What is the Eucharist?

In John Chapter 6, it is about a year before Jesus’ crucifixion and our Lord explains something that caused many of his disciples to abandon him. He had just finished feeding the 5000 where he had taken five barley loaves and two fish from a young boy and had multiplied those meager materials to feed the multitude and when the remnants were gathered up they filled twelve baskets. An exceptional and obvious miracle that caused the crowds to follow him across the lake to the synagogue in Capernaum.

Once there, however, he turns everything on its head. The crowd asks him what sign he will give them and he tells them to seek the true bread from heaven that the Father gives, rather than the bread they ate yesterday. The crowd asks for this bread all the time. Then everything changes. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Some started complaining that he claimed, ““I am the bread that came down from heaven…” They called him out saying, “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Jesus answered them saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The ones who had challenged him began to argue among themselves asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” This is a very important point in the story, because they believe he is offering his actual flesh for them to eat. If it was to be understood any other way, this was the right time for Jesus to mitigate in some way what he said. He does not. He doubles down. Jesus says to them,  “I tell you the solemn truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me, and I in him.”

Many of his disciples, when they heard these things, said, “This is a difficult saying! Who can understand it?” trying to mitigate the intensity. Instead, Jesus gets right in their face and says, “Does this cause you to be offended? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help! The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” Then Jesus adds, “Because of this I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has allowed him to come.”

After saying this, many of his disciples quit following him. Jesus then turns to his twelve and asks them, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” Simon Peter responds with, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God!” To which Jesus responds, “Didn’t I choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is the devil?”

This is a very hard passage and many people over the years have tried to soften it, turn it into less than it is, memorializing it, making it symbolic. But honestly, the text does not allow that. It actually demands the most extreme interpretation. In this discourse Jesus is prefiguring what he will do a year later at the Last Supper. How do we deal with his words? I don’t know. It is a mystery that is not explained. We just must accept his words as he said them and leave the particulars to God to deal with. However, Jesus’ statements here hung over everything until they were fulfilled that night in the upper room when Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks he broke it, gave it to his disciples, and said, “Take, eat, this is my body.” And after taking the cup and giving thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, that is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew 26:26b-28. Those are direct explicit statements reminiscent of the way he said things a year before in Capernaum. 

However, when Jesus says, “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19), many try to use that remembrance statement to claim this is a mere memorial, but in doing so they misunderstand the context of the Hebrew understanding of remembrance. This event takes place in the context of a Passover meal they are celebrating in remembrance of the Passover in Egypt when the angel of death passed over those who had marked their lentils with the blood of the Passover lamb. The reality is that there is only one Passover and each successive Passover celebration is in remembrance of the one an only Passover. It is a participation again in that one Passover of the Lord. The Eucharist is the same. There is only one Last Supper and each remembrance celebration of the Eucharist is a participation in that one event until the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. We do not sacrifice Jesus again, but in remembrance participate in the one and only Sacrifice of that Last Supper.

I hope that helps clarify this most momentous event in the life of believers and rather than trying to deconstruct the mystery of God, you are able to accept the explicit words of Jesus both in John 6 and the Last Supper narratives. May God bless you, God keep you, and may His face always be upon you. Amen.

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