Consuming the Word: The New Testament and the Eucharist in the Early Church

Consuming the Word: The New Testament and the Eucharist in the Early Church

by Scott Hahn


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From the bestselling author of The Lamb's Supper and Signs of Life comes an illuminating work that unlocks the many mysteries of the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist.

Long before the New Testament was a document, it was a sacrament. Jesus called the Eucharist by the name Christians subsequently gave to the latter books of the Holy Bible. It was the "New Covenant," the "New Testament," in his blood. Christians later extended the phrase to cover the books produced by the apostles and their companions; but they did so because these were the books that could be read at Mass.
This simple and demonstrable historical fact has enormous implications for the way we read the Bible. In Consuming the Word: The New Testament and the Eucharist in the Early Church, Dr. Scott Hahn undertakes an examination of some of Christianity's most basic terms to discover what they meant to the sacred authors, the apostolic preachers, and their first hearers. Moreover, at a time when the Church is embarking on a New Evangelization he draws lessons for Christians today to help solidify their understanding of the why it is Catholics do what Catholics do.
Anyone acquainted with the rich body of writing that flows so inspiringly from the hand and heart of Dr. Hahn knows that he brings profound personal insight to his demonstrated theological expertise,” writes Cardinal Donald Wuerl in the foreword to the book.  Consuming the Word continues in that illustrious tradition.  It brings us a powerful and welcome guide as we take our place in the great and challenging work in sharing the Good News.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307590817
Publisher: The Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/2013
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 169,099
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

DR. SCOTT W. HAHN holds the Fr. Michael Scanlan Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization at Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he has taught since 1990, and is the Founder and President of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. In 2005, he was appointed as the Pope Benedict XVI Chair of Biblical Theology and Liturgical Proclamation at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Dr. Hahn is also the bestselling author of numerous books including The Lamb’s SupperReasons to Believe, and Rome Sweet Home (co-authored with his wife, Kimberly) and is editor of the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible and Letter & Spirit: A Catholic Journal of Biblical Theology. Some of his most recent books are Many Are Called, Hope for Hard TimesThe Catholic Bible Dictionary, and Signs of Life. He lives in Steubenville, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Sacrament of the Scroll

An ancient tradition tells us the story of Saint Romanus the Melodist, the sixth-century composer of homilies in hymn form, and how he received his vocation.

Born in Syria, he was a reverent child who loved the Lord’s house. Early in life he entered the service of the Church, at first simply lighting the lamps and preparing the incense for worship. As he grew, he pursued his education in Beirut, where he was ordained a deacon.

Romanus was the sort of student who got good grades because his teachers recognized the earnestness of his efforts. He was zealous, and his zeal enabled him to do good things in spite of mediocre skills. After three years in Beirut, he moved on to serve the Church in the imperial capital, Constantinople.

He was humble enough to recognize his shortcomings, and he accepted them. In fact, he took the word “lowly” as a sort of personal title. He longed, however, to glorify God as did the deacons who were better singers. Music was such an important part of divine worship, especially in the Eastern churches. It pained Romanus that the musical quality of the services he led was so inferior to that of the services led by his colleagues.

He prayed for God to give him by grace what he lacked by nature and training. One night as he prayed he fell asleep and was visited in a dream by the Virgin Mary. She held out a scroll to him and bid him, “Take the paper and eat it.” He did as he was told. He ate the scroll. Then he awoke and immediately knew what he must do.

He dressed and ran to the church. Ascending to the pulpit, he began to sing a sermon on the birth of Jesus. The song he sang is today known as his masterpiece—one of more than a thousand verse homilies (kontakia) he composed in his remaining years. A millennium and a half later, they are still sung on the great feasts of the Church.

Consuming the Word. Even casual readers may recognize Saint Romanus’s apparition as a trope, or common figure, of mystical literature. In the archetypal instance, the prophet Ezekiel (2:9–3:4) reports a similar encounter with a mighty angel:

And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and, lo, a written scroll was in it; and he spread it before me; and it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe. And he said to me, “Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. And he said to me, “Son of man, go, get you to the house of Israel, and speak with my words to them.”

The story recurs in the New Testament, in John the Seer’s encounter with a “mighty angel” come down from heaven, “wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head,” his face “like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire” (Revelation 10:1f).

He had a little scroll open in his hand . . . I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.” And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and tongues and kings.”

It is an odd sort of episode, the eating of a book, and it is all the more fascinating because it occurs in not one but two biblical texts. No wonder it commanded the attention of so many of the earliest Christian commentators. By the time of his own apparition, around AD 518, Romanus, who lived in a monastic community, must have heard the works of the great interpreters read aloud many times. He could have little doubt about the meaning of his dream.

Saint Hippolytus of Rome, in the third century, was one of the earliest exegetes to produce extended commentaries. He wrote that the scroll, with its printing on front and back, “signifies the prophets and the apostles. In it the Old Covenant was written on one side and the New on the other.” Moreover, the scroll symbolizes the “secret, spiritual teaching . . . There is a connection between reading the outside and understanding the inside.” There is a connection between the Old and New Covenants, and only the one who consumes the scroll can see it.

For Saint Jerome, the Ezekiel passage contained a special message for preachers: “Unless we eat the open book first, we cannot teach the children of Israel.”

In the generation after Romanus, Saint Gregory the Great experienced the same fascination, returning repeatedly to the prophet’s text. Gregory, a pope and liturgical reformer, was a profound exegete. In his Commentary on Ezekiel he wrote: “What the Old Testament promised, the New Testament made visible. What the former announces in a hidden way, the latter openly proclaims as present. Therefore the Old Testament is a prophecy of the New Testament; and the best commentary on the Old Testament is the New Testament.”

For the Fathers—from Hippolytus and Jerome to Romanus and Gregory—the meaning was abundantly clear: Salvation comes by means of a covenant (also known by the Latin equivalent, “testament,” from testamentum); and the covenant must be consumed so that it can be shared.

To Catholic Christians, in the first century or the twenty-first, the mystical tropes always evoke the sacramental mysteries. In the instances I’ve discussed so far, it is no stretch. The visionary books of Ezekiel and John are rich with liturgical imagery. Ezekiel is much concerned with the Temple. John sees both heaven and history in terms of sacrificial liturgy: altars and priests, chalices and censers, trumpets and hymnody, culminating in a sacred banquet. In both cases, the consumption of the scroll takes place amid some experience of heavenly worship.

In John’s telling, and later in the Church’s account of Romanus’s life, there are Eucharistic overtones. Both men are invited to “take” and “eat,” two verbs familiar from the Eucharistic institution narratives since the first century (see, for example, Matthew 26:26). They receive the -covenant verbally, and they take and eat that “word” as food.

In the third century, Origen, the great teacher of Alexandria, spoke of the scriptural proclamation as analogous to the sacramental communion:

You who are accustomed to attending the divine mysteries know how, when you receive the body of the Lord, you guard it with all care and reverence lest any small part should fall from it, lest any piece of the consecrated gift be lost. For you believe yourself guilty, and rightly so, if anything falls from there through your negligence. But if you are so careful to preserve his body, and rightly so, why do you think that there is less guilt to have neglected God’s word than to have neglected his body?

For Origen, there is a sacramental quality to the scroll. It is to be handled and consumed with the same decorum and attentiveness—yet hungry eagerness—as the Eucharistic bread.

In the bread and in the word there is a real presence. In the proclamation and in the sacrament the kingdom arrives with the king himself. Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “Thus we grow in the realization, so clear to the Fathers of the Church, that the proclamation of the word has as its content the Kingdom of God (cf. Mark 1:14–15), which, in the memorable phrase of Origen, is the very person of Jesus (Autobasileia).”

This is the truth Romanus knew, and Jerome, and Gregory, and John experienced, and Ezekiel foresaw. Salvation comes by way of a covenant—a covenant embodied in a Word, a Word that is made flesh, a Word that is consumed.

The prophets and seers speak to us in images, and their images convey mysteries. As we come to understand these mysteries, we must use words to speak of them. God made us to communicate verbally. He himself created this aspect of human nature and accommodated it as he inspired the Scriptures—which are, literally, hai graphai, “the writings.” For Ezekiel and for John, God committed his word to a scroll before inviting them to consume it.

God reveals himself and gives himself in the scroll. What begins as poetry, however, we can allow to degenerate into jargon; and so the Greco-Latinate terms “covenant,” “testament,” “liturgy,” and “Eucharist”—all workaday words that inspired our ancestors to sing—now drop with the thud of a technical vocabulary.

It is probably not a modern problem, but rather a perennial temptation. Yet our recovery of the newness of that vocabulary—the New Testament, the New Covenant—is especially urgent right now, as the Church embarks upon a New Evangelization.

Evangelization is a dynamic process by which we share the Gospel (the Good News) with others. Yet we cannot deliver what we do not first possess. Ezekiel consumed the word of his prophetic message. John, too, took it and ate it. Romanus consumed it, digested it, and it became part of him; and then he shared what he had received. These men first knew communion with the Word, and only then were they able to take the Word out to the world.

We all need to sense once again the savor of Ezekiel’s foretaste, John’s banquet, Romanus’s song. That is the reason I wrote this book: to undertake a study of a few of Christianity’s most basic terms, and to find out what they meant to the sacred authors, the apostolic preachers, and their first hearers. If we consume the Word as they intended when they served the Word, then we can be transformed as the early disciples were transformed, and then perhaps our world can be remade and renewed as theirs was remade and renewed.

Chapter 2

Before the Book

If someone asks about the basics of Christianity, the foundations of our faith, we instinctively draw from literary terms. We speak of the “New Testament,” and by that we mean a book. We point to the “Gospel,” and by that we mean a literary form, a kind of sacred biography. We use these terms as titles of specific ancient documents, texts that were composed millennia ago and fixed permanently by a “canon,” which we understand to be an unchangeable table of contents.

“New Testament” is indeed a foundational term. Today, it’s most commonly used to describe the second division of the Christian Bible, the later-written and smaller division, which consists of twenty-seven books. All of those individual books were written after the earthly ministry of Jesus, and they reflect upon that ministry and its implications for humanity. “New Testament,” then, is a book title, and it belongs to Christianity’s most sacred and authoritative text.

If “New Testament” is a title, then it’s only sensible that modern Christians use literary terms to talk about it. But here’s the problem: We have no evidence that anyone in the first century used the term that way. In fact, we don’t find “New Testament” applied to the Christian Scriptures until the very end of the second century; and only in the middle of the third century does the term appear with some degree of frequency. We do find it early on, but it does not refer to a written work. In fact, it has quite a different meaning, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Yet even when authors did get around to calling the book by that name, they didn’t always agree on which texts belong in the book. Although there was widespread agreement about the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and most of Saint Paul’s letters, there was a bit of contention about the so-called Catholic Epistles, attributed to Peter, James, and John, about the Letter to the Hebrews, and about the book of Revelation. There was, moreover, a handful of books that were considered “Scripture” in some local churches but not in others: the first-century letters attributed to Barnabas and Clement, for example, and the visionary book called The Shepherd, by Hermas of Rome. Not until the fourth century do we find a “canon” with exactly the same list of books as you’ll find in today’s Christian Bible.

The faith of the first-generation Christians was centered on something they called the “New Testament,” although ordinary believers and even the Church’s leaders had only limited exposure to the sacred texts. They did not have the benefit of a fixed canon. Few people had access to books anyway.

We all agree that the life of those early Christians is somehow exemplary and normative for Christians today. If we are to succeed in the Church’s New Evangelization, it will be at least partly because we follow the pattern of the first evangelization. The love of Christ compels us to understand their terminology on their terms.

To understand the mind of the earliest Christians we need to exercise our imagination, for we’re talking about a time before the advent of mass media. There were no electronic or instantaneous communications—nothing like television, radio, podcasts, e-mail, or the World Wide Web. Ordinary postal mail could take months to reach its destination.

Neither was there a printing press. Book production was laborious. Scribes—who were skilled, highly paid professionals—spent hours copying out legible pages by hand with pen and ink. Just one copy of a book could require a month to complete. Only the very wealthy could afford to own such volumes, and usually no more than a few. In most places, moreover, education was available only to the elites. Literacy levels in the Greco-Roman world were relatively low, so there was not a large ready market for books. It’s probably safe to say that the early Christians could not have imagined a world where the Bible was waiting in a drawer in every hotel bedroom or was mechanically searchable in a pocket electronic device.

Nevertheless, we find—from the very beginning—a profound reverence for the sacred writings: graphai in Greek, usually translated to English as “Scriptures.” Most of the time when the word is used in the New Testament books, it refers to the books of the Old Testament. That’s how Jesus uses the term when he says, “the scriptures . . . bear witness to me” (John 5:39). That’s how Saint Luke uses the term when he says that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, [Jesus] interpreted to [his companions on the road to Emmaus] in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27).

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Sacrament of the Scroll
Chapter 2: Before the Book
Chapter 3: The New Testament in the New Testament
Chapter 4: The New Testament After the New Testament
Chapter 5: The Original Setting of the New Testament
Chapter 6: The Church of the New Testament
Chapter 7: The Old Testament in the New Testament
Chapter 8: The Canon of the New Testament
Chapter 9: The New Testament and the Lectionary
Chapter 10: Trusting the Testaments: The Truth and Humility of the Word
Chapter 11: The New Testament and Christian Doctrine
Chapter 12: The Mysterious Plan in the New Testament
Chapter 13: The Sacramentality of Scripture
Chapter 14: The Testament at the Heart of the Church
Chapter 15: Coming Full Circle



Raymond Arroyo on His Friendship with Mother Angelica

April 20, 2013 by Image Books

Mother Angelica, founder of the multimillion-dollar Eternal Word Television Network, turned 90 years old on April 20, 2013.

Seen by millions each day on the television network she founded, Mother Angelica is one of the most trusted and beloved religious figures of our time. Her life story is one of faith, perseverance and overcoming obstacles.

In the following interview, transcribed in early April 2013, Raymond Arroyo, news director and lead anchor at EWTNews, reflects on his long friendship with Mother Angelica.

Q. How is Mother Angelica doing? Can you start by giving us an update on her health?
Mother's health is as it was. She is radiant and very serene—looks 10 years younger. I should look so good! Mother sleeps a lot these days, receives the Eucharist daily, prays with her sisters? But her days are very quiet. Due to her age and mobility, she can't leave her room. But she is cared for beautifully and a sister is always with her. In some ways she is living out the vow she made in 1947 to be a contemplative with God alone. She has lots of time for him these days.

Q. She turns 90 on April 20th. Do the sisters have anything special planned for her birthday?
I spoke with Mother Angelica and a few of the nuns earlier today. They tell me they have a slew of practical presents for her, there will be a special Mass at the monastery on the 20th, and they are planning to give Mother some of her favorite foods on her birthday (including angel hair pasta and meatballs as well as vanilla ice cream and fruit—which she adores).

Q. Mother Angelica once said, "You must laugh yourself to heaven because tears won't get you there." Having spent a good bit of time with her over the years, you've surely had the pleasure of seeing her sense of humor in action. Can you share a favorite memory from a time when she made you laugh?
Even in some of her darkest moments, when she was being assailed by those in the Church, Mother never lost her sense of humor. I can remember sitting with her in a guest house behind EWTN, where she would retreat after her live show. One night in the late 1990's we were sharing tea and Nutter Butters speaking about her recent clashes with a Cardinal who was tormenting her. Out of the blue, Mother holds up one of the cookies, which was shaped like a huge peanut, and stared at it hard. "I don't mind the attacks. I don't mind the slander. It's the NUTS I could do without." She ferociously bit off the top of the peanut cookie and uncorked one of those wheezy laughs that only Mother could produce. Her reference could not have been more clear. She would best that cookie and the Cardinal before it was over. Her timing was impeccable as was her feisty wit.

Q. Mother Angelica once told you she considered herself a "porcupine at a balloon party." What a great visual. Can you recall a time when you saw her put those porcupine quills to use?
It's easier to tell you when Mother didn't use her quills. Mother was (and is) a woman obsessed with doing God's Will, even when it would have been easier for her to give in to those with more power and influence. There is that wonderful story that I relate in Mother's biography when the Bishops' conference wanted her to air interviews with certain individuals that she considered heterodox.
"What makes you think you can decide who can be on air or not?" the priest demanded on the phone.
"I happen to own the network," Mother said flatly.
"Well, you won't always be there."
"I'll blow the damn thing up before you get your hands on it."
How's that for a quill? Human respect was the last item on Mother's to do list. She was never rude. But when she encountered people whom she felt were obstructing God's will or her mission—watch out! She had guts and vision and a deep faith. It was that faith that allowed her to be so free and so strong for so long—even now. That faith allowed her to overcome disability and hardship and create what is today the largest religious media empire on the planet. We shall never see her like again. And when the history of cable is finally written alongside the Ted Turners and Brian Lambs, there will most certainly be Mother Mary Angelica. On her 90th birthday I am amazed by not only what she has accomplished, but the way she accomplished it.

Q. What is the most important lesson you've learned from Mother Angelica?
Undoubtedly, the lesson that Mother most impressed on me and that I took to heart is to "live in the Present Moment." This notion of living in the present and not permitting yourself to dwell in the past or fret about the future is at the very center of Mother's spirituality. She would say: "We have to ask God, 'What are you calling me to do now in this present moment?' Not yesterday or tomorrow, but right now. God's will is manifested to us in the duties and experiences of the Present Moment. We have only to accept them and try to be like Jesus in them." Once you begin living in this way, you are newly aware of inspirations, people, and events happening now. You are receptive to the many surprises God places in your path. It's quite freeing actually. And when you truly live this way, you are entirely receptive and available to what you should be doing right now. This is one of the reasons Mother was able to accomplish so much during these past 90 years.

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