Every Sunday, from the time I was seven years old, I would walk up the aisle of my local parish Church. When I got to the front of the line, the priest or auxiliary minister of communion would hold up a flat, round, white host and declare reverently “The Body of Christ,” to which I would reply with equal reverence “Amen.” What did all of this mean? I don’t know. What I do know is that afterwards, I was to return to my pew, kneel, and say a prayer of some sort.
In spite of the fact that I had attended Mass from the time I was a child, and that my parish priest had tried (in vain) to explain to me what was really going on at the Mass, this ritual was meaningless to me up until my teenage years, when I found myself on a retreat asking someone what the term “Blessed Sacrament” meant. The answer?
Well, it’s one of many seemingly audacious beliefs that my Catholic Church holds: in this case, that the bread we consume at Mass is no longer bread… it is, in fact, the body of Christ – His true presence: body, blood, soul, and divinity… as the Catechism states:
In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” “This presence is called ‘real’ – by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.” -CCC 1374
Where would we get such a crazy idea? Well, from the Lord Himself, and from the explanations of early Church saints: notably, St. Paul in the New Testament, & St. Justin Martyr a hundred or so years later. There are also several premonitions in the Old Testament: significant events which lead us to the conclusion that this is in fact, Jesus we are receiving… and not just holy bread.
Let’s start by going back. Way back… to the time of Abraham. After his miscue of taking God’s plan into his own hands – having a child with his wife’s servant, Hagar, rather than waiting for the promise God had offered him – and having to exile this child and his mother to bring peace to his home – God tests Abraham to see if he has learned his lesson: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you” (Genesis 22:2). In the sequence that follows, Abraham takes his son Isaac (the one he had in God’s time with his wife, Sarah) to the base of a mountain, has Isaac carry the wood for sacrifice, and nearly ends Isaac’s life as a burnt offering. God stops him before he goes through with it, but in this sequence, you have an innocent son brought to the point of death by his father – and he himself carries the wood of sacrifice. Does this sound familiar at all to another innocent Son, who would carry the wood for His sacrifice? (Hint: when Jesus carried the cross to Calvary.)
Jump forward a few hundred years to the time of Moses, when Israel found itself enslaved in Egypt, building pyramids and begging God for deliverance. God sends Moses, in spite of his protestations, to lead the chosen people out of slavery and into the promised land. In spite of repeated requests to “let his people go,” and divine signs (the plagues) to confirm that this was in fact God’s will,Pharaoh refused, and God had to release His final sign: the death of every firstborn in Egypt except those who did as the Lord directed. In Exodus 12, we read that God instructed all Israel to take a lamb per household (share one if you can’t afford one yourself) , kill the lamb, mark the doorposts of your home with the lamb’s blood, and then eat the lamb (Exodus 12:6-8). To eat the lamb allowed the Israelites to share in the sacrifice that brought about their redemption. How does this point to Christ? We call Him the “Lamb of God,” and it’s by His death and His blood that we are freed from the slavery of sin… can we consume Him, though?
And it’s precisely in this context – of an innocent, beloved son sacrificed, whose blood has redeemed us that we can turn to the words of John 6. These words drove many of Christ’s disciples away (John 6:66) because they found it too hard to believe. In context, John 6 first tells the story of the feeding of five thousand men, plus the women and children, after which Jesus begins to teach. He says, among other things, the following:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” -John 6:51
“Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” -John 6:53-56
At no point does He apologize for offending – not even as His disciples walk away from Him. He turns instead to the apostles and asks them: “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67). I’d say it’s safe to assume that here – as in every other occasion that Jesus speaks – that He knows what He is doing. While some would (incorrectly) suspect He was suggesting cannibalism… it makes the most sense when coupled with Mark 14:22-24, where “(Jesus) took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
This was the first Mass. The first of many occasions when Christians would gather to meet in public or, when necessary, in secret, to celebrate the Lord’s supper. St. Paul writes about it in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. About a century later, St. Justin Martyr offers His testimony to the Eucharist (still trying to explain that Christians aren’t cannibals, but this time to the pagan emperor, Antoninus):
On the day we call the day of the sun, all who dwell in the city or country gather in the same place. The memoirs of the apostles and the writings of the prophets are read, as much as time permits. When the reader has finished, he who presides over those gathered admonishes and challenges them to imitate these beautiful things. Then we all rise together and offer prayers for ourselves . . .and for all others, wherever they may be, so that we may be found righteous by our life and actions, and faithful to the commandments, so as to obtain eternal salvation. When the prayers are concluded we exchange the kiss. Then someone brings bread and a cup of water and wine mixed together to him who presides over the brethren. He takes them and offers praise and glory to the Father of the universe, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and for a considerable time he gives thanks (in Greek: eucharistian) that we have been judged worthy of these gifts. When he has concluded the prayers and thanksgivings, all present give voice to an acclamation by saying: ‘Amen.’ When he who presides has given thanks and the people have responded, those whom we call deacons give to those present the “eucharisted” bread, wine and water and take them to those who are absent. (Justin Martyr quoted in CCC 1345)
This is where we get our sense of the Mass, and where our belief in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist comes. It is here that we witness and share in the one sacrifice of the innocent Son – the Lamb of God. It is here that we are able to “eat His flesh” and “drink His blood.” And, in a very similar way to His first arrival: unexpected and hidden. Does it not make sense that the same God who comes to us as a helpless infant can disguise Himself for us in bread and wine?
The next time you are walking up that processional line and the priest or communion minister says to you: the Body of Christ – know that you are encountering Jesus in a profound way. It is beautiful, amazing, and something we can be most grateful for… after all, Eucharist means thanksgiving.
Until Christ comes in glory, there is no more intense way of experiencing his presence than receiving him in Holy Communion. This is not “holy bread” that reminds us of Jesus. This is Jesus, sacramentally present to be with us on our journey. –Cardinal Thomas Collins