Since the earliest days of man we have demanded from God a sign, a miracle in order to prove to the doubters amongst us that he exists. You may believe it or not, but at every mass in every church a true and real miracle occurs, albeit one that we cannot physically see or hear (wouldn’t that be too easy!). But it is a miracle which can be felt within our souls. As Jesus told us in the book of John, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…..He who eats this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:53,58). The Eucharistic bread and wine are transformed, through the Word of God, the prayers of the priest and the worship and thanksgiving of the congregation, fully into Jesus’ body and blood in a way that we can’t understand. Jesus and his body and blood are there wholly with us, but not in a way that we expect or we encountered before Jesus gave himself to us.
How do we know this? Jesus told us, in his words passed on through John, Peter, Matthew and the other disciples. One example of many was at the Last Supper, while He was performing the Passover sacrifice with his disciples, Jesus said, while breaking the bread, “Take and eat; this is my body.”. Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you for this is my blood of the covenant which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.“ (Matthew 26:26-28). Also in John 6:54 Jesus says; “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
This miracle surpasses the miracle of the manna from Heaven, given to feed the Israelites on their exile from Egypt, although we can’t see or touch it in the same way. But like the manna for the Israelites, the Eucharist feeds us on our spiritual journey to our promised land, Heaven. Early church writings suggest that to go to Mass was to live in heaven already. Both Saints Iraneaeus and Tertullian wrote about the earthly altar being united with the heavenly altar. This is also in the book of Revelation where the liturgy is represented as the “marriage supper of the lamb”.
An Old Testament prophesy from the prophet Malachi was often quoted by the early church while rebuking challenges on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist;
”I will not accept an offering from your hand. For the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11-12)
By these words the Jewish prophet had foretold that their Jewish sacrifices will cease and instead be replaced with a new and pure sacrifice. The Jewish text the Talmud records the ancient rabbi’s teaching that when the Messiah comes “all sacrifices will cease except the ‘Todah’ sacrifice. This will never cease in all eternity.” The Todah was a sacrificial meal of bread and wine eaten together in a spirit of giving thanks to God. The word Todah when translated into Greek reads ‘eucharistia’, the same word that Eucharist derived from, or in English ‘Thanksgiving’.
The presence of the Word of God, Jesus Christ the Son of God in the sacrifice makes the offering pure. As a demonstration of the certainty that Jesus is present in the Eucharist, which has been known since the institution of the Eucharist in the upper room in Jerusalem, consider the persecuted Christian martyrs who refused to denounce the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus in Roman times. Early church writings record that the Romans often held a charge of cannibalism against the early Christians. Obviously, the Romans didn’t quite get transubstantiation! The faith of these martyrs was so deep that they could have saved their lives by denouncing the real presence in the Eucharist, but instead they continued to proclaim this truth and chose to be put to death instead.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch sums this strength of belief in his letter to the Smyrnaeans (written in the 1st century AD), “Let no man deceive himself. For both the beings of heaven, the glorious angels, and the rulers, both seen and unseen, incur condemnation if they do not believe in the blood of Christ…. Consider those who hold a different opinion… they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess the Eucharist to be the flesh of our saviour Jesus Christ.”
Fr Bob Faricy, a Jesuit priest from the US, has the simplest explanation of the Mass I’ve heard. He says;
“Since the start of the Church, since the first Pentecost, two thousand years ago, Mass has been the same. It’s a sacrifice, a sacrifice which is identical to Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. Therefore to be at Mass, is the same as being at the one sacrifice of the Cross. Put simply, the mass, is an exchange of gifts with God the Father; we offer ourselves with Jesus to the Father, Jesus offers us to the Father and then the Father offers his son Jesus to us and he sends him into our heart.
Jesus in Holy Communion, in the Eucharist is the Risen Lord with his wounds. Like when he first appeared to Mary Magdalen straight after His Resurrection he appears to us under the appearance of the bread and the wine.”
Why does Jesus want us to eat his flesh and drink his blood? This again is very difficult to answer with pure human intellect, let’s look to the Eucharistic Prayers (which have remained very similar since the very first masses celebrated) for an answer:
“Take this all of you and eat it, this is My Body which will be given up for you.”
“Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of My Blood, the Blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.”
Jesus gave us His Body and Blood through His love for us. He chose to undergo His Passion and Death and in his Resurrection He conquered sin, so that the Father may forgive our sins, and unite His people here on earth (His Church) while we wait for Him to come again in glory. Finally let’s contemplate St Iranaeus of Lyons in his book ‘Against Heresays’ written in the 2nd century AD;
“For the bread which is produced from the earth, is no longer common bread, once it has received the invocation of God; it is then the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly. So also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but have the hope of the resurrection to eternity.”
Thanks be to God!