Today, Ellyn von Huben reviews Brant Pitre's new book which expounds upon the Passover, the role of Christ as the new sacrificial lamb, and the Eucharist as it emerged from a deeply Jewish context. Read Ellyn's thoughtful meditation on the book here.
I heard of Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre and thought that it would be a great book - just not for me. And then I received a free copy through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program, so I decided to give it a chance. Either it would be so complex that I would never make it past the first chapter, even while heavily caffeinated and sitting at an uncomfortable table in a suitably chilled room, or it would just be a marvelous refresher course in that which I already knew. My only correct assumption was that it is a great book.
Starting with the most basic facts: Who was the Messiah? How was the Passover celebrated at the time of Jesus? ? How could a good Jew demand that his friends eat his body and drink his blood? Exactly what are we asking for when we pray for our daily bread?
I thought I was fairly well versed in the fundamentals, but I must also acknowledge the part of me who was goofing off during Sunday school when some of the most basic groundwork for the understanding Christian faith was being presented. For example, somewhere along the line I had conflated manna with Marshmallow Fluff. (though Pitre explains manna comes from the Hebrew words - man hu - for “what is it?” So in one sense I was not too far off. “What is it?” My mother’s words exactly!) This was just one example of the sad gaps in my education which have persisted into adulthood.
I was humbled by how much I didn’t know. The extent of my knowledge of Passover - in spite of a college level course on a Jewish understanding of the New Testament - was mostly limited to all I could learn from the Maxwell House haggadah at a few religious studies department seders. The fact that Passover at the time of Jesus was “first a sacrifice and then a meal” is brought home in Pitre’s work in vivid detail. A blood sacrifice with an approximate two hundred thousand lambs sacrificed at the temple at the time of one Passover. Blood sacrifice. Lots of blood. With unblemished lambs slaughtered and roasted in a manner resembling crucifixion. “Jesus himself would have witnessed the “crucifixions” of thousands of Passover lambs in the Jerusalem Temple...which has the power to shed light on Jesus’ conception of his own fate.”[p. 64] This corporeal sacrifice was not complete until the lamb had been eaten.
I found my faith enriched as Dr. Pitre answered questions that I didn’t even know I had. What made the Last Supper different from all previous Passover meals? When exactly did Jesus drink the fourth cup of his last Passover celebration? “He has also just identified one of the cups of wine as his own blood, about to be poured out for the forgiveness of sins. In other words, Jesus implicitly identified himself as the new Passover lamb. The implication of this self-identification is sobering: by the time this new Passover is finished, Jesus will be dead. That’s what happens to Passover lambs. They don’t make it out alive.” [p. 164]
The “source and summit of the Christian life” [CCC1324] is heady subject matter and Dr. Pitre expounds on this profound mystery and makes it accessible while providing a riveting and enriching read. It requires a special genius to take something of such depth and explain it to a broad population with clarity. We who believe in the True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist - body, blood, soul and divinity - can benefit from this bit of a refresher/enrichment course. And those who don’t understand receive a well presented explanation.
In the Sunday School days of my Lutheran childhood, we sang that Jesus loves us and “this we know, ‘cause the Bible tells us so.” Yes it does. We just need to look. “…when it comes to the richness of the Christian tradition, many of its most profound insights into the Bible have not been lost, only overlooked by those of us who do not know them. They are there, present, just waiting to be discovered and realized anew.”
[p. 188] Thank you to Dr. Pitre for pulling together these insights and, in the process, weaving together a moving meditation on the sacred mystery of the Eucharist.
Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist is a book that I will be revisiting during Holy Week, this year and in years to come. I would recommend it to many people - those with doubts, those looking for the words to explain the Eucharist to others and all of those who want to expand their knowledge and love of ‘the bread from heaven, containing within itself all sweetness.’
Ellyn von Huben is a regular contributor to the Word on Fire Blog. She also moderates her own blog, Oblique House.