You know, I can’t imagine myself being anything but Catholic. To me, Catholicism isn’t a denomination, it is literally part of my being, of who I am.
One of the reasons I love being Catholic is because of its deep tradition and its wonderful Sacraments. My favorite Sacrament is that of receiving the Eucharist.
Catholics and non-Catholics alike can, at times, have trouble understanding how bread and wine can actually be the body and blood of Jesus Christ. And why would we even need to consume the body and blood of Jesus Christ? That’s so weird. Well, let’s see if I can bring some basic understanding to the mix…
Understanding the Eucharist in Three Easy Steps
1) God as God institutes Passover: In order for Moses and God’s chosen people to be freed from Egypt they had to survive the first Passover, where the Angel of Death would come and kill the first born of everyone who did not follow God’s command. That command stated simply to kill an unblemished lamb, put the blood on the door frame and then consume the lamb in conjunction with the consumption of unleavened bread. As Scott Hahn says so well in his book The Lambs Supper, if they ate symbolic lamb-shaped cookies, their first born died. So, you had to sacrifice AND consume the lamb with the bread to escape death. So far so good, right?
2) God as Jesus fulfills Passover: Jesus, as part of the Trinity, knew what God meant when he spoke to Moses. Jesus even conversed with Moses during the Transfiguration. God as Jesus knew, like the first Passover lamb, he had to be sacrificed so that we may escape death. This time, however, it was death from sin. Like Moses’ lamb, Jesus would be unblemished. He would be sacrificed. His blood would be spilled on the cross.
And we had to consume him.
As he says in John, we had to eat his flesh and drink his blood. The translation for eat can be more accurately stated as to gnaw or chew. He wasn’t speaking figuratively and he lost thousands of followers that day because they couldn’t understand how that was possible.
And unlike numerous times Jesus spoke in parables, this time Jesus offered no further explanation to his Apostles.
You can think of it this way. If Moses’ lamb could speak, what would it have to say so that his first born could escape the Angel of Death? Well, that’s how Jesus was speaking to us, as the Lamb of God.
He answers that question later at The Last Supper. Here Jesus takes the Passover meal, a meal put into place by God himself, and says this bread once used for Passover will now become my body and this wine once used for Passover will now become my blood.
So now we understand the original sacrifice of the lamb with Moses and the paschal sacrifice of Jesus as the Lamb of God. Now what?
3) God as Holy Spirit Makes the Eucharist Available to Us Every Day: Did the Apostles think Jesus was speaking literally or symbolically? They saw his face when he said we had to eat his flesh and drink his blood. They heard his voice. They saw his body language. Did they believe him? Apparently so.
As St. Paul says in Corinthians, “when we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the death of our Lord Jesus Christ” and “those who eat this bread and drink this cup un-worthily, bring condemnation on themselves.” If the Eucharist were merely symbolic, would being unworthy result in condemnation?
After the Ascension and after Pentecost, the Apostles had to figure out how to worship in a post-Messiah world. What do we do? When do we do it? What happens while we’re there?
St. Justin Martyr, in a letter written about 150 AD gives us critical insight. For Catholics, see if this sounds familiar.
- He states that the Disciples of Christ meet on the day of the sun (Why is that important? Jews met on Saturday. Why did Christians meet on Sunday? The Resurrection).
- All believers who dwell nearby come to the same place (church).
- The memoirs of the Apostles and writings of the prophets are read (First Reading from the Old Testament. Second reading from the New Testament. A Gospel reading).
- When finished the one who presides (the Priest) admonishes and challenges them to imitate those beautiful things (the Homily).
- Then we rise and pray for ourselves and others (Prayers of the Faithful).
- Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to he who presides. He takes them, offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe and through the name of the Son and the Holy Spirit (the Consecration)
- When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: Amen. (the Great Amen)
- When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded, those whom we call deacons give to those present the eucharisted bread, wine and water (Communion)
- And take them to those who are absent. (Eucharistic Ministers)
For non-Catholics, St. Justin’s description is a synopsis of the current Catholic Mass. St. Justin also states in his first apology, that this “Eucharistic bread” is transmutated, or what we call now transubstantiated, into the body and blood of Jesus.
This isn’t something St. Justin made up! He would have been called a heretic! St. Justin was merely stating that which was already in place. And since he was a direct follower of the Apostles, it had to have been instituted by them.
You may ask “Why doesn’t it taste like flesh and blood? It still tastes like bread and wine.”
Remember, we are limited creatures, with limited senses and limited understanding. Not only that, but Jesus was not speaking of eating/drinking his pre-resurrection body/blood, but his post-resurrection body/blood. A body which could appear and disappear while in a locked room. A body which could at one second be absent, and the next be true flesh and blood, so much so that Thomas could touch Jesus’ wounds.
If the Apostles could see, in person, the many facets of Jesus post-resurrected body, do you think it would be that difficult for them to accept that Jesus would make himself present in bread and wine in the same way he could suddenly make himself present in their midst within a locked room?
You also have to remember that God was planning to institute the Eucharist from the beginning of time, so He could be with us always. From Melchizedek and his use of bread and wine, to Jesus in the desert being tempted to turn rocks into bread, to manna in the desert and its connection to Jesus in the Gospel of John, to the Apostles recognizing Jesus in the breaking of the bread on the way to Emmaus, and many other examples, the connection to bread and wine has been layered throughout salvation history.
If you still are uncertain, ask yourself this… are you prepared to state that:
- God as God can create the universe and all you know
- God as Jesus can walk on water, calm the storms, cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead, and turn a few loaves of bread and a few fish into enough to feed thousands
- But God as the Holy Spirit can’t turn this bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus, yet allow the taste to remain as our limited senses can comprehend it?
God’s power is limitless. It’s our humanity that is limited.
And the beauty of the Mass is that we believe, when we celebrate the Eucharist, that we are not re-creating or acting like Jesus at the Last Supper, but that we are actually present at the Last Supper! God is not bound by time! When we consume the Eucharist, we are sitting with the Apostles at the Last Supper, in a timeless universe with Jesus offering us eternal salvation through his literal sacrifice!
What a beautiful gift! What a wonderful blessing!
So, there you have it. God instituted Passover. Jesus fulfills Passover. The Holy Spirit makes the Eucharist available at every Mass. Even with that understanding, it still takes belief, it still takes faith, to fully appreciate it.
It’s one of the reasons I love being Catholic.