Reflections on the Eucharist
Prior to becoming a Catholic, I was a Protestant who had become rather disillusioned by the theology taught to me during my youth. When I began my initial steps to becoming a Catholic, one of the most intriguing concepts was that of the Real Presence. My previous Protestant understanding rejected the notion that Christ was present in Communion and thus made the event rather odd. It is as if the something that brought it meaning was cut off and the partakers were merely pretending to not be annoyed by this predicament. This problem is most likely the reason that the Real Presence never perturbed me, despite being a former Protestant. It gave the event purpose. It taught that God was present amongst us in a tangible way. During my time as an investigative convert, I needed a writer from Scripture to bring me support during my interim. I needed the Apostle Paul. Besides Jesus who affirmed his presence during the Last Supper, Paul’s writings have worked to expound upon the mystery of the Real Presence and provide the Scriptural confidence I needed.
“This is my body” (Mt 26:26 DRB), said Jesus Christ when he broke the bread for his disciples to partake of. Next, Jesus would take the wine and invited them to drink it saying, “This is my blood of the new testament” (Mt 26:28 DRB). Despite being rather clear and direct statements, these words have both astounded and confounded many theologians. Some would argue over whether the words were metaphorical or literal. While, others would argue over the mode in which the bread and wine become the flesh and blood. Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin would argue that Jesus was speaking metaphorically. The Church and Luther would argue in favor of the Real Presence. Aquinas would use Aristotelian philosophy to explain the process of changing of substance. Luther would simply express the importance Christ’s directly given statement. When reading the epistles of Paul, it is clear that he does not affirm the statements as being metaphorical. Instead, he seems to repeat the words of Christ, while stating the penalties of not treating the Eucharist rightly.
Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, “And giving thanks, broke and said: Take ye and eat: This is my body, which shall be delivered for you. This do for the commemoration of me” (1 Cor 11:24 DRB). Paul is not eluding the words of Christ as being a metaphor. Instead, Paul is repeating the words of Christ and later stating, “For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come” (1 Cor 11:26 DRB). It is important to note that when Paul is writing “do for the commemoration of me”, the word “commemoration” has a particular meaning that gives the words of Christ its importance. The word in Hebrew is used in association with the Passover (“Navarre Bible: The Letters of Saint Paul” 249). It is calling to mind an event and treating it as if it is happening now. In the Greek, the word is “anamnesis”. When the congregation takes part in the Eucharist, everyone is to keep in mind that the moment in which Jesus spoke to his disciples and consecrated the bread and wine is happening now. Christ is with us at the Eucharist like he was with the Apostles.
His presence is further explained by Paul’s continual reference to Christ as the Paschal lamb. The significance of the Paschal lamb originates from the Passover sacrifice. This sacrifice concerns itself with the Hebrews enslavement to the Egyptians and the plagues sent by YHWH. For the final plague, God was going to take the lives of the firstborn in Egypt. To preserve the lives of their own firstborn, the Hebrews were instructed to sacrifice a lamb, smear its blood upon the threshold, and then eat the sacrifice (Exo 12:7 DRB). Paul, being a former Pharisee and a student of Gamaliel, would know of this ritual. Thus, he would know the implication of saying, “Purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new paste, as you are unleavened. For Christ our pasch is sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7 DRB). For as the lamb was the sin offering during the Passover, so too is Christ whom St. Paul states was sent to be our sin offering. Centuries later, St. Thomas Aquinas would write of the crucifixion as being affiliated with the “banquet of the Paschal lamb” (I-II 102.5 ad 3).
Why must the lamb be eaten? It is a celebration. It is a thanksgiving feast for being passed over and untouched by the wrath of God. By eating the sacrifice, the Hebrews are making that price for their sins more personal to themselves. The Paschal lamb has both saved them from the physical punishment, while also nourishing them for the sacrifice is sanctified (Exo 29:34 DRB). Equally, the Eucharist calls to mind the same thing. It is brought to the community in a manner similar to the bread and wine Melchisedech brought before Abraham in thanksgiving (Gen 14:18 DRB). It was then sanctified and given its meaning by the words of Christ at the Last Supper. It is due to this importance that St. Justin Martyr asserts that “no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes” (St. Justin Martyr, Art. 66). St. Paul also stresses this by saying, “Therefore, whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord” (1 Cor 11:27 DRB).
St. Paul provides the foundation for the understanding of the Real Presence within the Eucharist. The epistles may not use the term “transubstantiation” as Aquinas does, but his time was a moment in which the theological understand of the Church was still at its infancy. Despite the lack of mode in which the Real Presence is made manifest, from Paul, believers can learn that the Eucharist bears with it an incredible importance. The gifts have roots within the Paschal sacrifice. Christ has clearly stated that his body and blood is present. Paul reaffirms this. Penalties are mentioned that express the cost for not treating the event with the dignity it deserves. In my experiences, I have found the words of Paul to be more in line with the Church’s definition of Eucharist. For I could never really understand, as a Protestant, why the Lord would care so much for that Protestant communion of an oyster cracker and grape juice.