The first four Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary build up to the last and greatest one: the Institution of the Eucharist. As Jesus sanctifies the waters of our baptism, and as he turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana, he will now turn wine into his precious and holy blood, shed for the salvation of the world. And as Jesus proclaimed the kingdom to transform our hearts, so he transforms blood and wine into his body and blood so that he might dwell deep in our hearts. And when he dwells in us, he prepares us to see him face-to-face in heaven, just as Peter, James and John saw him in his glory at the Transfiguration.
The Catholic Church describes the Eucharist as the “source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium, 11). How could it be otherwise, if the Eucharist is what the Church says it is: “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (1)
Surveys on what percentage of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist vary (as surveys will depending on the size and randomness of the sample, how the questions are worded, etc.) The range runs from 31% to 72% of Catholics believe in the Real Presence. Encouragingly, one study found that most who don’t believe in the Real Presence are unaware of Church teaching on the matter. According to this study, only 4% of U.S. Catholics know what the Church teaches about the Real Presence but doubt it themselves.
My next two posts will consider reasons to believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The subsequent post will consider what it means that Jesus wants us to receive him in such an extraordinary way.
The most fundamental reason to believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is that Jesus himself said so. Indeed, the Church has followed his command to commemorate his sacrifice in the breaking of the bread from its earliest days. The earliest written account of the Last Supper is found in Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, which dates from around 53-56 AD:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For, as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
The same account of the Last Supper appears in all three of the synoptic gospels: Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-20. In Matthew’s account, Jesus adds that his blood “will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.”
While John does not include an account of the first Eucharistic meal in his gospel, he (alone among the evangelists) includes Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse (John 6:22-71). This teaching, which occurs after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, is essential to understanding the truth behind the Eucharist. (2) The discourse is a dialogue between Jesus and the crowd that had been fed. The crowd asks Jesus for a sign that they may believe in him, just as Moses gave their ancestors manna to eat in the desert. Jesus tells them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32-33) When the crowds asks Jesus to give them this bread always, Jesus replies, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me shall never hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)
This saying caused no small amount of confusion among the crowds. Notably, Jesus does not attempt to explain to them how he can give them his flesh to eat (just as Genesis does not explain how God created all things out of nothing). With each new question they raise, though, the Lord elaborates the doctrine more exactly:
“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.” (John 6:51)
“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.” (John 6:53-57)
These words seem clear enough that Jesus is not talking symbolically but literally, but knowing the Greek words used in the gospel makes the point more explicit. The Greek word used for flesh in this passage (“sarx”) refers to the real, physical flesh of men or animals (as opposed to the Greek word “soma” which refers to the body more generically). Likewise, the Greek word used for eat in John 6:53-57 is “trogon” which means to gnaw, crunch or chew. Before this point Jesus has used the more general Greek word “phago” for eat. Thus, as the dialogue progresses, Jesus becomes increasingly explicit that he is talking literally about eating his flesh and drinking his blood – and of the necessity of doing so to receive eternal life. (For a succinct but detailed discussion of the Greek words used in John 6, see this excellent article.)
The “Bread of Life” discourse alone is a persuasive case that Jesus is truly present, body and blood, soul and divinity, in the Eucharist. My next post will look at the teachings of the Church Fathers on the Eucharist, and miracles of the Eucharist, in ancient and modern times.
(1) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 346, here quoting from the Council of Trent.
(2) It is significant that the Bread of Life discourse takes place after the miracles of the loaves and fishes. The former prefigures the latter, for just as Jesus can feed thousands with a few loaves of bread, there is no limit to how many souls he can nourish through his body and blood in the Eucharist.
Image: The Last Supper by Jacopo Tintoretto (downloaded from Wikipedia Commons).