The Sacrament of The Eucharist
In the first letter to the people of Corinth St Paul passes on the earliest record of the oral tradition: the words of Jesus at the Last Supper.
The Institution of the Lord’s Supper
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
1 Cor 11:23-26
The Synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke) all record the Last Supper as a Passover (Pesach) meal. It is rooted in God’s Covenant Relationship with the Jewish people. Jesus, however, is establishing a New Covenant out of the old. His words would have been as perplexing and mysterious to those first disciples as they are to us today.
The Jewish Passover commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Following Pharaoh’s refusal of God’s request through Moses to release the people of Israel, Egypt was subjected to 10 plagues. The final and most devastating was the death of the first-born. Death passed over the Jewish households because the blood of the sacrificial lamb was daubed on their door posts to protect them. Hurriedly the Jewish people left Egypt on their long journey from slavery to freedom and the Promised Land. To this day Passover remains one of the most profound and impactful Jewish celebration.
This Sacrament is known by many different titles,
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1328 the inexhaustible richness of this sacrament is expressed in the different names we give it. Each name evokes certain aspects of it. It is called:
Eucharist: because it is an action of thanksgiving to God. The Greek words eucharistein141 and eulogein142 recall the Jewish blessings that proclaim - especially during a meal - God's works: creation, redemption, and sanctification.
It is also known as: Lord’s Supper, the Breaking of Bread, the Memorial, the Holy Sacrifice, the Holy and Divine Liturgy, Most Blessed Sacrament, Holy Communion, Holy Mass.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist
CCC 1322: The holy Eucharist completes Christian initiation. Those who have been raised to the dignity of the royal priesthood by Baptism and configured more deeply to Christ by Confirmation participate with the whole community in the Lord's own sacrifice by means of the Eucharist.
It is, as such, the core, the very heart of liturgical celebration and it is Christ himself who presides invisibly, with the priest acting ‘in the person on Christ’.
The oldest witness of the liturgical celebration and the 8 parts of the mass is St Justin Martyr writing in the second century. CCC 1346
St Justin Martyr lists the following eight parts of the Mass: (1) readings, (2) homily, (3) general intercessions, (4) kiss of peace, (5) offertory, (6) Eucharistic prayer, (7) final Amen, (8) distribution of Holy Communion.
Christ is present in 5 different ways; however, he is uniquely present in the Eucharist, in the bread and wine.
As bread a central element of the Passover meal and in remembrance of the manna – the heavenly bread provided miraculously to sustain the people of Israel throughout the 40 years in the wilderness. Manna could not be kept overnight it was a symbol of the peoples’ complete dependence on God. It was God alone who provided sustenance and life.
As wine, there are 4 cups in the Passover meal, wine is a celebration. Wine also is associated with fulfilment and the coming of the messiah. Priest and king Melchizadech offered bread and wine for the first fruits. Gen14
CCC1375 it is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament. The Church Fathers strongly affirmed the faith of the Church in the efficacy of the Word of Christ and of the action of the Holy Spirit to bring about this conversion. Thus St. John Chrysostom declares:
It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace is God's. This is my body, he says. This word transforms the things offered.
The Sacrament was remembered and passed on, as St Paul records in his letter above. At the Last Supper Jesus initiated something new and profound quite unlike the feeding miracles. The words of institution are Christ’s, the commandment to “do this in remembrance” is Christ’s, and the initiation of the New Covenant is Christ’s. Therefore we proclaim the New Covenant by our participation, we remember the Passion through our obedience to Jesus commandment and we have faith in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine because those are the very words Jesus used.
22 While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ 23 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. 24 He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God. Mk 14: 22-25
Through the Word of Christ and Action of the Holy Spirit the bread and wine are converted into Christ’s body and blood. This is a mystery beyond our normal sense of time and space. In the same way the Jewish understanding of Passover connects all to the one Passover event, participating together beyond time and space, in the Eucharist we participate in the one Paschal sacrifice. We are therefore one body connected in that moment with all the faithful within the Communion of Saints.
CCC 1370 the offering of Christ is united not only the members still here on earth, but also those already in the glory of heaven. In communion with and commemorating the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the Church offers the Eucharistic sacrifice. In the Eucharist the Church is as it were at the foot of the cross with Mary, united with the offering and intercession of Christ.
The Eucharist is a sacrifice, a presence and nourishment.
It makes present Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Christ’s own words assure us of his presence in the bread and wine. Like the manna our spiritual nourishment is found in Christ. The Eucharist is a means to grace and the culmination of the Rites of Initiation and as such it is something which we take care to prepare for. We grow in the spirit by learning more deeply our faith, tending to our prayer life and in our solidarity with the poor and marginalised.
CCC 1396 the unity of the Mystical Body: the Eucharist makes the Church. Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body – the Church. Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church, already achieved by Baptism. In Baptism we have been called to form but one body.233 The Eucharist fulfils this call: "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread:"234
If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive. To that which you are you respond "Amen" ("yes, it is true!") and by responding to it you assent to it. For you hear the words, "the Body of Christ" and respond "Amen." Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your Amen may be true.
By our “AMEN” we accept our need for the presence and sacrifice of Christ and in our acceptance of nourishment we are stepping forward be Christ’s body in our world.
Questions for reflection
1. Which of the titles for the Sacrament resonates the most with you? Why is that?
2. Which part(s) of the liturgy of Eucharist bring me the greatest challenge or deepest connection to Christ?
3. Which fruits of the Eucharist are gifted in my life?