lördag 29 april 2017

Things we Catholics do #1 - unleavened bread

The custom of the Latin Rite Catholic Church is to celebrate Mass with unleavened bread. The priest uses a large wafer (about 8 cm diameter) which is broken at the "fractionation", whilst the congregation receive individual small wafers (about 3 cm diameter) which may have been consecrated at the same Mass but have more often been consecrated at a previous Mass and stored in a silver vessel called a ciborium, which is kept in a locked safe known as the "tabernacle". In a traditionally configured Catholic church, the tabernacle is placed on the altar and the two, together with the altar, form the focus of attention. In a sense, it is the equivalent of the ark in a Jewish synagogue, containing the scrolls of the Law, the Torah.

The interesting thing is why we do this? When you search for this subject on the internet, the explanation given is that unleavened bread (matzot) was used at the Last Supper which was a Passover meal. However, the Last Supper was held on the Thursday. Scripture states that Good Friday was Preparation Day for the Passover ie 14th Nisan, which in the year of the crucifixion would have begun on the Thursday night. Contrary to what is commonly believed, therefore, the Last Supper was not a Seder.

What of the bread? Orthodox Jews start to clear the house of chametz on the evening of 14th Nisan. There is also a prohibition on eating food that is Kosher for Passover on Erev Pesach. Consequently, the practice in some Jewish households, of using matzot just before Passover because all the leaven (chametz) has been cleared away is incorrect. Thus the bread used at the Last Supper may have possibly been matzot but was probably not . On the other hand, the bread broken at Emmaus on the evening of the day of the Resurrection most certainly was.

However, also contrary to what is commonly believed, the Mass is not a re-enactment of the Last Supper but a representation of the Sacrifice of Calvary. Given that most of the Eastern churches use leavened bread for the Eucharist, and that they have generally preserved Jewish custom and that of the early church more faithfully, the use of unleavened bread leaves a puzzle, even though we take it for granted.

The puzzle does not stop there because if leavened bread was used, after consecration it could not be "reserved" in the tabernacle for use at a later Mass, nor would eucharistic adoration and processions be possible. That will be the subject of a future piece.

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