Catholics believe that the Holy Eucharist is really the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ, under the appearances of bread and wine. While this belief can seem strange to non-Catholics, it is backed up by Sacred Scripture, as well as early Christian historical documents.
The Gospels tell us that on the night Jesus was betrayed He shared a Passover meal with the Twelve Apostles, the Last Supper. The Passover is the ritual meal eaten by the ancient Israelites on the eve of their liberation from bondage in Egypt. God instructed them to slaughter a lamb without blemish, put some of its blood upon the doorframe of their houses, and then roast and eat its flesh (Exodus 12:5, 7-8).
Jesus, whom the Bible calls “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), is the fulfillment of the Passover lamb. Just as the Passover lamb was without blemish, so Jesus is without sin. Just as the people put the lamb’s blood upon the wood of their doorframes, His blood was upon the wood of the Cross.
Likewise, the Last Supper is the fulfillment of the Passover meal, eaten as it was on the eve of mankind’s liberation from sin. On this night the Lamb of God gave His own Flesh and Blood to be eaten by the faithful sacramentally under the form of bread and wine.
Taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and distributing it among the Apostles, He 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 further 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, recorded in the sixth chapter of The Gospel According to Saint John. This sermon is prefaced by the multiplication of loaves and fish, in which thousands are miraculously fed from a tiny amount of food (John 6:4). This event is an Eucharistic metaphor, occurring as it does during Passover and involving 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 (see Ex. 16:14 ff.), the Lord tells them,“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).
Though His words make the Jews uneasy, Jesus continues unabated, His speech growing steadily more graphic, “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” (6:51). Because He equates the Bread that is to be eaten with His Flesh that is to suffer and die, we know He cannot be speaking symbolically, for this would mean His Flesh that suffered and died was merely a symbol!
To this the people ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (6:52). In spite of their consternation, Jesus speaks 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).
Non-Catholic Christians, who interpret John 6 symbolically, often point to the saying of Jesus that follows His Bread of Life Sermon: “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” (6:63).
Jesus cannot mean His own Flesh, though, when He says, “The flesh is of no avail,” because that would mean His death on the Cross was of no avail!
Jesus uses the word “flesh” differently here than He does in the sermon. Here it refers not to the actual body, but to bodily or worldly thinking, reasoning with the flesh instead of the spirit (see John 3:6, 12; 6:27; Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:5-6 and his First Letter to the Corinthians 2:14-3:3). Jesus is simply saying that it is impossible to understand His Bread of Life teaching by human reason alone; one needs to think in a spiritual way.
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” (Acts of the Apostles 2:42). Paul identifies both the manna and the rock that spewed 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” (Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 10:3-4).
Even more explicitly, he goes on to admonish the Corinthians for their lack of reverence in receiving the Eucharist, writing:
“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” (First Letter to the Corinthians 11:27-30).
How could the unworthy reception of ordinary bread and wine amount to a sin against the Body and Blood of Jesus?
Early Church Teachings
We know the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Eucharist is in harmony with how the early Christians understood It. Ancient historical writings from the Apostolic Age forward affirm this. Take the writings of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, for example. Not only was Ignatius a Christian Bishop, but he had learned the faith seated at the feet of the Evangelist John, the one who wrote John 6!
In about A.D. 107, Ignatius was arrested and taken to Rome to die a martyr’s death in the Colisseum.
On his way there, he composed seven letters, which have come down to us and which all reputable scholars agree are authentic.
In his Letter to the Smyrnaeans, he uses the Church’s Eucharistic teaching to defend the belief that Jesus had a real human body against the Docetists, who denied He had truly come in the flesh:
“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.” (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 (cf. John 6:51).
Saint Justin the Martyr, writing around the year 150, only about fifty years after John’s death, 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).
In 217, Irenaeus’ student, Saint Hippolytus of Rome, perceived Proverbs 9:2 as “refer[ring] to His honoured and undefiled body and blood, which day by day are administered and offered sacrificially at the spiritual divine table, as a memorial of that first and ever-memorable table of the spiritual divine supper” (Commentary on Proverbs).