The Bread of Life
Scripture and The Eucharist
by Dwight Longenecker
When I was an Evangelical Christian the preacher sometimes referred to his long Bible sermons as ‘breaking the bread of life.’ He was referring to the Word of God as life giving bread. Catholics ‘break the bread of life’ in their central act of worship which is called the Mass--otherwise called the Eucharist, The Lord's Supper or Holy Communion.
Catholics believe the Eucharist is a kind of sacrifice, and that when they eat the consecrated bread and wine they really do share in the body and blood of Jesus Christ which was given for them.
In fact, both forms of ‘breaking the bread of life’ come together because the roots of the Catholic Mass are deeply Scriptural. The bread of life which is the Word of God and the bread of life which is the Eucharist support one another-offering two means of being in communion with God.
In the first Bible stories we’re given pictures of how primitive people first worshipped God. The first people to love and serve God worshipped him by making sacrifices. So Abel, Noah and Abraham make animal sacrifices to God; but animal sacrifices weren't the only form of food offering.
In Genesis 14 we meet someone called Melchizadek--the priest of God most high. He makes an offering of bread and wine before blessing Abraham. The sacrifice of bread and wine was a simple offering, and continued to be part of the sacrificial meals much later. But the main sacrifice was always an offering of the flesh and blood of an animal.
In a culture where all clothes, tools, food and wealth come from sheep and goats its easy to understand that to sacrifice a sheep or goat is to give God what something valuable and necessary. But there was more to it than that. The ancient peoples believed the life of the flesh was in the blood, so to shed blood was to release the life-force. To eat the flesh was to take that life-force within you.
There was a darker side to this sacrifice business as well. In many ancient Middle Eastern cultures they practised human sacrifice--usually sacrificing infants and children to their cruel gods. So when God called Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, one of the reasons for the strange events was to prove that the God of Abraham did NOT require his people to sacrifice their children. Instead--as the story in Genesis 22 relates-- God himself would provide the ultimate sacrifice. When Abraham saw the ram with its head caught in a thicket it was clear that they could sacrifice a lamb instead of their firstborn.
Several generations later the descendents of Abraham were enslaved in Egypt. On the night of their delivery from slavery God told them to kill a young lamb. The blood of this lamb was to be put on their doorposts and lintels making a cross shape over their door. They were then instructed to eat the meat of the slaughtered lamb with unleavened bread, to prepare for their journey to the promised land.
This lamb was known as the Lamb of God or the Passover Lamb. Like the goat who took the place of Isaac when Abraham went to sacrifice him, the lamb took the punishment of sin on himself for the people. The lamb--like Abraham's goat-- died so that the oldest son in the family would be spared by the angel of death.
When the people ate the lamb and bread they were accepting the lamb's sacrifice. In eating the meat from the lamb, the lamb's life and death became a part of them. Because the lamb died they could live, and this became literally true as they ate the meat--the flesh--of the lamb.
Every Spring the Jews continued to remember their deliverance from slavery in Egypt by celebrating the solemn ritual of Passover. Jews still celebrate Passover today, and Jews have a very interesting attitude to the Passover.
When they celebrate the Passover they are not so much remembering a past event, but they are re-living that event. Through the ritual they bring the excitement and immediacy of that first Passover into the present moment. In the Passover celebration Jews are caught up in the events of that first Passover night as if they were really there.
When they were in the desert and Moses went up Mount Sinai, he received from God not only the ten commandments, but detailed instructions for the worship system of the Hebrew people. You can read all about this in the last chapters of Exodus and the first ten chapters of Leviticus. Suffice it to say that at the centre of the worship system was sacrifice.
The priests were ordained by God to offer sacrifices for the people. They offered grain or animals to God in thanksgiving and for the forgiveness of sins. After the sacrifice was killed part of it was burnt on an altar--like a big furnace. When the smoke went up the Bible says God was pleased, and in the smoke he sent down his spirit of forgiveness.
The final part of the sacrifice was that the priests and the people were required to eat the bread made from the grain and the meat from the sacrificed animal. As they ate the flesh and bread they accepted the life of the sacrifice and shared in the forgiveness which was won for them.
There are several important points to consider about this Old Testament sacrificial system. God establishes a priesthood to offer sacrifices of flesh and bread. The people eat the bread and the meat as a solemn acceptance of the sacrifice which was made for them. But there is more to it than that.
The sacrificial system was also linked in with the Law--or the Word of God. On Mount Sinai Moses received the Law, and the instructions for the sacrificial system. Now the Law was not just considered to be a list of do's and dont's. The Law was a solemn, written, binding contract between God and his people.
There was a special ceremony in which the law would be read to the people, the people would solemnly swear to obey the law and then they would be sprinkled with blood from the sacrifice. In other words the sacrifice was the solemn ceremony which sealed the covenant between God and his people in blood.
This sacrificial system was kept alive by the Jews from Moses' time. At first they celebrated this system in the portable tabernacle. After they entered the promised land the tabernacle was settled at one place called Shiloh.
Then during the reign of David the worship was centred on Jerusalem where Solomon eventually built the great temple. The first temple was destroyed and Herod the Great re-built a wonderful temple for the sacrificial system to be continued, and it was this temple which Jesus knew.
So during the time of Jesus the whole Jewish sacrificial system was in place. Priests were offering sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins and the climax of this sacrificial system was that every Spring the people solemnly celebrated the Passover feast.
Every year the Lamb of God would be sacrificed according to the proper rituals, and the people would share the sacred meal--eating the lamb, the bread and drinking the wine. As they did they brought the first Passover into the present moment and applied its saving power to themselves and their children. By eating the sacred meal they expressed their unity with one another and with the God who had bound them in a sacred covenant by the shedding of blood.
We should remember that the first Christians were Jews. The Jewish sacrificial system provided the rich background for them to understand who Jesus was and what his death accomplished. This same Jewish sacrificial system provides the background for the early church's understanding of the Eucharist, and it is from this early New Testament Church that Catholic beliefs in the Eucharist originated.
But before we can explore all that we need to know how the sacrificial system fits in with Jesus? What did Jesus say and do with this ancient Jewish system of worship, and what did he pass on to his apostles? Did he establish a system of worship for the early church? Did he give his flesh and blood for us to eat? If so, what did he mean by that, and how does the church celebrate his teaching and his commands?
Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 5.17 that he came to fulfil the law and the prophets. In other words, everything in the Old Testament was a pointer to him. The most powerful and moving way Jesus fulfilled all the law and the prophets was simply by being born. In probably the most important verse in the Bible--John 1.14-- we're told that, 'the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.'
The Word became flesh. Christ--the only Son of God, the power by whom God creates and sustains all things, took human flesh. He had a real body, real blood; and that real body and blood were completely one with his soul and divinity. This is the cornerstone of all Christian belief and something all Christians share.
The Word, the Son of God, took flesh. He was a real human person with a real human body in a real place and time in human history. This truth we call the 'incarnation' and incarnation literally means the 'enfleshment'. But what does this have to do with the Old Testament sacrificial system? What does this have to do with the Passover sacrifice?
Well, its no mistake and no co-incidence that from the very beginning with Abel--the son of Adam and Eve-- God demanded a sacrifice of flesh and blood. Through the sacrificial system God met his people through flesh and blood, and this sacramental meeting with his people through the offering of flesh and blood was a picture and a pointer to the amazing fact of the incarnation.
Every time the blood and flesh of a lamb was offered it was a pointer to the God who would one day offer himself to us in flesh and blood. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem--taking on flesh and blood-- the whole sacrificial system was fulfilled. When Abraham had prophesied so long ago, 'God himself will provide the sacrifice,' the prophecy was fulfilled at Bethlehem.
Now here's another curious point. The sacrifice of flesh was always linked in the Old Testament with a sacrifice of bread. In the Passover Meal the flesh of the Lamb was eaten along with unleavened bread, in the wilderness the Israelites were given miraculous flesh and bread to eat called manna; and in the Old Testament sacrificial system the grain offerings were just as important in their way as the flesh offerings.
Remember I said the flesh offerings were fulfilled when Jesus was born at Bethlehem? It is no co-incidence that the name 'Bethlehem' actually means House of Bread, and of course Jesus went on to call himself the Bread of Life. So at Bethlehem the flesh offering is one with the bread offering. Jesus' flesh and blood human life is linked with the bread and the flesh offerings of the Old Testament sacrifices.
The most striking first witness to this comes from John the Baptist. As soon as John the Baptist sees Jesus he cries out--'Look, there is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.' John's Jewish hearers would have known exactly what he was talking about. The Lamb of God was the Passover Lamb. But not only was he the Passover Lamb. Every Jew knew his Old Testament Scriptures back to front so he would have also thought of Isaiah 53.7 and Jeremiah 11.19 where the specially anointed suffering servant of the Lord is said to be like a lamb led out to the sacrificial slaughter.
The Passover Lamb of God was a sacrifice that had to be eaten, and from his first appearance in John's gospel Jesus is that Lamb. To hammer the point home, when John tells us the story of Jesus' death he makes sure that Jesus dies precisely at the time that the Passover Lambs would have been slain in the temple.
This link between Jesus, the Passover Lamb and the sacrificial system is a very important element in John's gospel. John is very careful to tell us when Jesus is about to celebrate a Passover Feast, and each time he does so the events are packed with meaning. So in John chapter two it is at Passover time that Jesus clears the temple. Jesus wanted to clear out the traders and money changers, but in John's gospel he is also doing something else.
When he clears the temple in chapter two Jesus is doing a prophetic action. It is as if he is sweeping away not only the temple but also the whole Old Testament sacrificial system that it stands for. He not only sweeps it away, but in John 2.21 he says the temple is his body. In other words, through the incarnation the old temple and sacrifice system is swept away to be replaced by the Body of Christ.
So in the first two chapters of John's gospel Jesus takes the place of the Passover Lamb and the temple with its sacrificial system. He replaces both with himself--that is, with his body.
Jesus also replaces another important Old Testament image. In John chapter six Jesus feeds the five thousand with a miraculous multiplication of bread and fish. As Moses had given the people in the wilderness flesh and bread to eat, so Jesus miraculously gives the people flesh and bread to eat.
But John wants to do more than just show Jesus to be a second Moses. To understand John's meaning completely we need to remember that his gospel was written to the early Christians who used the fish as a symbol of Jesus himself, in the same chapter Jesus calls himself the bread of life, so the early Christians would have seen the feeding of the five thousand as a sign of Christ miraculously feeding a multitude with himself--under the symbols of bread and fish. In addition, in the same chapter the offerings of bread and flesh come together as one in Jesus.
This becomes clear after the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand--which took place near Passover. Jesus then teaches the crowds about the bread from heaven. In verses 31-33 of chapter six Jesus says the Jews had manna in the wilderness, but he--Jesus--is the true bread from heaven. He is the bread of heaven which gives life to the world. At this the Jews began to grumble saying, 'Who is this person? He is just Jesus, the son of Joseph, how can he say he has come down from heaven?'
Then Jesus gets into a debate with them and says something truly astounding. He'd already said that he was the bread of life, and maybe his hearers understood this in a symbolic way; perhaps meaning that Jesus' teachings were nourishing and good. But now Jesus goes further. Remember how the bread and the flesh offerings were always together in the Old Testament? Remember how Jesus is the Word made flesh?
In verses 50-51 Jesus brings the bread offering and the flesh offering together in himself and says, 'Here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever.' Then he says what the bread is: 'This bread is my flesh which I will give for the life of the world.'
The Jews are genuinely aghast. 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat!' Maybe they simply got the wrong end of the stick. Maybe they misunderstood him. They were taking his words too literally perhaps. Earlier when Nicodemus took Jesus' words about being born again too literally Jesus corrected him. But this time Jesus doesn't correct anyone.
His hearers say, 'But how can this man give us his flesh to eat!!" and Jesus doesn't say, 'Look, I am speaking figuratively, I really mean it is my teachings that you must share in by faith.' Instead he makes his point even more clear and shocking. In verse 53 he says solemnly, 'I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks by blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. ...He who feeds on this bread will live forever.'
It is also important to point out what the Jews thought about the body and the soul. We sometimes think the body and the soul are separate, as if the body were simply a container for the soul, but the Jews of Jesus' time saw it differently. For them the body and the soul could not be separated. The soul dwelled in the every part of the body, and to eat the flesh and blood of a creature was to share in its life.
So when Jesus says they must eat his flesh he means they must share in his life, and because he is God in the flesh this is the way to share in eternal life. He goes on to make this point in John six when he says, 'whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life... whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him...just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.'
So John's gospel shows how Jesus sweeps away the Old Testament sacrificial system and replaces the temple with his body. John also shows us that Jesus is the Passover Lamb--the one who takes away the sin of the world. The one whose flesh has to be eaten in order to share in the benefits of salvation. In John's gospel Jesus is also the manna, the Bread from heaven, which must also be eaten if one is to have eternal life.
This link between the bread and Jesus' flesh is vitally important because it is through his flesh and blood that Christ was incarnate in the world. We too are incarnate in the world. We have bodies, and for salvation to be real it has to extend in some way to our flesh and blood too. That is why he says his flesh is REAL food and his blood REAL drink. Jesus really took flesh and blood and to share in that reality Jesus says we must eat his flesh and drink his blood.
There are many strands which make up this tapestry, but the link between all these strands is the Last Supper. In Luke's gospel we see how Jesus consolidated his teaching. The night before he died Jesus gathered the apostles together to celebrate the Passover. This Passover was the most solemn ritual meal in the Hebrew calendar. At the meal they shared the meat from the sacrificed lamb, and they shared blessed bread and wine. As they did, they were united in their shared Jewish heritage; they were united with one another; and they were united with the God who saved them.
In Luke 22 we have the account of that Passover Meal which Jesus shared with his apostles. Luke tells us that it was the feast of Unleavened Bread--one of the feasts during Passover Week. It was during this Feast, Luke tells us, that the Passover Lamb was sacrificed. Jesus gathers with his apostles to celebrate the Passover ceremony together.
As he takes the unleavened bread he holds it up and says solemnly, 'This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' Then he takes the cup and says, 'This is the blood of the new covenant which is poured out for you.' Just as the blood of a sacrificial Lamb was poured out to seal the covenant between God and his people, so Jesus' blood will be poured out on the cross.
Just as part of the Passover sacrifice was to eat the bread and Lamb and drink the wine, so Jesus transfers the symbolism to himself. The wine is now his blood. The bread is now his flesh. Suddenly all the other pieces of the puzzle must have fallen into place for the apostles. This is what John meant when he called Jesus the Passover Lamb of God. This is what Jesus meant when he called himself the Bread of Heaven and said that they had to eat his flesh to have eternal life.
But there was another level of meaning as well. When Jesus said the wine was his blood of the new covenant he was referring back to another Old Testament passage--Exodus 24. There Moses has just received the tablet of the law from God. He sets up an altar, makes a sacrifice and sprinkles the blood on the altar and on the people.
The people promise to keep God's law and God promises in return to be their God. The blood seals the covenant which both parties have made. Then in verse eleven of Exodus 24 it says the elders of the people saw God, and they ate and drank together.
At the Last Supper Jesus brings this Old Testament passage to life as well. When he says the wine is his blood of the new covenant, he is establishing a new treaty of love between God and his people. The important thing to remember is that both the Old Testament story of the covenant being established and the New Testament story of the New Covenant being established both take place within a ritual meal.
The Old Testament Jews ate and drank the sacrifice in order to physically take part in the covenant, and Jesus' apostles had to eat and drink of this transformed Passover Meal in order to physically take part in Christ's redemptive sacrifice on the cross.
The cross is where the whole story is leading. The next day when Jesus was taken out to die every detail of the Old Testament images, every detail of his life on earth and every detail of his teaching and the events at the Last Supper were suddenly, powerfully and terribly fulfilled.
In John's gospel Jesus actually dies at the moment when all the Passover Lambs would have been killed in the temple. So there on the cross the ancient feast of Passover--by which God delivered his people from slavery was fulfilled. There on the cross the terrible story of Abraham sacrificing his only son came to have a universal and wonderful meaning. There on the cross the sacrifice which sealed the covenant which bound God and his people came true. There on the cross the whole sacrificial system of the Jewish people suddenly took on a greater, more marvellous and complex meaning.
There too, the truths Jesus spoke at the Last Supper suddenly became clear. There his own body of flesh and blood became the sacrifice, and from now on the Passover Bread and the Passover Wine would have a new meaning. As he taught, they would become h is body and blood-- a permanent memorial of his flesh and blood which was given for the life of the world.
At the Last Supper Jesus instituted a New Covenant, a New Passover, and a New Sacramental System. In Luke's gospel Jesus commands his apostles to celebrate this new ritual meal as 'often as you do it, in memory of me.' This phrase 'in memory of me' is important because it doesn't just mean a memorial service for a dead friend.
Instead, like the Passover, this new ritual meal was to be celebrated with solemnity as a way to make Christ's saving death alive in the present moment. Like the Passover Meal which it replaces, the Lord's Supper is a way to re-live and re-present the events of Christ's death and resurrection. Like the Passover Meal, the new ritual meal is a way for each individual to share in the events of the cross in a real, physical way.
This was clearly the teaching of the early church. Paul's letter to the Corinthians was one of the first bits of the New Testament to be written. While he was staying in Ephesus he wrote to the Corinthians about their worship practices. He orders them to maintain a decent and solemn celebration of the ritual meal he calls 'the Lord's Supper.'
Then he expresses the formula which lies at the heart of the Holy Communion Service. 'For the tradition I received from the Lord I passed on to you,: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my Body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way after supper he took the cup saying, "This is the new covenant in my blood do this whenever you drink it in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.' So for Paul the Lord's Supper is not just a way to remember Jesus. It is a dynamic way of proclaiming his death until he comes again.
Paul teaches that the ritual meal of the Lord's Supper is like the Passover, it is a dynamic re-telling or re-living of the saving events of Christ's death. But Paul also makes the link between the Old Testament worshippers eating the flesh of the sacrifice and the sharing of the bread at the Lord's Supper.
In I Corinthians 10.18 he points to the Old Testament worshippers and says that by eating the sacrifice they share in the altar--in other words, they join themselves with the sacrifice. A few verses before he had said that the Christian worshippers, by eating the bread at the Lord's Supper, share in the Christian sacrifice. So Paul says, 'Is not the cup of thanksgiving which we bless a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?'
Is that bread and wine merely a symbolic sharing? Certainly in the Passover and in the Old Testament sacrificial system eating the flesh of the sacrifice and the blessed bread was a vital part of the transaction. You had to eat in order to partake and be involved in God's saving action.
Jesus says the same thing in John six when he says, 'unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you do not have life within you.' Its also important in the New Testament that the person eating the bread acknowledge that it is the body of Christ. When Paul is addressing the Corinthians about the Lord's Supper he says something very interesting.
He warns the Corinthians not to come to the Lord's Supper unworthily. In verses 28 and 29 of I Corinthians eleven Paul says, 'A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognising the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgement to himself.' In other words, if you eat and drink, but you do not believe that the bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ you may be eating and drinking God's judgement, not God's blessing.
From the earliest days the Church has understood the bread and wine of the communion service to be just what Jesus said it is--his body and blood. It is interesting to read the earliest documents of the church to see what the rest of the early Christians believed.
These writings are not Scripture, but they were written by those men who came just after the apostles. Here is something by Ignatius of Antioch--a Christian who was actually taught by Peter and John and who died as a martyr in Rome in the year 108. He says, 'Take great care to keep one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup that unites us with his blood.' He says that heretics deny that the communion bread is really the body of Christ. So he says, 'The Docetists (those were heretics of his day) stay away from the Eucharist and prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins.'
There are many writings from these first years of the Church, and all of them agree with the New Testament, that the bread and wine of the communion service are--in some way--really the body and blood of Jesus Christ, and that by eating and drinking them we have a share in his life, his love and his saving work on the cross.
They all take Jesus' words seriously and at face value, that 'whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.' They listen to Christ when he lifts up the bread and says at the Last Supper--'This is my Body.' This has also been the faith of the Catholic church down through the ages. It is a belief which is firmly based in the Scriptures, and which brings life and blessing to all who hold to it.
St. Paul says the bread is a sharing in the body of Christ and warns Christians that they must accept and recognise that the bread and wine are really the body and blood of Christ. But how are the bread and wine the body of Christ, and what happens as the church remembers the sacrifice of Christ at the Eucharist?
The answer to these questions can be found in the book of Hebrews. The writer to the Hebrews is careful to show how Christ's sacrifice fulfils the Old Testament sacrificial system, and he points to the way the church remembers and re-lives the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ.
In Hebrews chapter ten it says the Old Testament sacrificial system was a reflection of what was to come. The Old Testament sacrifices couldn't save anyone, but now Christ's sacrifice has established a new covenant or a new agreement between God and humanity. Hebrews makes the contrast like this: 'Every Old Testament priest stands at his duties every day, offering over and over again the same sacrifices which are quite incapable of taking away sins. Christ, on the other hand, has offered one single sacrifice for sins and then taken his seat for ever at the right hand of God...By virtue of that one single offering, he has achieved the eternal perfection of all who are sanctified.'
Now that Christ has died, and sealed the New Covenant with his blood there is no need for priests to go on making daily sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins. Neither is there any need for a sacrificial priesthood because, as the writer of Hebrews says in chapter seven, Christ is the great high priest. His priesthood is established forever in heaven, and his one sacrifice on the cross is established now for all time.
When the church comes together to celebrate the Lord's Supper what did the Lord intend? He commanded the Apostles to carry on the ritual until he returned. We have seen that the Lord's Supper replaced the Passover Meal and the Old Testament sacrificial system. Many Christians--not just Catholics-- talk about the Lord's Supper as a sacrifice, but Hebrews says that sacrifices no longer need to be made.
However, at the end of the book of Hebrews we are shown what kind of sacrifice the Eucharist is. In chapter thirteen verse fourteen, we're told, 'Through Christ, let us offer to God an unending sacrifice of praise.' The word 'Eucharist' means 'thanksgiving' so the Eucharist or the Holy Communion is not a sacrifice of Christ over and over again. Instead it is an unending sacrifice of praise offered by the church.
As Christ commanded, the Church--led by the apostles--comes together to offer praise and thanksgiving for the once for all sacrifice of Christ on the cross. There as Paul commands we also offer ourselves as living sacrifices to do God's will. There, as a Holy Priesthood the whole people of God--led by their local elder-- call to mind the death of Jesus Christ with hearts full of praise.
We do this in obedience to Christ since he told us to remember him in this way. Just as the Jews continued to celebrate Passover, and so brought the dramatic events of the first Passover into the present moment, so at the Eucharist we bring the dramatic events of Christ's sacrifice into the present moment.
The Eucharist is a living, dynamic act of memory, one in which we actively participate together. We do not sacrifice Christ again. Catholic teaching is clear--just as the Bible is-- that Christ's sacrifice was once for all eternity on the cross. But through this powerful way of remembering, we as the church bring that event into the present. So we say that the Lord's Supper 're-presents' Christ's once for all sacrifice and applies it to us at this point in time.
Finally, we have spoken before about the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. This is what Jesus taught, this is what St.Paul taught, this is what the early church believed. It was taken as a mystery of faith that at each communion service Christ was really present with his church in a powerful and physical way through the blessed bread and wine.
But it wasn't until the eleventh century that Christians began to question how this happened. Then some theologians said the presence of Christ at the Eucharist was only a spiritual presence and that the bread and wine were only symbols. After much debate over a two centuries the Church finally decided on a form of words to describe what happens when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ.
This form of words is called 'transubstantiation'. It is a pretty difficult concept, but I'll try to make it simple. The word 'transubstantiation' itself simply means 'substance across' or 'change of substance'. But to know what the church means by this very specific definition we have to know what the theologians meant by the word substance. When they said 'substance' they meant almost exactly the opposite of what we think of as substance.
When we say 'substance' we think of physical stuff--something substantial. But when they said 'substance' some thousand years ago they meant the 'soul' or 'heart' of a thing. So for the theologians in the thirteenth century your substance is the invisible bit of you. It is your essence, or your true being.
The substance of bread and wine are the invisible aspect of bread and wine which might be called 'bread-ness' or 'wine-ness'. What Catholics believe is that this essence of bread and essence of wine is transformed at the Eucharist into the essence of Jesus Christ's body and blood.
A miracle happens in which the substance of the bread and wine becomes the substance of Christ. So we describe what happens by saying that the body and blood of Christ are really present to us under the form or appearance of bread and wine.
This is what transubstantiation means, and it is a pretty good description of what the incarnation is about too. In other words, under the form of human flesh and blood God himself saw fit to dwell. But for all that, transubstantiation can never be more than a good description of what we think happens at communion.
At the end of the day we must admit that it is a mystery. We put together the Scriptural words and take them for what they are--God's revelation to humanity. Jesus said, 'unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you do not have life within you.' At the Last Supper he held up the bread and wine and said, 'This is my body, this is my blood.'
Before he returned to heaven he promised his apostles that he would be with them always. St.Paul affirms that the bread of communion is a sharing in the body of Christ, and it has been the witness of the church down through the ages that through this Eucharistic miracle Jesus is with his church in a real spiritual and physical way until the end of time.
But of course, Jesus is also present with his church in other ways. He is really present with the Church as she reads, studies and proclaims God's word. Christ is with the Church as she does his work of mission and outreach in the world. Christ is with the Church in a real way whenever two or three are gathered together in prayer.
Christ is present when the church governs herself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and Christ is present within each Christian who is filled with the Holy Spirit. But for Catholics all these forms of Christ's presence with us are summed up and fulfilled most perfectly and completely through the presence of his body and blood under the appearance of bread and wine.
Coming from an Evangelical background this caused me some problems because I was taught that the bread and wine were only symbolic. But when I began to examine the gospels the symbolic interpretation didn't fit with the plain words of Jesus. The clear and simple interpretation was the Catholic one. Then I began to look again at the miracles of Jesus.
He transformed the substance of water into the substance of wine. He multiplied the substance of bread and fish to feed the five thousand. He restored the substance of Lazarus and Jairus' daughter to their bodies when he raised them from the dead.
I believed in those miracles, why could I not accept that Jesus Christ--who is with us always--could also perform the miracle by transforming the substance of bread and wine into his own body and blood at the Eucharist? In the end it seemed to fit, and to deny this part of Christian truth suddenly seemed to be the thing which didn't fit the whole picture.
Once I accepted it my life was transformed. Suddenly the incarnation was a real event. Christ had taken flesh at Bethlehem two thousand years ago-- and in the Eucharistic miracle he continues to be en-fleshed among us.
When I came into full communion with the Catholic church the truths of the Scripture came alive in a new way. The incarnation of Christ was a reality at each service and an awesome connection with him became alive in my life. Suddenly I understood why the Eucharist is so important for Catholics.
It is there that the love of Christ is remembered in a dynamic and powerful way for it is there that Christ becomes really present with his church, and his eternal love and power, expressed on the cross, touches and transforms each one of us, and for this we offer Eucharist--a continual offering of thanks and praise to God.