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The Eucharist

Eucharistic Hermeneutics: The New Testament in Context

January 26, 2024

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In preparing for an interview on the website Five Books for Catholics on the topic of Eucharistic ecclesiology, I was reviewing some books I had read many years ago. One of those books is Sacrament of Salvation: An Introduction to Eucharistic Ecclesiology. It was written by one of my former professors and mentors, Msgr. Paul McPartlan. The book is relatively brief and yet full of helpful information on a wide variety of aspects of Catholic theology of the Church. Here, I would like to focus on one particular suggestion made in the book regarding biblical interpretation.

In his introduction, McPartlan notes that one of his objectives for the book is to help the reader “see that the Eucharist offers an invaluable key with which to unlock the meaning of the scriptures” (xv). He unpacks that theme more in his first chapter. There, he notes how both the Gospels and the New Testament epistles have the Eucharistic assembly as their core intended audience.

With respect to the Gospels, McPartlan draws from St. Justin Martyr’s (c. 100–165 A.D.) First Apology in which the saint gives an account of the Sunday gathering of Christians in the early Church. “Justin tells us that their [the apostles’] memoirs, ‘which are called gospels,’ are read, with the writings of the prophets. . . . Then the president gives an exhortation and proceeds to offer prayer and thanksgiving (literally ‘thanksgivings,’ eucharistías) over the gifts of bread, wine, and water” (3). McPartlan thus surmises that “the gospels were written, by their inspired authors, to furnish the weekly eucharistic gathering with an authentic, apostolic account of the Lord whose Resurrection the community was celebrating with joyful thanksgiving” (3).

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Similarly, McPartlan notes: “The letters for the New Testament were first heard by Christian communities gathered for the weekly Eucharist. Those who wrote them in the power of the Holy Spirit could presume that context and write accordingly” (2). In other words, when St. Paul, for example, was writing his letters to the various local churches (e.g., at Corinth, in Rome, etc.), he would expect the letter to be read during the assembly gathered to celebrate the Eucharist. 

As a result, McPartlan makes a keen inference and corresponding suggestion: “It follows that, when we strive to interpret the epistles, we should be ever alert to the possibility of implicit eucharistic references” (2). Continuing, he writes: “We can expect to detect eucharistic undertones, breaking through on occasion in explicit invocations and hymns (e.g. Phil. 2:6–11; Col 1:15–20; Eph 1:3–14) or specific teaching tailored to this context. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, for instance, is largely about the Eucharist and about appropriate behavior for the community which celebrates it” (2).

A little later on, McPartlan points to another New Testament epistle as a prime example of how the Eucharistic context can help make sense of a passage. In the Letter to the Hebrews, we read: 

What you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem where the millions of angels have gathered for the festival, with the Church of the first-born who have been enrolled in heaven. You have come to God himself, the supreme Judge and been placed with the spirits of the saints who have been made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:22–24)

McPartlan contends that, outside of the Eucharistic context, this passage would be confusing. But if one keeps in mind that the letter was presumed to be read during the celebration of the Eucharist, then its meaning becomes more apparent. McPartlan explains:

If we read this passage sitting [in] a room by ourselves, we may well puzzle at its meaning: ‘What you have come to’?, but I’m just here in this chair, praying or studying or reflecting. Here is an outstanding example of a passage that doesn’t make sense until we recall that it was first directed to a community gathered for the Eucharist. . . . The writer urges the local Christians to see with the eyes of faith what they have really come to, namely the final gathering of all the ages on God’s holy mountain (4).

In other words, this pericope is giving a theological understanding of the Eucharist as a participation in the eschatological heavenly liturgy. Without knowing the context to which the letter was written and in which it was originally meant to be read, this sublime idea could be completely missed.

In this way, McPartlan is advocating for a kind of “Eucharistic hermeneutics” with real implications for how one reads the New Testament. It can assist in our conversations with Protestants, helping them to see how the Eucharist is central even to the writing of the Bible itself. It also shows how the divine liturgy is still the preeminent place within which to read and comprehend Sacred Scripture. As he argues, “the gospels and epistles were all written primarily for the eucharistic assembly, and, if that is where they originated, it stands to reason that that is still today where they will most be at home and come alive” (3).