Uncovering the Eucharist
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Dear Friends,

In our last month’s catechesis, we explored the truth that the Eucharist is the Sacrament of the body and blood, soul and divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We argued that to receive the Body of Christ in Holy Communion affirms our claim that Catholicism is an embodied religion. A prominent theologian of the 20th Century, Henri de Lubac, reminded us that the mystery of Christ’s embodiment comprises three inseparable dimensions: the risen-ascended body of the Lord, his Eucharist Body, and his ecclesial Body. Thus, the Word of God continues to take flesh and dwell in us and in the world (John 1:14). To appreciate this life-giving and faith-enlightening truth, an invitation to read and believe the teaching of Jesus on the Eucharist is imperative. Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John is the edifying locus classicus for the Church’s catechesis on the Holy Eucharist. In this magnificent chapter six of the fourth Gospel, Jesus begins by teaching and healing the sick, just as he did in the Sermon on the Mount. This modus operandi of teaching and then fellowshipping with a sacred meal defined how we have celebrated the Eucharist from the time of the Apostles till the present moment. We go from the Table of the Word (Liturgy of the Word) to the Table of the Eucharist (Liturgy of the Eucharist). We move from listening to the Word that was from the beginning, the Word that is God (John 1:1), to embracing as food the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). At Mass, the mystery of Incarnation (mysterium Incarnatus) and the mystery of salvation (mysterium salutis) come together. Jesus, who came in the flesh and was born in Bethlehem (the house of bread), made himself available as the food that gives eternal life as he proclaimed, “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

After foreshowing the Eucharistic celebration in this way (John 6:1-5), Jesus concludes his teaching and asks the Apostles to give the people who gathered something to eat. He instructs them to bring him something with which to feed the people. The Apostles identify a young boy who has five loaves and two fish. Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks, then distributes them to those seated on the grass (John 6:11). The four steps of instituting the Holy Eucharist are present in this passage: “Take,” “Give thanks,” “Break,” and “Give” (Matthew 26: 26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19). Also, at the Ordination of a priest, the ordaining prelate will present Bread and Wine to the newly ordained priest, pronouncing these words: “Receive from the Holy People of God the gifts to be offered to God. Know what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross.”

After the feeding of the multitude, people begin to seek for Jesus. Like Oliver Twist, they want more food, and it is in this context of searching for more material food that Jesus begins to give a discourse on the Bread of Life. He tells them, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” (John 6:27). In order to obtain the food that endures to eternal life, Jesus requests that they believe in the one God who has sent them (John 6:29). At the request for a sign, Jesus tells them that even the manna (a foreshadowing of the Eucharist) that their ancestors ate in the desert was given to them by God, “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6: 33). Thus, Jesus reveals himself “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). In verses 48-51, Jesus continues his discourse with greater emphasis placed on the truth that he is the Bread of Life. Thus, the Bread of life discourse provides a reasonable biblical site for the Church’s teaching on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.

Bishop Robert Barron of the Word on Fire Ministries critically observed that the discourse on the Bread of Life must have been “Jesus’ most challenging sermon.” He remarked, “The most challenging sermon that Jesus ever preached was not the Sermon on the Mount; it was a discourse he gave in the Capernaum synagogue after the miracle of multiplying loaves and fish. The Sermon on the Mount with its call for love of one’s enemy, the cleansing of the interior self, and nonresistance to evil was certainly intellectually confounding. But the talk that Jesus gave at Capernaum concerning the sacrament of his Body and Blood was not only philosophically problematic; it was, quite literally, revolting.”

To buttress his position, Bishop Barron decided to put the whole sermon in the context of what it meant to eat “human flesh” for the Jews of Jesus’ time. In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are clear and repeated prohibitions against the consumption of flesh with blood. In Genesis 9:3-4 we find this: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and just as I gave you green plants, I give you everything. Only, you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” In Leviticus 3:17 we read, “It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generation, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or any blood.” And in Deuteronomy it is said, “Only be sure that you do not eat the blood; for the blood is the life, and you shall not eat the life with meat.” Therefore, when Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven…the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51).” His first audience views the statement as religiously unacceptable.

Jesus went ahead to say, “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 (John 6:53-56).” The Greek term that is translated into “eat” here is not the usual, phagein, but rather, tragein, a word customarily used to describe the way animals devour their food. We might render it as “gnaw” or “chomp.” Therefore, to a crowd revolted by the realism of his language, Jesus essentially says, “Unless you gnaw on my flesh…you have no life in you.”

In the Catholic Church we belief, celebrate, and honor these unnerving words of the Blessed Lord Jesus. We resist all attempts to soften them or explain them away. In our beliefs, celebrations, and pious devotions, we Catholics promote the doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Vatican II reiterated the traditional Catholic belief when it taught that, though Jesus is present with us in many ways, such as in the proclamation of the Gospel, in the gathering of two or three in his name, in the person of the priest at the liturgy, and in the midst of the poor and suffering, He is nevertheless present in a qualitatively different way in the Eucharist (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no.7). In the consecrated elements, He is really, truly, and substantially present to us; that is to say, He, Himself - His body and blood, humanity and divinity- is offered to us under the form of bread and wine.

This understanding of the Eucharist was present in the homilies and teachings of the early Church Fathers. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch (A.D. 110) has this to say, “I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans). In another letter to the Smyrnaeans, the Holy Man of Antioch instructed, “Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1). In his catechetical instruction on the Eucharist, St. Justin the Martyr (A.D 165) observed thus: “Not as ordinary bread or as ordinary drink do we partake of them, but just as, through the word of God, our savior Jesus Christ became incarnate and took upon Himself flesh and blood for our salvation, so, we have been taught, the food which has been made the Eucharist by the prayer of His word, and which nourishes our flesh and blood by assimilation, is both the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh.”

In next month’s conversation we shall critically explore the power of the spoken word, especially with respect to the words of Jesus, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” in our effort to prove that the Blessed Lord is really, truly, and substantially present in the Blessed Sacrament.

Ad majorem Dei gloriam

Very Rev. Fr. Benedict Nwachukwu-Udaku is the Pastor of Sacred Heart Church, Rancho Cucamonga and Vicar Forane, West End Vicariate