Some of my friends have questioned me about why and how I can believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Host which we receive at Communion in Mass. Sometimes I am not sure exactly how to explain it well enough so that it will be understood. Can you help?
It is true that some people consider the Catholic Church’s belief about the Eucharist to be totally unbelievable and almost outrageous. Catholics actually believe that when a priest, during the Eucharistic Sacrifice of the Mass, repeats the words of Jesus at the Last Supper over the bread and wine, they really do become the Body and Blood of the Lord Himself. How can this be? Where did the Church get this idea? The simple answer would be that we believe it because Jesus said it, and this Word of His is transmitted to us in various ways.
One of these ways is precisely the one that many Catholics are challenged on today the Bible. In addition to the testimony of the Sacred Scriptures, however, we also have Sacred Tradition, that which the Apostles handed down to us and which they learned from Christ. We also have the teaching of the Church, given the authority to teach by Jesus in His name. Let us look first, then, at the Bible to see how exactly the Church can so confidently teach what she does.
The primary Scripture text we have that clearly demonstrates the reason for the Church’s belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is that part of the Gospel referred to as the “institution narrative” the words used by Christ when He gave instructions to His Apostles on how they were to commemorate His Passion. At the Last Supper, Jesus “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’” (Lk 22:19, see also Mt 26:26, Mk 14:22). It was the beginning of something He was telling them to do this, and every time they did it, to remember Him.
It is also evident in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John that, very early in His ministry, Jesus had already given the first promise of the Eucharist. A crowd of five thousand had just witnessed one of Christ’s greatest miracles (the multiplication of the loaves) and they were in great awe at what they had experienced. So they follow Him to Capernaum, wanting Him to perform more signs. When they begin to speak about the manna that God gave to their ancestors to eat in the desert, Jesus uses this opportunity to give a discourse that every Christian should read and reread very carefully.
“I am the bread of life,” he said (Jn 6: 35). “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: 51). The Scripture then says that this shocked the Jews. How could he give them His flesh to eat? He answered by saying, “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” (Jn 6: 53-59). These were very powerful words, and they are the words of Jesus Christ! He was telling them that the bread that He would give for the life of the world was His flesh!
At this point, many of them left His company, but we notice that Jesus did not call them back saying, “I didn’t mean it the way you think I did.” This is because He did mean it! If Jesus had meant His words to be taken symbolically only, then He would have had to explain this to His disciples, but He does not. This is very important. Now, He thought the rest of them would leave also, but then Peter responds by giving one of the most moving answers in all human history. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6: 68). At that moment, Peter may not have even realized the full import of what he was declaring, but later it would become clear to him.
In verse 47 of John 6, Jesus states, “He who believes has eternal life.” What was He talking about? It must have been the teaching that He was giving them. Over and over in these passages He repeats and reaffirms that He is the Bread of Life and that “if anyone eats this bread, he will live forever” and the bread He will give for the life of the world “is My flesh.” It takes great faith to accept and believe these words of our Lord, but we should never allow our predispositions or traditions to restrict us from recognizing the truth that Jesus wished to teach us. Our Lord said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20: 29).
© Copyright 2004 Grace D. MacKinnon
For permission to reprint this article, or to have Grace speak at your event, contact Grace MacKinnon at email@example.com.
Grace MacKinnon holds an MA in theology and is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Her new book Dear Grace: Answers to Questions About the Faith is available in our online store. If you enjoy reading Grace’s column, you will certainly want to have this book, which is a collection of the first two years of “Dear Grace.” Faith questions may be sent to Grace via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may also visit her online at www.DearGrace.com.