The Holy Eucharist: Just a Symbol?
If we men practice our Catholic faith as directed by Our Lord Jesus Christ, then it is certain that we will be misunderstood by many and at odds with the rest. In fact, it seems that there is hardly a Doctrine or Dogma of the Church that in one way or another does not rub a non-catholic the wrong way! But none-the-less, we push forward with what has been Divinely revealed to us for the sake of salvation. A good example of our struggle to defend the truth concerns the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar – the Eucharist. Never has such a subject been cast in so many lights nor gravely misunderstood as the Eucharist – in particular among all non-catholic denominations. It seems among all Protestant sects that the concept of the Eucharist varies from either seeing it as a symbol to Christ’s presence being around the bread and wine (or cracker and grape juice!) or Christ being inside the bread and wine or only containing Christ when the recipient consumes communion and then leaves once communion is over, etc., etc., etc.! So how then can we know the truth of the Eucharist? How is it that the Holy Eucharist is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to as, ‘the Source and Summit’ of our faith? I’m glad you asked!
The word Eucharist itself is derivative of the Greek word “ευχαριστία” (eucharistia) which means “Thanksgiving” – namely a Heavenly gift that, according to a few Doctor’s of the Church, if Angels could envy man for anything, it would be to consume Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. We Catholics use that phrase, “Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity” not just because we are blindly repeating something a catechism tells us but because we believe that Jesus Christ was True God and True Man. He was and is singularly and totally a man in the truest sense and absolutely God in the truest sense. Thus when we receive Holy Communion, we know that in substance, we are consuming the actual Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ who is God. This is also what we call, a mystery. Not that it is an opportunity to solve a riddle of sorts but rather something that is beyond our finite minds to fully grasp. However, what is obtainable for us to come to such a sublime truth, the Holy Ghost guided the Church as Christ promised He would [John 16:13]. And what was revealed by Christ and the advocacy of the Holy Ghost was that Jesus Christ established the Most Blessed Sacrament – His Body and Blood for us to consume so that we may have eternal life. But this is not the only reason why Christ established such a blessing but to also lay the foundation for His Priesthood to continually ‘do this in remembrance of Him’ by offering up to God a spotless sacrifice for the remission of sins and satisfaction of the Wrath of God for man’s sins. This is where many Protestants stand up in protest because they have wrongly interpreted the Bible that Christ gave up His life once for all and there is no need to keep crucifying Jesus. This is not only a misunderstanding of the nature of the Sacrifice of the Mass but a sad interpretation of Our Lord’s words. In the Mass of the Roman Catholic Church, Jesus IS NOT re-sacrificed or re-crucified but rather reliving the sacrifice that was once and for all at Calvary. The Mass is the Unbloodied Sacrifice in which commemorates Christ’s commandment to continually offer what Christ offered at the Last Supper in preparation for His Bloody Sacrifice for all ages until the end of time. This is carried out by the Priesthood established by Christ to confect this Most Holy Sacrament by what the Church calls, ‘Transubstantiation’;
Transubstantiation, as a conversion of the total substance, is the transition of the entire substance of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, is the express doctrine of the Church (Council of Trent, Sess. XIII, can. ii) – Catholic Encyclopedia
Moreover, the Catholic Encyclopedia states:
Christ is present wholly and entirely in each particle of the still unbroken Host and in each drop of the collective contents of the Chalice. For were not Christ present in His entire Personality in every single particle of the Eucharistic Species even before their division took place, we should be forced to conclude that it is the process of dividing which brings about the Totality of Presence, whereas according to the teaching of the Church the operative cause of the Real and Total Presence is to be found in Transubstantiation alone.
But this of course hinges on the belief that the bread and wine truly becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
It was Jesus who said,
I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the desert, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven; that if any man eat of it, he may not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. – John 6:48-55
For Catholics, knowing what we know now thanks to the Holy Ghost guiding the Church, we have absolutely no problems with this passage. We know Christ is referring to what we receive every time we frequent the Sacrifice of the Mass. But let’s look at the opposition’s side for a brief moment and take in their contention with this most solemn Catholic Doctrine. Some Protestant sects like Lutherans see it slightly different as if Christ Presence is somewhat with the bread and wine but not truly and actually present on their altars. But by and large, most Protestants believe that the Eucharist is just a symbol. So, if we are then to take this side of the argument that the Eucharist is indeed a symbol, then why did so many of Christ’s followers leave him after Jesus reiterated His point?
Many therefore of his disciples, hearing it, said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it? – John 6:61
After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him. – John 6:67
Jesus could have easily told all of His Disciples, “Hey wait! You didn’t let me finish! I wasn’t serious about my actual flesh and blood! I was just being symbolic! Come back!!” No, when the crowd stirred and murmured Jesus cleared His throat and laid it out thick once more so that not a single person would misunderstand Him. On top of that, Jesus LET THEM WALK AWAY and even then when 90% of His followers deserted Him, He looked back to the 12 Disciples and asked if they were going to leave too! Jesus was not interested in popularity, He was interested in speaking the Truth that will save us and that Truth was about how we obtain eternal life. Yes, He did say you must believe in Him to be saved but this is of course a prerequisite for worthy consumption of His Body and Blood; faith alone just doesn’t cut it and Jesus knew that.
Or how about in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when John the Baptist saw Jesus Christ coming. Recall what John said,
The next day, John saw Jesus coming to him, and he saith: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who taketh away the sin of the world. – John 1:29
To us in our day and age with our culture, this title is strange and a bit confusing. But let me tell you that in their age among that culture, the Jews new EXACTLY what that phrase meant. You see, the phrase, ‘Lamb of God’ reminded the Jew concerning the days of Moses where they sat in bondage to Pharaoh of Egypt and celebrated what was called, “the Passover”. This was a sacrificial meal where an unblemished (spotless and unyoked) lamb was killed, it’s blood to be painted on the door posts, and flesh to be eaten entirely while the spirit of death loomed through Egypt to take the first born of all families. However, because God instructed Moses who then instructed the Jews to do this ritual, the spirit of death would ‘Passover’ their homes without taking the first born of their family. This ritual also had a kind of cleansing effect concerning sins committed. But focus on that phrase again, ‘Lamb of God’, and keep in mind the Jews are well versed concerning this phrase. Yet John pointed at a man and said that He was the Lamb of God. Can you image the confusion of the Jews when Jesus was given this title? A title that refers to consumption of a lambs flesh (and also blood since even though flesh is thoroughly cooked veins still remain) and a man? If the Eucharist is a symbol, then why did John the Baptist foreshadow Christ as in some way consumable as Catholics understanding the Eucharist?
Recall also that Jesus reminded the Jews of the Manna from Heaven that God gave to Moses and the Jews of his day. That Jesus was not like this bread that men ate and still tasted death but rather Jesus is THE bread from Heaven to which if man eats (and does so worthily 1 Cor. 11:29) shall NEVER taste death! Do you also remember what was inside the Ark of the Covenant? Among other sacred items, Scripture tells us its greatest contents: the Ten Commandments (the Word), the Rod of Arron (Authority), and the Manna (bread from Heaven). Do you know what was inside the womb of Our Lady, Mary; namely Jesus Christ who was the Word incarnate, the King of all Kings, and the Bread from Heaven! Do you also know that in the city Bethlehem means ‘House of Bread’ and Scripture also described Jesus’ first baby crib – a feeding trough! Need another example? Let’s bring it home with our good friend and intercessor, St. Ignatius of Antioch.
So who is St. Ignatius of Antioch to us that we should believe more firmly in the True and Abiding Presence of Jesus Christ? This was a Bishop of Antioch in the first century and he personally knew St. John the Beloved Disciple! In fact, it was St. John who taught St. Ignatius to become a Catholic in the first place! Since we can historically prove that St. Ignatius was under the tutelage of St. John the Beloved Disciple, we can all agree that written works of St. Ignatius would reflect St. John’s personal experiences and teachings received from the mouth of Jesus Christ Himself! So why don’t we read some of St. Ignatius’ work for a little glimpse into sublime mysteries?
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)
Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: FOR THERE IS ONE FLESH OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, and one cup IN THE UNION OF HIS BLOOD; one ALTAR, as there is one bishop with the presbytery… (Letter to the Philadelphians)
They [i.e. the Gnostics] 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 the Father, in his goodness, raised up again. (Letter to Smyrnians)
For added measure, this same holy man who personally knew one of the 12 Disciples of Christ also coined a now popular title used today, care to guess what it was?
Wherever the bishop appears, there let the people be; as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful to baptize or give communion without the consent of the bishop. On the other hand, whatever has his approval is pleasing to God.