Our Easter lectionary readings moved us through Christ’s Resurrection, Ascension, and the Descent of the Holy Spirit. Last Sunday, we celebrated the Most Holy Trinity, because we understood, from all that history, that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; from the beginning, all Three Persons have lovingly worked to restore us to the life for which we were designed. We might, therefore, conclude that the history is now liturgically complete. Yet today, the Church calls us to another solemnity. In our readings, we are pondering the mystery of the Most Holy Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist. This meal raises a question: If we now have the Holy Spirit to put God’s life in us, why do we need to “eat the Body” and “drink the Blood” of Christ? What does that accomplish that the gift of the Holy Spirit doesn’t?
Our Gospel reading begins midway through a long conversation Jesus had with people who tracked Him down after His miraculous feeding of the five thousand (Jn 6:25-50). They were looking for more bread, but Jesus used their physical hunger to direct their thoughts to another kind of bread: “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (Jn 6:33). It worked: “They said to Him, ‘Lord, give us this bread always’” (Jn 6:34).
Seeing they were interested, Jesus explained that He is the bread of life, and He called the Jews to believe in Him. In this part of the discussion, Jesus used imagery of bread and drink metaphorically: “he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall not thirst” (Jn 6:35). When the Jews began to murmur at the suggestion that Jesus is bread from heaven (“Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?”), He emphasized again that believing in Him is the source of eternal life: “Truly, truly I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (Jn 6:47).
Had the conversation stopped there, we would conclude that believing in Jesus was all that was necessary to gain eternal life. As we know from history, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to all those who believed in Him. He planted God’s own life in them. They were destined for heaven. What more was necessary? The “more” comes in the next part of the conversation, which we take up now: “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.” This bold statement caused an argument to break out: “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?”
Notice that no explanation is forthcoming. Jesus simply keeps repeating, in ever increasing emphasis: “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life.” This truly baffled His hearers, and, as reported in verses not in today’s reading, many of His followers left him because of it. Even the Twelve were hard-pressed to absorb it. There was a strong prohibition in Jewish law against drinking the blood of animals (see Gn 9:4; Lev 17:10-13; Deut 12:16). That kind of participation in an animal’s life, making a man “one” with the animal, was beneath the dignity of creatures made in the image and likeness of God. No one even thought of drinking human blood!
We can understand how objectionable Jesus’ words were to those who first heard them. To remain with Him would require what Jesus had spoken about earlier in the conversation—belief. His miraculous works and His authoritative teaching had caused many to have faith in Him. That faith would have to sustain them as they digested this “hard saying.” They would have to suspend judgment and simply ponder these words. Eventually, of course, Jesus would explain. At the Last Supper, the apostles learned that Jesus was leaving them a memorial sacrifice as the centerpiece of His Church’s life. The bread and wine of the Old Passover meal were transformed into the meal of the New Covenant, the Eucharist. They would become the Body and Blood of His glorified humanity. That is how His call to “eat My flesh” and “drink My blood” would be accomplished. Believing would lead to eating.
The Eucharist is the Holy Mystery of the New Testament instituted by Jesus Christ, in which under the species of consecrated bread and wine we receive the Body and the Blood of our Lord as our spiritual food .
The Holy Eucharist is indeed a mystery (in Greek – mysterion means a secret, a hidden thing to the human eye), since in it, to use the words of St. John Chrysostom, “What we believe is not the same as what we see. One thing we see (bread and wine), and another we believe (Body and Blood of our Lord). And such is the nature of our Mysteries” (cf. Hom. on 1 Cor. VII , 2).
In Holy Communion, bread and wine correspond to the human nature of Christ, while the body and blood correspond to His divine nature. Accordingly, there can be no transubstantiation of the bread and wine. Rather, even after consecration, the bread and wine retain their natural substance. Yet the bread and wine are not merely metaphors or symbols for the body and blood of Christ. Rather, the body and blood of Christ are truly present (real presence). Through the words of consecration spoken by an Apostle or a priestly minister commissioned by him, the substance of the body and blood of Christ is joined to the substance of the bread and wine.
The outward form (accidence) of the elements of Holy Communion is not changed by this act. Just as the Man Jesus was visible during His life on earth, so also the bread and wine are visible in Holy Communion. After their consecration, however, the elements of Holy Communion constitute a dual substance–like the two natures of Jesus Christ–namely that of bread and wine and that of the body and blood of Christ. The Son of God is then truly present in the elements of Holy Communion: in His divinity and in His humanity.
However, as regards the elements of Communion it is not the case that the bread alone corresponds to the body of Christ and that the wine alone corresponds to the blood of Christ. Rather, the body and blood of Christ is completely present in each of the two elements, both the bread and the wine.
The body and blood of Christ remain present in the consecrated wafer until it has reached its designated recipient.
After the divine service, the wafers that were not dispensed are treated with reverence and care.