If you grew up in the faith but never really understood most of it – this post is for you. If you went to mass because thats what your family did, got first Holy Communion because your mom put you in Sunday school (CF/CCD) classes, and even got confirmed to “graduate” from those CF/CCD classes (like me!!) then this post is definitely for you!
In this post I’m going to be diving into some basic info on the Eucharist – the Catholic form of communion. What we believe, why we believe it, what makes it so special, and some other questions that come along with all of the above!
What Catholic’s believe about the Eucharist
The first, important thing to know is that Catholics do not believe that communion is a symbol or a reenactment of the Last Supper in memory of what Jesus said and did that day. We believe that the Eucharist IS Jesus – body, blood, soul and divinity comes down from heaven and fully transforms that bread and wine into his body and blood although it maintains the appearance of bread and wine. This is called transubstantiation – that the substance is actually changed. This is a hard, hard concept to understand and accept but I am going to do my best!
The word Eucharist literally means thanksgiving. So when we hit that part of the mass we are offering a sacrifice to God in thanks to Him. We offer the bread, wine, and all the money that was collected in the baskets but we also offer Jesus himself. Therefore, we believe that a miracle happens upon that altar at the hands of a priest who is acting “in persona Christi” (in the place of Christ). That Jesus comes down from Heaven and fully, completely, transforms that tiny little wafer and wine into Himself. This is why we call it the “True Presence” in the Eucharist. This is also why there is all of that kneeling, genuflecting (which we do towards the tabernacle where already transformed Eucharist sits in a chalice awaiting the next mass), some women cover their heads with veils, and many people only receive communion on the tongue – because of our unworthiness to touch God.
No, we’re not killing Jesus all over again. That was a one-and-done deal. So calm down anyone freaking out about this detail. Let me explain how this whole sacrifice came about to begin with. Its fascinating really, it was all foreshadowed in the Old Testament with the Passover.
Why we believe the Eucharist is the True Presence of Christ
Well, because the Old Testament foreshadowed it and Jesus himself told us it was!
If you remember, when God was going to be sending the last plague to Pharaoh and the Egyptians he wanted to give some way to protect His faithful Jewish nation. After all, he was going to be killing all first born sons in one quick swoop one night so he had to give His people explicit directions on how to protect themselves. The directions went like this: 1) Find a perfect lamb – no bruises, cuts, sicknesses or anything like that and kill it. When you kill it, make sure not to break any bones. 2) Spread its blood by painting it on the door frame of your home, so that your sins and the sins of your family would be forgiven. 3) Cook up that lamb give thanks, and eat it as a family. 4) Go to sleep and when you wake up, He will have spared your family of killing your first born son.
Simple right? Now, what if you weren’t really a fan of lamb. Steak, now some steak you could get down with but lamb tastes a little gamey to you and you didn’t want to eat it at the passover meal. Well, you would wake up the next day to find your first born son killed. You didn’t hold up your end of the agreement with God (covenant) and so He didn’t fulfill the promise to you either.
If you remember He was sinless. Perfect. A “perfect lamb” (ever wonder why we refer to Jesus as the “Lamb of God” so much?? Well, here ya go!). He was the perfect lamb who was killed, but no bones were broken – like the other 2 people crucified on Calvary that day. It was actually customary to break their bones but the Romans figured He was good and dead and didn’t want to put forth the effort, prophesy fulfilled! His blood was shed, for all, so that sins may be forgiven. Here’s the kicker. We cannot fully appreciate the sacrifice that Jesus offered, and continues to offer, on behalf of the sins of the whole world unless we eat the Passover sacrifice.
Its morbid, I know. Kinda hard to think of it that way. Ok, really hard to wrap our human minds around this creepy miracle. But, its true. Every time we eat that Holy Communion we reseal our covenant with God in the sacrifice made for us. So, see how we don’t actually re-sacrifice Jesus at each mass we just just make the sacrifice present to our day and time by having Him come down to let us consume his flesh and blood.
Even more evidence is in Luke chapter 24 – After Jesus rose from the dead he comes back to hang out with his disciples. But they didn’t recognize Him. He starts talking to them about scripture, and they’re still clueless. But they like the guy so they ask Him to stay the evening with them. Well while they’re all hanging out Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to everyone there. And upon receiving the bread of life from Jesus, their eyes were opened and they recognized him (finally!). Its that act of breaking of the bread and consuming that fully opens our hearts, minds, souls to Jesus!
Ok, so how do we know all of this is for real?
Because Jesus told us himself! In what is called the “Bread of Life” discourse, Saint John tells us that right after Jesus fed thousands with just a little bit of bread and some fish with 12 baskets of leftovers (hmmm.. 12… 12 baskets to distribute the goods later… kinda like the 12 apostles!), He gives this speech to everyone talking about how we shouldn’t work for food that perishes but work for the food that gives eternal life. (John 6:27) He explains that it wasn’t Moses who gave them the mana (literal grain) from heaven each morning for them to make bread when they were starving in the desert but it was God, the Father, who gave the bread from heaven and gives it to the world (John 6:32). They start saying “please, please, give us this bread always!” and He responds, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger and whoever believes in me shall not thirst.” (John 6:34).
Now He meant this both literally and figuratively. Figuratively because He is the filler for all of our voids and shortcomings but literally… well, he explains the whole eating him part next.
In John chapter 6 is where Jesus tells us literally what he means by being the bread of life. Around verse 48 Jesus is telling the Jews that He is the bread of life and anyone who eats of this bread, his flesh, will have eternal life within them. Now, the original greek word used in the bible literally translates to “gnaw” – super graphic. The Jews present that day didn’t take well to this so they pretty much say “ew, that’s gross! How can this man give us his flesh to eat??” and with that they give Jesus the chance to say, “No, no, no! Chill out, I didn’t mean actually eat – I meant that we’ll just use bread to reinact the last supper but its really not me because, you’re right, gnawing on human flesh is gross.” But, guess what – Jesus didn’t back track on what He said about all the gnawing… instead he responds…
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. 54 Whoever eats [gnaws] my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:53-56).
Sounds pretty darn clear to me what He was saying and what he meant with his words!
So, this is what makes Catholic Eucharist and Communion so special!
This is why people go to adoration – a time where the Eucharist is put on display for the faithful to come worship and spend one on one time with Jesus
This is why women cover their heads with veils or other head coverings in the presence of Christ.
This is why we kneel during the consecration times of the mass (when the priest is calling on Jesus to transform that measly bread and wine into JESUS!). This is also why bells are rung during the consecration times in mass – the bells are actually to say “HEY PAY ATTENTION! THIS PART IS IMPORTANT!”
This is why we genuflect (literal meaning: bend at the knee) when we enter the sanctuary and when we pass by the tabernacle. (Fun fact: I thought you just genuflected because you were entering God’s house. Not the case. You should be genuflecting towards the tabernacle. Most churches, the tabernacle IS directly behind the altar so genuflecting towards the altar makes sense but I have been to a few chapels/churches where the tabernacle is off to the left or the right. Easiest way to find the tabernacle is to find the Sanctuary Candle – its always lit and hangs right by the tabernacle!
This is why we say “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
This is why many people don’t feel worthy enough to touch Jesus with their hands and we receive on the tongue instead. (Another fun fact – did you know that when a priest is ordained – his thumbs and pointer fingers are anointed with holy oil to be purified for the touching of the Eucharist?)
This is also why people who have not yet received their First Holy Communion in the Catholic Church should not receive the Eucharist. Well, there are 3 reasons – #1 the Church wants to make sure that when someone receives the sacrament that they are fully aware of the miracle they are consuming. #2 The Church wants to make sure that the person receiving is fully *worthy* of receiving Christ (no super bad mortal sins, etc.), and #3 Because accepting communion in the Catholic Church means that you are IN communion with the Church (that you fully support and adhere to Church teachings). This is not a “only we can have it and not you, na na na na boo boo” kinda thing. Its merely an agreement and a covenantal seal of unity – and well, if you’re not in union with the Catholic Church – why would you openly want to make that commitment? Does that make sense? (See Fr. Mike Schmitz explanation on non-Catholic receiving the Eucharist)
And finally this is why it is extremely important for those of us receiving the sacrament to be free of all mortal sins. The big ones – because the big ones separate us from the grace of God. In order for a sin to be mortal we must intentionally, in full knowledge, commit the sin. This is basically us saying “Yeah, God I know you set XYZ rule but I don’t really care and I’m going to do it anyways.” It puts a wall up between us and God. And when you receive Christ and try to partake in that covenantal renewal of God’s promise of salvation but you’ve put a huge wall between you and God, deliberately – we’ll thats not doing anyone any good.
Still don’t believe me? Check out some Eucharistic Miracles!
Eucharistic miracles are when the body and blood of Christ in the eucharist, which is under the form of bread and wine actually bleeds, has actually been scientifically proven to have human flesh cells. And not just any human flesh cells – cardiac (heart) cells. And those cells have been proven to have been under extreme levels of stress found in hormone remnants in the cells.