Understanding the Eucharist

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. But it is also one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Catholic faith. Some think the Eucharist is merely a symbol, some think that anyone should be able to receive the Eucharist at any time, while others think that Catholics are cannibals if we believe in eating Christ’s Flesh and drinking His Blood.

Recently on Go Ask Your Father™ a listener called in to ask if Catholics really eat flesh and drink blood at Mass. Msgr. Stuart Swetland took the opportunity to explain the Eucharist and address some of the many misconceptions surrounding it.

What is the Eucharist?
The Eucharist is transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and through the office of the priest or bishop who celebrates Mass. The priest at that moment is acting in persona Christi, that’s why he says, ‘This is my body. This is my blood.’ The Holy Spirit works through the presiding priest to transform the bread and wine into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That’s how the teaching goes, and it is a true teaching.

So whatever the ‘is-ness’ of the substance of bread and wine, it’s no longer bread, it’s the Body of Christ. It’s no longer wine, it’s the Blood of Christ. Receiving either is receiving all of Christ.

Why Did Jesus Give Us the Eucharist?
We should think about it in terms of a one-flesh unity. Christ is the bridegroom, His Church is the bride. In an act of intimacy, bridegrooms and brides come together and form a one-flesh unity. Just so, when we receive the Eucharist it is akin to that one-flesh union. That’s why the mystics talk about it in that kind of language.

Sts. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, Edith Stein, Elizabeth of the Trinity, and other mystics speak about it in those kind of terms. So we should think about it as akin, on a spiritual level, to the intimacy of marital love that brings the husband and wife into a one-flesh union.

We are united in a one-flesh union with the Bridegroom as the Church of Christ.

Why Can’t Everyone Receive Communion?
It is not totally honest to receive Communion in a church you are not in communion with. So it would be wrong for me to receive Communion at another Christian church, because I am not in full communion with them. It would be a lie I would say with my body by receiving communion, which says I’m in communion with you, when I’m not.

So when I was not Catholic and I was going to Catholic Mass, on my way in to the Church, I didn’t receive Communion. Not because I didn’t believe it was the Body and Blood of Christ. But I wasn’t in full communion with the Catholic Church, so it would have been dishonest for me to receive Communion.

That’s why a Catholic who is in serious sin cannot receive Communion without committing sacrilege. He is not in union with Christ because his serious sin broke that communion. And so he needs to have that Communion restored before he can licitly receive the Eucharist, receive Jesus. It would have been a lie with his body to receive Communion in a state of mortal sin.

What is the Scriptural Basis for the Eucharist?
John chapter 6 is very specific. The Jews even had trouble with this and disputed among themselves how this man could give us His flesh to eat.  And Jesus said to them:

Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.

Those who eat My flesh and drink My blood abide in me and I in them. Just as the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats Me will live because of Me. This is the bread that comes down from heaven. Not like that which your ancestors ate and they died, but the one who eats this bread will live forever.

He’s very specific, and if you look at the Greek behind those English words, you’ll see that the words used for eating and drinking are very graphic terms for it. But, the way to think about it spiritually is that while it is really Jesus I’m receiving, it’s akin to the one-flesh union of husband and wife. You’re receiving Jesus into you to be united with Him.

Is it Really Christ’s Body or Just a Symbol?
When Jesus said at the Last Supper, on the night He was betrayed, He took the bread and said, ‘This is My body.’ He didn’t say, ‘This is a symbol that you can take as a nice, little representation of My body.’ He said, ‘This is My body.’

He set up a new covenant. And the Paschal Lamb was the foreshadowing of that. The chosen people consumed the Paschal Lamb. Jesus is the Paschal Lamb writ large. He is the fulfillment of what the Old Testament covenant gave us in the feast of Passover. This is a new and final Passover.

As a convert to the Catholic faith, I know where you’re coming from. I’ve been there. But I saw clearly that this is what the Scriptures teach, and this has been an ancient practice of the Church from the very beginning.  From the very beginning of Christianity this is the teaching of the Church, practiced down to here in the 21st century.

It’s only a very modern idea of trying to make it into a representation or a sign. It’s more than just a sign, it’s a sacrament that contains what it signifies, and signifies what it contains.”

Listen to the full conversation below:

Go Ask Your Father airs weekdays at 1:00 p.m. Eastern/10:00 a.m. Pacific on Relevant Radio®.