The Eucharist Series
Part One: The Eucharist is a Miracle but Much More
Every third year, during the summer, the cycle of liturgical readings presents us with the Bread of Life Discourse from Chapter 6 of John’s gospel so that we can meditate on the central mystery of our faith. The Eucharist is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, His very divine Presence among us.
Those words are easy to say, but it’s easy to miss their true meaning: God Himself comes to us at the moment of consecration. The bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ – invisibly as it were. The theological term for that transformation is Transubstantiation, and it is the essence of our sacramental belief. It is a miracle of grace, but in fact, it is much more.
A fascinating book from the ’50s called Understanding Miracles (by Zsolt Aradi, republished in 2011 by Sophia Institute Press), claimed that the Eucharist does not fit the definition of a miracle as such. Miracles touch our sensory experience; they are recognizable by some external and inexplicable change.
While the Eucharist is certainly miraculous, it is better to call it a profound mystery. That is, it offers no external evidence of change after the moment of consecration. The only sensory experience one may have of it is the taste of the elements of bread and wine, but these have not changed from before the moment of consecration. They are not of the substance of the mystery.
This dynamism of inner change (substance) without an outer change is the essential point of the Eucharistic mystery: it requires an act of faith to “see” what has happened.
In approaching this mystery, we are as blind as the first followers of Jesus. They were looking for external signs as proof of Jesus’ teaching. They wanted to place faith in something tangible, doable, actionable. Their responses to Jesus’ discourse reflect this desire to grab hold of the mystery:
“What can we do to accomplish the works of God” (Jn 6:28);
“What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?” (v. 30).
They wanted evidence of His claims to be the Bread of Life. What they got instead was an exhortation to believe.
“Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life,” Jesus told them (v. 27); and then,
“This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent” (v. 29).
This is perhaps why the Eucharist has always been a point of contention, historically, even among some who profess Christian belief. It forms a dividing line between faith and sight. We must believe – beyond belief – that the bread and wine we see is actually and truly the God we cannot see.
Our belief is an act of pure faith. It is different from the faith we put in miracles, which are expressions of divine power. We can see the changes they make in the world.
But the Eucharist mystery exhibits no external change whatsoever. It is an expression of the divine essence. We must simply believe.
The astounding thing is that God invites us into this mystery. St. Maximilian Kolbe knew how great a gift that is, when he said that "If angels could be jealous of men, they would be so for one reason: Holy Communion."
Part Two: The Eucharist is Our Sustenance for the Journey
When a Catholic is on death’s door, the last sacrament one receives is not Extreme Unction. It is the Eucharist (generally administered as an element of Last Rites). Holy Communion at that moment even has a special name: Viaticum, roughly translated, food for the journey.
Extreme Unction wipes out sin and sin’s residue from the soul of the dying person; it removes the obstacles to grace in the final moments, which is essential for the soul’s freedom to make that final journey.
The Eucharist, however, does much more: it provides the inner strength needed for the soul to cross the divide from this life to the next. It is the same spiritual bread partaken of by the angels who come to escort the person over that threshold.
This Food is not the kind of food that nourishes the body as it is transformed by our digestive systems. It actually transforms us into Itself and has the ability to make us fully alive even while our bodies lie prostrate on the earth.
In the Bread of Life Discourse of John’s Gospel, Jesus had to remind His disciples of this fact:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51).
How casually men and women take their relationship with their Eucharistic Lord! Shouldn’t we be running to Church for this Food every Sunday – every day! – as starving men seeking the Source of life?
Indeed, it is not just at the final moments of life that we need this heavenly bread. We need His Food for everything.
We are like the Prophet Elijah, worn out from the long journey of this world, battered down by the forces of evil that drain life from us, discouraged by the faithlessness of our generation. “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers,” (1 Kings 19:4) lamented Elijah.
How easy it is to give up when confronted with the challenges of our world. How tempting it is to lie down under a broom tree like the prophet or take the path of least resistance like the apostles and fall into the depressed slumber of denial in Gethsemane.
Thankfully, God never gives up on us.
As was the case with Elijah, He often sends His angels to strengthen us for our tasks. “Get up and eat,” ordered God’s angel, “else the journey will be too long for you!” (1 Kings 19:5).
We, however, have an even greater privilege than being visited by an angel. The very Bread of Life Himself comes to us! He hasn’t left the task of feeding us to those blessed spirits.
The holy Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney, puts our Eucharistic sustenance in the proper perspective:
All the good works in the world are not equal to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because they are the works of men; but the Mass is the work of God.
Yes, the Christian journey is too long and difficult to go it alone. The Eucharist is Christ Himself, the Bread of Life come down from heaven. And how blessed we are to receive Him who is our Viaticum, our sustenance for the journey, both in this life and into the next.
Part Three: The Power of Faith Tested by the Eucharist
“This saying is hard; who can accept it?” was the complaint of the first disciples to hear Jesus pronounce the immortal words, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven…the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51). It was a decisive moment. A schism formed in the group of disciples, and some of them walked away, scandalized by the Eucharistic teaching.
It has always been so. The Church’s fidelity to the truth of the Eucharist – that the Blessed Sacrament is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ Himself – has been the dividing line for believers in all ages. The phrase, “This saying is hard,” echoes through the centuries…because it is hard!
“Apparently,” notes Msgr. Romano Guardini in his book, Meditations Before Mass, “there is no genuine belief without battle.” He is right: the Eucharist is a truth for which we must fight.
Let’s face it. Our belief that this consecrated bread and wine is actually God Himself…well, even for many sincere believers that’s a bridge too far. The history of heretical alterations of that teaching and outright rejections of it is clear evidence that it needs to be defended in every day and age.
However, our faith will grow strong only to the extent that we hold fast to this divine teaching. It is eternal truth.
Msgr. Guardini says that “revealed truth is neither a continuation nor a new dimension of earthly truth; it’s something that completely overthrows earthly truth.” That is why Jesus didn’t alter His words in the slightest when the disciples grumbled. He didn’t call the defectors back when they abandoned Him.
Rather, He forced them to make an either-or decision. Either what this man says is true or it isn’t. Either I surrender to it or I reject it. There is no middle ground, “only a hard, pure demand for a decision,” says Guardini.
The Apostles didn’t understand the full mystery any more than we do, but they surrendered to it and were strengthened by God’s grace when they did. Their faith was tested by the Eucharist, and, Msgr. Guardini adds that “it was to such rigorously tested men that Jesus entrusted the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.”
We must also go through this trial by fire. To have faith in what the Church believes about the Eucharist means you and I must fight for it. We must engage in battle, sometimes with those closest to us, who may walk away shaking their heads like many of the first hearers of the teaching.
This is not a theoretical possibility in today’s world. Because of the general loss of faith, it may require us to gently correct those who presume to receive the Eucharist when they are living in contradiction to the truth and/or in a state of unrepentant mortal sin. True believers cannot stand by idly and let this hypocrisy take root in their hearts!
We may be ridiculed by the growing number of militant atheists in our society or challenged to explain how we can be so silly as to believe in a God who sacrificed His Son in such a scandalous way. In the face of such a challenge, we will be forced to take up arms.
So be it. That is the burden of the true believer: “There is no genuine belief without battle.” The scandal of the Eucharist continues to this day, and we are its tested warriors.
Thanks for joining me in this series on the bread of life discourse and let's continue to be Faithful Echoes of the Eucharist.