Sacraments


The Eucharist

by Wibisono Hartono


After His resurrection and before He was about to ascend to heaven, Jesus promised His followers that He will be with them to the end of age (Matthew 28:20).  Today, all Christians believe that Jesus is in the hearts of His believers who love Him and keep His commandments (John 14:23, 1 John 3:24).  He is also present when there are two or three gathered in His Name (Matthew 18:20).  He is present in the poor, the sick and the imprisoned. Jesus taught that whatever we do for them we do it for Him (Matthew 25:31-46).

Catholics believe Jesus is also present and is present most especially in the Eucharist (CCC # 1373).  Through His death on the cross, Jesus (the eternal High Priest, Hebrews 7:24) offered Himself (the Lamb of God, John 1:29) as a sacrifice.  Catholics believe that His sacrifice on the cross is made present in every Holy Mass (CCC # 1330, 1366).  It is Jesus Himself acting through the ministry of the priests who offer this Eucharistic sacrifice (CCC # 1410).  The Eucharist is also the memorial of His Passion and Resurrection (CCC # 1330, 1337).  On the night He was betrayed, Jesus gathered His disciples in the Last Supper, instituted the Eucharist and gave the order to His disciples to celebrate it until His return (CCC # 1337).  As Jesus offered bread and wine in the Last Supper, in the Holy Mass bread and wine (the two Eucharistic species) are also offered.  Furthermore Catholics believe that at the moment of consecration the bread and wine truly become the Body and the Blood of Jesus.  The Catholic Church teaches that the whole Christ is truly, really and substantially present in the Eucharist (CCC # 1374).  Therefore, the Eucharist is referred to as the Sacrament of sacraments or the Most Blessed Sacrament (CCC # 1330).  Catholics refer to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist as the Real Presence because Jesus is God and man makes Himself wholly and entirely present. 

The Eastern Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches also believe in the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Jesus.  On the other hand, all Protestant and “Bible only” churches reject the belief that Eucharist is a sacrifice.  As to what happens to the bread and wine they are divided into three groups following the opinions of the three central Reformers: Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin.  Luther denied any change in the bread and wine but taught that the Body and Blood of Jesus are present with the bread and wine.  Zwingli denied any change in the bread and wine and taught that they only symbolize the Body and Blood of Jesus.  To reconcile their different views, a conference at Margburg in October 1529 was held.  However, it failed and both parties agreed to disagree on the issue.  Calvin also denied any change in the bread and wine. He rejected Zwingli's view and taught that after the consecration, the bread and wine are not mere common bread and wine, i.e. the believers can still receive spiritual nourishments through the Eucharist.

The word Eucharist comes from the Greek eucharistein, which means "thanksgiving". Jesus gave thanks before He broke the bread in the miracle of feeding five thousand (John 6:11) and during the Last Supper (Luke 22:17, 1 Corinthians 11:24).  Most Catholics can recall the event in the Last Supper where Jesus instituted this Sacrament.  It is recorded in the three Gospels (Matthew 26:26-30, Mark 14:22-26 and Luke 22:14-20) and in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26.  The Gospel of John, although it gives the longest account of the Last Supper (Chapters 13 to 17), does not mention the event.  However, this Gospel (Chapter 6) becomes the main source of what Catholics believe in the Eucharist.  John Chapter 6 starts with the miracle of multiplication of bread (verses 1 to 13). The crowd, fascinated by this miracle, looked for and found Jesus in the Capernaum synagogue on the next day (verse 22-25). Jesus, who knew that they were after physical food, began talking about the bread that endures for eternal life, which He will give and then asked them to believe in Him

Do not labour for food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”  Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

John 6:27-29

The crowd, drawn by His words, demanded a sign in order to believe in Him, a sign comparable to the feeding of Israelites with manna during the Exodus (Exodus 16:4-5). Jesus solemnly replied that what He will give is the bread of God, which gave life to the world (verse 33).  Such bread definitely made His listeners wish to eat and Jesus replied that He Himself is the bread of life.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.

John 6:35

At this point the crowd still understood Him to speak metaphorically (after all He does not look like a piece of bread). They only questioned His statement that He came down from heaven (verses 40-42).  Jesus again summarised His previous statements (verses 44-50) and then stated that the bread of life is His flesh.

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

John 6:51 (emphasis added)

From their reaction (verse 52), we know that His listeners understood Him to speak literally. They asked: How can this man give us his flesh to eat?  Then Jesus gave even more emphasis on His statement when He solemnly said:

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 up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.

John 6:53-58 (emphasis added)

Even many of His disciples found His words hard to believe (verse 60) and then left Him (verse 66).  Did they misunderstand Him? Was He speaking figuratively?  On a number of occasions, Jesus did use figurative words to express Himself.  For example He said that He was the vine (John 15:1), the way (John 14:6), the door (John 10:9) and the light (John 8:12).  However, if they misunderstood His word, then why did Jesus not correct them?  Note that Jesus always corrected if His disciples or listeners misunderstood Him. For example in John 3:3-8 He corrected Nicodemus' misunderstanding of the meaning of being born from above.  Other examples are John 4:32-38, John 11:11-15 and Matthew 16:6-12.  In contrast Jesus said that if they could not accept His word, they would not believe either when they saw the Son of man ascending to heaven (verse 61).  Then He said:

It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life

John 6:63

Here Jesus did not refer to His flesh (if He did then He contradicted Himself) .  In the garden of Gethsemane He said to Peter, John and James: "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14:38).  The same Greek word for flesh (sarx) is used here referring to their weak human nature.  So in John 6:63 Jesus told His disciples not to rely on their carnal thinking to understand His words.  It is also worth mentioning that the verb translated as "to eat" actually means to chew or to gnaw, a verb that cannot be used in figurative sense in this context.

To fulfill what He promised in John 6, Jesus instituted the Eucharist in the Last Supper. The Gospel of Mark gives the record as follows:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And said, Take; this is my body.  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of   it. And he said to them, This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.

Mark 14:22-24

Catholics believe that when Jesus said: "This is my body and This is my blood", the bread and wine truly became His Body and Blood.  Whilst it is true that the word "This is" can be used in figurative sense, the New Testament gives supports that it is not the case.  Writing about the Eucharistic celebration, Paul wrote:

Whoever, therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.  That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

1 Corinthians 11:27-30

If the Eucharist is a just a mere memorial meal, how can one be guilty of profaning His Body and Blood?  The Catholic Church states the belief in the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord as follows:

by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place of change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the Body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.

CCC # 1376 (emphasis added)

The word Transubstantiation itself was introduced in 1215 at fourth Lateran Council.  Note that it does not mean that the Church started adopting this belief in 1215 as some might say.  We have the testimonies of the early Christians that they too had the same belief even if they did not use the word transubstantiation to express it.  Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (died c. 107 AD) wrote about the Gnostics [1]:

They [the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not believe the Eucharist to be the Flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which, in his goodness, the Father raised.

Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 7 (emphasis added)

In his other epistle, Ignatius wrote:

I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.

Epistle to the Romans 7 (emphasis added)

Justin Martyr (d. AD 165) wrote:

This food we call Eucharist, which no one is allowed to share except the one who believes that our teaching is true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto generations, and so lives as Christ has handed down. For we do not receive these as common bread and common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we learned that the food over which thanks has been given by the prayer of the word which comes from him, and by which our blood and flesh are nourished through a change, is the Flesh and Blood of the same incarnate Jesus.

The First Apology 66 (emphasis added)

Because the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus, the Catholic Church encourages all Catholics in the Eucharist adoration (CCC # 1378, # 1418). Catholics also express this adoration by genuflecting or bowing whenever they pass the tabernacle where the species of the Eucharist are kept.  Some Non-Catholic Christians may consider the Catholic's adoration of the Eucharist as idolatry.  However, Catholics can point to the biblical facts that God appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:4), as column of cloud and fire during exodus (Exodus 13:21-22). In 1 Corinthians 10:4 Paul wrote about a rock that accompanied the Jews during exodus and then said that the rock was Christ.  It is idolatry to worship fire and rock but it is compulsory to worship God who appears in those physical forms.  The sacramental presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is therefore not against the Bible. The Catholic Church acknowledges that His Presence in the Eucharist is something that cannot be apprehended by the senses but only by faith, which relies on divine authority (CCC # 1381).  His Presence in the Eucharist begins at the moment of consecration and endures as long as the Eucharist species subsist.  He is present whole and entire in each of the species and each of their parts, such that by the breaking of bread does not divide Christ (CCC # 1377).

Jesus gave the order to celebrate the Eucharist as a remembrance of Him (Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:24-25). The New Testament gives evidence that the first Christians (Acts 20:7) obeyed His commandment by gathering on the day of the Lord (i.e. Sunday) to break bread (another name for Eucharistic celebration, CCC # 1329).  Catholics agree that the Eucharistic celebration is a memorial of Jesus passion (CCC # 1330), which He Himself commanded.  However, the Bible indicates that it is not just a mere memorial. The Greek word “anamnesis” translated as "remembrance” or “reminder” is used in relation to sacrifice as shown by the following verse:

But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year.

Hebrews 10:3 (emphasis added)

The same word in Hebrew is also used in the same way (as a memorial of sacrifice or offering) in the Old Testament (cf. Leviticus 24:7 and Numbers 10:10).  The New Testament uses a different word for “remembrance” or “reminder” like “mnemosunon” in Mark 14:9 and “mneia” in Philippians 1:3.  There are other biblical supports that the Eucharist has a sacrificial nature.  The Bible says that Jesus is a priest of the order Melchizedek (Hebrews 7:17, Psalms 110:4). By definition a priest must offer sacrifice and the Old Testament testifies that Melchizedek offered bread and wine in his position as priest of God when he met Abraham (Genesis 14:18).  In parallel, Jesus also offered bread and wine in the Last Supper.  The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is a sacrifice because it makes present the sacrifice of the cross (CCC # 1366) and that the Sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice (CCC # 1367).

What the Catholic Church teaches about the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist and that the sacrifice on the cross is made present in every Holy Mass may puzzle non-Christians and even Catholics and scandalizes some non-Catholic Christians. They may ask how the sacrifice on the cross and the Eucharistic sacrifice can be one single sacrifice noting that (1) when Jesus instituted the Eucharist He was not yet crucified and (2) that the Holy Masses have been offered daily in many places for almost two thousand years.  The non-Catholic Christians may even accuse the Catholic Church of re-sacrificing Jesus in every Holy Mass. Catholics can point out that the Old Testament has a prophecy on a continual offering of sacrifice:

For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 1:11

This verse says that a pure offering will offered to God at every place continuously and it can only find its fulfilment in the Holy Mass offering.  There is another prophecy in Jeremiah 33:18, which says that the Levitical priests will continue offering sacrifice forever. The ministerial priesthood of the Catholic Church is modelled after the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament.  The Old Testament has also a prophecy that non-Jews will become priests and Levites (Isaiah 66:21). 

For Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. 

Hebrews 9:26

This verse compared Jesus (the New Testament eternal High Priest, Hebrews 7:24) with the Old Testament High Priest. The latter must offer sacrifice on yearly basis in the Sanctuary made by men (Exodus 30:10). Note that the verse says that if Jesus did not offer His sacrifice in the heavenly sanctuary, then He must suffer repeatedly not from the year He was crucified but from the foundation (or creation) of the world.  Similarly, Revelation 13:8 refers to Jesus as the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world, not from the time when his crucifixion took place.  While it may look confusing, in heaven there is no time dimension.  Because we live in the world bounded by time dimension, His Sacrifice on the cross took place in c. 30 AD.  Thus the Catholic Church has biblical reason to say that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is eternally present (CCC # 1364) and therefore can be made present in every Holy Mass. Jesus is therefore not re-sacrificed in every Mass.  His ever-present sacrifice also explains why the Eucharist can be a sacrifice if Jesus instituted it before His crucifixion. Thomas Howard (a Catholic convert) explains the ever-present Sacrifice of Jesus as follows:

This difficulty of locating just where in time we are in the Mass suggests at least one aspect of the mystery that cloaks Calvary and the Incarnation itself. Jesus Christ was the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, and yet this was not played out in our earthly time he suffered sub Pontio Pilato.

On Being Catholic, page 82

When Catholics go to church they are doing something they did yesterday or last week, and doing it again. But the again applies only to them, not to the mystery that is always taking place in the heavenly Mysteries, where our Great High Priest offers himself at the heavenly altar (the whole epistle of the Hebrews is about this). The Mass unites us with this offering. It is we who go and come. It is we who experience it as again and again. The mystery is present. It is always present (we have to reach for adverb of time), and to go to Mass is to return to the center.

ibid, page 83

The beauty of the Mass is that it makes it possible for all of us who are separated by the time dimension from Jesus' sacrifice on the cross to participate in His Offering (CCC # 1368).

There are historical supports that the early Christians already recognised the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.  Didache 14 (written between 50 AD - 150 AD) says:

And on the Lord's own day gather together and break bread and give thanks, first confessing your sins so that your sacrifice may be pure. And let no man having a dispute with his companion join your assembly until they have been reconciled so that your sacrifice may not be defiled; for that is that sacrifice spoken of by the Lord:In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice; for I am a great king, says the Lord, and my name is wonderful among the nations (cf. Malachi 1:11).

Ignatius, bishop of Antioch (died c 107 AD) wrote:

Be careful to observe [only] one Eucharist; for there is only one Flesh of Our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup of union with His Blood, one altar of sacrifice, as [there is] one bishop with the presbyters and my fellow servants, the deacons.

Epistle to Philadelphia Chapter 4

Quoting from Malachi 1:11, Justin Martyr (died c. 165) wrote:

He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist,

Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 41

There are a number of objections against what Catholics believe.  For example, opponents might say that Jesus used hyperbolic words in His statements in John 6:53-58.  In John 2:19, He said: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up."  Here the people also misunderstood Him and He did not correct their misunderstanding.  So is it possible that He also used hyperbolic words when He refers to His Flesh and Blood in John 6?  In John 2:21-22 after His resurrection, Jesus did explain what He meant to His disciples and it was recorded in John 2:20 (i.e. the temple refers to temple of His Body).  On the other hand, suppose in John 6 He also spoke hyperbolically and His listeners also misunderstood Him, then why there is no further explanation in the Gospel of John (the last Gospel to be written)?  Thus, Jesus did not use hyperbolic words in John 6:53-58.

Another argument posits that to have eternal life is to believe in Him, and therefore to eat His Flesh and to drink His Blood also means to believe in Him.  However, if this is the case why did some of His disciples who were already believers decide to leave Him in John 6:66?  If they misunderstood Him why Jesus did not try to explain?

How can Jesus ask His listeners to drink His Blood if the Old Testament forbids taking blood (Leviticus 17:14)?  The Jews are forbidden to eat blood because the blood contains life (Leviticus 17:11).  That is exactly what Jesus meant, when he said unless we eat the His flesh and drink His blood we have no life.


[i] Gnosticism is a syncretistic religion and philosophy that flourished for about four centuries alongside early Christianity.  Most of the several varieties of Gnostic thought were characterized by the elect souls, being divine sparks temporarily imprisoned in physical bodies as a result of pre-cosmic catastrophe, can obtain salvation by means of a special knowledge (Greek:gnosis) of their origin and destiny.

Extracted from B.M. Metzger: The Canon of the New Testament, page 76

Wibisono Hartono
The Catholic Legate
November 17, 2002

Reference

  1. Currie, D.B. (1996): Communion and the Real Presence, Chapter 2 of Born Fundamentalist Born Again Catholic, Ignatius Press, San Francisco.
  2. Howard, T. (1997): Eucharist, Chapter 5 of On Being Catholic, Ignatius Press, San Francisco.
  3. Keating, K. (1988): The Eucharist and The Mass, Chapters 19 and 20 of Catholicism and Fundamentalism, Ignatius Press, San Francisco.
  4. O'Connor, J.T. (1988): The Hidden Manna, Ignatius Press, San Francisco.