The Bishops of the United States have initiated a Eucharistic Revival and will be discussing it today at their annual fall meeting in Baltimore. It began on the Feast of Corpus Christi 2022 and will conclude on Pentecost of 2025. The following is intended to be a modest theological contribution to their Spirit-filled endeavor.
Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel contains Jesus’ Eucharistic discourse. It begins with Jesus multiplying the five loaves and two fishes – resulting in an abundance that filled twelve baskets of leftovers. Following this miracle-sign, Jesus withdrew to the hills to pray.
The next day the crowd went seeking for Jesus, and when they found him, Jesus declared that they sought him not because they saw signs, but because of the loaves. Jesus then said: “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give you.”
The crowd asks what they must do to possess eternal life; Jesus responds that they are to believe in him whom the Father sent. They ask Jesus for a sign – and offer the example of their fathers eating manna in the wilderness. Ironically, Jesus just performed that very sign – a sign that they failed to recognize.
Jesus reminds them that it was not Moses who gave them bread from Heaven. It’s his Father who gives them true bread from heaven, a bread that will give life to the world. By first becoming man, Jesus becomes the living bread come down from Heaven, for only then can he do his Father’s will by giving his life for the salvation of the world.
In offering himself, his flesh, as a loving sacrifice to his Father, Jesus obtains the forgiveness of sin and vanquishes death. Nonetheless, the people murmur among themselves for they are convinced that Joseph is his father. They know his mother as well. And how, then, could Jesus have come down from Heaven?
Jesus reiterates that he is the living bread come down from Heaven and the bread that he will give for the life of the world is his flesh. In offering the supreme sacrifice of himself, Jesus then becomes, in his resurrection, the life-giving bread that comes down from heaven in the Eucharist. That’s why he emphasizes to the murmuring crowd: “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.”
Significantly, Jesus speaks of eating his body and drinking his blood. In so doing he is accentuating the sacrificial nature of his death – the offering up of his life, his flesh and blood, to his Father. That this sacrificial flesh and blood now gives eternal life resides in the fact that Jesus is now risen. To have eternal life, one must eat Jesus’ risen-given-up-flesh and drink his risen-poured-out-blood.
Thus, in so eating and drinking, one participates in Jesus’ one saving sacrifice, what was given up and what was poured out, and so comes into communion with the crucified and risen Jesus himself: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
What Jesus declares in all this is made present in the Eucharistic liturgy – the holy sacrifice of the Mass. Having heard the word of God and having confirmed our faith in Jesus as the Father’s Spirit-filled Son, Catholics conjoin themselves to Jesus’ once and for all saving sacrifice now made present on the altar.
The ordained priest, in the person of Jesus himself, offers this once-and-for-all sacrifice to the Father, and the laity, through their baptismal priesthood, unite themselves to this saving sacrifice. Moreover, in union with Jesus, the priest and people together offer themselves to the Father as sacrificial victims – as a loving sacrifice to the Father.
By participating in Jesus’ once-and-for-all sacrifice, the priest and laity are then able to reap its saving benefits, that is, being in communion with the risen Jesus, by abiding in him, they obtain eternal life, and so they have the assurance that he will raise them up on the last day.
The Eucharist is, literally, a foretaste of eternal life. Already here on earth, the Eucharistic assembly is taken up into the heavenly realm and participates in the everlasting heavenly liturgy with all of the Saints and angels, for together they give praise and glory to God the Father through his risen Son, Jesus Christ, in the love of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the risen Jesus comes down from Heaven as the life-giving bread in order that he might take all who abide in him up into the eternal life of Heaven.
What we perceive, both in Jesus’ teaching and in the Mass, is the necessary conjoining of Jesus’ saving sacrifice with the reception of Holy Communion. Only by participating in Jesus’ offering of himself to the Father is the Eucharistic assembly empowered to partake of this sacrifice’s benefits – the eating and drinking of Jesus’ risen body and blood.
This necessary conjoining of Jesus’ sacrifice with the reception of the Eucharist demands, then, that Jesus’ actual sacrifice is made present in the Mass, and that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. If Jesus’ sacrifice is not made present and the risen Jesus is not substantially present under the forms of bread and wine, the congregation would not be able to abide truly in Jesus and so obtain eternal life.
The Mass would, then, simply be a recalling of a past historical event with no real present saving significance. The Catholic Mass, however, is indeed the offering of Jesus’ saving sacrifice. And Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, and for this superabundant life all Catholics should joyfully give thanks.
*Image: Christ with the Host by Pablo da San Leocadio (aka Paolo da Reggio), late 15th century [National Museum in Poznań, Poland]
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