In the Church the Eucharist occupies a unique place as the “Sacrament of sacraments.” All the other sacraments are ordered to it as their end. The word eucharist is derived from the Greek word which means thanksgiving. Jesus himself gave thanks at the Last Supper.
The term Mass is derived from the Latin word Missa which meant “dismissal” which was the closing blessing.
The Religious Significance of Meals
In ancient Israel meals were for more than satisfying hunger. Persons who ate together were bound to each other by friendship and mutual obligation. There was a special meal eaten during a covenant rite made between persons (Gen.26:28-30; 31:43-54).
The solemn ratification at Sinai between Moses/Israel and God was sealed by a meal (Ex.24:7-11).
There is a more profound thought found in Levitical law that when bringing offerings and sacrifices to a sanctuary one was “eating before the Lord” (Deut.12:4-7). This reflects an old tradition that through a sacred meal it was possible to commune with the deity.
The most important ritual meal was the Passover which remembered the Israelites liberation from the yoke of Egyptian bondage by reading the Scripture account (Ex.11-13).
The emphasis is upon the Pascal lamb which was an offering of thanksgiving and that the blood on the doorposts saved those inside from death. In slaughtering the lamb they were warned “you shall not break any of its bones” (Ex.12:46b; Jn.19:36). It does not only look to the past but also to the future.
More than any other Jewish feast, the Passover has left its strong imprint in the New Testament and the rituals of the Church.
The Last Supper in the New Testament
One of the themes of Luke’s Gospel emphasizes Jesus eating meals under a number of different circumstances during his ministry (cf.Luke’s Gospel pamphlet).
One of the most notable occasions was the feeding of the 5000 which is one of the few miracles recorded in all the four Gospels (Mt.14:13-21; Mk.6:34-44; Lk.9:10-17; Jn.6:1-15). It is significant that the “blessed, broke and gave” as a formula points forward to the last supper (Mt.26:26).
The Church celebrates the Eucharist by virtue of the authority and the commission given to it by Jesus.
Paul in the earliest account of the Lord’s supper (1 Cor.11:23ff, C. 55 AD) specifically traces his account back to a received tradition “from the Lord.”
The mystery and other-worldliness of this meal is accentuated by Jesus’ words: “I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the day that I drink of it new in the reign of God” (Mt.26:29; Mk.14:25; Lk.22:18).
In the synoptics it is the Passover stressing the meal as a covenant ceremony with Luke calling it the “new covenant in my blood” (Lk.22:20) recalling the words of Jeremiah: “the day is coming when I will make a new covenant…” (Jer.31:31).
The sacrificial element of this meal is stressed by the up-coming death of Jesus which takes place for “many.” He is Isaiah’s suffering servant (Is.53:10).
Phillip brings out this theme to the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26ff).
John greets Jesus with the words: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (1:29b). The Petrine tradition promises:”You were delivered…by Christ’s blood beyond all price: the blood of a spotless unblemished lamb”(1 Pt.1:18-19).
Is This Really Jesus’ Body and Blood?
Ironically this issue which surfaced during the Reformation was not something new! Jesus was attacked by his critics for teaching that “I am the bread of life” (Jn.6:25ff).
He went so far as to say “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you!
Those who feed on my flesh and drink my blood have life eternal, and I will raise them up on the last day” (vs53-54).
The author of John’s Gospel writes: “Many of his disciples remarked ‘this sort of talk is hard to endure! How can one take it seriously,'”(v.60b). “From this time on many of his disciples broke away and would not remain in his company any longer” (v.66).
Calvin and Zwingli did this very thing – they denied the real presence completely.
Luther held that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Christ but remained bread and wine (consubstantiation as opposed to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation).
The Church Fathers
Ignatius (110 AD) stressing unity writes: “there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup in the union of His Blood.”
St. Justin (150 AD) gives an explanation of the rite and writes: “the Eucharist is both the flesh and blood of the incarnated Jesus.”
Irenaeus (180 AD) defends the real presence.
Cyril (350 AD) writes “the Master said the bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ.”
Augustine (412 AD) writes that Paul received the doctrine of the body and blood of the Lord.
The Teachings of Vatican II
Jesus is not only present in the Eucharist but in the proclaimed Word, in the celebrating minister, and in the people gathered in worship. Paul VI’s Mysterium Fidei (1965) reiterated the traditional teaching.
The belief in the real presence was central to the faith because it fulfilled Jesus’ promise “know I am with you always” (Mt.28:20b).
Today in faith we accept this mystery for the same reason.