The Church has always taught that the Eucharist is the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is called the Doctrine of the Real Presence. To be sure there are people who find this hard to accept. However, belief in the Real Presence rests upon the words of Christ Himself. In John 6:48-57 we read the following:
I am the the bread of life.Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. 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. The Jews quarreled among themselves saying, "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?" Jesus said to them, "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."
Opponents of the Real Presence contend that this is all symbolic. But read what happens in verses 60 and 66,– "Then many of His disciples who were listening said, 'This saying is hard, who can accept it?'...As a result of this, many [of] His disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied Him."
Why was it hard for Jesus' disciples to accept something that was supposedly symbolic? Why would they abandon Him over it? Apparently they took Him literally. If they were wrong, why didn't He correct them? When Jesus taught something and it wasn't understood, He would explain it as He did with the parables. If His message was understood but rejected, He just repeated it with more force, as He did with the Pharisees. Which category do you suppose John 6 is in?
At the Last Supper, Jesus fulfilled His promise: "While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, 'Take and eat, this is My body.' Then He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins'" (Matthew 26:26-28). This could hardly be seen as symbolic, as Jesus held bread and the cup of wine in His hands and said "This is my body" and "This is my blood." He was obviously referring to what He was holding. Luke records that Jesus also said to do this in memory of Him (22:19). For the Jews, to do something "in memory" meant to present it again, to relive it in a substantial way.
Paul affirms the Real Presence in 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 11:27-29. "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?... Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord...For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself." If the Lords body and blood are not present, how can a wrong be committed against them?
Under the Old Covenant God commanded the Israelites to offer sacrifices to atone for their sins. One of the sin offerings was a lamb (Leviticus 5:1-6). The Old covenant prefigured the New Covenant. The sacrificial lamb of Leviticus is a type or picture of Christ. Jesus is the sacrificial Lamb of the New Covenant: "Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
The Old Covenant lamb would be sacrificed and then a part of that sacrifice would be eaten in order to receive its benefits. (Leviticus 6:24-26). Likewise Jesus, the New Covenant Lamb, would be sacrificed and His body would be eaten in order to receive its benefits: "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you" (John 6:53).
The Early Church understood the nature and significance of the Eucharist. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch from the year 69 to 110, writes in his Letter to the Smyrnaean: "But look at the men who have those perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ…They will not admit the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness afterwards raised up again" (7:1).
A few decades later, around the year 150, Justin martyr wrote: "Not as common bread or 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 nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus" (First Apology 66).
But why the Eucharist? Why couldn’t Jesus just strengthen us through prayer? Well He can and He does. However, we are physical and the world we live in is physical. The Eucharist is something we can see and touch and that makes it more relatable. Jesus Himself came to earth in the flesh. To be sure He came to sacrifice Himself to save us from our sins. But I believe that His physical presence served another purpose; to make God more real to us. He is called the Word of God because he is the physical manifestation of the hidden reality (God). Likewise the Eucharist is the physical manifestation of the now hidden Christ. Adoring a Jesus you can see is easier than adoring a Jesus you can’t see. I am not saying that it is a necessity, but it is an aid. St. Thomas Aquinas said as much in his Summa Theologica:
Sacraments are necessary unto man's salvation for three reasons. The first is taken from the condition of human nature which is such that it has to be led by things corporeal and sensible to things spiritual and intelligible. Now it belongs to Divine providence to provide for each one according as its condition requires. Divine wisdom, therefore, fittingly provides man with means of salvation, in the shape of corporeal and sensible signs that are called sacraments (3:61:1).
I also believe that the Eucharist is a test of faith. It is really easy to have faith in Jesus when he tells us to love our neighbor. But how about when He challenges us with something that is outside of our normal realm of experience? As we saw earlier the Scriptures are quite clear when it comes to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The bread becomes His body and the wine becomes His blood. The question is do we believe it?
Jesus invited Peter to walk on water and he did (Matthew 14:22-29). He told Noah to build an ark to prepare for an event that was, to the natural mind, beyond the realm of possibility (Genesis 6:13-17). God told Abraham He would give him a son and then once he did he asked him to sacrifice him on an altar (Genesis 22:1-14). Moses was asked to take on Pharaoh (Exodus 3:1-12), Mary was asked to have a virgin birth (Luke 1:26-35), and Elizabeth and Zechariah were told they would have a child even though she had been barren and they were both advanced in age (Luke 1:5-13).
All were called to have faith in seemingly impossible situations. And we admire those who did. But what about us? When faced with a situation that seems to defy logic do we believe Jesus or do we come up with our own plan like Sarah did (Genesis 15:1-6, 16:1-4)? To deny the Eucharist is to deny that God is capable of supernatural acts.
The sacrament of the Eucharist is a gift from God. In the words of St. John Vianny: "Jesus Christ found a way by which He could ascend into Heaven and yet remain on earth. He instituted the adorable sacrament of the Eucharist so that He might stay with us and be our Companion."
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For Further Study
The Early Church Fathers on The Real
Books - 7 Secrets of the Eucharist by Fr. Mitch Pacwa and Eucharistic Miracles and Eucharistic Phenomena in the Lives of the Saints by Joan Carroll Cruz
CD - The Eucharist by Archbishop Fulton Sheen
DVD - Eucharist Bible Study by Fr. Robert Barron and The Eucharist for Little Children
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