“This is my Body, which will be given for you. Do this in memory of me.”
These words, from the Gospel of Luke (ch. 22, verse 19) have deep significance for all Christians. Jesus, on the night before He died, picked up a piece of bread, and proclaimed to the Apostles that it was His Body, which would be given up for us. He then asked them to continue to do this ritual in His memory. Since that time, Christians have continued to offer the Eucharist, also known in Catholic circles at the Mass, Orthodox circles as the Divine Liturgy, and in Protestant circles as the Lord’s Supper. Many names have been given to how we keep this commandment of Christ. The differing names represent differing theologies about the Eucharist. How are we to understand the nature of this commission to offer the Eucharist? What significance does it have for our discernment?
There is a definite connection between the offering of the Eucharist at the Last Supper and the Cross. The bread and the wine that are offered clearly point towards what Jesus offered on the Cross, namely His Body and Blood. All Christians agree that the Cross is the offering with the power to defeat sin. On the Cross, Jesus offered Himself on our behalf. He took the place of all humanity, making an offering to the Father that was acceptable. This offering by the God made man removed the barrier between God and man – our sins. Mysteriously, God chose the route of suffering and death as the most effective way of redemption.
The Cross has saved us from sin, and the Resurrection has given us Divine Life. So, where does the Eucharist fit into this story of salvation? When Jesus tells us that the Bread and the Wine is His Body and Blood, are we to understand Him literally or figuratively? Theologians have disagreed on this point long before Martin Luther, Zwingli, and the Reformation. Theologians in union with Rome long debated this question, just as they debated the relationship between the human and divine natures of Christ. Some said that the Eucharist was a symbol that pointed towards the Salvation of the Cross. Others said that the Eucharist literally gave us the salvation won by the Cross. One camp would argue that the Eucharist does not give grace. Another camp would argue that it does.
Well, which theological camp is correct? We need to investigate the Scriptures, but also on the historical practice of the Breaking of the Bread since the early Church. There is much evidence that the early Church believed that what they received at the Breaking of the Bread each Sunday was indeed Jesus Christ. Take for example, the writings of Justin Martyr, describing Sunday worship in Rome around the year 150 A.D.:
We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.
The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: Do this in memory of me. This is my body. In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: This is my blood. The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things.
-From the First Apology of St. Justin Martyr
Also, to help us to understand the Last Supper commandment, we can reflect back upon the understanding of Passover in the Jewish tradition. At Passover, God commanded that a lamb be sacrificed in a specific way, and that its blood be smeared on the door posts of the houses of the Hebrews. The Angel of Death would “pass over” any of the houses which had the lamb’s blood on them. The next day, the Hebrews would be delivered from Egyptian slavery. Each year, the Jews were commanded to celebrate the Passover. In that celebration, the redemption won for them in Egypt was, in some sense, relived and renewed for the present day.
The connection between the Last Supper and the Passover is obvious. First, according to the Scriptures, the Last Supper, the Cross, and the Resurrection took place right before Passover. Second, Jesus was the new offering, the new Lamb, whose blood saves us from the Angel of Death. His death brought us freedom from the slavery of sin and death, just as the Passover miracle brought the Hebrews freedom from slavery. Likewise, the Eucharist replaced the Passover as the Covenant sacrifice between God and His people. Whenever the Eucharist is celebrated (as commanded by God), the Cross and Resurrection is, in some sense, relived and renewed for the present day. Mysteriously, the Eucharistic offering is a return to the offering of Jesus’ Body and Blood at Calvary (and not a re-sacrificing of Christ, as some allege).
Finally, there is also the Gospel of John, chapter 6, which illuminates early Church belief about the Eucharist. If it is true that John was the last of the Gospels to be written, and reflects theological development of the basic facts of Jesus’ life and ministry, then John would teach us show about early church theology. In John 6, it is clear that Jesus is referring to the Eucharist, the “Bread of Life” whose reception brings eternal life. What does John say Jesus said about the Eucharistic Bread? Let’s be reminded:
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats* my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
– John 6:51-59
Bread that is flesh – blood to drink – might Jesus be referring to the Eucharist? What else might He be referring to? I am not sure that there are any other plausible explanations for what Jesus means here.
Based on this evidence from the Scriptures, and the practice of the early Church, we can come up with a pretty convincing argument that the Eucharist is indeed literally the Body and Blood of Jesus, and not just a symbol that points towards the Cross. Also, the Eucharist is not a memorial only, but a gift from Christ that gives us grace. The Eucharist is the New Passover, giving us daily access to the grace of the Cross. According to John 6 (in Jesus’ words) the Eucharist is necessary to receive to gain eternal life.
Certainly, this is an apologia for the Catholic Theology of the True Presence of Jesus. Next week, I will discuss the importance of the True Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist for those discerning a vocation.