Before we begin our meditations on the Holy Eucharist, we need to understand that Christianity is a historical religion. It is not mythology like the religions of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, Greece or Rome. It is not the product of religious imagination like Hinduism, Buddhism or the tribal religions of Asia, Africa or North and South America. Christianity is not a cult like Mormonism or Theosophy or Scientology or the New Age. Christianity has historical foundation, historical beginnings and a verifiable history over the centuries. It is no coincidence that by now, the whole human race follows the calendar of Christianity, calculating its use of history from the birth of Jesus Christ, that is, from Anno Domini, the “Year of the Lord.”
As the religion of history, Christianity has two levels of existence, its past and it’s present. On the level of the past, there were several main events which actually took place. Jesus Christ was really conceived by His Virgin Mother and was really born at Bethlehem. Mary held her real child in her arms. Jesus Christ really lived for thirty years at Nazareth. He really preached and worked real miracles. He walked with real feet on real water. He spoke with an audible voice when the dead Lazarus came out of the grave.
Jesus Christ really instituted the Eucharist and the Priesthood at the Last Supper. He was really crucified, died, and to make sure no one would ever doubt that He really died, He was buried. And the moment He died, the Church was born. Jesus Christ really rose from the dead on Easter Sunday, and He really ascended into Heaven, body and soul, on Ascension Thursday. So far, that is Christianity’s historicity of the past.
Now on the level of the present: The Church which Christ founded really exists. It is not a speculative construct of the mind. You can tell who belongs and who is in charge. And on earth, the Jesus who really lived on earth, who really died, who really rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven — that same Jesus is really on earth today in the Holy Eucharist.
Why is Jesus really present in the Holy Eucharist which He instituted at the Last Supper? Because the Priesthood, which He instituted at the same time, exists on earth and is empowered to continue doing now what Jesus had done on that night before He died. It is impossible to exaggerate the reality, the factuality, the geographity and the veracity of the Christian religion in its origins and in its present and continuing existence. There is a Real Presence because Christianity is real. Now we go on with our meditation.
When did Christ institute the Holy Eucharist?
Before we talk about the actual institution of the Eucharist, it is important to know that Jesus often promised something and then fulfilled the promise. He said He would rise from the dead, and then He really did die and rise from the dead. Similarly, as recorded in the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Christ prepared His followers for the Eucharist by promising to give them His own flesh and blood as nourishment for the sustenance of the Divine life conferred by Baptism. And then He fulfilled that promise at the Last Supper.
However, when He foretold the Eucharist, not everyone believed. But we should remember what St. Augustine says: we need unbelievers. They provide us with the opportunity of knowing more clearly what we believe. And the unbelievers as recorded in St. John’s Gospel provided Christ with the opportunity of explaining and reiterating the reality of the Real Presence He foretold he would give His followers. He explained how the supernatural life has to be nourished with His own flesh and blood and said He will give us His own flesh to eat and His own blood to drink. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life.” (John 6:54)
The people who heard Christ speaking like this were astonished, even scandalized. They objected three times, and finally, many of the people, including some of his own disciples, left Him. “This is intolerable language! Who can believe it!”
Yet so far from retracting or even qualifying what He had just said, Jesus repeated His promise of giving His own flesh and blood. He foresaw who in the future would not believe in the Eucharist. That is why in the same verse when Jesus spoke of those who do not believe, He said, “And I know those who will betray Me.” (John 6:64) Christ’s worst enemies are those who had believed or had the faith offered to them and by refusing to believe, became traitors. This includes Judas Iscariot, who later left the Last Supper. Not believing in the Real Presence, he went on to betray his Master.
Also in this Gospel scene, we notice that after a large number of His own disciples walked away, Jesus turned to the Apostles and asked them, “Do you also wish to go away?” They were all silent, except for Peter, who spoke up and said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You are the Son of God. You have the words of eternal life.”
Now we turn to the Last Supper, when Christ fulfilled His promise.
“This is my body… This is my blood”
When examining the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul, we should look closely at Christ’s words of institution as He changed bread into His body and changed wine into His living blood.
Over the bread, Jesus says, “This is my body which will be offered up for you.” Note that the full text of the words of institution is not only, “this is my body”, but “this is my body which will be offered up for you.”
Then over the chalice, Jesus says, “This is the chalice of my blood of the New Testament which will be shed for many unto the remission of sins.” Again, for us whose faith in Christ’s Real Presence is the foundation of Christianity, we must make sure we know the full text of these words of institution. First He says, “This is the chalice of My blood of the New Testament.” Remember, there was blood shed in the Old Testament, but here, this is “My blood” in the New Testament. Then He says, this is blood “which will be shed for you.” Why is the blood shed for us? “unto the remission of sins.” Sin is removed by blood — the shedding of Christ’s blood on the Cross and the shedding of our blood physically if it is God’s will, but at least spiritually in the sense of shedding our wills in submission to the divine will.
Over the centuries, the Catholic Church has never wavered in her explanation of Christ’s words of institution. These words of Jesus are historical. They were really spoken by Christ to His apostles. We know these words of institution were not spoken figuratively, but literally. We know this from the wording and language Christ used. There is nothing in the text of the words Jesus used which suggests a figurative or symbolic interpretation. Bread and wine are neither by their nature nor by their speech symbols of flesh and blood, neither in Christ’s time nor in our time. You have to read into the words of Jesus what the unbelieving mind thinks Jesus said.
How I like to share this with you. In recent years, we have conveniently coined a separate word to distinguish exegesis (which means “drawing out” of the revealed text of Scripture the meaning that is there). The new word is “eisegesis.” Eisegesis is reading into the Biblical text what is not there. Believe me, there are many people using eisegesis today! But to use true exegesis, there is a presupposition. The pre-condition for taking Christ’s words literally in this passage is faith in Christ’s Divinity. Only the infinite God could possibly say of what had been bread, “This is my body” and of what had been wine, “This is my blood.” But you must believe that behind that human voice is the Almighty power of the God who was and is Jesus Christ.
We also know Christ’s words “This is my body… This is my blood” must be interpreted literally because of the evident requirements in the situation when he spoke. In a matter of such paramount importance, the circumstances demanded that Jesus would not have recourse to meaningless, and worse still, deceptive figures of speech. Figures of speech enhance a discourse only when the figurative meaning is clear either from the nature of the case or from the common usage, neither of which could be said of Christ’s words at the Last Supper.
Because of who Jesus is, a just God, He had to avoid any risk of misleading the human race on such an important matter as the Eucharist. Thus, He did not allow any form of words that His followers might possibly misunderstand. Otherwise, Christ would have been an evil deity in promoting error among His followers on the most sublime mystery of Christianity, the Eucharist.
Finally, we realize that only a literal interpretation is permissible when we read what St. Paul teaches about the unworthy reception of the Holy Eucharist. “Whoever shall eat this bread or drink from the chalice unworthily shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord, for he who eats and drinks unworthily does so to his own condemnation because he does not believe in the Body of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 11:27) There could be no question of a grievous offense against Christ Himself unless Paul assumed that the true body and the true blood of Christ are really present in the Eucharist.
Faith of the Early Christians
Belief in the reality of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist goes back to the first Christians and is seen clearly in the writings of the earliest Church Fathers. There is no doubt in the mind of the early Church that what Christ instituted at the Last Supper was the Real Presence of Himself in the Eucharist. Significantly, all these testimonies of the Real Presence were made in defense of the Church’s teaching against those who denied the literal explanation of Christ’s words of institution. We shall limit ourselves to just three of the Church Fathers, all before the end of the second century.
Ignatius of Antioch: Our first witness of the early Church is St. Ignatius of Antioch, who died in 107 A.D. This Church Father wrote against heretics of his day, mainly the Docete or Docetists, who claimed that God did not really become man. In other words, the Docetists believed God took on the appearance of man but was not really human. Jesus did not assume a real human nature; He was only human in appearance. But faith in the Incarnation is the condition for our faith in the Real Presence, so we can see why the Docetists did not believe in the Eucharist.
Ignatius says, “They [the Docetists] keep away from the Eucharist because they do not believe that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sins and whom the Father in His goodness raised from the dead.” In writing against the Docetists, Ignatius provides us with a witness to the early Christian understanding of reality of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.
St. Justin Martyr: Our second witness, St. Justin the martyr, wrote in 150 A.D. In this case, He wrote in defense of the Real Presence to refute those followers of Christ’s contemporaries who walked away from Our Lord when He foretold of the Real Presence. Speaking of the Mass, Justin says, “We receive [the Eucharist] not as ordinary bread or ordinary drink, but just as our Redeemer, Jesus Christ, became Incarnate by the Word of God and took on flesh and blood for the sake of our salvation, so as we have been taught the food which has been Eucharistized… is both the flesh and blood of that same Incarnate Jesus.”
St. Justin draws a parallel between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Just as truly as God became Man at the Incarnation in Mary’s womb, so the same Incarnate Jesus becomes present on the Altar at the moment of consecration in the Mass. In other words, the Eucharist is the Incarnation continued on earth until the end of time.
St. Ireneus: We now turn our third witness, St. Ireneus of Lyons. In Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) written about 180 A.D., Ireneus writes against the dissenters in his day to defend the Real Presence against those who had been Catholic but had given up the faith. “The bread over which thanksgiving (Eucharist) is pronounced is the Body of the Lord and the chalice of His blood. By His own blood, He permeates our blood and His own body strengthens our bodies.” (4.18, 4; 5.2,2)
Then Ireneus tells the Gnostics of his day (the “speculative” theologians) why they deny the Real Presence: “How can they feel assured that the Eucharistized bread is the Body of the Lord, and the chalice contains His blood if they do not declare Him to be the Son of the Creator of the world?” (4.18,5)
Truer words were never spoken. Both in the early Church and now, the ones who believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist are those who believe Christ is the Incarnate Son of God in human form.
We can conclude with this simple statement: Only those who really believe that God became man can even begin to believe in His Real Presence now on earth in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. Thus, faith in the Incarnation is the foundation for our faith in the Real Presence. As a result, growth in our faith in the Incarnation is the condition for growth in our faith in the Real Presence.
Lord Jesus Christ, we believe You are our God Who became man for our salvation. Because we believe You are our God Incarnate, we believe what You said at the Last Supper: “This is my body, This is my blood.” With St. Peter we say, “To whom else shall we go?” Whom else can we believe if we do not believe in You, You Our God who became man? You have the words of eternal life. Amen.