A Catholic Monthly Magazine

All or Many in the Words of Institution

Fr Merv Duffy sm

by Fr Merv Duffy sm

In the writings of the Prophet Isaiah there is reference to a mysterious figure called the Suffering Servant. According to four poems within the text of Isaiah a certain “Servant of YHWH” is called to lead the nations, but is horribly abused. The Servant sacrifices himself, taking on the punishment due to others. Finally, the Servant is rewarded.

The conclusion of the fourth and final “Servant Song” is this text:

Isaiah 53:11b-12

The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the mighty; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

The word “many” recurs throughout the Servant passages, often linked with the “mighty” – one reading is that the “many” have rebelled against the “mighty”, and the Servant’s death will set their transgression to right. In Hebrew, “many” is a more inclusive concept than it is in English.

The accounts of the Last Supper have Jesus echoing the language of Isaiah in what he says over the cup:

Mark 14:24 “This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many”

Matt 26:28 “Drink from this, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

Either Jesus himself, or the Evangelists, are identifying him with the Suffering Servant and making sense of his death as a sacrifice that takes sin away from us. The Servant’s pouring out himself to death is seen as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ pouring out himself in the wine of the Last Supper and in his blood on Calvary. Following Isaiah this is presented as being “for many”.

The words of institution in the Eucharistic Prayer follow this tradition:

Accipite et bibite ex eo omnes:

hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei novi et aeterni testamenti,

qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.

Hoc facite in meam commemorationem.

In 1973 this was translated as:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it:

this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. 

It will be shed for you and for all men so that sins may be forgiven. 

Do this in memory of me. 

The “all men” was later changed to “all”. This was an interpretive translation designed to make the universality of the saving event clear – it is for all. Some of the texts drawn on in support of this are:

John 11:52 Jesus was to die for the nation – and not for the nation only, but also to gather together into one the scattered children of God  

2 Cor 5:14 For the love of Christ overwhelms us when we consider that if one man died for all …

Titus 2:11 You see, God’s grace has been revealed to save the whole human race

1 John 2:2 He is the sacrifice to expiate our sins, and not only ours, but also those of the whole world.

The difficulty with it is that Latin has a perfectly good way of saying “for all” – “pro omnibus” but this was not used at any stage of the liturgical tradition. The various Eastern rites use the equivalent of “for many” in Greek, Armenian, Syriac and the Slavic languages.

Hence the revised translation is:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it,

for this is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant,

which will be poured out for you and for many

for the forgiveness of sins.

The new translation renders the “pro multis” accurately as “for many”. It is certainly not intended to be a denial of the universality of Christ’s saving mission. It leaves the task of explaining that universality to catechesis. Given the allusion to Isaiah and the Suffering Servant, I consider that this is a text which the new translation has “got right”. We listen to the institution narrative to hear the words of Jesus. According to the gospels Jesus did speak of the wine as “poured out for many”. We pray those words and mean by them just what Jesus meant by them.

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