The Eucharist

Z9

“Take ye, and eat. This is my body. . . Drink ye all of this. For this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins.”

The Eucharist is also called the Most Blessed Sacrament or the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to name a few terms.  It is called “Most Blessed” because of all the seven Sacraments it is the one in which we encounter Jesus Christ the most personally as it is not simple bread and wine which we consume but what has become the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.This has led to some common myths and misperceptions about Catholics and others who believe they consume the actual Body and Blood of Christ: the Soviet government for example posted many anti-Christian propaganda posters and at least one depicts Christians (at least mostly Russian Orthodox) feasting on a Jesus corpse; I think it’s too graphic to post here and so I won’t.  Many Protestants have called Catholics cannibals and perhaps many in the past five centuries have accused Catholics of using human flesh from kidnapped individuals for sacrifice, much like the anti-Jewish myth of Jews kidnapping Christian children to use their flesh for matzah bread.  There are records of even the Roman leaders accusing Christians of the same thing since they some how heard about the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  However this article isn’t about allegations of cannibalism so much as it is about the Eucharist’s significance in the life of the Christian and the Lord’s Real Presence therein.

The Synoptic Gospels record the Last Supper in which Jesus mentions the bread to be His Body and the wine to be His Blood (rf. Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20), and Saint Paul also mentioned it (rf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-25).  In fact, Paul states, “I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you”.  In his Eucharistic exhortation we see the command to repeat the offering and reception of the Eucharist: “[T]his do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me.”  This is also mentioned in Saint Luke’s Gospel (22:19).  The Zwinglians in the 19th century interpreted this commenmoration or memory as symbolic of Jesus’ Body and Blood, hence the heretical doctrine of memorialism which is believed to this day by Baptists and other Protestant groups.  The early Church however did not think this way.

Z9

The Last Supper, 4th century fresco, Catacombs of Domitilla, Rome, Italy

Protestants agree with Catholics and Orthodox that Jesus is the Paschal Lamb of God, but they largely do not agree with us that Holy Communion contains the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  The paschal lamb had to first be offered as a sacrifice to atone for sins and then be consumed at the meal by the whole house of Israel (rf. Exodus 12:6-8).  Jesus Christ likewise first had to be offered as a sacrifice to atone for sins and then be consumed by the whole Church, the body of believers “united in the same mind and in the same purpose” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10).  Yet, as Benedict XVI noted, Jesus “followed no specific Jewish ritual” [1] as he notes that the Passover meal was always “held after sunset on a Tuesday evening” [2].  Yet we see there is no mention of the lamb at the Last Supper; this is because the lamb has become obsolete; it is not by the blood of goats and lambs, “but by his own blood, entered once into the holies” (cf. Hebrews 9:12) that He saved us.  Dr. Scott Hahn, Ph.D., notes in his book The Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and Their Biblical Roots how Jesus united the priesthoods of Aaron and Melchizedek by united becoming the Paschal Lamb who offers His Body in the appearance of bread.  Saint Paul himself stated that “our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. . . let us celebrate the feast” (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7b-8).

In the early Church there arose the Gnostic heresy which rejected the goodness of the body and thus also the Incarnation of Jesus Christ; the Docetist heresy rejected this in particular; it led them to also reject the Real Presence in Holy Communion, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. During this same time, Saint Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again” (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 7:1).  The Gnostics naturally rejected canonical books of Scripture such as the Gospel of Saint John which explicitly taught the Incarnation (1:1.14), the Crucifixion (19:17-30) and the Resurrection (20:1-17). They also rejected the Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke which taught explicitly the Crucifixion and Resurrection in addition to the Real Presence (Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 20:19-20). Basically they had their own selection of gospels they wrote from the 2nd to 4th centuries to preach their own version of the Gospel by rejecting those things which were taught prior. Benedict XVI mentioned that “the ‘factum est’ of John’s Prologue. . . is a basic Christian category” which also must “be invoked for the Last Supper, the Cross and the Resurrection” and “were it otherwise, Christianity would not be true” [3].  It would not make sense if it were otherwise. If Holy Communion was only symbolic of Christ’s Passion, then there is no reason for Christ to have become incarnate, crucified and risen as the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection would have been in vain. We would have to accept these doctrines either as false or as symbolic just as the anti-Trinitarian Gnostics did. As I mentioned earlier there are no records of a Trinitarian group rejecting the Real Presence of Christ until the 16th century, even less one which accepted the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, and accepted the Catholic Canon of Scriptures.

The early Church already shows that there was a liturgical worship of God in the first century as Saint Justin Martyr said that “on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read” and “we all rise together and pray , and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons” (First Apology 67). So, there already exists a day of assembly and worship which is Sunday and on this day there already is a Liturgy of the Word which is the reading of “the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets”, prayer, and the distribution of the Eucharist which here are described as “bread and wine and water” in which the president or celebrant of the Mass “offers prayers and thanksgivings” before the Amen is said and the people receive the Eucharist. Justin defines this Eucharist “not as common bread and common drink” but “the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh” (Ibid, 66). So, here we see another rejection of Gnosticism, especially Docetism, in professing faith in the bread and wine by the benediction “by the prayer of His word” (His own words at the Last Supper which are called the Words of Institution/Consacration) becoming the Body and Blood of Christ “who was made flesh.” The reference to wine is an ancient practice in which the priest mixes the wine with water, but I will explain this in more detail later. As for the deacon we can see an early reference to his liturgical role in aiding the celebrant of the Mass or “the president” in the example of administering the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ, “to those who are absent”; they may be those who may be too sick to make it to the weekly assembly or Mass, those too old to travel to the nearest church, or those dying and cannot make it church.

[1] Benedict XVI. Jesus of Nazareth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011. p.  113

[2] Ibid, pp. 109-110

[3] Ibid, p. 105

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