Though we celebrate the liturgy of the Eucharist everyday at Mass, there is a tendency to get complacent. Have we taken this great gift of Christ for granted? This seems to be our human nature, because if we do something enough we tend to go through the motions. I have the feeling that this has happened to many with the Eucharist. During these strange times we have not been able to have this gift. With public Masses beginning to resume, it is important to remember how great of a gift it truly is.
We have all been forced to take a step back and take a moment to remember what an awesome gift the Eucharist is. With this in mind I want to take a brief look and see what scripture and the early church tells us about the blessed sacrament.
Though some terms for the Eucharist developed over time, the belief of what the Eucharist is has been around since New Testament times. Jesus gave a speech that we call the Bread of Life Discourse in which he says that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood that we have no life within us (John 6:53). The synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke give us the words of institution that we hear so often (Matthew 26:17-30, Mark 14:12-26, and Luke 22:7-39). In summary, Jesus tells us to eat the bread and says “This is my body”. Then he takes the cup of wine and says “This is the cup of my blood that was given for you”. Notice how our Lord says “this is” and not that it is merely a symbolic action.
The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is one that held true in the doctrine of the early church. The big heresy going around in the first couple centuries of the church was Gnosticism. The Gnostics believed that all matter was evil, and as such, Jesus himself didn’t actually die on the cross.
Since all matter was deemed evil by the Gnostics, the Eucharist was something that was unfathomable. After all, if matter were evil, then there was no way that the bread and wine can transform into the body and blood of Christ.
The early church fathers understood the Gnostic line of thinking and used the Eucharist as a way to refute them. In approximately 107 A.D., St. Ignatius of Antioch writes in his letter to the Smyrneans, “They [the Gnostics] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again”.
Justin Martyr, writing around 150 A.D., states that the bread and wine changes into the body and blood of Christ upon the prayer of the priest. In his great work titled Against Heresies, St. Irenaeus writes “the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist.”
There are many other such quotes like this, spanning for several centuries. One such quote comes from St. John Chrysostom who died in 407 A.D. Describing the Eucharist, the great saint states, “How many of you say: I should like to see His face, His garments, His shoes. You do see Him, you touch Him, you eat Him. He gives Himself to you, not only that you may see Him, but also to be your food and nourishment.”
These quotes go on and on, and through them we see that the teaching of the church from the beginning is that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. At this point you are probably wondering why I am quoting all these great saints. Friends, my heart hurts.
For every one person that enters the Catholic church, there are six people who leave. Why would they leave such a great gift such as the Eucharist? When I ask those that leave, their answers range from the sexual abuse scandal to a disagreement with a priest.
However, a majority that I have spoken to leave because they do not believe what the church teaches about the Eucharist. Some didn’t even know the church’s teaching.
Perhaps we have taken this great sacrament for granted and our actions no longer show the reverence it deserves. Perhaps some have just been poorly catechized. Maybe it is both.
I urge you, my friends, to take a moment to reflect on the greatness that is the Eucharist, especially if we have not been able to partake of it in a while. The very gift of Himself that our Lord gives us to nourish and strengthen us – may we never take it for granted and always show it the reverence it deserves.
William Hemsworth is an alumnus of Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program. An author, blogger, and podcaster, he is a columnist at Patheos and Catholic Stand, and President of the Tucson Institute of Catholic Apologetics.