The Eucharist: The Basics
Nearly every hour of every day all over the world (except on Good Friday), Catholics take part in a “thanksgiving” ritual that draws us all together into the One Body of Christ. Most of us refer to this ritual as “Holy Communion” or as “the Blessed Sacrament.” More formally, we use the traditional word Eucharist, which comes from a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving” (eucharistia). Most of you have already begun receiving this sacrament, which is available to baptized members of the Church.
The Church has long associated Eucharist with the Passover of the Jews. Scripture itself makes several references and allusions to the Passover in its own text and in the various symbols throughout the story of Jesus’ last day before his arrest. In our liturgy, we will sometimes hear of the Paschal Sacrifice, which again is a reference to the Pesach or Passover of the Jews. Whereas the Passover of the Jews commemorates the passing over of the Hebrew first born in Exodus 12 and the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt, the Eucharist commemorates Jesus’ crucifixion and death, the sacrifice that gives us freedom from the slavery of sin. The Eucharist also represents a new covenant, one that replaces the old covenant established between God and the people of Israel through Moses in Exodus 28:8. This new covenant Jesus established with us, His Church, during the Last Supper.
Over the next few weeks, we will look at the Eucharist from several perspectives. Using the text from the three synoptic gospel accounts, we will explore the meaning of the Eucharist to us as faithful Catholics to gain a deeper appreciation for this grace-giving gift.
The Eucharist in the Gospels
The Sacrament of the Eucharist is established in the Last Supper accounts of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We call these three gospels the synoptic gospels because they are “seen together.” The accounts are very similar, most likely because they all come from a single account, probably Mark 14:22–25:
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. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’
Matthew makes a few modifications to clarify that the blood of the covenant is poured out “for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Luke changes the order in which events happen, but the most important variation is that he adds words that are very familiar to us from our liturgy: “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).
In Mark’s account, we get just the facts. Both Matthew and Luke elaborate. This elaboration is one of the reasons scholars believe that the Gospel of Mark came first, because we have a tendency to try to explain things and flesh them out rather than subtract details and make them less clear. Mark is the most basic account, and Matthew and Luke add to it. Whether this reasoning is historically accurate, we can’t know for certain, but this is a standard way that scripture scholars look at text to see what came first. They assume that the shorter readings and those that are more difficult are the earlier readings. If you’ve ever written a book report or an essay, you can probably verify some truth in this view. As you revise, the clumsy or difficult parts of your essay get a little more detailed and clearer.
As mentioned in last week’s column, the Eucharist establishes a new covenant with God’s new people, the Church. As covenants go, the words are important. When we look next week at the Eucharist in Liturgy, we’ll explore just how the scriptural passages relate to the Liturgy.
The Eucharist in Liturgy
At a very important point in our liturgy, the priest says a blessing over the gifts of bread and wine on the altar that have been presented for the congregation. This moment is called the institution narrative, and it contains the consecration. The words sound very familiar to the gospel accounts we’ve discussed. While the Eucharistic prayers vary in length and in content, the institution narrative stays very close to the story of the Last Supper from the synoptic gospels, but the narrative elaborates on that event to make clear the close relationship between these acts and Jesus ultimate suffering, death, and resurrection.
The consecration itself is fixed and always repeated in the same form, if the consecration is to be valid. First, the priest lifts the host and says,
Take this, all of you, and eat it:
this is my body which will be given up for you.
He genuflects, and then he continues the narrative. Then, lifting the chalice of wine, he says,
Take this, all of you, and drink from it:
this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.
You can see similarities in the words of consecration to all three synoptic gospels, and each gospel clearly leaves its impression on the liturgical text. With these words of consecration, the priest transforms the materials of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. However, as noted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the consecration is more than just a transformation of the bread and wine:
In the celebration of Mass, during the Eucharistic Prayer, not only does Christ become present, body and blood, soul and divinity, under the forms of bread and wine, but Christ's saving action, His passion, death and resurrection are once again enacted and offered to the Father by Christ Himself in the person of the priest, and by all present.
During the Eucharistic Prayer, Christ in the person of the priest offers Himself again to the Father and to us. Rather than a new sacrificing of Christ, however, the Eucharist is a re-presentation of the original sacrifice. Next week, we’ll look at the historical reality of the event that instituted the Eucharist—the Last Supper.
The Eucharist as a Historical Event
We can talk about the Eucharist as part of a story in three different books (the synoptic gospels), or as something that happens in our liturgy (the consecration), but it is also based on a historical event: a Passover meal that Jesus held with several of his followers just prior to his arrest. Strictly speaking, sacred scripture is not history—that is, when we read the accounts of Jesus’ life, we should remember that the intent is not to teach us about history but to guide us to salvation. Scripture tells us the story of who Jesus is, not just what happened where and when. However, scripture sometimes contains historical details that support its accuracy and tell us something about the world during the time of Jesus.
In modern Jerusalem, many tours of the Old City stop at a location on Mt. Zion known as the Cenacle, the upper room where Jesus and his disciples shared the Last Supper, very close to the traditional Tomb of David. The original structure of the room no longer exists, but the location has been maintained from early Christian testimony. The Gospels of Mark and Luke note a small detail that helps to confirm this place as the location of the Last Supper. In both gospels, Jesus sends several of his disciples to find a man carrying water (Mark 14:13; Luke 22:10) who will lead them to the upper room: “And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready” (Mark 14:15). This detail is important for a few reasons. First, Jews considered carrying water to be women’s work. It would have been unusual at the time for a man to be doing this task. However, the Cenacle was believed to have been in a guest house in the Essene quarter of Jerusalem. Essenes were a group of Jews who lived a sort of early monastic life. They were all male, so naturally tasks that would have been performed by women in regular Jewish society would be taken up by men in a largely male religious group. So a seemingly insignificant detail in scripture can often reveal much more than you might expect.
Next week, we’ll look at the Eucharist as a communal meal shared by Christ’s new family, the Church.
The Eucharist as a Communal Meal
The Eucharist is not just a memorial ritual that helps us to recall Jesus’ sacrifice. It’s also a way that we as members of the Body of Christ come together as one. We come together in several ways. First, we come together in the act here and now, in the event as we each line up and walk forward to receive the Eucharist and also as we gather in this building for this very purpose. We also come together as we profess a common belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—that in some unique way, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. This belief is no small thing. In chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, verses 48 through 56, the author reports that many of Jesus’ followers couldn’t handle this message. To them, Jesus’ words were simply disgusting.
There’s good reason for the reaction of his disciples. Food, for Jews, was serious business. Leviticus 11 outlines numerous laws on what kinds of foods can be eaten and how they can be prepared. However, even among Jewish sects of the time, dietary restrictions were used as a means of identifying different sects of Jews—those who were part of the group and those who were not. These rules dictated what you could eat and with whom you could eat it.
Jesus constantly challenged the Jewish authorities (primarily the Pharisees) on these points because they excluded the poor and outcast, the “lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:6, 15:24). His own ministry was one of inclusiveness, often exemplified in the sharing of food (for example, eating with tax collectors in Matthew 9, Mark 2 and Luke 5; and the multiplication of loaves and fish in all four gospels). The Eucharist, too, is a sign of inclusion, of being part of the group represented by the word we commonly use for it—communion. However, just as Jewish purity laws dictated the conditions for communal meals for Jews, so the Church requires certain conditions to be fulfilled. First, a person must be joined to the Church through baptism and, for adults joining the Church, confirmation. In addition, participants must be free from mortal sin. As Jesus responded to the Pharisees, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19), so part of being worthy for the communal celebration is to have the correct inner disposition—a right relationship with Jesus and the Church.
The Eucharist as a Sacrament
Sacraments are physical means or visible rituals established by Jesus that transmit grace to us by the Holy Spirit, or as the Catholic Encyclopedia describes, “Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification.” Most if not all of us have received the Sacrament of Baptism, which uses the physical means of sprinkling or immersion in water. The Eucharist is also a sacrament that uses the physical materials of bread and wine and the institution or consecration based on the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. One of the differences between many non-Catholic Christians and Catholics is the emphasis we place on these outward signs. For Catholics, outward signs are important indicators of another reality that takes place internally. In this emphasis, we are not alone. Jesus frequently used outward signs as a means to bring about an inward change, as when he used spittle to restore a blind man’s sight in Mark 8:22–26 or anytime he laid his hands on those whom he healed.
In the case of the Eucharist, the bread and wine are transformed into the gracegiving Body and Blood of Christ. Grace is a supernatural gift from God that sanctifies us and helps us to become more like Christ. One of the reasons why receiving this sacrament is so important is that it gives us the spiritual food we need to resist temptation and to lead holy lives. While all of the sacraments are important in the life of the Church, the Eucharist is unique in that we are drawn physically and spiritually into a grace-giving relationship with Christ as He commanded us in all four gospels. Receiving the Eucharist also cleanses us of venial or minor sins and helps us to resist mortal sin.
Jesus tells His disciples in John 6:53 that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood or they will have no life in them. However, Paul warns the Corinthians not to receive this sacrament unworthily—that is, in a state of mortal sin (1 Corinthians 11:27). Fortunately, when we do fail and fall into mortal sin, Christ gave us another sacrament, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so that He can make our relationship with Him right again. The two sacraments together allow us to partake fully in the sacramental life of the Church.
The Eucharist as Sacrifice
In the first week of this series, I mentioned the term Paschal Sacrifice, which we often hear in relation to the Eucharist. In the Old Testament, sacrifices were the means by which the People of Israel atoned for their sins. The Paschal Sacrifice was the yearly sacrifice of an unblemished lamb that took place during Passover prior to the Seder meal (the primary Passover meal outlined in Exodus).
For Christians, Jesus replaces and perfects the Paschal Sacrifice by offering Himself in atonement for our sins (Matthew 26:28). About this sacrifice the Catechism of the Catholic Church says,
After agreeing to baptize him along with the sinners, John the Baptist looked at Jesus and pointed him out as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world”. By doing so, he reveals that Jesus is at the same time the suffering Servant who silently allows himself to be led to the slaughter and who bears the sin of the multitudes, and also the Paschal Lamb, the symbol of Israel's redemption at the first Passover.
These words from John 1:29 are part of our Eucharistic celebration as well following the breaking of the bread just prior to communion. In the Book of Revelation, repeated references are made to the lamb. Christ in the Eucharist becomes the spotless, unblemished, sacrificial lamb by His own free choice to free us from sin and death. As the Holy Father recently spoke,
The Eucharist—the centre of our Christian being—is founded on Jesus’ sacrifice for us; it is born from the suffering of love which culminated in the Cross.
Christ’s love for us is ever evident to us in the Eucharist. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Such a great love Christ had for us that he died even for those who persecuted Him and put Him to death. Today, He calls us to our own sacrifice, to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34–40).
Works Cited and Referenced
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Catechism of the Catholic Church. New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Feeley-Harnick, Gillian. The Lord's Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1981.
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XVI, Benedict. “Celebration of First Vespers of the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul for the Opening of the Pauline Year: Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI.” Vatican: the Holy See. 28 June 2008. <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/ benedict_xvi/homilies/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20080628_vespri_en.html>. 11 July 2008.
 “Eucharist,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05572c.htm> 10 July 2008.
 Tracey R. Rich, “Pesach,” Judaism 101, 2005, <http://www.jewfaq.org/holidaya.htm> 12 July 2008.
 Fr. William Mills, “Lecture 2: Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels,” Synoptic Gospels, Holy Apostles College and Seminary 2007, <http://fishersnet.blackboard.com/webapps/portal/
frameset.jsp?tab=courses&url=%2Fbin%2Fcommon%2Fcourse.pl%3Fcourse_id%3D_20230_1> , 10 July 2008.
 Felix Just, S.J., “Eucharistic Prayers I–IV,” Catholic Resources for Bible, Liturgy, Art, and Theology, 26 May 2008, <http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/EP1-4.htm> 14 July 2008.
 Ibid, <http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/EP1-4.htm>.
 Ibid, <http://catholic-resources.org/ChurchDocs/EP1-4.htm>.
 “The Eucharistic Prayer,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, <http://www.usccb.org/
liturgy/girm/bul6.shtml> 14 July 2008.
 Pius XII, Divino Afflante Spiritu, 30 September 1943, <http://www.papalencyclicals.net/
Pius12/P12DIVIN.HTM> 13 July 13, 2008.
 Leo XIII, “Providentissimus Deus,” 18 November 1893, <http://www.papalencyclicals.net/
Leo13/l13provi.htm> 13 July 13, 2008.
 “The Cenacle,” Bibarch, 2 February 2007, <http://www.bibarch.com/ArchaeologicalSites/
Cenacle.htm> 13 July 2008.
 “Q&A with Bargil Pixner,” CenturyOne Foundation, 2003, <http://www.centuryone.org/pixner-q-a.html> 13 July 2008.
 “History of Monasticism,” Historyworld,16 June 2008, <http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/
PlainTextHistories.asp?historyid=ab88> 13 July 2008.
 Gillian Feeley-Harnick, The Lord’s Table: Eucharist and Passover in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 1981) pp. 91–96.
 Daniel Kennedy, “Sacraments,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 13, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912) <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13295a.htm>, 12 July 2008.
 Joseph Pohle, “The Blessed Eucharist as a Sacrament,” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5, (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909) <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05584a.htm> 14 Jul. 2008.
 Jacob Zallel Lauterbach, “Passover Sacrifice,” JewishEncyclopedia.com, 2002, <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=99&letter=P> 14 July 2008.
 Cyrus Adler and Lewis M. Dembitz, “Seder,” JewishEncyclopedia.com, 2002, <http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=427&letter=S> 14 July 2008.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, (New York : Doubleday, 1995) 175.
 Benedict XVI, “Celebration of First Vespers of the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul for the Opening of the Pauline Year: Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI,” Vatican: the Holy See, 28 June 2008, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/homilies/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20080628_vespri_en.html>, 11 July 2008.