim Himself, dwelling within you; and no jar, and manna or tablets of stone and the rod of Aaron, but the Lord’s own body and blood, and the spirit instead of the written commandments, and grace that surpasses human thought, and an indescribable gift…[11]”.

2. Besides, the person of the Patriarch Isaac, his birth and the offering of him as a sacrifice to God by his father Abraham have attracted the attention of many interpreters of the Holy Scriptures.

            Isaac truly was born through the promise of God. He was born of a mother who was sterile and a father who was well-stricken in years. According to Paul, this means that we, the faithful, “are offspring through the promise of Isaac”, precisely because Isaac was born from a sterile mother, just as the Church was sterile before the advent of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit.

With reference to the sacrifice of Isaac, Saint John Chrysostom initially underlines the fact that Abraham walked with Isaac and two servants for three days, going to a high point, which prefigured Golgotha. When Abraham arrived at the place of the “new and strange” sacrifice, he went on with Isaac. Isaac undertook the task of bringing the wood for the sacrifice, in just the same way as Christ bore His cross on His shoulders to Golgotha. But the sacrifice of Isaac wasn’t completed.  “He did not sacrifice  him by his hand, but by his intention; he did not bury the knife into the neck of the child; he did not cut into his skin, but there was a bloodless sacrifice. Those who are baptized understand what I am saying. This is why the sacrifice was bloodless, because it was a model of that which would take place in the future. Do you see the foreshadowed image in the Old Testament? Do not refuse to believe the truth”[12].

The intervention of God, which came at the critical moment, prevented the completion of the sacrifice of Isaac. The “type” couldn’t be allowed to reach the heights of the Truth. Only on Golgotha would God not send an angel to prevent the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son. And as for Abraham, God was able to confirm, and did so, that he had not withheld his beloved son from Him. Saint Paul also says that, because of His overwhelming love for us, God the Father did not withhold His own Son.

The place of Isaac was taken by a ram which had been caught in a thicket by its horns. The ram caught in the thicket by its horns is the Redeemer, hanging upon the horns of the Cross. In a thicket: wearing on His brow a crown of thorns. So when Abraham offered up Isaac then he saw the sheep with its horns caught and sacrificed it, prefiguring the saving Passion[13].

            The Epistle to the Hebrews also touches upon another aspect of the sacrifice or Isaac and the Eucharistic Sacrament, the Mystery of the Cross and the Resurrection. It tells us that Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac even though God’s promise depended on the boy. Why did he do this? “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back”[14]. The intervention of God transformed the mode of the Cross into that of the Resurrection of His Son. This is why the Lord says Abraham rejoiced at the thought that he would see His own days; he saw them and was glad.

Chrysostom asks how it was possible since he was born so many years earlier: “Through the model”, he replies, “through the shadow. Exactly as the ram was offered instead of Isaac, so the rational sheep was offered on behalf of the whole world. Because the truth had to be prefigured in a shadowy form. Note well, my beloved, that all of this had to be prefigured in a nebulous manner. There was an only-begotten son then and an only-begotten Son now. Much loved and real then, beloved and real now. The former was offered as a sacrifice  and the latter was given by the Father to be sacrificed”[15].

3. A phrase which can be found in the prophecy concerning the Messiah by the Patriarch Jacob provides St. John Chrysostom with the opportunity to speak of the sacrifice of Christ and the Divine Eucharist. “He will wash his garment in wine, his robe in the blood of grapes”. Chrysostom says: “See how the whole of the mystery has been implied for us. The faithful understand the significance of the words: ‘He will wash his garment in wine’. I believe he calls the body the garment which He condescended to put on because of the mystery of divine dispensation. Then, so that you will learn precisely what he called wine, he goes on to say that ‘he will cleanse his robe in the wine of the grape, which is red, like blood’. See how, through the name of blood, His slaughter is implied for us, as well as the cross and the whole dispensation of the sacraments”[16].

The children of the Patriarch Jacob heard this Messianic prophesy, but did not enjoy the reality about which he spoke. For him, the prophecy was an enigma. With the coming of the Messiah, the enigma was transformed into knowledge of life. Knowledge acquired by those who were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is they who cleanse “their robe in the blood of grapes”.

4. The Divine Eucharist is also like the sacrifice of the Prophet Elijah. Just as then, when, following the Prophet’s prayer, fire descended from heaven and devoured the sacrifice, in the same way now, the priest stands before the altar and brings down “not fire, but the Holy Spirit. And he prays intensely, not for flame to come from heaven to consume that which is before him, but for divine grace to come upon the sacrifice and with it to kindle the souls of all”[17].

5. Speaking of his call to the prophetic office, Isaiah, too, refers to a wonderful vision which preceded the call and which prepared him to receive it:

“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim…  And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’ And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke… Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: ‘Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for’” (6, 1-7).

For the holy Fathers who wrote the Divine Liturgies, there was absolutely no doubt as regards the significance of the vision: the Prophet is describing for us the celestial and angelic worship. This ultramundane worship was unknown to people before the Lord’s coming to earth. Between heaven and earth there was a great chasm. But the incarnation of the Son and Word of God does away with the wall separating them. The chasm was transformed into a bridge which united the earth with the heavens. Angels came down to earth, accompanying the heavenly Lord, and the angelic hymnody, the hymn of victory,  was sung in the house of the glory of the Lord.

According to Chrysostom, this is why, when a bishop is celebrating, “when he stands before the holy altar, offering the reasonable sacrifice, he does not simply call upon us to sing the hymn, but, having first referred to the Cherubim and recalled the Seraphim, urges all of us to raise the dread voice and, with the recollection of the angels, to tear our minds away from the earth, saying to each one of us: ‘You’re singing with the Seraphim; stand beside them and open your wings with them and surround the royal throne’”[18]. “That altar was a prefiguration and image of this altar; that material fire was a prefiguration of this spiritual fire. Then the Seraphim didn’t dare touch with their hands, but used tongs, whereas you take it in your hand”[19].

With the tongs, the angel picked up the coal, the type and image of the spiritual fire, Christ. And this coal cleansed the lips of the Prophet, to become the mouth of God. Believers who approach the Chalice of Life “in joy and trembling” receive the fire which cleanses their whole being, consumes the dross and “inexpressibly” cools them. Those who partake of the coal which is Christ at communion do not merely become the mouthpieces of God, but God-bearers and Christ-bearers.

6. Christ’s sacrifice is also the “pure sacrifice” mentioned by the Prophet Malachi: “From the east to the west, my name has been glorified by all the nations and in every place incense is offered in my name and pure sacrifice”. “When did this happen?”, asks Chrysostom. “When was the pure sacrifice offered? You can’t put a date on it, except after the coming of Christ”[20]. Comparing the Divine Eucharist with the Jewish sacrifice, he says “we can say that only the former is really pure. Because it was not made with smoke and the aromas of roasted meats, nor with blood and ransom, but is offered with the grace of the Holy Spirit”[21].

7. All the above prefigurations- events and prophetic words- were harbingers of the Divine Eucharist. In each one, there are details that recall the Eucharistic offering: the bread and wine of Melchizedek, the sacrifice of Abraham of his only-begotten and beloved son, the altar, and the angelic worship of the prophetic vision, the coal. With these details, a picture can be formed of the holy anaphora. But the prototype of this image did not appear in the Old Testament. This is why the picture is simply a shadow of “good things to come”, the presence of which shadow “in the long term will never be able to perfect those approaching it”.

The purpose of the shadow was to announce the coming Truth. With the incarnation of the Word, “the people dwelling in darkness beheld a great light”. With His brilliant presence, Christ illumined “the ends of the earth”. The “old” became new; the corrupt, incorrupt; the mortal immortal. The presence of the Light of Life disperses the “shadow of death”. “Now all things are filled with light”. Everything is bathed in the light and in truth. Our long-awaited, foretasted and, in a variety of ways, prefigured salvation has become a historical and real event.

Hiermonk Grigorios, Η Λειτουργία της Ευχαριστίας του Θεού, pubd. in Modern Greek by the Holy Metropolis of Halkida, pp. 16-25.

[1] Heb. 6,20; cf. also Ps.109, 4.

[2] Heb. 7, 3.

[3] Στρωματείς 4, 25.

[4] Epistle 63, 4.

[5] On Melchizedek.

[6] Rev. 13, 8.

[7] On the Nativity, Homily 35.

[8] Ευαγγελική απόδειξις, 5, 3.

[9] On I Cor. Homily 24, 2.

[10] On Heb. Homily 19.

[11] On Ps. 133.

[12] Encomium on Saint Efstathios

[13] On Fasting, 4

[14] Heb. 11, 19.

[15] On Gen. Homily 47.

[16] On Genesis, homily.

[17] On the Priesthood, Discourse III.

[18] On the Seraphim, 6,3

[19] Ibid.

[20] Discourse against the Jews 5,12.

[21] Ibid.

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