RCIA Presentations

11. Eucharist

The Catechism opens its treatment of the Sacrament of the Eucharist with the following statement (n.1323). It highlights the connection between the Eucharist and Jesus’ death and resurrection: 'At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection.'

The death of Jesus on the Cross meant different things to the High Priest, to Pilate, to the crowd. It was at the Last Supper that we find what it meant to Jesus. On the cross Jesus offered his life, his love, his very self to God and to us in order to draw us into communion with God. To be in communion with God is to be ‘made holy’ – hence the word ‘sacrifice’, from the Latin sacer (‘holy’) and facere (‘to make’). What happened on Calvary is a sacrifice because Jesus offered his life as a gift to us and to his Father to draw us into his communion with God, and so make us holy. Jesus made this clear at the supper: ‘Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks (Greek: eucharisteô), he broke it and gave it to them saying: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’ (Luke 22:19).

The earliest account of the Last Supper is in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (11:23-25) composed in Ephesus c.53AD: ‘The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed (Greek: paradidômi – perhaps better translated ‘handed over’) took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Jesus wants his disciples to ‘remember’ when his life is so brutally taken from him that he is not just a victim of his enemies. He has always given himself for them. On the cross this self-giving will reach its consummation. In Paul’s words: ‘He loved me and gave himself (paradidômi) for me’ (Galatians 2:20). When he breaks bread this evening, and when he pours out the blood-red wine, he invests them with a special meaning, symbolising the final offering he is about to make. When they take and eat this bread, he wants them to know that it is his body that they are taking, given as a gift of love to them to nourish them on their journey. When they take and drink this wine, he wants them to know that it is his life poured out for them that he is offering to their thirsting souls.

Manna from heaven

There are clear literary parallels between the account of the Last Supper and an earlier scene from Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus had been teaching a large crowd of people. Evening was drawing near, and his disciples suggested that he send the people away so that they could buy for themselves something to eat. Jesus’ reply was unexpected: ‘You give them something to eat yourselves’(Mark 6:36; Catechism n. 1335). Of course they did not have the means to do this – or so they thought. However, in a scene reminiscent of the scene from Exodus of the manna given from heaven, Jesus tells them to bring to him whatever they have – their own meager resources. Then (as at the Last Supper) ‘Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves and continued to give them to his disciples to set before the people’ (Mark 6:41). We picture the disciples coming to Jesus with their resources, placing them in his hands, receiving them back from him, distributing them to the people, and then coming back to Jesus empty handed to once again have their resources replenished, till finally ‘the people ate as much as they wanted, and the apostles took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces’(Mark 6:42-43). The symbolism is clear – and John draws it out in Chapter 6 of his Gospel. Jesus can give us all we need to satisfy our hunger and thirst, and we have the means to meet other people’s hunger and thirst, provided we are willing to open ourselves to Jesus’ love, and to offer all we have to others, having first placed it in Jesus’ hands. It is because Jesus lives in us, that all of us (symbolized by the ‘Twelve’) can continue to do what Jesus did. Jesus is continuing his mission of love in us and through us.

What Jesus did for the multitude in the wilderness, what he did at the Last Supper, what he did on Calvary, by giving himself in love to all who are hungering and thirsting for the way, for truth and for life (see John 14:10), he asks us to do now in his name. This is the meaning of the Eucharist. We offer ourselves. He consecrates us in love, and gives himself to us in communion that we might enjoy his communion with the Father, and be able to offer his life to others. John (6:27) quotes Jesus as saying: ‘Do not work for food that cannot last. Work for food that endures to eternal life, the kind of food that the Son of Man is offering you, for on him the Father, God Himself, has set his seal.’

And what is this food for which we hunger? ‘The bread that I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world’ (John 6:51). ‘My flesh is true (‘real’) food, my blood is true (‘real’) drink. If you eat my flesh and drink my blood you live in me and I live in you. As I who am sent by the Father draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will draw life from me’ (John 6:55-57).

In the sacrament of the Eucharist, we receive from Jesus the gift of himself offered to us on Calvary. Nowhere more powerfully, more completely, or more beautifully, does Jesus give us himself, his Spirit, his communion with God, a share in his life and mission, than at the Eucharist. The opening statement of the Catechism, quoted above (n.1323), goes on to speak of the Eucharist as ‘a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet “in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us”(Vatican II, SC 47). The Catechism (n. 1324) then quotes from the Second Vatican Council (LG 11): ‘The Eucharistic sacrifice is the source and summit of the Christian life.’ It goes on to say (n. 1325): ‘The Eucharistic sacrifice is the cause of the communion in divine life and unity of the People of God.’

The Breaking of Bread

An early name for the Eucharist is the ‘Breaking of Bread’: ‘Jesus had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread’ (Luke 24:35). ‘On the first day of the week, when we met to break bread, Paul was holding a discussion with them (Acts 20:7). ‘The disciples devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers … Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts’ (Acts 2:42,46).

The Book of Revelation (also called the ‘Apocalypse’) was composed to be read out to the Christian Assembly when they gathered for the Eucharist on ‘the Lord’s Day’(Revelation 1:10). John offers us a most powerful image of the risen Christ really present in the Assembly at the Eucharist (Revelation 1:10-16):

I saw seven golden lamp stands, and in the midst of the lamp stands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force.

Jesus promised to be with his disciples ‘to the end of the age’(Matthew 28:20). Nowhere is this more true that when the disciples gather to celebrate his death and resurrection – the Paschal mystery. The Letter to the Hebrews – an oration composed to be proclaimed to the assembled community – reminds us (12:22-24):

You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Transubstantiation

It is important not to be distracted by erroneous ways of thinking about the Eucharist. Some fail to appreciate its mysterious beauty. They think that the bread and wine are just that, and that we eat and drink in memory of Jesus, entering into a communion of mind and heart with him as we re-enact what happened at the Last Supper. Valuable as such a memorial would be, much more is happening at the Eucharist. To grasp this we need to appreciate what symbols are. A symbol – as the word indicates – captures many levels of experience and understanding. Our senses – touch, sight, taste – connect us with the surface of things. We learn what things feel like, look like and taste like. It is our intelligence that asks the further question: ‘Granted that it feels like bread/wine, looks like bread/wine, and tastes like bread/wine, what, in fact, is it?’ The intelligence asks questions of reality and tries to go below the surface to penetrate to the underlying reality. In a metaphysical sense the underlying reality is called the ‘sub-stance’, and we grasp this substance though ‘under-standing’(the same word! ‘sub’ is the Latin for ‘under’).

It is essential that we distinguish this metaphysical sense of the word ‘substance’ from the physical sense with which we are all familiar.  This latter refers to the physical matter that makes up something. ‘Substance’, however, in the metaphysical sense, refers to the underlying reality, and it is in this sense that we speak of a change in the substance of the bread and wine. We are obviously not suggesting that a physical change has taken place. Nor is there a chemical change. The change is at the level of being. As regards the Eucharist our understanding is not working on its own. It is enlightened by faith, and our faith-enlightened intellect knows that when we eat this bread, and when we drink this wine, Jesus is offering himself to us to satisfy our hunger and thirst for meaning, for communion, for life. Our intellect needs the inspiration of love if we are to reach beyond logic and enter the rich realm of mystery.

Let us reflect again on the words of Augustine: ‘Do not seek to understand that you may believe. Believe that you may understand.’ Belief opens up unimaginable vistas of knowledge. Of course we do not leave our intellect behind, lest we believe things that contradict reason. Truth attained by faith goes beyond reason but it never contradicts it.

The faith-experience of Jesus’ disciples is that when we receive communion at the Eucharist a ‘transubstantiation’ (Catechism n. 1376) – a change of ‘substance’(in the metaphysical sense) – has taken place. We do not come to the Eucharist to satisfy our hunger for bread and wine. We come to enter into communion with the risen Jesus. And we know that that is what we are being offered on the word of Jesus as understood by his disciples. This was their experience, and it has been the experience of Jesus’ disciples ever since.

Thomas Aquinas defined ‘truth’ as ‘adaequatio rei et intellectus’. We attain the truth when what we judge something to be is in accordance with what it in fact is. The truth, attained by our intellect enlightened by faith is that in communion at the Eucharist we are welcoming Jesus. Pope Benedict XVI stressed this aspect of the Eucharist in a speech at Cologne on the 21st August 2005, in which he encouraged people to ‘form communities based on faith’:

By making the bread into his Body and the wine into his Blood, Jesus anticipates his death, he accepts it into his heart, and he transforms it into an action of love. What on the outside is simply brutal violence – the Crucifixion – from within becomes an act of total self-giving love. This is the substantial transformation that was accomplished at the Last Supper and was destined to set in motion a series of transformations leading ultimately to the transformation of the world when God will be all in all. In their hearts, people always and everywhere have somehow expected a change, a transformation of the world. Here now is the central act of transformation that alone can truly renew the world: violence is transformed into love, and death into life … The process of transformation must now gather momentum. The Body and Blood of Christ are given to us so that we ourselves will be transformed in our turn. We are to become the Body of Christ … He is within us and we are in him. His dynamic enters into us and then seeks to spread outwards towards others until it fills the world.

The Church is the Body of Christ

In an earlier chapter we reflected on the Church as the ‘Body of Christ’. We should reflect on this again in the light of the Eucharist. The Catechism (n. 1368) speaks of an image of the Church found, among other places, in the Catacomb of Priscilla: ‘In the catacombs the Church is often represented as a woman in prayer, arms outstretched in the praying position. Like Christ who stretched out his arms of the cross, through him, with him, and in him, she offers herself and intercedes for all.’ We recall Paul’s words to the Christians in Corinth (1Corinthians 10:16-17; Catechism n. 1331): ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’

Let us reflect, too, on the words of Saint Augustine (Sermon 272): ‘If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive. To that which you are you respond “Amen”(“Yes, it is true”) and by responding to it you assent to it. For you hear the words “the Body of Christ” and you respond “Amen”. Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your Amen may be true.’

The Eucharist and the Forgiveness of Sin

A further dimension of the Eucharist is the relationship between our communion with Jesus and the forgiveness of sin. In Matthew’s account of the Last Supper (26:28; Catechism n. 1366) Jesus says: ‘This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is to be poured out for the many for the forgiveness of sins.’

Pope Saint Gregory I had this to say (Homily 37 on the Gospels): ‘The sacrifice of the altar offered with tears and a generous spirit intercedes in a unique way for the forgiveness of our sins.’ Likewise, St Maximus of Turin (Sermon 53.4): ‘We ought all to rejoice on this holy day. No one should separate himself from the general rejoicing because he has sins on his conscience; no one should refuse to take part in the public worship because of the burden of his misdeeds. However great a sinner he may be, on this day he should not despair of pardon, for the privileges granted by this day are great. If a thief was thought worthy of paradise, why should not a Christian be thought worthy of forgiveness?’

The Catechism includes the following statements: ‘The Eucharist cannot unite us to Christ without at the same time cleansing us from past sins and preserving us from future sins’ (n. 1393). ‘By giving himself to us Christ revives our love and enables us to break our disordered attachments to creatures and put our roots down into Him’ (n. 1394).

Sharing Jesus’ Mission

When reflecting on the other two sacraments of initiation into the Christian community, Baptism and Confirmation, we paused to speak of the Christian as sharing in the life and mission of Christ the priest, prophet and king. The same reflection is valid in relation to the Eucharist. Nourished by Jesus, those partaking in the Eucharist receive the grace to carry out their priestly mission as sacraments of Christ the priest, the one mediator between God and mankind. We are graced to live the life of a prophet, given us in Baptism, whereby we speak God’s Word to others, in word and deed. In this way, sharing in the mission of Christ the king, we bring about the reign of God’s love in the world, drawing everyone to a redemption that is eternal and to full communion with the living God.

The Ritual of the Mass

It is important in regard to the Eucharist (as with all the sacraments) to remember that sacraments are not something we go to. They are something we do (of course, in response to God’s call). In the Eucharist, we gather. This is a choice we make. If we don’t gather, there is no Eucharist for us, and we deprive those who do gather of our presence. We also tell stories –the big story, contained in the sacred scriptures. The Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, recounts something he was told by a Rabbi:

My grandfather was paralysed. One day he was asked to tell about something that happened with his teacher. He told how the saintly man used to leap about and dance while he was at his prayers. As he went on with the story, my grandfather stood up; he was so carried away that he had to show how the master had done it, and he started to caper about and dance. From that moment he was cured. That is how stories should be told.

Hopefully, the person authorized to comment on the readings speaks from prayer. His words, then, are a form of prophecy. Another thing that we do at the Eucharist is we give and receive. Finally we are given a mission: sent forth to share with others the communion we have received. The word ‘Mass’ comes from the Latin ‘missa’(Catechism n. 1332). At the conclusion of the Eucharist, after the consecrated host is sent to those unable to be present at the assembly, the person presiding at the Eucharist says: ‘Ite missa est’(‘Go, it is sent’). We, too, are sent to continue Jesus’ mission, strengthened by Jesus’ sacramental presence that we have received in communion.

Do this in memory of me

Let us now look more closely at Jesus’ words: ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ Do what? John points us in a good direction when, at the Last Supper, he has Jesus say after washing the feet of the disciples: ‘I have set you an example, that you should do as I have done’(John 13:14-15). Surely, the main answer to the question: ‘What are we to do in remembrance of Jesus?’ is ‘Love one another as I have loved you’(John 15:12). This is at the heart of the Eucharist, when Jesus, the vine, pours his life into us the branches so that we can love with his love.

To ‘eat this bread’ is to unite oneself with the ‘flesh given for the life of the world’(John 6:51). It is to hunger for ‘every word that comes from the mouth of God’(Matthew 4:4). It is to welcome God’s gift of our ‘super-substantial bread’(Matthew 6:11). To ‘drink this wine’ is to drink the wine of Jesus, the bridegroom’(Cana - John 2). It is to drink the wine of Jesus’ love ‘poured into our hearts’(Romans 5:5). It is to commit oneself to say ‘Yes’ to Jesus when he asks: ‘Can you drink the cup that I must drink, or be baptised with the baptism with which I am to be baptised?’(Mark 10:38). St Fulgentius of Ruspé writing against Fabian (28.19) says: ‘The Lord’s chalice is drunk whenever holy charity is preserved. Without this a person could give up his body to be burned and it would not help him. But through the gift of love we receive the grace to be in reality what we celebrate mystically in the sacrifice.’

We might reflect on the following statements from the Second Vatican Council: 'Christ’s faithful should be instructed by God’s word, and be nourished at the table of the Lord’s body. They should give thanks to God. Offering the immaculate victim not only through the hands of the priest but also together with him, they should learn to offer themselves. Through Christ the mediator they should be drawn day by day into ever more perfect union with God and each other so that finally God may be all in all' (SC n.48). 'All that they do, their prayer and apostolic undertakings, their family and married life, their daily work, relaxation of mind and body if carried out in the Spirit, the vary hardships of life if borne patiently – all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord. And so, worshipping everywhere by their holy actions, the laity consecrate the world itself to God' (LG 34).

Further Considerations

Before concluding this brief summary of the Sacrament of the Eucharist we should note the following point from the General Instructions of the Roman Missal (n. 240): ‘The sign of communion is more complete when given under both kinds (bread and wine), since the sign of the Eucharistic meal appears more clearly.’

From the earliest years of the Christian community it has been the custom for authorised ministers to take the consecrated host from the Eucharistic Assembly to those who because of sickness or some other reason were unable to join the community. The Body of Christ (the Assembly) sent the Body of Christ (the consecrated bread) to them. Over the centuries different practices grew up (too complex to discuss here). Included among these was the practice of reserving hosts (‘consecrated bread’) in the tabernacle (‘tent’), for distribution to the sick, and as a reminder to the people that Christ is dwelling among us inviting us to experience our hunger and to return to the next Eucharist.

The Catechism (n. 1378) quotes Pope Paul VI (Mysterium Fidei n. 56) in connection with the cult of adoration offered to the Risen Christ whose presence in the community of his disciples is sacramentally expressed in the consecrated bread and wine. ‘The Catholic Church has always offered and still offers to the sacrament of the Eucharist the cult of adoration, not only during Mass, but also outside of Mass, reserving the consecrated hosts with the utmost care, exposing them to the solemn veneration of the faithful, and carrying them in procession.’ This reverence for Jesus truly present among us in the sacrament is beautifully expressed in the following hymn, attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas and translated by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Godhead here in hiding whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? That shall be believed.
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.

It is our Catholic faith that in the Eucharist we are purified by God’s word; our sins are forgiven; we enjoy communion with Christ’s Body as we join him in offering ourselves to God, and as we enjoy communion with the community of his disciples; we enjoy communion with Christ’s Blood as we pour out our lives in love; we ‘welcome the heavenly call’(Hebrews 3:1); we are ‘enlightened’ by Christ (Hebrews 6:4); we ‘taste the heavenly gift’(Hebrews 6:4); we are ‘in communion with the Holy Spirit’(Hebrews 6:4); we celebrate in sacrament Jesus’ self-offering to the Father and to us. The Eucharist is ‘bread for our pilgrimage until the moment of death, when it will be given to us as viaticum’(Catechism n. 1343).

We conclude our reflections with a poem composed by John of the Cross during an imprisonment in the Carmelite monastery of Toledo. Through the prison window he could hear the river formed by the melting snows. Living in darkness and deprived of the Eucharist he wrote:

How well I know the living spring that flows though it is night!

That ever-living spring is hidden fastand yet I found its dwelling place at last although by night.

Its origin? All that I know or see, in the beginning from it came to be, but in the night.

Nothing on earth so beautiful as this: heaven and earth meet here, and meeting kiss, though it is night.

Down to its deepest depths man may not go, nor ford its flooding waters; this I know though it is night.

Light, source of light, by which all light was made, whose brilliance never falters, cannot fade, though it is night!

So mighty and unceasing is its flow, it waters heavens, earth and realms below, although by night.

Something I know of its almighty force, the flowing stream that issues from this source although by night.

From these two streams wellsforth another flow yet neither stream precedes it, this I know, though it is night.

This deathless spring, hidden in living bread, brings life to us who, lacking it, were dead, for it is night.

To all that lives: ‘Come, drink your fill!’ it calls ‘Come to this water, for the darkness falls, and it is night!’

This living spring, so very dear to me, is here, within the bread of life I see, though it is night.