– Vol. VII, No. 3: May 2001
Sacrifice-Banquet of the New Covenant
by The Rev. Msgr. Anthony A. La Femina
From ancient biblical times the sacred union of covenant was constituted by means of a sacrifice and/or a sacred banquet (e.g. Gen 24:30; 31:54; Ex 24:1-11). The Lord Jesus used these familiar methods at the Last Supper to establish God’s New and Everlasting Covenant. To establish this Covenant, Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which He made both a sacrifice and a sacred meal. Jesus expressed his eager anticipation to celebrate this covenant event through the institution of the Eucharist when He exclaimed at the Last Supper: "I have greatly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer" (Lk 22:15). By establishing the New Covenant through the Eucharist, Jesus made His Spouse the Church to be a Eucharistic People by reason of her very origin.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) teaches that "the Mass" — another name for the Eucharist (CCC, no. 1332) — "is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the Sacrifice of the Cross is perpetuated, and the Sacred Banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood" (no. 1382 – emphasis added).
The Mass is a sacrificial memorial of the Cross. The Eucharist’s sacrificial character as a memorial celebration is manifested in the consecratory words over the bread and wine. By making His Body and Blood present under separate appearances, the Lord Jesus wished to signify the violent death He accepted and offered with total obedience, fidelity and love for His Father’s will to save mankind. However, as a "memorial," the Eucharist is no mere recollection of Calvary. Instead, it is Calvary’s perfect memorial because the Eucharistic Action sacramentally makes present the sacrifice that it signifies. The Holy Mother Church firmly believes that "the Eucharist is a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the Sacrifice of the Cross" (CCC, no. 1366). The difference between the Sacrifice of Calvary and the Eucharist is not in the unique sacrifice that is offered, but only in the manner of its offering. The Church believes that "the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice" (CCC, no. 1367).
The Lord Jesus, Eternal High Priest, now makes His sacrifice sacramentally present through the ministry of His priests when they speak the words of consecration over the bread and wine. With their words Jesus himself changes the bread and wine into His Body and Blood so that He becomes present in a true, real and substantial manner: body, blood, soul and divinity.
At the moment of this awesome change, Jesus makes present His Sacrifice of the Cross, which is signified by the two separate consecratory actions. Saint Paul says that each time the Eucharist is celebrated we "proclaim the death of the Lord until He comes" (1 Cor 11:26).
However, the Eucharistic celebration also commemorates the Resurrection and Ascension the complete Paschal Mystery since Jesus Christ, who is present, is the glorious Victor over sin and death. The Lord Jesus made the Eucharist to be the perpetual memorial of His sacrifice because He wills to apply the fruit of His unique sacrifice until the end of time by means of the Mass. This is by the Lord’s sovereign choice, which is to say, His decision alone to make and ours only to obey. Thus, He commands His faithful Spouse, Holy Mother Church: "Do this in memory of me".
The Eucharist is also a Sacred Banquet. By the Lord Jesus’ absolute and indisputable decision He wills that His own Body and Blood be the supernatural sustenance of those whom at Baptism He has made children of His Father in His own image (cf. Jn 6:60-71). This nutrition, called Holy Communion, enables those who receive it worthily to become more and more like unto Jesus and, in that measure, more pleasing to God the Father. The nourishment one has from feeding on the Lord’s flesh and blood should empower that person to live ever more completely in the likeness of the Son, in His total obedience, fidelity and love for the Father’s will in all things. Sharing in the Eucharist is the highest point of union with the Lord, who is both the source of eternal life and the font from which one draws the strength to make the complete gift of one’s self. Holy Communion is Jesus’ Pledge of eternal glory by initiating intimate communion between Himself and that person whom He will usher one day into the place He has prepared for those who follow him faithfully (cf. Jn 14:1-3).
The establishment of the New Covenant through the Eucharist is graphically illustrated in this image above. Through power given Him by the Father (Jn 13:3), Jesus made His sacrifice sacramentally "pre-exist" at the Last Supper, just as He makes it sacramentally "post-exist" in the Masses offered through the ministry of His priests. The Lord does this by making present at the celebration of the Eucharist His death, which is always present to Himself since He, the eternal Son of God, is "the same yesterday, today, and forever" (Heb 13:8). Announcing His coming glorification before the Last Supper (Jn 12:23-33), Jesus said that He would be glorified as "the Son of Man" a title that stands for Messiah king by creating a universal covenant union of persons made up of both Jews and Gentiles. At the same time, Jesus prophesied that God would be glorified in His own glorification. Jesus stated that He would accomplish this twofold glorification by being "lifted up from earth". The Fourth Gospel immediately explains that this phrase means His death by crucifixion. The earthly glorification of Jesus as Messiah is indicated in the icon by the apostles present at the supper table as well as by those persons coming to join the People of God from both East and West.
Mary cannot be omitted in this icon portraying the establishment of the New Covenant because she, in union with the sacrifice of her Son, offered to the Eternal Father for the salvation of humankind her maternal rights and love. She, by special privilege, is the unique all-holy member of God’s people and in her the Church already at its foundation realized itself as the all-resplendent Bride of Jesus Christ.
The Gospel of John looks upon Jesus’ death in a very different manner than the other gospels. It does not dwell upon Jesus’ humiliation and sufferings. Instead it presents the Lord’s death as His earthly glorification because by it He established God’s new People, the true vine, and assumed His role as its Messiah king (Jn 15:1-5). For this reason Jesus is crowned on the cross in the icon.
From ancient times the covenant sacrifice was called a "sacrifice of communion" precisely because of the special family-like union that God created by it. In His earthly glorification through the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Jesus shares His divine filial life with those who are part of the true vine, which is the new Israel. The "vine" was a symbol of ancient Israel (cf. Ps 80:9-16; Jer 2:21; 6:9; Ezk 15; 17:5-10; 19:10-12; Hos 10:1), but by calling Himself the "true vine", Jesus defined God’s New Covenant People in terms of Himself who always brings forth fruit pleasing to His Father. In establishing the New Covenant, Jesus becomes "the firstborn of many brothers" (Rom 8:29), and those who share His life become children of His Father, "sons in the Son" (GS, no. 22).
By accomplishing His earthly glorification, the Lord completed His mission on earth for the revelation of God’s name of Father (Jn 1:18). For this reason, Jesus exclaimed at the Last Supper, "Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in Him" (Jn 13:31). This phrase is of capital importance regarding the Eucharist in the Fourth Gospel. As mentioned above, in John’s Gospel, just before the Last Supper, Jesus foretold that He would be glorified as the Son of Man by His death upon the cross, and that God would be glorified in Him. Then, most surprisingly, during the Supper and, therefore, before His death, Jesus proclaims His and God’s glorification as a fact at that particular moment.
The express statement of Jn 13:31 implies the presence of the death of Jesus at the Last Supper and thus seems to contain the Fourth Gospel’s most important teaching about the Eucharist. By this statement the Fourth Gospel clarifies the meaning of the synoptic and Pauline Last Supper Accounts regarding the Eucharist’s sacrificial nature and its special covenantal importance at the Last Supper.
The glorification of the Father in the Son through the Eucharist by the establishment of the New Covenant is also depicted in the icon. Moreover, above the image of God the Father, and attended by two seraphim, is written the word "ABBA." This word means "Father" in Jesus’ own Aramaic tongue (Gal 4:6). Jesus says it is by this name that He protects His faithful disciples (Jn 17:11,12). Since Jesus works all in the power of His Spirit, the Holy Spirit is also shown in the icon with His seven gifts (the seven gold rays), whereby He sanctifies the Church and maintains her in the truth down through the ages of time.
The Eucharist brings about the family-like relationship that reveals the New Covenant to be a Covenant of Divine Paternal Love.
The celebration of the Eucharist is truly the revelation of God’s name of Father. In the Eucharistic New Covenant Jesus does what only He can do: reveal His Father to humanity by enabling those who faithfully believe in His name to share His filial life so that, by water and the Spirit (Jn 3:5), they may become children of His Father, branches of the Father’s true vine, God’s new Israel. In the Eucharist, both sacrifice and banquet, we meet Jesus our Messiah king and in the Eucharist we have our Source, Teacher and Lesson of life and love.
Monsignor La Femina, a priest of the diocese of Venice, Florida, is the iconographer of the "Mystical Supper" and author of its explanation. He worked for years at the Pontifical Council on the Family.