In our first part on the Eucharist, we looked briefly at its origins and history – that it was at His Last Supper that our Lord Jesus took the bread and wine and offered them as His own Body and Blood. It is this fundamental act of offering that helps us to look more deeply at both the rite of the Eucharist and its effects in our souls.
When considering what makes all sacraments “outward signs of grace,” we remember that sacraments contain “matter” and “form.” In the Eucharist, the matter and form are plainly revealed in Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Recalling that the Passover sacrifice was primarily offered as a re-presenting of God’s saving covenant with Israel when He delivered His chosen people from Egypt, Jesus reveals himself at the Last Supper as the New Passover by whose offering of His own flesh and blood as the “true lamb” we will be delivered from sin. His sacrifice will complete the first Passover by taking from what was offered at the Passover and perfecting it in His offering of self. In particular, He wills to take the unleavened bread that was to be eaten (which was strictly commanded as they were to have no leaven), and offers Himself saying
“Take it and eat; for this is my body.” Likewise, He takes the cup of wine and exhorts that the disciples drink of it as “the blood of the new covenant.” Rather than in partaking of the roasted Passover Lamb, it is in this unleavened bread and the wine as used by Jesus to offer Himself that the “matter” (or material elements) of the sacrament of the Eucharist are established – such that any other type of bread and any non-grape wine cannot be used. The “form” (or ritual prayers) for the Eucharist is to be offered by one who is configured onto Christ as a validly ordained priest (whom Jesus made the apostles and their successors), following the intentions of the Church, offering unleavened bread and wine (of white or red grapes) as a sacrifice with the words that Jesus himself said. These details are central to the rite of the Eucharist.
We acknowledge that the Eucharist really is Jesus’ Body and Blood in what looks and tastes of bread and wine. This sacrament is at one and the same moment a great mystery and a miracle. That Jesus who could command the weather, heal affliction, and cast out demons simply by saying the word, speaks the words “This is my body;” and “This is the chalice of my blood” expresses that it really does change into what He says; at the same time, that the outward appearances of bread and wine are not changed in any way is a great miracle in itself – so that it can be both true food and drink and Jesus’ Body and Blood. For it is the “substance” (or what it is) that changes, without the perceivable characteristics of bread and wine being changed – which is called “transubstantiation” – and is a great mystery and miracle.
Among the key effects of the Eucharist is the reception of the life of Christ Himself – as His Real Presence, or His “Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.” This literal partaking of Jesus’ own flesh and blood gives us His life, brings about union with Him, and establishes communion among all who likewise partake. It is Jesus alone who brings about this grace of communion – not us. To be in communion requires sincere faith in all that is of Christ – including the fullness of the truth as taught, believed, and lived in the Catholic Church. Holy Communion is therefore a gift to be received with faith, humility, and reliance upon God.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, once more we return to details of paragraphs 1333-1344 regarding matter and form of the sacrament; 1345-1355 say more about the structure of the Mass and 1391-1401 give detail about its effects – which are many more than written in this column.