the Eucharist – eating the flesh of Christ and drinking His blood
Catholic teaching on Eucharist is certainly one of the toughest for non-Catholics to understand. Not surprisingly it is also one of the mostly attacked and caricatured. The following clauses of the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarize the teachings of the Catholic Church on the Eucharist (underlined emphasis is added):
At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the Eucharist sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal [Passover] banquet “in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1323
At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation of the Holy Spirit, become Christ’s Body and Blood.
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1333
Thus Catholics do believe that (1) the bread and wine at the consecration truly becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, which the faithful consume and (2) Eucharistic celebration (or the Mass) is not just a memorial of his death and resurrection but also the same sacrifice Christ offered on the cross made present. Both of them certainly scandalize or at least puzzle non Catholics and maybe even some Catholics.
We look first at the first one. Catholic belief that we literally consume the Body and Blood of Christ is indeed a hard teaching – it is not something new or only started during Reformation. Almost two thousand years ago Christ disciples who heard it directly from Him said so (John 6:60) and then left Him (John 6:66).
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
John 6:53-56 (RSV, underlined emphasis added)
Most, if not all Protestants usually argue that Christ spoke metaphorically – His words are not to be taken literally, after all Christ also claimed He is the Way (John 14:6), the light of the world (John 8:12), the true vine (John 15:1) etc. But did Christ always speak metaphorically? Looking at the above quoted verses there is Greek word “alethos” translated into English as “indeed” (in RSV and KJV). According to Strong concordance (# 230) it means: truly, of a truth, in reality, most certainly. This word appears in a number of verses in (Greek) New Testament, translated as “of a truth”, “certainly”, “surely”, “indeed”, “really”, “truly” (Matthew 14:33, 26:73, 27:54; Mark 14:70, 15:39; Luke 9:27, 12:44; John 1:47, 4:42, 6:14, 7:40, 8:31; Acts 12:11; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; 1 John 2:5) and it never refers to something non-real, untrue or symbolic. Food and drink is something to be consumed – thus when Christ said that his flesh is food indeed and his blood is drink indeed (John 6:55), He meant we are to consume His Flesh and Blood. Some may use John 6:63 where Christ said (RSV), the flesh is of no avail, to deny Catholic belief. But here Christ did not say “my flesh is of no avail” – in other words He did not talk about His Flesh. The Greek word translated as flesh is sarx, which may mean flesh of human and animal or body or human nature. Compare with Matthew 26:41 where Christ told His disciples that the spirit is willing but (their) flesh (Greek sarx) is weak. Keep in mind that in John 6:63 Christ also said: “It is the spirit that gives life” and “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life”.
Scripture also refers Christ as the Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). He is the Lamb of God, without blemish (1 Peter 1:19), who takes the sins of the world (John 1:29). Jewish Passover begins on fifteenth day of Nissan (the first month of Jewish calendar) and according to Scripture (Exodus 12:1-9) they choose un-blemish lamb (or goat) on the tenth day which they kill and consume on fourteenth day of Nissan. Note that they (Jews) do not offer the lamb as burnt offering but must consume the lamb (Exodus 12:8), only what remains on the next day must be burnt. This lamb of Old Testament prefigures Christ, the Passover Lamb of New Testament (1 Corinthian 5:7). According to the fourth Gospel He was crucified (sacrificed) on fourteenth day of Nissan (John 18:28). On the other hand the first three (synoptic) Gospels refer the Last Supper as Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-18, Mark 14:12-14 and Luke 22:8-11) and He was crucified on the next day, i.e. on fifteenth day of Nissan. The Gospel according to John does not mention the Last Supper – we know Christ and His disciples had it (John 13:1-2), but it would be on thirteenth day of Nissan, which means it was not Passover meal. The Last Supper of the first three Gospels, which was Passover meal, does not mention any lamb because Christ Himself is the Lamb. Just like the lamb of the Old Covenant we have to consume Him literally, not symbolically. Does this mean Catholics are allowed to partake the Eucharist only on fourteenth or fifteenth day of Nissan? Does the different date of crucifixion (with respect to Jewish calendar) pose a problem? To be Passover Lamb of New Testament Christ had to be crucified on fourteenth day of Nissan as according to the fourth Gospel. The Last Supper, being a Passover meal, must fall on the same day (as according to Matthew, Mark and Luke) – but how can Christ be the Passover Lamb when He was not yet crucified? The following paragraph will give the answer.
Now we look at the second Catholic belief that in every Mass the same sacrifice of Christ on the cross is made present. It is not repeating or re-sacrificing of Christ – His sacrifice on the cross is once for all (Hebrews 9:12, 26). But this would not satisfy those who are against this belief – we need more explanation from Scripture. We know that Christ sacrifice on the cross took place in c. 30 AD but, interestingly, Scripture says (Revelation 13:8) that the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world, i.e. from the time of creation, not on fourteenth or fifteenth day of Nissan in c. 30 AD. In addition the Greek word translated into “slain” is esphagmenou – it is the passive form in perfect tense of Greek verb sphazo (to slay). Unlike the English perfect tense, the Greek perfect tense indicates continuation and present state of a completed past action – in this case it was completed at foundation of the world, though in human time His sacrifice appeared to take place almost two thousand years ago. he has appeared once for all at the end of age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). This explains why Christ was the Passover Lamb of the Last Supper (of the first three Gospels) even though He was not yet crucified. Also whether He was crucified on fourteenth or fifteenth day of Nissan makes no difference. For the same reason Catholics believe the same and single sacrifice Christ made on the cross can be made present in every Eucharistic celebration (or Mass). Christ is the Passover Lamb of New Testament and partaking the Eucharist is participating in Passover meal of the Last Supper. Thus Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1323 also refers Eucharist as Paschal (Passover) banquet. Some might argue that the phrase “foundation of the world” in Revelation 13:8 is to be applied to those who names not written in the book of life. However Hebrews 9:24-26 says that if Christ did not offer Himself in heavenly sanctuary then He, like Old Testament High Priest, must do it repeatedly, interestingly, not from the year He was crucified, but from the foundation of the world.
Closely related to sacrificial nature of the Eucharist is the Catholic Ministerial Priesthood – through whom the Eucharistic sacrifice is made present. We cannot find such priesthood in any Protestant or post-Reformation churches. Catholics believe ministerial priesthood is New Testament Levitical priesthood. Protestants usually say that Levitical priesthood was abolished with the coming of Christ, our High Priest. Yet Scripture says that Levitical priesthood will continue offering sacrifice forever (Jeremiah 33:17-22) and God will take some as priests and levites from all the nations (Isaiah 66:21), i.e priests no longer have to be Jewish and descendants of Aaron. Levitical priesthood of Judaism still exists today – male Jews with the surname Cohen (or Cohn, Coen, Katz, Kant and other variants) are priests and they were born priests (Hebrew word for priest is kohen). However after the destruction of Jerusalem Temple in c . 70 AD sacrificial system of Judaism came to an end, i.e. their priests no longer offer sacrifice, not even on Atonement Day (Yom Kippur) and on fourteenth day of Nissan. Yom Kippur is the only day of Jewish calendar year when the High Priest can enter the Holy of Holies of the Sanctuary (housed in Jerusalem Temple) to offer blood atonement through-out generations (Exodus 30:10) – yet they have stopped doing it for almost two thousand years. Christ, the New Testament High Priest of the order Melchizedek, offers Himself as atonement in heaven, not in man-made sanctuary (Hebrews 9:24). Because of this He needs to do it only once for all, at the end of age, not every year like High Priest of Old Testament (Hebrews 9:26). The atonement through-out generations stated in Exodus 30:10 is fulfilled in every Holy Mass, where His sacrifice is made present through the ministry of priests. When Christ instituted the Eucharist in the Last Supper He also consecrated His disciples to be His priests. They in turn ordained the bishops as their successors and so on. The ministerial priesthood was later extended to include presbyters (from which we get the English word priests). For more detail of New Testament priesthood my readers can read my earlier posts on this topic at: