Saturday, June 9, 2012

Why Jesus used bread (rather than the Paschal Lamb) for the Eucharist

Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus, Mark 14:12-16, 22-26
While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.”
 At the Last Supper, our Savior instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist using the natural elements of bread and wine. Thus, by the divine mandate, only pure bread and pure grape wine can be the matter of the Sacrament of the altar. Like the male-only priesthood, this is something over which the Church has no power but which she receives from her divine Head, Christ Jesus our Lord.
However, it is good to realize that our Savior could have used any food as the matter for the Eucharist. He chose bread, but he could have chosen to consecrate the flesh of the Passover Lamb (for example).
Why then, did our Lord make use of bread for the Eucharist? And, What was he teaching us?
The Eucharist had to be made from food
Simply speaking, God is not in any respect bound by the sacraments. Thus, he could have made more or less than seven sacraments and he could have made different sacraments than he has in fact made. Thus, even in the case of the Eucharist, our Lord was under no compulsion to give us this Most Blessed Sacrament.
However, given that he desired to bestow upon his Church the Sacrament of the Altar as the memorial of his suffering and death, Jesus had to use some food-product as the matter of the sacrament. The very nature of the Eucharist is that of “nourishment” and “food”. In order for the Eucharist to be the Eucharist, it must be sacramental food – hence, it must be capable of being consumed.
Therefore, it is clear that the nature of the Eucharist itself demands that the matter of this Sacrament (i.e. those natural elements which are used in the Sacrament) be food-stuff. The Eucharist must be edible.
What is appealing about the flesh of the Paschal Lamb
The Lord could have used any food-product as the material “stuff” of the Eucharist. In fact, Jesus did choose to use bread and wine, but he was not bound to do so.
One other option, which might seem appealing (on a certain level), could have been the Passover Lamb.
If the Eucharist is truly Jesus’ body, that is, his very flesh; then the flesh or meat of the Paschal Lamb would be a very clear sign of this mystery. The raw or cooked flesh of a lamb would very clearly point to the fact that the Eucharist is the true Body of Christ.
Further, we must point out that the Paschal Lamb was the chief figure of the Eucharistic Sacrifice (see St. Thomas [here]), thus one might have expected our Lord to consecrate lamb-meat as the Eucharist.
Jesus could have consecrated the Paschal Lamb, if such had been his Divine Will. Our Lord could have chosen to make the Eucharist out of lamb-flesh and wine. Instead, he chose to use bread.
Why, then, did Jesus use bread? What was he teaching us by this choice?
Why Jesus used bread: Eucharistic Adoration
There are many reasons why our Lord chose to use bread rather than the flesh of the Paschal Lamb (or many other elements) to make the Eucharist. Most of all, the bread signifies most clearly the two “res” of the Sacrament – that is, the two great effects of the Eucharist.
On the one hand, the Eucharist effects and brings about the unity of the Church as the mystical body of Christ. From and through the Eucharist, the Church is constituted, bound together, and sustained until the end of time.
This reality – the communion of the Church – is clearly signified by bread. For, just as bread is made up of many grains of wheat which are united into one loaf, so too does the Church unite all peoples of all times and places. In this respect, bread was a more fitting choice than the Paschal Lamb.
On the other hand, the Eucharist is the true and real Presence of Jesus among us. In the Sacred Species, Christ is substantially present. And this presence does not diminish after the conclusion of Mass, but perdures as long as the Eucharistic Species remains. Thus, our Savior is truly present in the tabernacle, even if there is no one present to worship him.
This reality – the perduring presence of Christ in the Eucharist – is more aptly expressed through the use of bread than of flesh-meat. While meat corrupts quickly and spoils, bread (and, especially, unleavened bread) lasts a long time. Hence, we must admit that our Savior chose to use unleavened bread at the Last Supper in order to teach us that his Eucharistic Presence will not quickly dissipate, but rather remains so long as the accidental properties of bread remain.
Hence, while it is good and well that the East uses leavened bread for the Eucharist, the West clearly has the better tradition – since unleavened bread is much more easily preserved for Eucharistic adoration, and it also more closely accords with the material which our Savior used at the institution of this Sacrament.
Our Lord chose to use bread in order to signify that, through this Sacrament, he would remain with his Church always – and also, that the faithful should come and find him present therein, and adore him.
A hymn by St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. by Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins

Adoro te devote, latens Deitas,
quae sub his figuris vere latitas:
tibi se cor meum totum subiicit,
quia te contemplans totum deficit.    

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,
sed auditu solo tuto creditur;
credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius:
nil hoc verbo Veritatis verius.

In cruce latebat sola Deitas,
at hic latet simul et humanitas;
ambo tamen credens atque confitens,
peto quod petivit latro paenitens.
Plagas, sicut Thomas, non intueor;
Deum tamen meum te confiteor;
fac me tibi semper magis credere,
in te spem habere, te diligere.
O memoriale mortis Domini!
panis vivus, vitam praestans homini!
praesta meae menti de te vivere
et te illi semper dulce sapere. 

Pie pellicane, Iesu Domine,
me immundum munda tuo sanguine;
cuius una stilla salvum facere
totum mundum quit ab omni scelere.
Iesu, quem velatum nunc aspicio,
oro fiat illud quod tam sitio;
ut te revelata cernens facie,
visu sim beatus tuae gloriae. Amen.

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.

On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
 Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran---
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory's sight. Amen.

O Sacrament most holy, O Sacrament divine, All praise and all thanksgiving be every moment Thine!


Alessandro said...

Dear Father,
while studying the matter you proposed in this article, I came also to think of another reason why Jesus may have chosen bread rather than the lamb: put in plain words, the use of the lamb would have been misleading with respect to the nature of Christ’s sacrifice. The sacrifices of the Old Testament were a figure of Christ’s bloody holocaust on the Cross, so that they were “bloody” too. Spreading blood at killing and sacrificing the lamb, clearly was a figure of Christ’s body being slammed and his blood being spread on Golgotha. Now, Christ’s sacrifice is permanent and sufficient – no more blood must be shed because Christ’s holocaust is sufficient and perpetual. We don’t need a figure of Christ’s sacrifice, but a memorial (in the Jewish sense of the word, i.e. a ritual actualization) of the Messiah’s death. In order to perpetually signify this, Christ most fittingly chose a visible sign which required no bloodshed: the Lamb was thus unfit to convey the meaning of the sufficiency of Christ’s bloodshed. We can also read the Cain and Abel story in the light of Christ’s sacrifice. Abel’s sacrifice was most fitting as a figure of the perpetual sacrifice of the Cross, at a time when men had to fully understand that bloodshed was required to compensate for the consequences of original sin. On the contrary, Cain anticipated a bloodless sacrifice, showing that he didn’t understand that bloodshed was required until the Messiah come to fulfill God’s promise of the “Seed of the Woman” to be sent to defeat Satan. This is just a theory, but I don’t think I missed the point. Am I right, father?

Anonymous said...

Also, a lamb having been a living being creates confusion who we are actually adoring. The lamb could be understood to be somehow linked to the Son in some way, just as His human nature is united with His divine nature, to give an example. Bread doesn't create such confusion

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Didn't have the pictures with the article at first ... got them up now!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

"Fr Bart" left the following comment, which I find quite helpful.

Might another reason that our Lord chose to use bread for the Holy Eucharist be that He wanted to make it more available to all nations and peoples? It seems to me that wheat is more easy to come by than lambs, and less expensive, and easier to prepare, etc. Though I am sure there are still places in the world (and certainly have been in the past) where wheat is rare.

- Fr Bart


Father S. said...

Dear Father,

There is yet another dimension to bread. God makes wheat. God makes water. We make bread. In this way, the bread that is offered really is an oblation of the Church. We take what Our Lord has given us, use our gifts to glorify Him, and then offer back what He has given to us. This, of course, is the sense of the "Benedictus es Domine."

Kind Regards,
Father S.

Genty said...

Could the use of bread have been a reference back to Moses and manna in the desert?
Exodus 16:14-15

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, most certainly!
In fact, St Thomas says that the manna foreshadows the effect of the Eucharist ... insofar as it is suited to each one's need and provides nourishment in the desert.

Another Old Testament connection is that Melchisedek offered bread and wine after Abraham defeated the four kings!

Peace! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Father S,
Yes, thank you. That is a very good connection! +

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, very good!
I recall something from St. Paul -- "The blood of beasts cannot forgive sins."

This is certainly something of what you are referring to, yes?

Peace! +

Chatto said...


Dr Brant Pitre's work in "The Jewish Roots of the Eucharist" suggests yet another reason - an existing tradition in the Lord's own time, that the sacrifice the Messiah would make would be the Todah (thanksgiving) sacrifice of bread and wine, rather than the Atonement sacrifice of an animal. The video on the book's website,, is an excellent summary.

Jack said...

\\It seems to me that wheat is more easy to come by than lambs, and less expensive, and easier to prepare, etc. Though I am sure there are still places in the world (and certainly have been in the past) where wheat is rare.\\

As a matter of fact, I understand among the Ethiopians, a bread made from millet (the usual grain) is used, and at least some of the ancient Churches of India use rice flour.

Furthermore, all the Eastern Churches with the exception of the Armenian Church and a few of those in communion with Rome use leavened bread, and even these last are a late Latinism.

kkollwitz said...

I think that with bread & wine "work of human hands," Jesus is showing the importance of our cooperation with His intent for the Eucharist. Wheat and grape juice won't cut it. Rather, we must take those things and transform them through our work into the elements that enable Jesus to do his greater transformative work. It's like creating children: God depends on our cooperation for his creation of more people to continue.

kkollwitz said...

And then of course there's John 6.

Anthony said...

I am not a Priest but just a simple layman. I attend Mass each morning and oddly, I began asking myself this very question these last few weeks. I have actually meditated on this question during prayer. Why bread and wine? I think perhaps it has something to do with God and man working together. God provides the seeds and the rich soil needed for both grapes and wheat. Man (often many people) work the fields together, harvest together, grind the wheat together and even press the grapes together. In ancient times it was often a communal thing. It was a community coming together and working with God’s gifts to create food and drink. I think that is what Jesus wanted his followers to do. “Feed my sheep”. So many of his parables were about people working together tending the fields and vineyards and how they often attained success through working together as one. We are all called to tend God’s fertile fields and reap His harvest. I believe that Jesus was the only “blood” sacrifice that God has ever accepted for our sins. The millions of animals sacrificed have been in vain. When that perfect sacrifice was complete perhaps Jesus was saying…no more lambs please! Let the Pagans sacrifice their animals to their gods. My Father wants the works of your hands and your hearts.

Laura Marie said...

When I was in college, a professor pointed out that the substance of all the parables of Jesus is natural, available universally and throughout all times. For example: oil, seed, water, fish, etc. So, lamb does not fit that criteria. Jesus chose to consecrate that which most people can obtain and relate to.

deepoctave said...

The fact that God chose to give us this gift, the gift of Himself, made truly present in this way, "causes me to tremble".

Howard said...

My understanding is that in the early Church, the Eucharist was always entirely consumed -- if for no other reason because the Church was persecuted and could not guarantee the safety of a tabernacle. In the East this is still done, because what looks like bread is combined with what looks like wine. Furthermore, this practice seems to be more in keeping with the Passover tradition, since the entire lamb had to be eaten by morning, with any uneaten portions properly disposed of. Consequently, the concerns about spoilage seem to be less significant than some of the other points that have been brought up.

Bobby Hesley said...

St. Louis De Montfort actually put the most beautiful perspective on this question that I ever heard. In paragraph 71 of his classic work "The Love of Eternal Wisdom" he said the following:

" Eternal Wisdom, on the one hand, wished to prove his love for man by dying in his place in order to save him, but on the other hand, he could not bear the thought of leaving him. So he devised a marvellous way of dying and living at the same time, and of abiding with man until the end of time. So, in order fully to satisfy his love, he instituted the sacrament of Holy Eucharist and went to the extent of changing and overturning nature itself. He does not conceal himself under a sparkling diamond or some other precious stone, because he does not want to abide with man in an ostentatious manner. But he hides himself under the appearance of a small piece of bread - man's ordinary nourishment - so that when received he might enter the heart of man and there take his delight. Ardenter amantium hoc est - Those who love ardently act in this way. "O eternal Wisdom," says a saint, "O God who is truly lavish with himself in his desire to be with man."

Absolutely beautiful!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I would have to see more information on that ... the Church teaches that only wheat bread can be used for the Eucharist ... and this is (as far as I have every discovered) accepted across the Orthodox Churches as well.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Historically, you are correct.

However, our Savior's intention was not bound to the moment in time, but was directed toward the whole life of the Church.
Thus, as our Lord knew he would command Eucharistic Adoration in the future (about a millennium later), we are right to see that the use of bread was to prepare for this.

However, as you rightly point out, the Eucharist does not seem to have been kept for adoration in the earliest days of the Church ... though, as soon as possible, the Christians did build basilicas and then at least small amounts of the Eucharist were kept (and there is much more to say here -- like that a piece of the Host from the bishop would be kept and mingled with the Eucharist at other Masses, as a sign of unity -- but we will leave it at that).

Also, very very early on, communion was kept for Viaticum to the dying.

Peace! +

Anonymous said...


another historical reason (that does not erase the theological dimension): the paschal meal of the poor in Jesus' times was bread and wine. Joachim Jeremias proved it beyond doubts.


dianne said...

There was a lamb at the last supper. The lamb was Jesus.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes, precisely!
And this is why one might have expected that Jesus would use lamb-flesh as the matter for the Eucharist ... since bread (in itself) does not very clearly indicate that Jesus is the Lamb of God -- nor does it seem particularly sacrificial (and neither does wine ... unless we look with the eyes of faith). +

Anonymous said...

The Todah Sacrifice involved the use of bread and wine.

Corina said...

Related to the Melchizedek connection:
One of David's psalms is a prophecy of the Eucharist being in the form of bread and wine. Psalm 110 talks about the Messiah's reign.

The Lord has sworn
And will not relent,
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”
(talking to the Messiah)
-Psalm 110:4

Jesus, the Messiah, is the priest, and to be a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (as in the high priest) is to use bread and wine.

Alessandro said...

Dear Father,
I thank you for pointing out that specific passage from St. Paul - it is indeed what I meant!
I also thank all other people who posted their suggestions: there are many suppositions proving that Jesus chose the best food and drink for the Eucharist - or better, the most fitting with respect to what he wanted the Eucharist to be.

Converting said...

Wasn't the Last Supper a Passover meal, using unleavened bread (the bread of affliction) and wine?

Deacon William Gallerizzo said...

Nice treatise, but a few critical points were overlooked. In the sacrifice of a lamb under the covenant, the shedding of blood is what was to atone for sin. Since Abraham sacrificed the ram instead of Isaac, the lamb became the standard as a prophetic symbol of the Lamb of God who would eventually fulfill the covenant; in the generic human psyche, there is an aversion to the killing of another human being - some people can do it alot, but it eventually takes its toll psychologically on most people. As Christ, Second Person of the Trinity, died for our sins, in His perfection is the perfect atonement, not in the use of an ordinary lamb. To have used a lamb would have been a compromise and not a successful atonement. As the ultimate shedding of Christ's blood resulted in His death and resurrection, He put an end to all blood sacrifice as it was now completely accomplished, and therefore there could be no further compromise. But in the Eucharist is our assurance that the Ultimate Sacrifice remains valid and uncompromised, therefore it must continue as a sacrifice, not of only bread and wine, but of the actual Body and Blood of Christ.
So, why bread and wine? In the use of bread and wine, if we look in nature, we actually see the forming of them naturally in certain situations: wine is formed by a natrual fermentation process of sugar into alcohol by action of microorganisms (a process in Nature that came as part of God's creation prior to the advent of man's sin. Prior to man's production of wine, certain orchids in the Mediterranean produce wine in their bowl shaped flowers as part of their on-going procreation -their partaking in God's creation.); a form of unleavened bread is produced by certain bees and ants (social insects) by using starch from plants and water (again, a process that existed prior to the advent of sin). Thus, the process is one whose origin is found in Nature as integral to God's creation and compatible to our own existence. Therefore, like Christ's origins are eternal and unblemished so are the origins of bread and wine, and although Christ could have chosen a pascal lamb as the species of sacrifice, the order of the day was to fulfill the convenant. To continue in its previously insufficient form of unhuman victim would be to essentially not fulfill the covenant, and would not be a perfect sacrifice. Given all of these precepts, bread and wine are the perfect choice, and few other options palatable to humans would have been sufficient fulfillment as the Body and Blood of Christ. God's logic surpasses our own, but He always keeps us and our flawed outlook in mind.

Matthew Roth said...

Fr Erlenbush,
I also think the usage of bread and wine also makes more clear the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary. Would we not be required to a kill a lamb for each Eucharist if Christ had used a lamb? Also, he is the lamb, so using a physical lamb at the Passover seems a bit confusing to my mind.

Anonymous said...

Christ did not use a lamb because He became the unblemished Lamb on the cross. I was taught that and it is simple but true. If Christ had used a lamb it would not have signaled the end of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New. Christ's immolation of His very self was the end of the Old Covenant. Just as God provided the Lamb to Abraham, God provided the Lamb, His only begotten Son

Terry connolly said...

Perhaps the Grain was used as an earthly edible daily symbo,to indicate that on the Last Judgment Day the Lord will separate the wheat from the sheaf. It was a practical choice for even the poorest. The reference to companionship was the breaking of the Bread at the Last Supper in the upper room referring to community the Quahal Yahweh the gathering. Come share my Bread translates companionship in French. Com Panier.

Anonymous said...

Take a look at Joshua chapter 9 and Genesis 26:26-33, considering the role of an anticipatory meal of bread and wine, eating and drinking, as a covenant is effected reestablishing peace between its two parties. This also sheds light on Jesus words, "I call you no longer servants but friends," because that language of "friends" has political connotations as well, i.e. that we are now political allies (cf. 2Sam16:15ff and 1Kings16:11).

Anonymous said...

thank you for all these great posts. I have also been thinking about our eucharist. That something so simple could be used by our astonishing God. I am astonished. I wish we catholic people had more reverance for our God in the simple species. I also think since we are dust and God can come and live in us, He can certainly choose bread which is something even little children (or others without alot of teeth)can easily consume. Thank you all for your posts. Denise

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Unknown said...

Perhaps, in the use of Bread and Wine, Christ expressed the will of the Father that we look to the simplicity of Creation rather than its complexity. Likewise, so should blood sacrifice conducted under the species of a live victim, which entails a complex series of biological degradation leading to death, be replaced by a bloodless sacrifice under simple species which in essence lead to life. The Covenant is fulfilled and death no longer wins!

Deacon Bill Gallerizzo

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