This month we once again celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi during which we commemorate the great gift of the Eucharist that stands at the heart of the life and mission of the Church. This feast is the time to not only celebrate this gift of Christ, but to also ponder its meaning and richness not only in the life of the Church, but in our own daily lives as Catholics as well.
The Bread of Life Discourse
Let’s begin with the words and teachings of Christ Himself regarding the Eucharist by turning to the Scriptures. We will first turn to John Chapter 6 which is Jesus’ long and elaborate teaching on this subject. In fact, Jesus teaches his disciples more clearly and more elaborately on the Eucharist than any other doctrine in Christianity.
Let’s examine closely what Jesus teaches us in this Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:22-71). First, he takes us back to the Old Testament, to the Book of Exodus where the Israelites are journeying through the desert. Remember, they had been freed from slavery to the Egyptians and were journeying toward the Promised Land. Now when they became hungry they grumbled against Moses, so God promised to send them bread from heaven. The next morning, when they awoke, there was bread called manna scattered all over the ground for them to eat and be nourished on their journey toward the Promised Land. God did this for his people all throughout their pilgrimage. Now Jesus says, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died.” His Father had sent bread that came from heaven, yet in the end the people still perished. But Jesus promises to send bread from heaven so that they can eat and not die.
Now take a moment and count how many times Jesus says that HE is the bread that comes down from heaven or that HE is the bread of life. He says it 12 times throughout the passage. Twelve times Jesus says it! He is being emphatic about this reality. It is He who will become this bread of life that will give eternal life.
But then He takes it a radical step further. He then says that this bread is “my flesh for the life of the world” and that “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” In fact, four different times in this passage alone, Jesus commands us to eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life! He even invites us to literally “feed on me.”
This is very clear and very graphic language used by Jesus in John’s Gospel. Jesus is teaching us very clearly and very passionately that He is the new manna, the new bread that comes down from heaven. He commands us to eat his flesh and blood, and that having eternal life is conditional upon eating his flesh and drinking his blood. For unlike the Israelites who ate the manna and died, those of us who partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus will not die and will have eternal life.
Jesus even knew that many did not believe and that as a result of this teaching would ultimately betray Him. In fact, after this teaching on the Eucharist, many of Jesus’ disciples left Him and no longer followed Him. Do you see Jesus chasing after them saying “No, stop, I really didn’t mean that?” No, because what He taught is the truth! “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:64). No excuses, no further explanation. Instead he turns to the Twelve and says, “Do you also want to leave?” It is Peter who again leads the Apostles in the truth and responds, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Jesus wasn’t kidding. Jesus wasn’t teaching symbolically. And what He was teaching was so important and was so true that He risked everything: his whole mission, his whole reputation, all of his disciples and Apostles, and ultimately his life. That is how important and true the Eucharist was to Jesus, and that is why it is always at the heart of his Body, the Church.
The Last Supper
Of course, another passage in which we see Jesus speaking explicitly about the Eucharist was during the Last Supper on the night before He embraced the cross. The Last Supper was the celebration of the Jewish Passover meal in which all of Israel was celebrating and commemorating their deliverance from Egypt. In John’s Gospel, Jesus teaches us about the Eucharist, but it is during the Last Supper in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, that Jesus gives us the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood.
First, Jesus does not say that “this is a symbol of my body,” or “this is like a cup of my blood,” but rather He said, “this IS my body” and “this IS my blood.” Taking this, in addition to what we have already seen in John Chapter 6, it is very clear that the bread and the wine literally and actually become the Body and Blood of Christ.
Now, if it is the Body and Blood of Jesus, why do Catholics believe that it is Christ totally present? We believe this because Jesus said in John 6 that HE is the bread of life — it is his whole person and divinity which is given to us for the life of the world. Another important aspect of the Last Supper is Jesus’ command, “Do this in memory of me.” He is commanding his Apostles to continue and repeat the actions of the Last Supper. Just as the Jewish Passover is the commemoration of the Israelite deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the Eucharistic sacrifice is to become the constant memorial or commemoration of Jesus’ new and eternal sacrifice on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. With this command, Jesus gave the Apostles the authority and power to change bread and wine into Himself, so that He could be continuously present to his people, and that his same sacrifice on the cross could be constantly re-presented and made efficacious until the end of time.
Thus, every Catholic Mass is both a memorial of Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection, but is also a participation in the very same sacrifice which Christ made on the cross. It is not a re-crucifixion of Christ, but the same sacrifice miraculously made present again for the atonement of our sins. At the Mass, we are in all actuality at the foot of the cross, adoring, asking forgiveness, and offering ourselves to Christ who loved us even unto death, death on a cross. This was Christ’s command to his Church and the Church has faithfully followed this command unceasingly for almost 2,000 years.
In addition, at the Last Supper, Jesus associates the cup of his blood with the New Covenant. In fact, eating the Body and drinking the Blood of Christ is the most important and efficacious way in which we fulfill and participate in the New Covenant which God has made with man. Partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ is at the absolute heart and center of the New and Everlasting Covenant! Christ’s Church humbly remains faithful to this at the celebration of every Mass and honors Christ by centering all of its liturgical and sacramental life around this great mystery.
Go…proclaim the Gospel by your lives!
Finally, the Eucharist, by its very nature, heals, prepares, and strengthens us for evangelization and service. In fact, the entire goal and purpose of the Mass is so that we can come and be fed and transformed; so that we can then be sent out into the world to be Christ’s instruments, especially to those who are most in need, vulnerable, alone, and desiring God’s love and mercy. In fact, the word, Mass, comes from the Latin word missio, which means “to be sent.” Through the Eucharist we are intimately united with Christ our Savior, and we are then called by Him to continue his mission of building the Kingdom of God. We are his hands, his voice, and his instruments in a world that is crying out for the message of the Gospel. The Eucharist is truly the source of our mission of evangelization and service and our intimate communion as the mystical Body of Christ, the Church.
This month we once again celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi during which we commemorate the great gift of the Eucharist that stands at the heart of the life and mission of the Church. This feast is the time to not only celebrate this gift of Christ, but to also ponder its meaning and richness not only in the life of the Church, but in our own daily lives as Catholics as well. ...