Today is Holy Thursday, the first day of the Triduum and a day when we especially remember the events of the Last Supper, Jesus' agony in the garden, and his arrest. For Catholics, the sacrifice of the Last Supper is not something we remember only today, but at every Mass celebrated every day throughout the world:
"At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood. He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the Cross throughout the centuries until He should come again, and so to entrust to His beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of His death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a paschal banquet in which Christ is eaten, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us." (Sacrosanctum Concilium 47, Pope Paul VI)
Catholics have always believed that the Eucharist is truly and miraculously the body and blood of Christ. When we say that it is his body and blood, we do not mean the body and blood of his dead corpse -- rather, we mean the body and blood of his crucified, resurrected body, miraculously unbound by space and time. All of the Church fathers believed in and taught the True Presence. For example, Justin Martyr wrote in AD 150:
We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true....For not as common bread or common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the Word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him...is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus. (First Apology)The Eucharistic presence was taught by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (late second century), St. Athanasius (fourth century), St. Cyril of Jerusalem (fourth century), St. Augustine (fifth century), and St. Thomas Aquainas (thirteenth century). But even earlier, St. Paul wrote about the Eucharist in his first letter to the Corinthians:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes. Therefore whoever eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 11:26-27)And before St. Paul wrote about the Eucharist, before the Eucharist was instituted at the Last Supper, Jesus taught about it, the day after he performed the miracles of multiplying the loaves (John 6:1-15) and walking on water (John 6:16-21):
Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent." So they said to him, "What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" So Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, 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." So they said to him, "Lord, give us this bread always." Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst....Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died; 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." The Jew quarreled among themselves, saying, "How can this man give his flesh to eat?" Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, 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. 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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever." (John 6:29-35, 47-58)Last year, I bought a book called Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist, which explores the institution of the Eucharist in the context of first-century Judaism. I cannot recommend it highly enough; reading it deepened my belief in and love for the Eucharist in many ways and for many reasons. (Simcha has a great review here.) Author Brant Pitre helps the reader to understand what first-century Jews were expecting of their Messiah (not that he would simply be a political leader, as I'd heard many times before). This understanding provides a rich and astounding backdrop for much of what Jesus said and did.
Pitre also looks at how the Jewish Passover was celebrated during Jesus' time (there were some important differences from how the Seder meal is celebrated now) and pairs this knowledge with the descriptions of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion in the Gospels. Considering them together demonstrates that Jesus "united the offering of his body and blood in the Upper Room to the offering of his body and blood on the wood of the cross," making the two events one single sacrifice, a new Passover.
Why I Love the Eucharist:
Because the Eucharist is Jesus. When I receive the Eucharist, I am filled with Love himself.
Yes, I really believe that. When the priest holds up the consecrated host and chalice before communion and says, "Behold the Lamb of God," I believe that I am gazing upon Jesus, the Son of God, who died and rose so that I might be "welcomed into the light of his face" and live with him eternally.
There is nothing I love more than the Eucharist. There is nothing I need more than the Eucharist. And so I join in the petition of Jesus' followers: "Lord, give us this bread always."