The Continuation Of The Last Supper With Jesus
The Catholic Church traces the origins of the Eucharist to the very actions and words of Jesus Christ Himself as recorded in the three synoptic Gospels, the gospel of Saint John and as described by Saint Paul in the New Testament. The use of bread and wine as an offering begins under the Old Covenant as described in the Book of Genesis: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.” (Genesis 14:18)
As they began their exodus from Egypt, the Jews ate unleavened bread (Exodus 12:15), made necessary because of their haste to flee, and they continue to this day to honor this occasion with unleavened bread when they celebrate Passover. The last “cup of blessing” at the end of the Passover meal was a cup of wine used to celebrate the fact that God had blessed His chosen people and would bless them again someday in Jerusalem. They ate manna – bread sent from Heaven – as they wandered the desert in search of the Promised Land, finally settling there as God had promised them. After they lost their land because of their continued failure to keep the Commandments of God, they were sent prophets who predicted that a Messiah would be sent by God who would bring them back to their original place of honor before God. He arrived about 2,000 years ago. Jesus’ life began in Beth-Lechem…the House of Bread (Matthew 2:1). His first public miracle was at a wedding party in Cana (John 2:2-5), where He turned water into wine in response to a request by His mother. With the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves (Matthew 14:14-20), as Jesus blessed the loaves of bread and distributed them, He prefigured the superabundance of the unique bread that was to be His Eucharist. After teaching and healing the sick and working other wonders in the hills of the Galilee, Jesus had developed a wide following with many disciples. It was at the synagogue of Capernaum, at the time of the feast of Passover, that Jesus began to unfold the nature of His Eucharist to those who were following Him: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on Him has God the Father set His seal.” John 6:27
When His followers asked about the nature of this eternal food, Jesus replied: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” John 6:35
When they heard this remark, some of His followers began to murmur among themselves since they knew He was just a carpenter, the son of Joseph. How could this man be the bread of life? Yet Jesus persisted as He explained Himself to them: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51
This comment brought outright consternation to a number of those who had followed Him. He was actually telling them that they had to eat His flesh, an unthinkable act. If His words were confusing or misleading them in any way, then He would have corrected their misunderstanding…but He didn’t. Instead, He emphasized yet again His meaning when He said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink His blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” John 6:53-56
Many of those who heard Jesus say this couldn’t accept it despite the fact that He explained and further clarified His statements three times in attempting to address their lack of understanding and their unwillingness to accept His words. He tried again a fourth time to help them comprehend what He was saying: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” John 6:63
After saying this, many of those who had been following Him chose to stay away. He tried four times to teach them and in the end only a few accepted His teachings. Why didn’t they comprehend Jesus, as many still don’t comprehend Him after 2,000 years? Probably because they didn’t understand that Jesus was the completion of the Passover begun in Egypt over a thousand years earlier. He was the New Covenant, the Promised One – the Messiah – but He didn’t fit into the contemporary concept of what the Messiah should be. Passover was commemorated by a meal – a sharing of unleavened bread, lamb and wine – and Jesus had come to give them Himself as the ultimate Bread and Lamb, a meal to be consumed by all who wished to escape from the angel of Death. During the ritual of the Passover meal, there were four different cups of blessing consumed along with unleavened bread and lamb. The lamb was chosen after it was slain without breaking any of its bones and then cooked and eaten to renew the bond of communion between God and His chosen people. The blood of this lamb, spread across the lintel of each household, was placed there as a sign to the angel of Death to pass over the house so marked and protect each of the first-born who were members of the household. Jesus came to complete the Passover so that all could pass over from death into eternal life. And just as the Jews at the time of Moses had to eat the unleavened bread and the sacrificial lamb to renew their communion with God, so all were being asked to eat the body and drink the blood of God’s new lamb (Jesus) to renew their communion with Him and be marked with the sign of eternal life. Jesus instituted His Eucharist at the Passover meal that was to mark His passing through death into Resurrection and everlasting life. It was in these words that Jesus inaugurated His Eucharist: “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26:26-28
IT IS NOT GRAPE JUICE OR WINE – IT IS HIS BLOOD
IT IS NOT CRACKERS OR BREAD – IT IS HIS BODY
Clearly Jesus said that He was giving His followers His body and blood. It wasn’t meant as a symbol as many of His followers at Capernaum would have liked to believe – it was totally Him. But did His disciples really believe that it was Jesus’ body and blood? Saint Paul clearly states the beliefs of Jesus’ first disciples: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” 1 Corinthians 11:27-29
Saint Paul was not the only early follower of Jesus who wrote of this belief and practice. Dozens wrote about it in the first few hundred years of the Church’s existence. This belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist continues to this day in Catholic worship and mainstream theology. Catholic understanding of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist is different than most other Christian denominations which tend to see the Eucharistic meal as a symbolic remembrance rather than a real and substantial transformation. I could attempt to explain The Eucharist with cute analogies, but the only way I can explain it is that this is the way Jesus established it, intended it, and gave it to us a gift. At some point you have to stop trying to explain God within the confines of the human mind. Don’t you realize that it will drive you crazy trying to figure all of this out? If you require physical evidence or an explanation that would hold up in court, then you cannot say you have faith. In the Eucharist that Jesus gave us we have a more profound change that takes place. The bread and wine is REALLY changed into Jesus’ body and blood. Can we ordinarily tell this with our senses? No. We need something that extends beyond our senses to determine the actual state that exists. That extender of our senses is Faith, a faith and trust in Jesus that believes that if He says it, then even ordinary bread and wine can be changed into His body and blood…and by His words recorded in the Gospels, He clearly says it four different times.
Another misconception is that Catholics repeat the sacrifice of the crucifixion of Jesus by repeating the last supper using his flesh and blood. Jesus was crucified once. The event cannot be repeated. To truly understand it, one must understand that we are participating in a continuation of the Last Supper, not a different event. We believe that Christ is there with us, we are around his table, and he offers us his flesh and blood.