What is the Eucharist, really?

The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is the full and real presence of Jesus – His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – contained under the appearance of bread and wine (CCC #1375). Just as Jesus turned water into wine – one substance into a completely different substance – He miraculously turns the bread and wine into His Body and Blood through the priests’ hands at the altar each time a priest performs the rite of consecration. This miracle is referred to as transubstantiation, or the turning of one substance into another. The Catechism quotes St. John Chrysostom to explain how this miracle takes place: “It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s. ‘This is my body’, he says. This word transforms the things offered.” (CCC #1374). It is important to highlight here that Jesus Himself is performing the miracle through the priest and that the priest has no miraculous power of his own.

Sadly, not everyone believes in this very special miracle, including some Catholics. Rather, they see the wine and host as mere symbols of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. However, we have a few clues that inform official Church teaching on the matter to assure us that Jesus really did intend to communicate to us that he literally gives us His Body and Blood in this Sacrament.

The first and most obvious clue is in His words at the Last Supper when He first instituted the Sacrament. All three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record Jesus using the exact same words, “This IS my body.” and “This IS my blood.” in their account of the Last Supper. He did not say, “This is a symbol of my body.” Therefore, it is not a far reach to take Jesus at his literal word.

You might agree that, while you accept that Jesus said what He meant and meant what He said, there were other times in Scripture when He was certainly speaking metaphorically. For example, He referred to Himself as a vine in John 15:5, and as a door in John 10:9. Are we to assume that Jesus was referring to Himself as a literal vine and a literal door? Well, we have another scriptural clue that shows us how His disciples knew when he was speaking literally versus when he was speaking figuratively. In John, Chapter 6, Jesus is explaining to his disciples how He is the bread of life which has come down from heaven and that they must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood if they are to have life. Confused, the Jews ask how this can be and Jesus doubles down. He says, “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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day.” (John 6:53-54). What immediately follows is crucial to the Church’s understanding of Jesus’ words. First, many disciples said aloud, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Jesus asks them if what he has said has offended them and then tells them that there are those who will not believe in what he has just taught about the eating of his flesh (John 6:61-65). Finally, those who did not accept the “hard saying,” those who were offended, and those who did not believe in what he just taught, “drew back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Note that Jesus did not call them back to clarify a misunderstanding.

When Jesus refers to Himself as a vine, or a door, or any other metaphor, no one is offended, has trouble understanding, or leaves Him. It is only when He says they must eat of His flesh that many are shocked and compelled to abandon Him. This tells us that the disciples understood Jesus to be speaking literally and not figuratively.

Further, we know that Jesus was speaking literally based on the vocabulary John uses in the discourse. In the original Greek, John first used the word phago which is a word to describe eating in a general sense. The second time, he changes the word to trogon which translates to “to chew” or “to gnaw.” The change to a stronger verb indicates an emphasis on making the command unambiguous as to what Jesus intends to mean here. Again, many of Jesus’ followers understood the intention of the words He was using and found it so difficult to accept they chose to abandon Him.

He then turns to His twelve Apostles and asks if they will leave Him too. Peter answered Him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:69). The Apostles were able to accept the very hard teaching of the bread of life as the literal Body of Christ because they had faith in Jesus. We, too, are called to this level of faith, where we believe because He says it is so. He has the words of eternal life and we have nowhere else to go.

Moving from Scripture to Tradition, we have further evidence that the very early Church believed in the real presence of Christ’s flesh and blood in the Eucharist. St. John Damascene lived from 675-749 AD and he wrote: “You ask how the bread becomes the Body of Christ, and the wine…the Blood of Christ. I shall tell you: the Holy Spirit comes upon them and accomplishes what surpasses every word and thought…Let it be enough for you to understand that it is by the Holy Spirt, just as it was of the Holy Virgin and by the Holy Spirit that the Lord, through and in himself, took flesh” (De Fide Orthodoxa). We can see the faith St. John has in the power of the Holy Spirit to carry out great miracles. He reminds us of this power by pointing out the fact that the Holy Spirit made Jesus in the flesh within the Blessed Virgin’s womb. In doubting the truth of the Eucharist, we are doubting the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit that brought about our Savior in the flesh.

Here are a few other excerpts from the writings of early Church fathers reflecting the belief in the Eucharist from the very beginning:

“For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]). – St. Justin Martyr

“The bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the holy invocation of the adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ” (Catechetical Lectures 19:7 [A.D. 350]). – St. Cyril of Jerusalem

“Perhaps you may be saying, ‘I see something else; how can you assure me that I am receiving the body of Christ?’ It but remains for us to prove it. And how many are the examples we might use! … Christ is in that sacrament, because it is the body of Christ” (On The Mysteries 9:50, 58 [A.D. 390]). – St. Ambrose of Milan“What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ” (Sermons 272 [A.D. 411]). – St. Augustine

As you can see, our early Church Fathers understood that Jesus performed an actual miracle at every Mass and changed the bread and wine into His flesh and blood through the priests’ hands. As a matter of fact, many men and women died for that belief as we know through the stories of the martyrs. It wasn’t until much later in our Church’s development that the understanding became distorted and the idea that the Eucharist is a symbol was introduced.

This week, contemplate the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. If you currently view the Eucharist as a mere symbol and you struggle to fully accept or believe in Jesus’ true presence, ask God to open your heart to a deeper understanding of this gift He is trying to give to you. He wants very much for you to have Him in His fullness and will grant you understanding if you allow Him to enter and give it to you.

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You can find a playlist for Eucharistic chaplets here.