Last Saturday, during my course on the Eucharist, the issue of Real Presence was raised by a number of students, primarily in the context of belief and respect. I thought that today’s “Scripture Tuesday” might be a useful time to gather at least some biblical insight into the celebration and reception of the Eucharist. Our short entry here cannot do justice to the rich Hebrew tradition upon which the Eucharist depends. The three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) clearly identify what we would popularly call “the first Mass” and specifically the first sharing of the Eucharistic bread and cup as concurrent with the annual Jewish Passover Meal. The Passover was and is described as a “memorial,” but in a much stronger sense that our English usage would suggest. “Memorializing” (or in Christian theology, the term anamnesis) takes the participants back in time to the actual saving moment. For the Jews, this would be the historical deliverance from slavery in Egypt led by Moses. For Roman Catholics the Eucharist is a living return to the original Triduum of Christ’s supper, death, and resurrection.
The Gospel texts are clear that the Last Supper/first Mass occurred in a meal context, that real unleavened bread was broken, divided and handled, and that one cup was shared. From the three aforementioned Gospels we can see that that early Church lived with the paradox of belief in what later theologians would term “Real Presence” and imitating Jesus’ domestic example of breaking and handling the bread and sharing the cup with a kind of physical informality, like a family eating around the table.
However, even within the New Testament canon, there is a range of theological emphasis on the proprieties of Eucharistic sharing. The earliest historical discussion of Eucharistic celebration predates St. Mark by at least a decade, St. Paul’s famous discourse of 1 Corinthians 11. Paul gives us an account of Eucharistic celebrations where drunkenness, gluttony, and social divisiveness were major problems. Paul’s condemnation of eating the bread and drinking the cup unworthily (1 Corinthians 11:27) is based upon his contention that one has sinned against the very body and blood of Christ. The nature of this sin is one of lack of faith in the true reality of the food, but from the text there is also indication that one receives communion badly by disregard of the needs of other members (1 Corinthians 11:22).
One of the most powerful teachings on the Eucharistic food comes from the famous Chapter 6 of St. John’s Gospel, which will be read in its entirety for several weeks this summer as a break from Mark’s narrative. Again it is important to remember that John is writing to a well-established Church; enough time had passed for erroneous or mistaken notions of the nature of Jesus, the Eucharist, and the legitimacy of the Church to take root.
Chapter 6 begins with a retelling of the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but as is usually the case with John, a miracle is an entrée into prolonged discourse, and in this setting the subject is the very nature of Eucharistic bread. Jesus declares in no uncertain terms that he himself is the living food from heaven; that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood already participate in life everlasting. The evangelist records that this teaching—with all of its implications—caused great consternation among friend and foe alike. When speaking of Jesus’ flesh, for example, John uses the Greek word sarx, which is the term for flesh meat. So blunt, so literal, was this teaching that later Christians were popularly accused of cannibalism by uninformed Roman officials.
John observes (6:66) possibly with sadness “from this time on, many of his disciples broke away and would not remain in his company any longer.” When Jesus asks the Twelve if they, too, wished to leave, Simon Peter, in one of his best moments, replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (6:68)
The New Testament is thus very clear that the bread and wine of the Eucharist is indeed the very humanity and divinity of Christ. If this sentence is not particularly disorienting or mysterious, perhaps it is time to reflect on what we actually do at Mass. The New Testament is equally clear that Jesus intended this food to be broken and eaten frequently, in a banquet setting of men and women for whom we hold responsibility given our baptismal vows. Respect for the sacred food, then, is a matter of disposition of the heart and social accountability.