The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: The Message of the Eucharist Today
The Eucharist has been at the source and centre of Christianity down through the ages, and still remains so. Reflection on it brings to mind many demands of Christian living, as many as belief in the living Christ himself does. Instituted at the Last Supper, the last of his meals with followers, it recalls the many meals during his life and the significance of these, eating with the marginalized and the outcast. In Mark’s gospel, after the multiplications of the loaves, in a journey across the Sea of Galilee the evangelist notes that the apostles had forgotten to bring bread with them, having only one loaf. Jesus warns of the danger of certain leaven (yeast). The apostles think that he is referring to their lack of bread. Jesus reminds them of his multiplication of the loaves, and of their lack of understanding of the significance of the miracle (Mark 8:14-21). It is a curious text, but the point seems to be that Jesus is calling on his apostles (and the church) to reflect on the miracles of the leaves, his meals, eventually the bread and wine become Eucharist and their significance as a signs and pledge of his saving and encouraging presence with the church, in times of need and always. There are so many aspects of the Eucharistic mystery that call for reflection.
The 2012 50th Eucharistic International Congress in Dublin had as its theme “The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with One Another”. The theme reminds us of the place of the living Christ in the Eucharist as a source of personal union, communion, with God and with one another, Christ’s brothers and sisters.
The real presence of Christ under the species of bread and wine is a mystery, to be understood by faith. Already in Christ’s day, as represented in John’s Gospel, his Jewish listeners objected: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus replies insisting on his teaching. When many of his disciples said; “This is a hard teaching; who can listen to it?”, among other points Jesus replies: “What if you were to see the Sin of Man ascending where he was before?” (John 6:52-65). We grasp the mystery of his Eucharistic presence better when we consider it in the context of Jesus, true man and true God, his ascent into heaven, and enthronement at God’s right hand. Down the centuries the Church has taken Jesus’ words on the bread and wine as his body and blood literally and lived with the mystery, a mystery as ever hard to put in human words. She has refused the view that the bread and wine only represent the body and blood of Christ. At the consecration there is a transformation, in some way, of the elements bread and wine involved. Her belief was incarnated in the respect for the bread and wine after the consecration, in the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and in Eucharistic devotion. These were the manners in which the faithful expressed, and continue to express, their faith in Christ’s Eucharistic presence. When the belief was challenged by Berengarius, the Church formally responded in 1079 that at the consecration the bread and wine were substantially changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. In the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) this change was referred to as transubstantiation. The Council of Trent (1551) took up the question once again at the Reformation affirming that this change at the consecration the “holy Catholic Church properly and appropriately calls transubstantiation”. Such Christian and Catholic beliefs as “consubstantial” and “transubstantiation”, not being words current in ordinary discourse, should not be the subjects of popular opinion polls. They are terms chosen by the Church to make clear her position on certain mysteries.
Questions regarding Christ’s real presence in the elements of bread and wine, common today especially among the young need cause no surprise. They were always there waiting to be asked. Believers needed to be assured that they were in the presence of a great mystery, where faith was called for. In his catechesis to the newly baptized in fourth-century Jerusalem Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) wrote and said: “Do not, then, regard the bread and wine as nothing but bread and wine; for they are the body and blood of Christ as the Master himself has proclaimed. Though your senses suggest otherwise, let faith reassure you.” Statements like this could be multiplied. Others will say: “Though our senses perceive only bread and wine, can we forget to words of Christ: ‘This is my body; this is my blood?’” Others have expressed the same sentiments, stressing the real presence despite appearances, for instance St Justin Martyr, St Irenaeus, St Gaudentius, all calling for an act of faith, as was the custom in Irish congregations in more recent centauries, with their acclamation after the consecration: “My Lord and my God”,