The Eucharist: The Lord's Supper

Roman Catholic Christians share with most Christians the faith that Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed, ate a final or last supper with his Apostles. This final meal was also the celebration of the Jewish Passover or Feast of the Unleavened Bread which commemorated the passing over of the Jews from the death in slavery to the Egyptians to life in the Promised Land.

Christians differ in the meaning this Last Supper has to them and the Church today. Catholic Christians together with other historical Christian Churches (e.g., Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Christians, Lutherans, Anglicans and some Episcopalians, etc.) believe the literal words of Jesus - that the bread and wine are truly his body and blood. Other later Christian Churches profess a mere symbolic meaning to the words of Jesus.

The faith of the Catholic Church is based on both a fundamental principle of hermeneutics and the constant faith of the Church from Apostolic times.

The Catholic Church teaches that the first principle of hermeneutics--the science of the translation and interpretation of the Bible--is the literal meaning of the text.

Spiritus Paraclitus Benedict XV, September 15, 1920
As Jerome insisted, all biblical interpretation rests upon the literal sense ...
Divino Afflante Spiritus, Pius XII, September 30, 1943
... discern and define that sense of the biblical words which is called literal ... so that the mind of the author may be made clear. ... the exegete must be principally concerned with the literal sense of the Scriptures.
The definition of the literal sense:
The sense which the human author directly intended and which his words convey.

The first writer of the New Testament was the apostle Paul. His Letter to the Corinthians was written as early as 56 AD, earlier than the first Gospel, Mark's, written about 64 AD. Paul was also not an eyewitness to what he wrote but testifies to his source.

1 Cor 11:23-29
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.

The next New Testament text in chronological order would have been Mark's Gospel. Written about 64 AD, in Rome, Mark, not an eyewitness, probably heard the account of the Last Supper he recorded from the Apostle Peter.

Mk 14:22-24
While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take it; this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many."

The third account of the Last Supper could be Matthew's. Matthew, the tax collector Levi, was an eyewitness to the meal. He was one of the twelve Apostles. Matthew probably wrote his Gospel in the 70's.

Mt 26:26-28
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins."

Luke's account of the Last Supper, written from the standpoint of a Gentile convert and a non-eyewitness, probably heard the details of the Last Supper from Paul. Luke was a traveling companion of Paul. Luke also wrote in the 70's.

Lk 22:15-20
He (Jesus) said to them, "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for, I tell you, I shall not eat it (again) until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and said, "Take this and share it among yourselves; for I tell you (that) from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me." And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you."

The beloved disciple, John, the last of the New Testament writers, wrote his Gospel in the 90's. John was an eyewitness to the events of the Last Supper (Jn 6:30-68).

Jn 6:53-56
Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him."

Hence Catholic Christian belief in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist rests upon the literal meaning of the words of the Last Supper as recorded by the Evangelists and Paul.

The uniformity of expression across the first four authors affirms the literalness. Belief in the real presence demands faith--the basis of new life as called for by Christ throughout scripture. But faith in signs conferring what they signify is the basis also for the Incarnation--appearances belying true meaning. The true significance of the real presence is sealed in John's gospel. Five times in different expressions, Jesus confirmed the reality of what he means.

Jn 6:51
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
Jn 6:53
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.
Jn 6:54
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.
Jn 6:55
For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
Jn 6:56
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.

The best way a person can make a clear literal point is repetition of the same message in different ways. Jesus did this. Those around him clearly understood what he was saying--cannibalism and the drinking of blood--both forbidden by Mosaic Law.

Jn 6:60,66
Then many of his disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" ... As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

Had these disciples mistaken the meaning of Jesus' words, Jesus would surely have known and corrected them. He didn't. They had clearly understood his meaning--Jesus' flesh was to be really eaten; his blood to be really drunk.

Non believers often respond that even at the Last Supper, the apostles did not sense that they had flesh in their hands and blood in their cup. But Jesus is God. The creative literalness of the words: "This is my body; this is my blood" must be believed. God cannot lie. And God can turn bread into flesh and wine into blood without the appearances of bread and wine changing.

Medieval philosophers and theologians called this expression of Divine Truth and Creative Power "transubstantiation". Yes, God can change the substance of any created matter while the appearances remain unchanged. And this demands faith.

Paul confirms elsewhere in his letters the reality of the real presence.

1 Cor 10:16
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?

The persuasion of the Church from Apostolic times about the objective reality of these words of Christ is clear from many documents.

Irenaeus (Asia Minor, 140 - 202), Tertullian (Rome, 160 - 220), Cyprian (Carthage, 200 - 258) are just a few of the earliest who attest to the objective reality of the words of Christ.

In the Church in Alexandria, Athanasius (293 - 373) and Cyril (376 - 444) equally attest to the literal meaning of the words of Christ at the Last Supper.

In the Church in Palestine, Cyril (Jerusalem, 315 - 387) and Epiphanius (Salamis, 367 - 403) also affirm in their teaching the same reality.

Unanimity is found across the universal church until the 11th century. Berengar (Tours, France, 1000 - 1088) was one of the first to deny the real presence by arguing that Christ is not physically present, but only symbolically.

The Council of Rome (a local council), 1079, taught against Berengar that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ.

By the 16th century, some Reformers (excluding Luther) also taught that Christ's presence in the Eucharist was only figurative or metaphorical. Since there were other opinions being taught as truth (figurative presence and metaphorical presence) a teaching authority (see Chapter 5) had to be appealed to discern error from the truth. The way of the Church was to follow the model of Acts 15.

The Council of Trent (1545 - 1563) defined the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Eucharist as both the continuing sacrifice of Christ and a real sacrament. The institution of the Eucharist as sacrament was contained in the words "Do this in remembrance of me."

The Mass: Synagogue Service and Last Supper

Roman Catholic Christians celebrate the Eucharist in the liturgical act called the Mass. The word Mass comes from the Latin missa ("sent"). It was taken from the formula for dismissing the congregation: Ite missa est ("Go, the Eucharist has been sent forth") referring to the ancient custom of sending consecrated bread from the bishop's Mass to the sick and to the other churches.

The Mass contains two parts: the liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Liturgy of the Word is a copy of the Jewish synagogue service of the first century: readings from Scripture followed by responses from the congregation often from the Book of Psalms. The Liturgy of the Eucharist is a reenactment of the Last Supper. A celebrant does what Christ did: take bread and wine and say the same words Christ said and then share the now consecrated bread and wine with the congregation.

Roman Catholics believe that the bread and wine become the real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ and remain such until the elements are entirely consumed. The Body and Blood not consumed at one Eucharist are reserved for the next celebration of the Eucharist and venerated as the Body and Blood of Jesus.

Remembrance: One Sacrifice--Calvary--Continued

Roman Catholic Christians take the word of God seriously and seek to remember Christ in the Last Supper "as often as" possible. And in doing this proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

1 Cor 11:24-26
"This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Lk 22:19
"This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me."

Catholic Christians also believe that there is only one sacrifice, Jesus', but following the command "as often as" to proclaim the death of the Lord, the sacrifice of Christ is made physically present to every Christian in all places in every age. The Eucharist makes the atemporal aphysical actions of Christ's redeeming action truly present to us always and everywhere. This is incarnational.

Following the word of God, Catholics also know that Christ is not and cannot be resacrificed. This has never been the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Heb 10:12
But this one (Jesus) offered one sacrifice for sins ...
Heb 7:27
He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself.
Heb 9:25-28
Not that he might offer himself repeatedly ... But now once for all he has appeared at the end of the ages to take away sin by his sacrifice. ... Christ, offered once to take away the sins of many ...

The constant faith of the Church from the Apostolic Fathers attests to the fact that the Mass was the one Sacrifice of Calvary made present to the faithful.

Cyprian (Carthage, 200-258), Letters, No 63:9 (To Caecilian)
In which portion we find that the cup which the Lord offered was mixed, and that that was wine He called His Blood. Whence it appears that the blood of Christ is not offered if there be no wine in the cup, nor the Lord's sacrifice celebrated with a legitimate consecration unless our oblation and sacrifice respond to His passion.

The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this statement explicitly.

Catechism Section 1085
In the Liturgy of the Church, it is principally his own Paschal mystery that Christ signifies and makes present. During his earthly life Jesus announced his Paschal mystery by his teachings and anticipated it by his actions. When his Hour comes, he lives out the unique event of history which does not pass away: Jesus dies, is buried, rises from the dead, and is seated at the right hand of the Father "once for all." His Paschal mystery is a real event that occurred in our history, but it is unique: all other historical events happen once, and then they pass away, swallowed up in the past. The Paschal mystery of Christ, by contrast, cannot remain only in the past, because by his death he destroyed death, and all that Christ is -- all that he did and suffered for all people -- participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times while being made present in them all. The event of the Cross and Resurrection abides and draws everything toward life.
Catechism Section 1104
Christian liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us but actualizes them, makes them present. The Paschal mystery of Christ is celebrated, not repeated. It is the celebrations that are repeated, and in each celebration there is an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that makes the unique mystery present.

Transubstantiation

The Roman Catholic Church through history approached her faith life with the clarification of language. That is, she translated the essentials of revealed faith into the vocabulary of living language.

Transubstantiation reflects Roman Catholic faith in the literalness of the words of the Bible.

Jesus (omnipotent God) said: "This is my body; this is my blood." And again Jesus said: "I am the bread of life;" "My flesh is true food; my blood is true drink;" "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood ...;" etc.

Roman Catholics take Jesus at His word: the bread is his body; the wine is his blood.

From the Apostles at the Last Supper until today, the bread and wine of Eucharist looks and feels and tastes like bread and wine in the eating and drinking.

Similar to all of God's Word, faith is essential. Faith in what? In the words of Jesus even though the bread does not look, feel, taste like flesh; even though the wine does not look, feel, taste like blood.

Medieval philosophers and theologians sought simply to label this simple biblical faith: Jesus said that bread is his body and wine is his blood even though it did not appear to change into visible flesh and blood.

Transubstantiation means the substance part of the bread and wine elements changes; but the accidental parts--sight, taste, smell, touch--do not. Catholics believe that since Jesus said it and He is God, he can do it. They believe! "Transubstantiation" merely labels it.

In everyday life, it is not at all uncommon to believe in things man cannot perceive by the senses: wind, electricity, love, peace, etc. All the more when Jesus says it.


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By Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl.
Catholic Biblical Apologetics, © Copyright 1985-2004, Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.

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