Holy Sacrifice, Living Sacrament

Q: My son, who made his First Holy Communion this spring, had a very upsetting experience. His friend, who attends a different parish and who also was making his First Holy Communion, said to my son, “Oh, it’s just bread and wine.” My son was crushed, because he has been taught that Holy Communion is the Body and Blood of Jesus. I reassured him of the truth, but am I missing something?

Source and Summit of the Whole Christian Life

As Catholics, we firmly believe that the Real Presence of Christ is in the Holy Eucharist. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests (Presbyterorum Ordinis) asserts,

The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate are bound up with the Eucharist and are directed towards it. For in the most blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself, our Pasch and the living bread which gives life to men through His flesh — that flesh which is given life and gives life through the Holy Spirit” (#5).

For this reason, the Council referred to the Holy Eucharist as the source and summit of the whole Christian life (Lumen Gentium, #11).

Our belief in the Holy Eucharist is rooted in Christ Himself. Recall the beautiful words of our Lord in the Bread of Life Discourse in the Gospel of St. John:

I Myself am the living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is My flesh, for the life of the world. Let Me solemnly assure you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. He who feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has life eternal, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is real food and My blood real drink. The man who feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him. Just as the Father Who has life sent Me and I have life because of the Father, so the man who feeds on Me will have life because of Me (Jn 6:51, 53-57).

Note that none of this language is symbolic — Jesus meant what He said. Moreover, even when there was grumbling and objections, and even after some disciples abandoned our Lord because of this teaching, Jesus nowhere said, “Oh please, stop. I really meant this symbolically.” Our Lord stood by His teaching.

The meaning of Bread of Life Discourse becomes clearer at the Last Supper on the first Holy Thursday. There Jesus gathered His apostles to share what was literally His last supper. According to the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus took unleavened bread and wine — two sources of basic nourishment. He took the bread, blessed it, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to the Apostles, saying, “Take this and eat it; this is My body.” He took the cup of wine, gave thanks, gave it to His Apostles and said, “All of you must drink from it for this is My blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.” If we extracted the words of consecration recorded in the Last Supper accounts of the Gospels and distilled them, we would have the words of consecration used at Mass. (Cf. Mt 26:26-30; Mk 14:22-26; and Lk 22:14-20.)

Think of those words! Jesus was not just giving to the Apostles blessed bread and wine. He was giving His whole life — Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. He was giving His very self. How true that was! The next day, Jesus’s body hung upon the altar of the Cross. His blood was spilled to wash away our sins. As priest, He offered the perfect sacrifice for the remission of sin. However, this sacrifice was not death-rendering but life-giving, for three days later our Lord rose from the dead conquering both sin and death. Yes, the perfect, everlasting covenant of life and love with God was made by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Open Your Eyes and Recognize the Lord

This whole mystery is preserved in the Most Holy Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass. We too take unleavened bread and wine, two sources of nourishment. By the will of the Father, the work of the Holy Spirit, and priesthood of Jesus entrusted to His ordained priests, and through the words of consecration, that bread and wine is transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus. Yes, the bread and wine do not change in characteristics — they still look the same, taste and smell the same, and hold the same shape. However, the reality, “the what it is,” the substance, does change. We do not receive bread and wine; we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. We call this “change of substance” transubstantiation, a term used at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and asserted again by our Holy Father in Ecclesia de Eucharistia (#15). Therefore, each time we celebrate Mass, we are plunged into the whole everpresent, everlasting mystery of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, and share intimately in life of our Lord through Holy Eucharist.

In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul highlighted these very points:

At every celebration of the Eucharist, we are spiritually brought back to the paschal Triduum: to the events of the evening of Holy Thursday, to the Last Supper, and to what followed it. The institution of the Eucharist sacramentally anticipated the events which were about to take place, beginning with the agony in Gethsemane (#3).

Moreover, in and through the Holy Eucharist, our late Holy Father taught that we can contemplate the face of Christ because He is truly present:

To contemplate Christ involves being able to recognize Him wherever He manifests Himself, in His many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of His Body and Blood. The Church draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist; by Him she is fed and by Him she is enlightened. The Eucharist is both a mystery of faith and a “mystery of light.” Whenever the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the faithful can in some way relive the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “their eyes were opened and they recognized Him” (#6).

The Catholic Church has always cherished this treasure. St. Paul wrote,

I received from the Lord what I handed on to you, namely, that the Lord Jesus on the night in which He was betrayed took bread, and after He had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper, He took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” Every time then you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes! (I Cor 11:23-26).

No Ordinary Food and Drink

During the days of Roman persecution, to clearly distinguish the Eucharist from the cultic rite of Mithra and to dispel Roman charges of cannibalism, St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) wrote in his First Apology,

We do not consume the Eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilate of its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of His own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.

Later, the Council of Trent in 1551 addressed the heretical views of the Reformers. Remember Zwingli and Calvin believed that Christ was present only “in sign”; Luther believed in consubstantiation whereby the Eucharist is both body and blood, and bread and wine; and Melancthon believed that the Eucharist reverts back to just bread and wine after Communion.

Trent’s Decree on the Most Holy Eucharist specified,

In the Blessed Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the appearances of those perceptible realities. For there is no contradiction in the fact that our Savior always sits at the right hand of the Father in Heaven according to His natural way of existing and that, nevertheless, in His substance He is sacramentally present to us in many other places.

Therefore, no faithful, knowledgeable Catholic would say that the Holy Eucharist is just bread and wine or even just symbolizes the Body and Blood of Christ. Yes, we pray for grace that we may believe more strongly each day in this precious gift of Christ Himself. Perhaps we should dwell on the words of Thomas Aquinas in Adoro Te Devote,

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore;

masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more.

See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart:

Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Editor’s note: This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.


Fr. William Saunders


Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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  • Janet L

    Fr. Saunders, Thank you for your beautiful explanation. The Body & Blood of Christ is a very difficult concept to understand. Jesus is Truly Really Present in the Eucharist. His Heart is Present in the Eucharist. We only need faith… the size of a mustard seed.

    I believe I need to share with you my encounters with Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Recently last December at Holy Communion…. on the 4th week of Advent -21st December 2014- , it was just that one time /one moment in my life time that the Holy Eucharist tasted like Pablum ( Baby’s 1st Food). It was strange.The Host had never tasted like Baby Food for me ever.

    Then it dawned on me….. that upon reflection and a personal prayer with the Lord… that Baby Jesus visited me at Holy Communion. Too good to be true, right? It is unimaginable but I am only a sinner. Jesus has swooped me off my feet since the time he called me to explore and search him. I can never thank HIM enough!!! Knowing Jesus through St. Faustina’s Diary has transformed my life completely.

    I have had 2 other different encounters at Holy Communion a few years ago .Why it happened ?God knows I am a sinner. I believe that I have been doubting Christ ? while practicing my faith? These encounters happened during the last 10 years and they were separate encounters at the time when my lifeboat was rocked in the storms of life. I was searching for God and he is in my lifeboat. How could I not see that he never left me? I was always looking outside. I realized that I did not put my complete trust in HIM. I was not praying enough and I questioned my faith.

    Ist Encounter
    When I was receiving Christ at Holy Communion I used to receive it on my Hand….Then the strangest thing happened. It was one time/a moment in my life time, at Holy Communion, that I saw four “brushstrokes” right in the centre of the host in brown (the colour was like dried blood). I have been “made to understand ” that I needed to go for confession – I have been receiving Christ without understanding the meaning of Holy Reverence….the four brushstrokes of blood was meant for me, my hubby, son and daughter as…..I always offer my family and I in my heart to Jesus at Holy Communion. “Jesus confirmed and revealed” to me that my family and I are in His Heart ………

    2nd Encounter:
    The Host received on my hand had dots formed in a circular pattern around the host . The colour was light brown in the centre and it was darker – dark brown on the outer ring The circular pattern was perfect. The dots were not haphazard but arranged and organized one behind the other in the most perfect way. I was just astounded and AWESTRUCK when I saw it. I put the Host in my mouth. I questioned , “why Lord? What are you trying to show me? ”

    His Presence . His Omnipresence. He is Perfect.

    I feel so small like a child.
    Ever since then, I have been receiving him on my tongue. Upon reflection and deep meditation, I understand why he showed me his presence. I doubted HIM…
    I do not wish to desecrate him even by touching HIM on my Hands. He is so SACRED….I am so touched and I can honestly claim that OUR GOD is Alive and Being made Present at every consecration of his Body and Blood at Mass. Oh Why have we been so blind about the Greatness and Goodness of God’s Presence in the HOLY EUCHARIST??? This is absolutely not blind-faith.

    One day when I was cooking in the kitchen, I had a little cut on my finger while chopping some vege . A drop of blood dripped on top of the stove. The stove was hot, and the blood dried up quickly. The same colour —–as it was found on the dots and the “four brushstrokes” ” painted” on the hosts in my most unimaginable encounters with Christ at Holy Communion. It struck me again the images of these encounters with the Blessed Holy Host.

    Our God is Truly Alive and he is reaching out to us. We only have to be mindful of his presence.

    I started going for confession more at least 4-6weeks. I pray the rosary with my kids and we do daily scripture reading everyday….30-mins every night from 9pm-9:30pm . They chose the time for the family prayer. It’s a complete overhaul of my family prayer life.
    I found this video and I would like to share it here to so that your readers will be aware that Christ is Truly, Really Present. The Mass that you and all the priests preside is HOLY. We are on HOLY GROUNDS . Jesus is with us at Mass. He deserves Holy Reverence. I am grateful for God’s Holy Presence at Mass.Glory to God in the Highest! Praise be to You Lord Jesus.

  • Cheryl-Lee Raine

    Thank you Father for explaining the Eucharist in such a beautiful way! I am on my journey into the Church and cannot wait to consume Our Lord in the Eucharist. I am a former Pentecostal who has had a few battles on the way to Catholicism but now they all make sense. Thanks again for sharing!

  • Cheryl-Lee Raine

    As someone who is on their journey into the Church, this comment moved me and touched me deeply. Thanks for sharing this, Janet. It is beautiful and very encouraging

  • Janet L

    God’s loving gaze is always upon you Cheryl!

  • Janet L