Scripture and the Eucharist
Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. That’s obviously a bold statement; and many Christians don’t believe it. It’s the official teaching of the Catholic Church, but studies show that many Catholic Christians don’t even believe it. Why does the Catholic Church teach this controversial doctrine? Did the Church make it up? Is it merely a metaphor? Is the Eucharist only a symbol? In order to answer these questions, it is helpful to turn to God’s Word to figure out the truth. Entire libraries could be filled with the scriptural evidence for Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. In this article, I’d like to focus on only a few key texts, but we’ll make reference to some other important ones.
John 6 — Passover, AD 32
When I used to teach teenagers at my home parish about Scripture and the Eucharist, I would tell them, “If you remember nothing else from my class, at least remember to open your Bible to John 6 for Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist.” The sixth chapter of John’s gospel is paramount for our understanding of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. The passage is too long to reprint here, but I recommend you open up your Bible and follow along as you read.
The following events happened around the feast of Passover one year before the crucifixion of Christ.
In John 6:1-15, we find John telling the story of the multiplication of bread and fish. Jesus “took” the loaves and “gave thanks” (ĕucharistĕsas) before performing this miracle of bread and flesh (the flesh of fish). In John 6:16-21, we find Jesus proclaiming himself to be divine by walking on the sea. The Old Testament teaches that only God can walk on the sea (Job 9:1-11).
Then, in John 6:22-34, the Jews who had eaten the bread which Jesus multiplied asked him for more miraculous bread (Jn 6:30-31). They cite the story in the Old Testament when God rained miraculous bread down from heaven through Moses. They were hoping that Jesus will give them another miracle (and perhaps some more free food). Jesus responds by telling them that he himself is the true bread from heaven (Jn 6:32-40). At this point in the story Jesus is using “bread” and “eat” as a metaphor for believing in him. We must have faith in order to be fed by Christ, the bread of life.
When the Jews doubt his heavenly origin in verses 41-42, Jesus responds by saying that they must believe in him in order to have eternal life. He says, “I am the bread of life.” Then he makes his teaching more emphatic. He says,
“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:49-51)
At this point, Jesus changes his rhetoric. No longer is he using “bread” and “eat” as metaphor for believing in him. Belief is now required to comprehend the rest of his sermon. The Jews understand him switching gears, and even ask amongst themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (Jn 6:52).
Christ then clarifies, but not to say that he’s speaking in parable and metaphor. He says that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood in order to have eternal life. Jesus then repeats himself more than anywhere else in the New Testament. He repeats this teaching five times back to back in just a few verses. Jesus is telling us that this is an important teaching. He also switches his language. Before, the Greek word for “eat” which he was using basically translates to “eat.” Now, he’s using a more graphic word which can mean “to gnaw or chew.” This word change indicates that he is no longer speaking in metaphor. We have to really eat his flesh. He says, “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55).
In verses 60-65, Jesus then clarifies that it will be his resurrected body which we are to eat. He isn’t asking his followers to cannibalize him. Through the power of the Spirit, we can eat his crucified, resurrected, and ascended flesh, wholely and entirely (without him having to die again). That’s why the Eucharist isn’t cannibalism: Jesus doesn’t die when we consume him. Instead, he lives in us.
Finally, in John 6:66, we read that this teaching was so controversial that “many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him.” If Jesus were speaking in metaphor, he would have corrected their misunderstanding. We know that’s what he would do because that’s exactly what he did in Matthew 16:11-12.
No, Jesus did not correct their misunderstanding because there was no misunderstanding. Jesus taught that his followers literally must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Jesus allows them to leave, and then turns to his closest disciples and asks if they were going to leave as well, as if to say, I’m not going to budge on this issue. Peter responds, not by saying that he understands the teaching, since it is mysterious and controversial, but that he believes because of who Jesus is.
For the next year, Jesus had far fewer followers, and perhaps the few he retained were more than a little confused. Exactly one year after this sermon, Jesus celebrated a special Passover feast with his disciples. It was on the night before he died.
The Institution Narrative — Passover, AD 33
At the end of John 6, the few disciples who are left are in a state of confusion. Most of them trust Jesus, but they don’t quite understand how he can mean what he said. One year later, he gives them the solution to this confusion.
Let’s look at the story of Jesus instituting the Eucharist. It happened during the Passover meal on the night before he died. Here’s what scripture tells us:
So here we have the same story from three Gospels and one from St. Paul. They all contain the same basic story: Jesus identified unleavened bread and a chalice of wine as his body and blood. Scripture is emphatically teaching that the Eucharist is his body and blood. It’s important to go a little deeper in order to figure out exactly what’s happening here. There’s a lot to be said, but I’d like to make four specific points.
First, we find here the reason we call this sacrament the “Eucharist.” Just like in the multiplication miracle of John 6, scripture says that Jesus “gave thanks.” These words, originally written in Greek, used the Greek word, ĕucharistĕō, which is where we get the term “Eucharist.” This word means “to give thanks,” so it is a thanksgiving meal. There was a word for this in the Hebrew Old Testament as well: “tôdâ” (pronounced todah). The tôdâ was a sacrifice to God of praise and thanksgiving. It was usually offered as a preemptive thanks to God for bringing the person out of some kind of trouble. Some of the Psalms are “thanksgiving” psalms, and were meant to be sung while offering the tôdâ sacrifice. The most famous tôdâ psalm is the one Jesus prayed on the cross, Psalm 22. So the Eucharist is Jesus’ (and our) thanksgiving sacrifice, which he completes by singing a tôdâ psalm on the cross.
Second, in the passages above, we read that Jesus “took,” “blessed,” “broke,” and “gave” the bread. The fact that these four words go together is significant. The only other place in the Bible that they all go together like this is when Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplication.
The gospel writers are telling us that there’s something similar between this miracle and the Eucharist. I don’t think there’s any reason to say that the bread and wine of the last supper was multiplied. So what makes these two similar?
They are both supernatural miracles. In the multiplication, Jesus multiplies only a few loaves to feed thousands. In the Last Supper, he states clearly: “This is my body… this is my blood.” The miracle here is Jesus actually effecting a change in what the food is. This is no metaphor. It’s not merely symbolism. This is a great miracle!
Third, from the last supper story, we can find that Jesus is offering the one sacrifice of the Cross. The Eucharist and the Cross are one and the same sacrifice. We know that it was a Passover meal. That is obvious from the context of each of the gospels (see Matt 16:17-25; Mark 14:12-21; Luke 22:7-13). In Passover meals, the Jews would ritually drink four cups of wine throughout the evening. Some scholars believe that we can find evidence in the New Testament that the cup which Jesus identified with his blood was the third of these four cups. Then on the cross, we find Jesus drinking again just before he proclaims “It is finished” (John 19:30). Jesus paused the Passover meal after the Eucharist (Mark 14:25), then he finished it on the Cross. These aren’t two separate events; the cross and the Eucharist are one and the same sacrifice.
Fourth, Jesus says that the cup is his “blood of the covenant.” This is an interesting phrase and only appears very rarely in Scripture, though the theme of “covenant” can be found throughout scripture. Jesus is pointing us to a story from Exodus 24, where Moses establishes a covenant between God and the Israelites. Moses splashes blood on the altar (the altar symbolizes God) and on the people of Israel, which indicates that they share a blood bond. God and Israel have become one family. This is what a covenant is: establishing family bonds between two parties who are not biologically related. Two examples of covenants today are marriage and adoption. As Moses splashes the blood, he exclaims, “Behold, the blood of the Covenant” (Exodus 24:8). God and the Israelites then share an intimate heavenly meal just after this covenant ceremony (Exod 24:9-11). Jesus establishes the new covenant, where God and his people (Christians) become family by sharing blood and a meal (communion).
These four points from scripture show us that when Jesus said, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood,” he was giving the disciples the great gift of his real presence. This is how he remains with us even after he ascended into heaven (Matt 28:20). This is his solution to the confusion at the end of John 6. Finally, Jesus tells his apostles to “do this” in memory of him. We remember Jesus by making him really and truly present at mass.
These passages should inspire faith in the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist. Jesus instituted it on the night before he died as a new kind of Passover for Christians. It is the one sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Jesus is not killed over and over again on our altars. The once and for all sacrifice of the cross is made present, really present, through the power of the Holy Spirit on our altars at every Mass. It is the miraculous meal which is shared intimately by family. We are invited to join God’s family through the new covenant established by Christ. Being part of God’s family means sharing in this meal. But it’s not just a meal. The Eucharist is truly Jesus’ body and blood. Jesus is mystically but truly and literally present on our altars, in our tabernacles, and in us when we receive him under the appearance of bread and wine.
This article was originally published in Volume 31, Issue 2 of the print edition of the Catholic East Texas