Catholic beliefs about the Eucharist are some of the most important elements of our faith as well as some of the ones most disputed by our Protestant brothers and sisters. We believe that the bread and wine in this sacrament are the true body and blood of Jesus, while most Protestants simply view them as symbols. Likewise, we believe that the Eucharist is really a sacrifice, whereas most Protestants believe it is simply a memorial meal.
When discussing this topic with our separated brethren, we often try to show that our beliefs about it are firmly rooted in Scripture, and most of the time we do this by appealing to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper and his repeated instruction to eat his flesh and drink his blood in chapter six of John’s Gospel. However, those are not the only places we can look; there is another passage that is astonishingly clear about both the real presence of Jesus and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist, so we should definitely be familiar with it:
“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. Consider the practice of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.” (1 Corinthians 10:16-21)
This passage is a bit long, but it is important to be familiar with the whole thing. It contains two key points that we’re going to unpack here. First, St. Paul says that the Eucharist is a “participation” in Jesus’ body and blood, and secondly, he compares the Eucharist to ancient Jewish and pagan sacrifices. Both of these elements are significant, helping to show that our beliefs about the Eucharist are in fact part of the faith that the Apostles preached.
The Real Presence
Let’s begin with the idea that the Eucharist is a “participation” in Jesus’ body and blood. What exactly does that entail? We Catholics understand it to mean that the bread and wine really are Jesus’ body and blood, but that is not quite so obvious to everyone. Some people argue that the very next sentence, where Paul says that the “one bread” makes us all members of one body (meaning the Church), shows us what he really means: the Eucharist brings us all together into one Church, but it is not the literal body and blood of Jesus.
That may sound convincing at first, but there is a problem with this interpretation. Any explanation of what Paul means here has to take into account both the bread and the wine, but this one only explains the bread. If the bread is a participation in the Church, then what does Paul mean when he says that the wine is a participation in Jesus’ blood? Simply saying that the Eucharist brings us together as one Church ignores half of the text, so it doesn’t work. Instead, the best interpretation of this passage is that in the Eucharist, we receive the actual body and blood of Jesus.
Participating in the Sacrifice
After that, Paul jumps seamlessly to a discussion of Jewish sacrifices. More specifically, he goes from talking about the Eucharist as a participation in Jesus’ body and blood to discussing the Jews as participants in their animal sacrifices, drawing a clear connection between the two.
This connection is a bit obscured in many English translations, but it is crystal clear in the original Greek. The Greek word translated “participation” at the beginning of the passage comes from the same root as the word Paul later uses to say that the Jews are “partners” in their sacrifices; to make the connection clearer, it would be better to translate that second word “participants.” When we do that, the comparison is obvious: the Eucharist is a participation in Jesus’ body and blood, and the Jews are participants in their sacrifices.
This is hugely important because if Paul can argue that the Eucharist is a participation in Jesus’ body and blood just like the Jews participated in their sacrifices, it follows that the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. If not, there is no reason why Jewish sacrifices would shed any light on it. At the very least, Paul would have had to explain why the two are similar enough for him to make the comparison, but he doesn’t. Instead, he just jumps right to Jewish sacrifices as if it is no big deal, as if he can assume that his readers will know that the Eucharist is also a sacrifice.
Similarly, the comparison with pagan sacrifices at the end of the passage also points in the same direction. Paul puts them in the same category as the Eucharist; he contrasts “the cup of the Lord” and “the table of the Lord” with “the cup of demons” and “the table of demons.” Again, what is significant here is not just the fact that he is drawing these comparisons; rather, it is that he is comparing the two without explaining why he can do so. Paul just assumes that his readers will accept the comparison and will not object that he is comparing apples to oranges, and he can do that only if the Eucharist is also a sacrifice.
Based in Scripture
From all this, we can see that our beliefs about the Eucharist are firmly rooted in Scripture. The bread and wine really are the body and blood of Jesus, and it is a real sacrifice rather than just a memorial. Otherwise, St. Paul’s words about participating in Jesus’ body and blood and his comparisons between the Eucharist and ancient Jewish and pagan sacrifices do not make any sense. Consequently, we can be confident that our Catholic faith today really is the faith the Apostles preached 2,000 years ago.