I was assigned to give 15 minutes (!) on the theology and history of the Eucharist to our RCIA class last night. Of course, the first thing one has to say: impossible task, all I can give it the briefest outline of an introduction to the topic. I wish I would have thought to say…
Well, that is the topic of this post: what can one say about the Eucharist in about 15 minutes? I’m taking what I did say, cleaning it up and adding a few points I wish I’d thought to say.
We try to understand the Eucharist, the True Presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine, with our minds of course, but even more with our hearts. The Church does and always has encouraged questions and thought, but at the same time reminds us that the things of God are beyond the intellectual grasp of us mere humans and can only be known imperfectly in this life. The Eucharist is first among these mysteries, as it is the continued presence of the Incarnate Lord among us, the working out and fulfillment of our salvation as members of the Body of Christ.
When Peter preached on Pentecost, 3,000 people were converted and baptised. Why? What did those hearing Peter understand that made them ready to accept Jesus? Two stories central to Judaism help explain this, and how these early Christians understood the Eucharist.
The first is the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. When God tells Abraham to make a burnt offering of his son Isaac, he obeys without question. In the last chapter, he had driven his concubine Hagar and their son Ishmael out, giving them only a waterskin and a little bread. Even though God had assured him that He would care for them and make a nation out of Ishmael, Abraham had treated them poorly: driving a woman and her small son into the wilderness would normally be a death sentence. So Abraham has no standing to object to God asking for his other son.
When Isaac says “Father! Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the burnt offering?” Abraham answers that God will provide the sheep for the burnt offering. When God stops Abraham and supplies a ram, He is sparing and ransoming not just Isaac but all of Israel, all the children that would come through Isaac. He was providing the sacrifice that allowed Israel to exist.
Thew second story, the greatest story in Israel, is God saving His people from Egypt. The last plague sent by God to force Pharaoh to set the Israelites free is striking down the first born of every household in Egypt. He gives instructions to Moses: have the people get ready to leave. Have them take a yearling lamb, unblemished, and kill and eat it. Have them take some of its blood and splash it on the lintels of their door as a sign to my angel to pass over that household.
Thus, God strengthened His people for their journey out of slavery and into freedom with the flesh of a lamb, and by its blood marked them out and spared them from death.
In these two stories, God supplies the victim which is sacrificed in the place of Isaac for the sins of Abraham, thus purchasing the lives of all his descendents. In Egypt, the land of slavery, He tells them to eat an unblemished lamb and to mark themselves as His with its blood. The flesh of the lamb strengthens them for their journey to freedom, its blood saves them from death.
When John the Baptist sees Jesus down by the Jordan River, he proclaims: “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold him Who takes away the sins of the world!” The Jews hearing this would have thought: the Lamb of God? The sacrifice supplied by God to save us? The lamb whose blood spares us from death? Whose flesh strengthens us for our journey to freedom?
Then, in John 6, Jesus expounds further: unless you eat My Flesh and drink My Blood, you shall have no life within you. For my Flesh is real food, and My Blood is real drink. These are outrageous claims, and the people who heard it were outraged, and many left. Jesus then asks his disciples if they, too, wish to leave, Peter answers not with any understanding of what he’s just heard, and not with questions or requests for clarification. He’d just heard Jesus emphatically double down in the face of outrage. Instead, he says simply: Lord, where would we go? You have the words of eternal life.
At the Last Supper, after the traditional Passover meal where Jesus and the Apostles remembered how God rescued His people from Egypt, at which they had prepared and eaten the lamb just as Moses had instructed Israel in the land of slavery, Jesus breaks the bread and says: this is My Body. He takes the wine and says: this is the cup of My Blood in a new and everlasting covenant. Do this in memory of Me.
Remember, as John says at the beginning of his Gospel, Jesus is the Word through Whom all things were made. When He says ‘let there be light,’ light appears; when he commands the earth to be full of plants and animals and the sea to be full of fish, they are. His Word causes things to be what they are. When He says: this is My Body, that is what it is.
After this, Jesus leaves the Passover meal and heads out to be sacrificed for us, handing over His Body to death and spilling His Blood that we might live. God has indeed provided the Sacrifice. He has indeed supplied the food for our journey into his life and freedom.
From the moment Peter first preached at Pentecost, this has been the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist. Those 3,000 Jews who converted on the spot would have understood this, as I’m sure Peter and the Apostles would have pointed it out to any who did not immediately grasp it. But as important as the intellectual understanding is, much more is the touching of hearts: all the pieces of all the stories those people had heard all their lives, all the yearnings and prayers for a savior, all their longing for Emmanuel, God With Us – all the pieces fell into place, and they all knew that Jesus is Lord, that He is with us always, and gave us Himself most intimately for our nourishment and salvation.
Thus, we find in Acts and the letters of Paul already expressed a devotion to the Eucharist. The True Presence is attested to by all the Church fathers. John’s and Paul’s descipe Ignatius of Antioch wrote about it in his letters around 100 A.D. Irenaeus of Lyon testified to it in the 2nd century. The Church has maintained from the beginning that God so loves the world that he continues to send His Son to us, His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine.
I blathered on a little more, but this is the gist of what I wished I had said, built on what I did say, which was not this clear or tidy, and left out a few things.