In the celebration of the Last Supper, Jesus takes the Passover bread and prays over it, but then something dramatic happens – He begins to change the Passover meal from the commemoration of what happened in Egypt to being a commemoration of what He is about to do on the Cross. He is the Paschal Lamb, the One who is slain and it is His Blood that preserves us from death. In the course of the meal, Jesus takes the bread and gives it to His disciples, but something has changed – no longer is it mere bread. As He gives it, He tells them that “this is my body” and, likewise the cup, “this is my blood.” The ancient Passover meal has come to its fulfillment in the institution of the Eucharist. No longer is this meal celebrated simply to remember and make present again the flight of Israel out of slavery, it is celebrated as the very memorial of our own salvation, when Christ offers Himself up to the Father on the cross and gives Himself to us under the appearances of bread and wine.
St. Paul speaks of the early Christian community continuing to celebrate this sacred meal. He speaks in his First Letter to the Corinthians (11:23 – 26) of the mystery as being handed on to the first believers, “for I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.”
So, how do we know that this bread is really His Body and this chalice really His Blood? Well, because He tells us it is! He says very clearly, “this is my Body” and “this is my Blood” – He does not speak of it as a “symbol” of His Body and Blood, but that it really truly IS His Body and Blood. We see also, earlier in His ministry, Christ speaking about the necessity of eating His Body and drinking His Blood in order to find eternal life, “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6: 54). And once again, this is not symbolic language, He is speaking very clearly and, lest people be confused, He states directly, “my flesh is true food, my blood is true drink” (John 6:55)
It is these sayings of Christ which have led the Church to profess her faith in the Real Presence - that in the Eucharist, Jesus is really, truly, and substantially present. In the Eucharist He is present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. This is one of those mysteries of faith which can be hard to understand, but there is no room for doubt, because the Teacher Himself has told us exactly what the Eucharist is – it is Himself.
(This article is part of a series of articles on The Sacraments which will appear in the bulletin over the course of this year.)