When I talk to non-Catholics about the Eucharist, they always seem to be caught off guard by John, chapter 6, which is commonly referred to as the Bread of Life Discourse. I was recently talking to a friend of mine, and I spoke about the Eucharist. He responded about how that is just an opinion of what happens. I said, "It isn't. It is the real thing, especially when you consider John 6." And he was surprised to have heard about it. There are even some Protestant biblical commentaries who seem just to put John 6 in a footnote. So, my attempt in this post will be to explain what the Catholic Church believes about the Eucharist through the lens of the Bread of Life Discourse.
For those who want to follow along, this is John 6:22-71.
There was a crowd there, at the beginning of this passage. This is the same crowd who ate the bread Jesus multiplied at the beginning of John 6. They asked Jesus when he got there. Jesus responded, "I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saws signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled" (John 6:26). Jesus suggests to the crowd, then, that the only reason they are coming around again is because they see the Christ as the source of free food. Did they really take anything away from the Multiplication of the Loaves? Jesus may be skeptical. In verse 30, the people ask Jesus , "What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do" (John 6:30)? But wait a minute, did not Jesus just perform a sign at the beginning of chapter 6? He did. The Jews in this time were always interested in seeing signs, but the message of them seemed to get lost. Isn't that us in this modern age, always wanting to see something awesome, but failing to really grasp the awesomeness?
The people then refer to the Old Testament, with Moses in the desert. This is the story of manna falling from heaven. "He gave them bread from heaven to eat" (John 6:31, cf. Ex. 16:4). Jesus says something very important here. He says, "it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world" (John 6:32-33). We must also remember that their "ancestors are the manna in the desert, but they died" (John 6:49). Jesus is then to contrast the manna with the Bread of Life which he we are about to get into.
The people say again, "Sir, give us this bread always" (John 6:34). Jesus responds, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst" (John 6:35). What Jesus is saying here is that when their ancestors ate manna, they died, but Jesus is that bread of life which won't make you go hungry again. He says later, "this is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world" (John 6:50-51). There are some important things to consider. Many people can consider the term "eat" to be merely figurative. They would say, of course you don't physically eat the body of Jesus. That would be cannibalism. So "eat" must be purely figurative. However, one who says this may not know what the Greek actually says.
In the Greek, there is a participle when it reads "whoever eats", literally "Ό τρώγών", which is a present active participle, in the masculine, singular, and in the nominative case. The "O" in the front literally is "the one who", and τρώγών is literally "eats". However, this is from the verb infinitive "τργειν", which is "to eat." This specific verb, according to many Greek scholars, suggests a literal, crunching "eat", not a figurative one. It suggests gnawing, chewing, and crunching, none of which are figurative interpretations of the word "eat". So when Jesus says "whoever eats this bread will live forever," Jesus is talking about a specific, literal action. And when He says that He is this Bread of Life, we must conclude then, that Jesus is telling us: Whoever eats Me will live forever.
And Jesus continues, "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink' (John 6:53-55). Jesus is talking about himself as the Eucharist. It isn't figurative. Do you really think Jesus is being figurative? He calls his flesh true food, and his blood true drink. This is the essence of the Last Supper, as told in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. So, when Jesus says "This is my body, which will be given up for you" in the Synoptic Gospel's account of the Last Supper, that bread no longer is bread. It is a literal changing from bread to the Body of Christ. The Eucharist is the Bread of Life, Jesus. This is what Mass is all about: the turning of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ by a man ordained to be in the person of Christ (in persona Christi).
Let's also not forget the eschatological purpose of the Eucharist, when Jesus says "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day" (John 6:54). One of the purposes for the Eucharist is for the salvation of all who partake in it. Participating in the Eucharist is the way of salvation! We are literally receiving Christ into ourselves. How great is that. You know, Protestants and those who don't believe in the Eucharist can argue all they want about what they think the Scriptures say. I would rather cooperate with God's grace given to me in the Eucharist than waste time arguing. I pray for Protestants every day that they may come to believe in the Eucharist and its salvific power. How wonderful a gift from God is the Eucharist, and how little people appreciate it.
Under appreciation isn't just from Protestants. In fact, even within the Catholic Churches, there is a general misunderstanding of what the Eucharist is all about. I have seen firsthand the Eucharist treated with very ill reverence. I have seen people try to take the Eucharist and hide it in their hands as they leave the church. I have caught many, but I think I may have been tricked by one who pretended to put it in her mouth. And it still worries me what she did with it. After Pope John Paul II died, a consecrated host from St. Peter's square ended up on Ebay! Can you really believe that? Just 100 years ago people rarely took the Eucharist because of the sacredness of it, and when they did, they were kneeling, and receiving on the tongue. Now, it is being auctioned off online, and being taken out of church after Mass! One of the biggest things the reader of this blog can do is next time when you go to Mass, make sure you understand what the Eucharist really is. The Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is no longer bread and wine, although it still looks like it. But, as a regular Mass goer, and one who has been interiorly transformed by the power of the Eucharist, let me tell you that it is no longer bread and wine. Please, I beg you, when you receive the Eucharist next time, make sure you do it reverently, free of sin, and humbled by that awesome gift of God to humanity for the sake of our salvation.
For meditations on the Eucharist, Jesus the Bread of Life, I would ask you to meditate on John 6:22-71, Matthew 26:26039, Mark 14:22-26, and Luke 22:14-20. Countless saints and spiritual writers have also written on the Eucharist. Two I would recommend are Book Four of the "Imitation of Christ" by Thomas a Kempis, and God is Near Us by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI. Many posts in the future will be covering aspects of the Eucharist, as Lumen Gentium 11 calls the Eucharist the "Source and Summit of the Christian Faith."
I will close with the prayer the Church says immediately before communion: Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.
May God bless you in all that you do. Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, Pray for Us. O Mary, Conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee. St. Maximilian Kolbe, Pray for us.
O Sacrament most holy, o Sacrament divine, all praise and all thanksgiving, be every moment thine.