The Eucharist and Thanksgiving

Our Lord, as I have observed, wrought the miracle of the loaves by means of the same outward acts, which He observed in the mystery of His Supper, and which His Apostles have carefully recorded as the appointed means of consecrating it. St. John says, “He took the loaves, and when He had given thanks, He distributed to the disciples.”

Compare this with St. Luke’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. “He took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them.” Again, a fuller account of the consecration of the loaves is given by the other Evangelists thus: “He. . .took the five loaves and the two fishes,” says St. Matthew, “and looking up to heaven, He blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to His disciples.”

And what, on the other hand, is told us by the same Evangelist, in his account of the institution of the Holy Communion? “Jesus took bread and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples.” Again, in the second miracle of the seven loaves, He observed the same form: “He took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks and brake them, and gave to His disciples.”

And the form is the same in the account of our Lord’s celebration of the Sacrament after His resurrection: “As He sat at meat with them, He took bread and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.” And of St. Paul we read, “he took bread and gave thanks to God in the presence of them all, and when he had broken it, he began to eat.” [John vi. 11. Luke xxii. 19. Matt. xiv. 19. Matt. xxvi. 26. Matt. xv. 36. Luke xxiv. 30. Acts xxvii. 35.]

One cannot doubt, then, that the taking bread, blessing or giving thanks, and breaking is a necessary form in the Lord’s Supper, since it is so much insisted on in these narratives; and it evidently betokens something extraordinary, else why should it be insisted on?—and what that is, the miracle of the Loaves tells us. For there the same form is observed, and there it was Christ’s outward instrument in working a great “work of God.” The feeding then of the multitude with the loaves, interprets the Lord’s Supper; and as the one is a supernatural work, so is the other also. . . .

At first sight, an objection may be brought against what has been said from a circumstance, which, when examined, will be found rather to tell the other way. The Jews objected to our Lord, that He had said what was incredible, when He spoke of giving us His flesh. They “strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”

Our Saviour in answer, instead of retracting what He had said, spoke still more strongly: “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.” But when they still murmured at it, and said, “This is a hard saying, who can hear it?”—then He did in appearance withdraw His words. He said, “It is the Spirit that quickeneth, the flesh profiteth nothing.”

It would take us too long to enter now into the meaning of this declaration; but let us, for argument’s sake, allow that He seems in them to qualify the wonderful words He had used at first; what follows from such an admission? This: that our Lord acted according to His usual course on other occasions when persons refused His gracious announcements, not urging and insisting on them, but as if withdrawing them, and thus in one sense aiding those persons even in rejecting what they ought to have accepted without hesitation.

The Institution of the Eucharist by Ercole de’ Roberti, c. 1490 [National Gallery, London]

This rule of God’s dealings with unbelief, we find most fully exemplified in the instance of Pharaoh, whose heart God hardened because he himself hardened it. And so in this very chapter, as if in allusion to some such great law, He says, “Murmur not among yourselves; No man can come to Me, except the Father which hath sent Me draw him;” as if He said, “It is by a Divine gift that ye believe; beware, lest by objections you provoke God to take from you His aid, His preventing and enlightening grace.”

And then, after they had complained, He did in consequence withdraw from them that gracious light which He had given, and spoke the words in question about the flesh and spirit, which would seem to carnal minds to unsay, or explain away, what He had said.

But observe, He adds, “There are some of you that believe not. . . .Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto Me, except it were given unto Him of My Father.”

All this is parallel, let it be observed, to His dealings with the Jews in the tenth chapter of the same Gospel. He there declares, “I and My Father are One.”

The Jews, instead of embracing, stumble at the truth, and accuse Him of blasphemy, as if He being a man made Himself God. This was their inference from His words, and a correct inference, just as in the other case they rightly understood Him to promise that He would give us His flesh to eat. But when they, instead of embracing the truth which they had correctly inferred, instead of humbling themselves before the Mystery, repel it from them, He does not force it upon them. . . .

Such reflections as the foregoing lead us to this conclusion, to understand that it is our duty to make much of Christ’s miracles of love; and instead of denying or feeling cold towards them, to desire to possess our hearts with them.

There is indeed a mere carnal curiosity, a high-minded, irreverent prying into things sacred; but there is also a holy and devout curiosity which all who love God will in their measure feel. The former is exemplified in the instance of the men of Bethshemesh, when they looked into the ark; the latter in the case of the Holy Angels, who (as St. Peter tells us) “desire to look into” the grace of God in the Gospel.

Under the Gospel surely there are wonders performed, such as “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man.” Let us feel interest and awful expectation at the news of them; let us put ourselves in the way of them; let us wait upon God day by day for the treasures of grace, which are hid in Christ, which are great beyond words or thought.

Above all, let us pray Him to draw us to Him, and to give us faith. When we feel that His mysteries are too severe for us, and occasion us to doubt, let us earnestly wait on Him for the gift of humility and love. Those who love and who are humble will apprehend them; carnal minds do not seek them, and proud minds are offended at them; but while love desires them, humility sustains them.

Let us pray Him then to give us such a real and living insight into the blessed doctrine of the Incarnation of the Son of God, of His birth of a Virgin, His atoning death, and resurrection, that we may desire that the Holy Communion may be the effectual type of that gracious Economy.

No one realizes the Mystery of the Incarnation but must feel disposed towards that of Holy Communion. Let us pray Him to give us an earnest longing after Him – a thirst for His presence – an anxiety to find Him – a joy on hearing that He is to be found, even now, under the veil of sensible things, – and a good hope that we shall find Him there.

Blessed indeed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed. They have their reward in believing; they enjoy the contemplation of a mysterious blessing, which does not even enter into the thoughts of other men; and while they are more blessed than others, in the gift vouchsafed to them, they have the additional privilege of knowing that they are vouchsafed it. – from Parochial & Plain Sermons, Vol. VI, no. 11

Happy Thanksgiving from the editors and staff of The Catholic Thing.

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) was made a cardinal by Leo XIII in 1879, beatified by Benedict XVI in 2010, and canonized by Pope Francis on October 13, 2019. He was among the most important Catholic writers of the last several centuries.