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What is the Eucharist? Part One

February 26, 2012
One of the biggest blessings of my time here at S+L has to working on our show In Your Faith. In the second season of the show we looked at all the Sacraments and found that no matter where you are in your faith life, it's never a bad idea to review what the Church teaches about the Sacraments. It is my hope that these posts will help you deepen the relationship to the mystery of the Sacraments.* This time we'll be looking at the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
Last time we were speaking of sin and repentance and that’s a good lead into speaking about the Eucharist. Well, at least to get us to the topic of sacrifice. Let me explain: It only takes a brief glance through the books of Exodus, Leviticus and/or Deuteronomy to understand that the Jewish people believed that they had to offer a sacrifice for the atonement of their sins. For them sin required much more than repentance, confession, forgiveness and penance. Sin had to be atoned.
Another word for atonement could be compensation or reparation. Another word that is often used is expiation. Basically, the belief is that our sins have consequences and in order to repair (atone; expiate) the damage done, a sacrifice has to be offered.
But I don’t think that God really needed the people of Israel to sacrifice a lamb or a goat so that their sins would be forgiven (see Psalm 40:6). Psalm 51:16-17 reads, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” God does not require empty sacrifice but our repentant heart. But the sacrifice was the sign to symbolise God’s forgiveness and to show that the person offering the sacrifice was repentant of the sin. In that sense, a “reparation” or “atonement” was made.
Now, we no longer have to offer a goat or lamb in sacrifice for the atonement of our sins, but we still have a sacrifice to offer. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up to the Exodus story:
When the Jewish people were still slaves in Egypt, God called Moses to bring them out of slavery. This is when God sent the 10 plagues to encourage the pharaoh to let the people of Israel go. But this wasn’t working, so God commanded Moses to tell the people of Israel: “They are to take a lamb for each family… your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male, you may take it from the sheep or goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter the lambs at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs… you shall let none of it remain… anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: you loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human and animals…the blood shall be a sign... When I see the blood, I will pass over you and no plague shall destroy you.” He finished with, “this day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” (See Exodus: 12:1-14) This is why the Jewish people, to this day, celebrate Passover, their most important feast.
A few years ago we our Question of the Week for Perspectives: the Weekly Edition had to do with Catholics celebrating the Jewish Passover. I’m not saying that we should celebrate Passover, but if you ever have the opportunity to attend a Passover Ceder meal, I think you should.
I once had the opportunity to attend a Ceder meal and it helped me to understand the Mass in a way that I hadn’t before. The Ceder meal is so full of ritual, prayer and praise: You eat this and then you say this prayer and it’s all about remembrance. I remember wondering why we, as Christians, don’t celebrate Passover, since it’s also our heritage. Then I realised that we don’t have to celebrate Passover because we have the new Passover celebration: the Mass.
That makes sense.
It all makes sense: Jesus is the lamb that was sacrificed so that we would be saved, so that our sins would be atoned. His blood is the blood that is the sign of the new covenant.
And the fact that the last thing Jesus did before his death was to celebrate the Passover with his disciples, is no coincidence either. The sacrifice of the Eucharist foreshadows the sacrifice of the cross, which is the new sacrifice, the new Passover.
According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, on the first day of unleavened bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, Jesus gathered with his disciples to eat the Passover. While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew: 26:26-28) This is the way Matthew and Mark describe it. But Luke adds a short line that all of us are familiar with. After Jesus offers the bread and says, “take and eat,” he adds, “do this in memory of me.” (Luke 22:19) Jesus left us a command that we celebrate the Eucharist (and I would add, live Eucharistic lives), in remembrance of him.
But it doesn’t end there. The Eucharist also has to do with Jesus saying to us that he would be with us until the end of time (Matthew 28:20). Jesus makes this amazing promise, but it’s easy to forget it when we don’t feel anything and we can’t see him. So we have these signs, these Sacraments; these reminders.
But with the Eucharist is much more than that: The bread and wine actually become his body and blood, which he gave up for us. In the Eucharist, Christ is truly present, body, soul and divinity. It’s not a representation or a symbol. It’s really Jesus. That’s the metaphysical occurrence that takes place: The bread and wine are transubstantiated into Christ, body, soul and divinity.
And so Jesus is really present in the Eucharist. And when we receive the Eucharist, he really comes inside us to nourish us.
So he’s not just with us but he is also our daily bread.
I heard once from someone who wasn’t Catholic that he didn’t believe that Jesus was present in the Eucharist, because if he was, we would all be on our knees. That statement really shocked me. But it’s true. I don’t think most people realise what it means to believe that Jesus is really present at the mass, in the Eucharist. Maybe next time you’re at Mass you can meditate on that.
Next week we’ll look at the importance of bread. Why bread?
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask, it’s as simple as writing a comment below or sending me an email– and do let us know what you’re thoughts are on this. We all struggle with understanding the Eucharist. It is a mystery after all!
And for an easy-to-understand approach to all the Sacraments and to many faith-related topics, remember to watch In Your Faith every Wednesday at 2 and 6pm ET (11am and 3pm PT). Both seasons are now available for sale, with topics such as Why Doesn’t the Church Get With the Times? Y B Catholic? Who is Jesus? Who is Mary? Where Do I Fit in the World? For more information visit our S+L Store.
*Read previous posts on the Sacraments:
What is a Sacrament? part one, part two and part three
What is Baptism? part one, part two and part three
What is Reconciliation? part one, part two and part three
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