Rorate Caeli

More on the Eucharist in Hebrews

Work continues on the series of essays that seeks to show the Eucharistic/Liturgical background of St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews. An excerpt from the second chapter:

Once again, the suggestion can be made that perhaps St. Paul even had a liturgical text before him as he wrote this epistle. Better still is the suggestion, adopted by many scholars (Lane, Attridge, Buchanan, etc.), that Hebrews was originally a homily or sermon; in this case, the connections with the liturgy are almost to be expected, if this was a homily delivered in the context of the Mass. We could say, then, that not only did St. Paul have the liturgical text in front of him, but that rather, he was in the midst of enacting the liturgy itself.

Another liturgical connection is suggested by the hapax legomenon (a word used only once in a given body of text - in this case, the entire New Testament) used by St. Paul in verse 1: "we must pay the closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it."

The word used here is pararuomen - certainly a rare word in the New Testament, as we have said, but significantly enough, it is used in the LXX of Proverbs, in a context very much agreeable with St. Paul's words:

My son, let them not pass [pararrues] from thee, but keep my counsel and understanding ... Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding (Prov. 3:21, 4:1)

Note the similar emphasis on hearing and attending to words of "counsel," and the exhortation against "passing" or "drifting" from this Wisdom. St. John Chrysostom caught the reference to Proverbs, and made mention of it in one of his homilies on Hebrews:

Why then ought we "to give more earnest heed"? "Lest at any time," saith he, "we should let them slip" - that is, lest at any time we should perish, lest we should fall away ... And he took this form of speech from the Proverbs. For, saith he, "my son [take heed] lest thou fall away" (Prov. iii. 21 LXX), showing both the easiness of the fall, and the grievousness of the ruin. (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Homily III, 5)

It should not surprise us that St. Paul has the opening chapters of Proverbs in his mind. He opened the epistle (or homily) by making a close comparison of Christ to Wisdom in the Old Testament. Compare:

He reflects [apaugasma] the glory of God and bears the very stamp [charakter, "image"] of his nature. (Heb. 1:3)

For [Wisdom] is the brightness [apaugasma] of the everlasting light, the unspotted mirror of the power of God, and the image [eikon, "image"] of his goodness. (Wis. 7:26, LXX)

That St. Paul thought of Our Lord in terms of Wisdom Personified is shown elsewhere in his writings. In his first epistle to the Corinthians, he twice made this comparison explicitly:

... to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God ... He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. (1 Cor. 1:24, 30)

Not only does St. Paul allude to Christ-as-Wisdom in Hebrews 1:3, but he seems to carry on that thought into verse 5. Here, he quotes from 2 Samuel 7:14 ("I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son"), but the verse just previous to this stated, "He shall build a house for my name." (2 Sam. 7:13) We know that God was referring to Solomon here, the one who was to build the temple - the "house" - of God.

We can make a series of connections here that lead us up to a liturgical thought. Christ is the wisdom of God, and He is Wisdom Personified; He is the New Solomon, who built the house of God; Solomon was himself known around the world for his great wisdom, and thus he himself could be thought of as Wisdom Personified, in a lesser way. The connection of Solomon-as-Wisdom, the building of God's House, and the apparent fact that St. Paul has the "wisdom" chapters of Proverbs in mind, leads us to this convergence - a passage taken from the opening chapters of Proverbs, which makes mention of Wisdom, house-building, and striking liturgical symbolism:

Wisdom has built a house for herself, and set up seven pillars. She has killed her beasts; she has mingled her wine in a bowl, and prepared her table. She has sent forth her servants, calling with a loud proclamation to the feast, saying, Whoso is foolish, let him turn aside to me: and to them that want understanding she says, Come, eat of my bread, and drink wine which I have mingled for you. (Pr. 9:1-5)

Thus we have another subtle Eucharistic reference - a quiet echo, to be sure, but an echo nonetheless - sitting in the background of Hebrews.

To confirm the point, it may also be pointed out that St. Paul also quotes from the story of Melchizedek in later chapters of the epistle. This combination of Wisdom with Melchizedek was known in the early Church - they were seen as two very prominent types of the Eucharist. A passage from St. Cyprian shows this exact same pattern of pointing to both Wisdom and Melchizedek as symbols of the Eucharist, along with the very Pauline-Hebrews method of quoting from Psalm 110:

Also in the priest Melchizedek we see prefigured the sacrament of the sacrifice of the Lord ... And that Melchizedek bore a type of Christ, the Holy Spirit declares in the Psalms, saying ... "Before the morning star I begat Thee; Thou art a priest for ever, after the order of Melchizedek" ... who is more a priest of the most high God than our Lord Jesus Christ, who offered a sacrifice to God the Father, and offered that very same thing which Melchizedek had offered, that is, bread and wine, to wit, His body and blood?


Moreover the Holy Spirit by Solomon shows ... the type of the Lord's sacrifice, making mention of the immolated victim, and of the bread and wine ... and says, "Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath underlaid her seven pillars ... saying, Whoso is simple, let him turn to me; and to those that want understanding she hath said, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled for you." (St. Cyprian, Epistle LXII, 4, 5)

Showing himself a master of the art of segue, St. Paul moves neatly from the subject of angels (and Christ's exaltation over them) to the subject of Man. There is much to untangle in the following section, so we will attempt a brief summary with an eye to making the passage easier to understand when we arrive at it.

May these meditations enrich your appreciation of this epistle and of the Mass. Read more of Eucharist and Liturgy in Hebrews: Chapter 2.

1 comment:

  1. This is very good stuff!

    I look forward to the rest!



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