“Your ancestors ate and still died, but whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
WHAT IT IS
The Eucharist is the body of Christ, and is the most important Sacrament.
It consists of consecrated bread, which becomes his flesh during the Sacrifice of the Mass. Eucharist fulfills promises made to Abraham, Moses and David, marking the completion of Salvation History.
This sacrament can only be performed by an ordained priest or bishop. Unlike Baptism and Confirmation, it can be received multiple times. Christians are encouraged to participate as often as possible.
WHAT IT DOES
Also known as Communion, Eucharist has several effects:
- Augments our union with Christ.
- Provides spiritual food. Because the human flesh and soul are indissolubly united, consuming God physically unites body and soul with its source and destination.
- Separates us from sin and wipes away the effect of minor offenses against God.
- Protects us against future serious sins.
- Unites believers. Without the Eucharist, believers fragment into competing groups.
WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS
The institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper is the narrative climax of Christ’s ministry in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke.
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. Mk 14:23-24
While the Gospel of John does not directly recount the Last Supper, it contains the most important statements by Christ on the nature of the Eucharist. Let’s turn to Chapter 6:
- Verses 1-15 recount the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Key elements:
- It occurs near the Feast of Passover. The Last Supper is also a Passover meal.
- Jesus takes bread and gives thanks, just like at the Last Supper.
- After the people have eaten their fill, the remnants fill 12 baskets, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.
- Jesus departs from the crowds because they want to make him a king.
- In verse 27 Jesus tells the crowd: “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
- In verse 31 Jesus quotes the Ps 78:24, which recounts how God gave Israel manna to eat as they wandered in the desert.
- In verses 32-33 Jesus says that the bread of God gives life to the world.
- In verses 34 the people ask for this bread.
- In verse 35 Jesus responds “I am the bread of life.”
- In verse 48 he repeats this statement and adds:
Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever. It is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Jn 6:49-51
- Verse 52 says his listeners immediately “quarreled among themselves” and questioned this claim. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”, they asked.
- Jesus responds by telling them even more forcefully:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread your fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Jn 6:53-59
- There are several key elements in this passage:
- Jesus starts by saying “Truly, truly,” a translation of the Greek “amhn, amhn,” and the Hebrew “amen, amen.” Stating it twice follows a legal practice at the time, where two witnesses were required to give evidence in court. Its use in the Gospel indicates that a declaration was absolutely true. Christ often speaks in Parables, but none of these begin with “Truly, truly.” Consider some other uses of this phrase, none of which are ever interpreted metaphorically:
- In John 5:24, Jesus says “Truly, truly I say to you. He that hears my word and believes in him who sent me has everlasting life.”
- In John 3:5, Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you that unless a man is born of water and of spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.”
- In John 6:47, Jesus says “he who believes in me has everlasting life.”
- In John 8:51, Jesus says “whoever keeps my word will never see death.”
- Jesus says that his flesh and blood are real food and drink, not merely symbolic.
- Jesus establishes the link between communion and eternal life.
- Jesus references the manna from heaven. This points back to Ex 16:16-30, God gives the Jews what they need and forbids them from hoarding the food. Likewise the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-14) Jesus instructs us to ask for “our daily bread.” The Christian lives in a state of dependence on God, as a lamb relies on his shepherd to be fed (see Ps 12). We need to be meek and poor in spirit, trusting in the Lord for everything.
- Verses 60-66 recount how some people in the audience rejected this teaching on the Eucharist and walked away. Jesus lets them go because he respects their free will. It also contrasts with the passage involving Nicodemus in Jn 3:1-6, where Christ clarifies his position on Baptism. In the discussion of the bread of life, Jesus also reiterates his position. And it clearly states that consuming his body is key to salvation.
The Eucharist also has roots deep in the Old Testament. The first major reference occurs in Genesis 14:
“Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine, and being a priest of the God Most High, he blessed Abram. He blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand.” Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. Gn 14:18-20
Several aspects of this passage stand out:
- It occurs immediately before the Lord made the covenant that changed Abram’s name to Abraham, so we know that Melchizedek’s sacrifice of bread and wine was even more ancient than the founding of Israel. It predates the establishment of the Levitical priesthood by more than 500 years.
- It’s the only mention of Salem, which in Hebrew meant “complete” and is related to the word “Shalom,” meaning “peace.” The significance is especially important against the backdrop of what else is happening in that part of Genesis: There is great upheaval, with incidents like the Tower of Babel (Gn 11:1-9), Abram’s migration (Gn 12) wars among four kings (Gn 14:1-12) and the immorality of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 19). Salem is a refuge of eternal peace — a gateway to heaven — like the celebration of the Eucharist.
- Abram pays homage to Melchizedek, whose name means “my king is righteousness.” Based on his name and the meaning of “Salem,” Melchizedek clearly has deep connections with God. He doesn’t need a covenant like Abram.
A foreshadowing of God’s sacrifice for us is also foreshadowed in Eucharist in Gn 21, where Abraham is willing to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to the Lord. This act of faith is ultimately repaid to all humanity when God gives us His own Son at Cavalry.
Passover is another key antecedent of the Eucharist. Ex 12:1-13 describes how the Sacrificial lamb is to be killed at twilight. Its blood is applied to their door posts, saving those houses from the the wrath of God. The Last Supper was also a Passover meal, but there is no mention of a lamb. Christ offers himself as the sacrifice.
Jewish law also prohibited the Passover lamb from having any broken bones or blemish, which is why Christ’s legs are not broken while on the Cross.
The Eucharist is the climax of Salvation History, the story of how God acts in the world to restore humanity from sin. It begins in the earliest chapters of Genesis and progresses through a series of covenants, which prepare the way of the Lord.
It’s important to understand that, while God acts in history, individuals also must act for the story to progress. God himself declares this to Abraham:
“I swear by my very self that because you acted as you did in not withholding from me your son, your only one, I will bless you and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants will take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.” Gn 16-18
When people act according to the words of God, they are given greater faith and more grace. The actions of Abraham ultimately pave the way for all humanity to be saved by his his descendant, Jesus.
But there were many steps leading up the Christ. After Abraham, the next major figure is Moses, who leads Israel from slavery in Egypt and receives the 10 Commandments.
These laws are almost immediately broken with the worship of the golden calf. Moses orders his followers:
“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Each of you put your sword on your hip! Go back and forth through the camp, from gate to gate, and kill your brothers, your friends, your neighbors!” Ex 32:27
Members of the tribe of Levi obeyed, killing about 3,000.
God had originally said in Ex 19:6 “you will be a kingdom of priests.” But after the golden calf they lose that privilege, and the Levites become the only valid priests. Their laws appear in Leviticus.
At this point, the nation of Israel is in a state of transition. It angered and offended God, but He does not abandon them. He puts them under the authority of the Levites and lowers the moral standards in Deuteronomy, allowing evils such as divorce, harem warfare and slavery. These are the laws that Jesus overturns. (See Mt 19:8)
King David is another key figure in the Salvation History leading up to the Eucharist. After conquering Jerusalem, he brings the Ark of the Covenant into the city. David then offers a sacrifice to God and distributes bread and roasted meat to the multitudes. (See 2 Sm 6.) This story was well known 1,000 years later, which is why Christ’s multiplication of the loaves and fish was so important.
David also looked back to Melchizedek, believing that his city of Jerusalem was the same that almost a millennium previously was known as Salem. (Historians and archeologists have never determined whether this is true.) His decision to offer a sacrifice to God is also important because he’s a Judean and not a Levite, showing that David was looking back to the earlier priesthood of Melchizedek — ordained directly by God.
He develops this further in the Psalms:
“You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” Ps 110: 4
Fast forward 1,000 years to the birth of Christ, and we find the Matthew, Mark and Luke taking scrupulous care to mention that Jesus descended from David.
We already have an established pre-Mosaic priesthood of God, shown by Melchizedek, involving the sacrifice of bread and wine. Jesus unites this institution with Passover at the Last Supper, creating a New Covenant.
Unlike animal and grain sacrifices made at the Temple by Jewish priests, this one is made by God himself, which makes it is perfect and complete. It is also the ultimate act of atonement because only by becoming man and defeating sin itself, through faith and obedience, could God put man back at one with God.
ORIGINS OF THE SACRAMENT
In addition to the Passover meal, the Sacrament of Eucharist ties back to the ancient Jewish practice of keeping ceremonial bread (“showbread”) in the presence of God. Unlike the animals that were sacrificed, however, this bread of the presence was not burned. It was eaten by the priests inside the sanctuary, marking a ceremonial shared meal with the Lord.
There were always 12 loaves, one for each tribe of Israel. And, they consisted of unleavened bread, which further ties into the Eucharist and Passover. See 1 Chr 9:32, Lv 24:5-9 and 1 Sm 21:5-6. Jesus additionally mentions bread of the presence in Mt 12:4 and Lk 6:4.
After the Resurrection, Eucharist was also central to early Christian life:
“They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.” Acts 2:42
St. Paul frequently mentions Eucharist in his letters, written between 51 and 58 AD, demonstrating that it was practiced in the earliest days of the Church. (See below for more.)
Early non-scriptural writers including Ignatius of Antioch and Pliny the Younger also confirm the importance of Communion in Christian life less than a century after the Crucifixion. In fact, the Eucharist was so closely associated with Christianity that early believers were accused of cannibalism. (See below)
Real Presence / Transubstantiation
The nature of the Eucharist is undoubtedly the greatest dispute regarding this Sacrament. Is it actually the body and blood of Christ, or is it merely symbolic?
The words of Jesus in John’s Gospel (see above) are quite explicit, where he states that “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” His use of the expression “truly, truly” also shows that he is speaking emphatically and literally.
Most teachings of Christ are not given as specific instructions. For instance:
- “Blessed are the poor.”
- “When you do this to the least of me, you do it unto me.”
Or they are figurative, such a:
- “If your arm causes you to sin, cut it off.”
He doesn’t specifically tell us, for example, to “feed the poor.” Nor does he ever tell us to read the Bible. In fact, there are only two things that he specifically instructs his followers to do:
- To preach the Gospel. (See Mt 28:19-20 and Mk 16:15)
- To celebrate the Last Supper: (see Lk 22:19, also 1 Cor 11:24)
All Christians accept the importance of evangelization, but the command to celebrate the Eucharist is equally important in the text of Scripture.
Furthermore, the Last Supper is carefully recounted in the the Gospel, which demonstrates its importance. Does it make sense that so much attention would focus on it if the act were purely symbolic?
The idea of a symbolic, rather than a real sacrifice, is also completely unscriptural. At no other place in the Bible does God enter into a covenant on the basis of a metaphor. For instance, God clearly knew who belonged to the nation of Israel in Egypt. Why then did he require the blood of the lamb to be placed on their doorposts? It’s because that was the nature of the Passover ritual.
There are at least three logical problems with the symbolic interpretation, as well.
- If it’s only a symbol, then the Eucharist is truly nothing more than bread and wine. But how can mere bread and wine worth a few cents overcome all the sins of humanity?
- How can an action taken 2,000 years ago wipe away sins committed in the present day? In the classic Jewish tradition, sacrifices were made after events took place. How can Christ’s crucifixion save anyone today unless it continues?
- Old Testament sacrifices were proportional, with more serious transgressions requiring greater sacrifices. How, therefore, can simple bread and wine wipe away both minor and grave sins? It’s only possible if it the bread and wine are actually not bread and wine at all, but something that is infinitely redemptive. No body other than God’s can fit the bill to atone universally for all sins without an element of proportionality.
This reasoning, plus the words of Christ in all four Gospels, makes it difficult to maintain that the Eucharist is symbolic. St. Paul also warns against this misunderstanding:
Therefore, my beloved, avoid idolatry. I am speaking as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I am saying. The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. Look at Israel according to the flesh; are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar? 1 Cor 10:14-18
This passage is especially interesting because:
- Paul compares the Eucharist to the altar in the temple, where the Jews ate the flesh of animals they sacrificed.
- It makes clear that reverence for the Eucharist is not idolatrous.
He continues in the following chapter:
Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. Because of this, a person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. Anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the Lord’s body is eating and drinking a judgment against himself. 1 Cor 11:27-29.
There is also significant evidence outside of Scripture that the very earliest Christians believed in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Non-scriptural writers such as Ignatius of Antioch, who knew John the Apostle personally, wrote the following in 110 AD, shortly before getting fed to lions in the Roman Colosseum:
[Non-Christians] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they don’t confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to Smyrnaeans, Ch 7
It was also commonly alleged by the year 100 AD that Christians were cannibals, based on their faith that Christ was present in the Eucharist.
Belief in transubstantiation is confirmed by later writings and was broadly accepted by the time Christianity became legal in 313 AD. It was shared by the same early Christian leaders who defended the divinity of Jesus against Arianism, developed the doctrine of the Trinity and defined which books would constitute the New Testament. If they were wrong about the Eucharist, it should cast doubt on these other major elements of the Christian religion.