Why Do Catholics believe the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Jesus?
On the night He was betrayed, He gathered with His Apostles to celebrate Passover, the ritualistic meal eaten by the Israelites (on the eve of their liberation from bondage in Egypt).
The Passover meal included the flesh of the sacrificial lamb (see Exodus, 12:8). The Last Supper, which took place on the eve of man’s liberation from sin, is the fulfillment of the Passover meal.
On that night, now known as Holy Thursday, Jesus, the Lamb of God, gave His own Flesh and Blood to be eaten by the faithful–sacramentally, in the form of Bread and Wine.1
Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups commonly object to Catholic teaching on the Eucharist on the grounds it violates the Old Testament prohibition against the eating of blood. In Mark’s Gospel 7:18-19, however, Jesus removed the burden of the Mosaic dietary restrictions—including the eating of blood—from His followers. At the Council of Jerusalem the Apostles did forbid the eating of blood, though only in particular situations to avoid unnecessarily offending the Jews (see the Acts of the Apostles 15:29 and 21:25).
Taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and distributing it among the Apostles, jesus said, “Take, eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26). Then He took a cup, which He also blessed, and gave 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 26:27-28). Although Jesus often spoke metaphorically during His ministry, at this crucial moment He spoke plainly. “This is my body,” He said, without explanation. “This is my blood.” It is hard to imagine how the Lord could have been more direct.
Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper fulfills His famous Bread of Life sermon, which is recorded in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. This sermon is prefaced by the multiplication of loaves and fish, by which thousands are miraculously fed from a tiny amount of food (see John 6:4 although that miracle appears in all four Gospels). This event is a Eucharistic metaphor, occurring as it does during Passover and having been effected by the same formula Jesus would later use at the Last Supper—taking the loaves, giving thanks, and distributing them (John 6:11). When the people return on the following day to demand a sign from Him, recalling how their ancestors had been given manna in the wilderness (as in Exodus 16:14), Jesus replies, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:32-33).
“Lord, give us this bread always,” they cry (John 6:34).
“I am the bread of life,” He responds; “he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (6:35). Though His words make the Jews uneasy, Jesus continues unabated, His speech growing steadily more graphic:
47 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.
48 I am the bread of life.
49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.
50 This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.
51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:47-51; emphasis added).
Verse 51 contains indisputable proof that Jesus is not speaking figuratively, for He identifies the Bread which must be eaten as the same Flesh that would suffer and die on the Cross. To assert that in referring to His Flesh in this passage He is speaking symbolically is to say the Flesh that suffered and died on the Cross was merely a symbol, for they are one and the same!2
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” the people ask (6:52).
In spite of their consternation, Jesus proceeds all the more emphatically:
“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. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever” (6:53-58; emphasis added).
The celebration of the Eucharist was central in the lives of the early Christians, who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (See the Acts of the Apostles 2:42). Note that “The breaking of bread and the prayers” refers to the Liturgy.
Only a few years after the death of the last Apostle, Saint Ignatius of Antioch (d. ca. 107) described the Liturgy the same way, denouncing heretics for abstaining “from the Eucharist and from prayer” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2). That the early Church, furthermore, took Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, as her Sabbath is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles 20:7, which says, “On the first day of the week, … we were gathered together to break bread …” (cf. Didache 14; Justin the Martyr, First Apology 67).
Saint Paul identifies both the manna and the rock that spew forth water for the Israelites as Eucharistic metaphors. “All ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink,” he writes. “For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (See his First Letter to the Corinthians10:3-4 as well as the Book of Revelations 2:17). He goes on to admonish the Corinthians for their lack of reverence in receiving the Eucharist, writing:
11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread
24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
25 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.
26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
27 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.
28 Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
29 For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (see Matthew 5:23-24, too).
Per verse 27, to receive the Eucharist unworthily is to sin against the Body and Blood of the Lord. So, it is worth asking: how could the unworthy reception of ordinary bread and wine amount to a sin against the Body and Blood of Jesus? Paul says even that the impious reception of the Eucharist is the reason “why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (v. 30).
It is only fitting that the most famous early Patristic (Church Father) statements on the Real Presence come from Saint Ignatius of Antioch, who learned the Faith seated at the feet of the Evangelist John. In about the year A.D. 107, using the Church’s Eucharistic teaching to defend the Incarnation against the Docetists, who denied Jesus had truly come in the flesh, Ignatius wrote:
Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. … They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2; 7:1).
The same Body that suffered and died on the Cross for our sins and returned from the dead, as Ignatius explained, is present to us in the Holy Eucharist (see John 6:51).
Saint Justin the Martyr, writing around 150, said the Eucharistic Bread and Wine are received “not as common bread nor common drink,” for They are “the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66).
In about 185, Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, whose teacher Saint Polycarp of Smyrna (d. ca. 156) also knew John, spoke of the Eucharist in defending the bodily resurrection against gnosticism. “If the body be not saved,” argued the Saint, “then, in fact, neither did the Lord redeem us with His Blood; and neither is the cup of the Eucharist the partaking of His Blood nor is the Bread which we break the partaking of His Body (1 Cor. 10:16)” (Against Heresies 5:2:2).
Origen remarked of the Eucharist around the middle of the third century, “Formerly, in an obscure way, there was manna for food; now, however, in full view, there is the True Food, the Flesh of the Word of God, as he himself says: ‘My Flesh is true food, and my Blood is true drink’ (John 6:56)” (Homilies on Numbers 7:2).
Similarly, Saint Cyprian of Carthage (d. 258) wrote:
We ask that this bread be given us daily (cf. Matt. 6:11), so that we who are in Christ and daily receive the Eucharist as the food of salvation, may not, by falling into some more grievous sin and then abstaining from communicating, be withheld from the heavenly Bread, and be separated from Christ’s Body. … He Himself warns us, saying, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you” (John 6:54) (The Lord’s Prayer 18).
- The blood of the Passover lamb was not consumed. In fact, it was forbidden for Israel to consume the blood of any animal, as blood represented the life force of the animal, which belonged to God alone (see Genesis, 9:4, and Leviticus, 7:26). Conversely, in the Eucharist, God wishes to share His Blood, His very Life, with us to nourish us sacramentally. In this ineffable Gift we become one flesh and blood, one spirit, with God (see the Gospel of John 6:56-57 and the Book of Revelations, 3:20). ↩
- Jesus does use symbolic language in reference to Himself elsewhere in John’s Gospel, calling Himself “the door” and “the vine,” for example (10:7 and 15:5, respectively). In these other instances, however, He does not apply nearly the same emphasis to His words that He does in John 6, in which He repeats Himself again and again with increasing clarity. Nor do these other sayings engender controversy among the listeners the way His words in John 6 do. Moreover, the Evangelist John actually informs us Jesus is speaking figuratively in John 10:6, something he does not do in the sixth chapter. ↩