How can Catholics say what looks like bread and wine is actually Jesus Himself? What is the Eucharist?
The better question: Who is the Eucharist?
The Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Eucharist – the bread and wine transformed into Jesus’ Body and Blood at every Mass – contains the whole spiritual good of the Church, which is Christ Himself.
Past, present and future
In the famous text Sacrum Convivium, St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “O sacred banquet in which Christ is consumed. The passion is recalled. The mind is filled with grace and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
Then, looking through the lens of time, Aquinas lays out three different aspects of the Eucharistic mystery: the past, the present and the future.
- Past: The passion of Christ over 2,000 years ago is recalled every time the bread and wine is consecrated; the Eucharist, then, is a memorial of Jesus’ death on the cross at Calvary.
- Present: The Church holds fast to the teaching of the “real presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist. How can this be? Perhaps you’re familiar with the word “transubstantiation,” or a change of substance (the innermost essence of someone or something). This is the change that takes place when a priest asks God to miraculously transform bread and wine into Jesus’ Body and Blood; the substance changes, but the appearances – “accidental,” nonessential qualities like taste, color and weight – remain the same.
- Future: When Catholics pray in front of the Eucharist or receive Jesus’ Body and Blood during Holy Communion, we actually receive a foretaste of eternal life, where we can expect an intimate union with God. What we experience this side of eternity, though, remains veiled behind the appearances of the bread and the wine. Jesus is present, but he’s hidden. In Heaven, we’ll see Him face to face.
Jesus says in John 6:54, “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Notice the present tense — not will have, but has eternal life. The Eucharist is that communion with God which is eternal life begun in us now.
The bread of life
John 6, this crucial part of the Gospel often referred to as the “Bread of Life Discourse,” contains two other important facts.
1. When Jesus says “eats,” the Greek word used by John is trogo – literally “to chew on” or “to gnaw on.” This isn’t symbolic language; Christ means literally eat His Flesh and drink His Blood.
2. That’s evidenced by the reaction of His disciples. Many of them struggle with this radical teaching and choose to no longer follow Him. At no point does Jesus say, “Hey, wait a minute, what I actually meant was … “
Jesus uses similar language at the Last Supper.
“Take and eat, this is my body. This is my blood.”
In other parts of the Gospel, Jesus’ use of parables and metaphor is made plain. Here, He isn’t using symbolism. This is the real deal.
‘I am with you always’
What does this mean for us?
Among other things, it confirms Jesus has kept His promise that He gave to His apostles before He ascended into Heaven: “I am with you always.”
Catholics don’t just believe in a man who lived 2,000 years ago. They don’t just pray to Jesus who is in Heaven; He is truly sacramentally present to us here and now on this Earth in the most Holy Eucharist.
You’ve likely heard the Eucharist described as the “source and summit of our faith.” And that’s because it’s not a what; it’s a Who, and the who is Christ Himself, God in human form, who founded our Church, died and rose for our sins and continues to guide us through His Holy Spirit.
And anyone can have direct access to Him anywhere there’s an Adoration chapel or Mass taking place.
Editor's Note: A version of this story originally ran on The Saint Paul Seminary website, which is located at the University of St. Thomas.