The Eucharistic Sacrifice

I'm willing to do something I've been thinking of for a long time: review in brief the evidence for the Real Presence / Transubstantiation of Christ in the Mass from both Scripture and earliest Fathers of the Church. This effort will be revised as I continue to improve it. I shall concentrate only on the evidence from the first and second centuries AD.

I. First, I'll set the "stage" by explaining how Holy Church defines the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass by quoting a bit from the CATECHISM OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

1374 The mode of Christ's presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as "the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend" [199 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh III, 73, 3c]. In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, THE WHOLE CHRIST IS TRULY, REALLY, AND SUBSTANTIALLY contained" [200 Council of Trent (1551): DS 1651]. "This presence is called "real"--by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be "real" too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a SUBSTANTIAL presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present" [201 Paul VI, MYSTERIUM FIDEI 39].

II. Next, I'll quote the relevant texts from the Bible on why the Real Presence/Transubstantiation is true.

Malachi 1.11

"For from the rising of the sun, even to its setting, my name is great among the nations; And everywhere they bring sacrifice to my name, and a pure offering; For great is my name among the nations, says the LORD of hosts." [NAB]

The NAB comments: "1,10f: The imperfect sacrifices offered without sincerity by the people of Judah are displeasing to the Lord. He will rather be pleased with the offerings of the Gentile nations throughout the world ('from the rising of the sun even to its setting'), which anticipate the 'pure offering' to be sacrificed in messianic times, the universal sacrifice of the Mass, as we are told by the Council of Trent."

Matthew 26.26-30

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, from now on I shall not drink this fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it with you new in the kingdom of my Father." Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Mark 14.22-26

While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, "Take it; this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which will shed for many. Amen, I say to you, I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Luke 22.14-22 

When the hour came, he took his place at table with the apostles. He said to them, I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for, I tell you, I shall not eat it [again] until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and said, "Take this and share it among yourselves; for I tell you [that] from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes." Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me." And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will shed for you."

The next extract, from John 6, is from the "Bread of life" discourse.

The basic position of most Protestants about the Eucharist is that Our Lord did not mean his words to be taken literally. But, if Christ only meant what He said in a metaphorical sense, why didn't He make it unchallengeably clear that His words should not be understood literally?

John 6.41-59

The Jews murmured about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven," and they said, "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph? Do we not know his father and mother? Then how can he say, ' I have come down from heaven'?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Stop murmuring among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him, and I will raise him on the last day. It is written in the prophets; 'They shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 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 Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us [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." These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

This is very telling! To help see why, I'll quote the NAB's note for John 6.54-58: "Eats: the verb used in these verses is not the classical Greek verb used of human eating, but that of animal eating: 'munch,' 'gnaw.' This may be part of John's emphasis on the reality of the flesh and blood of Jesus (cf. Jn 6, 55), but the same verb eventually became the ordinary verb in Greek meaning 'eat.' "

Iow, the author of John's Gospel was making sure that the words of Christ in the bread of life discourse would have to be interpreted literally.

Another bit of evidence for the literal interpretation of Christ's words is John 6.60-65, about how some who heard the Bread of Life discourse reacted.

Then many of his disciples who were listening said, "This saying is hard; who can accept it?" Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, "Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe." Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father."

As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

It would have been so simple of Our Lord to have explained that He only meant His statements about eating His flesh and blood to be understood as a metaphor or allegory! Yet Christ did not do this.

1 Corinthians 11.23-29

Last, St. Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 11.23-29 is also strong evidence in support of the Real Presence.

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, "This is my body that is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. 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 or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.

Again, how telling! Note how as early as the time St. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians around AD 56 the Eucharist was understood literally. Also, if the bread and wine used for the Mass remained merely bread and wine, it wouldn't make sense for St. Paul to have stressed that receiving Communion unworthily would bring down a stern judgment on us.

III. I desire to finish by quoting evidence from the earliest Fathers that Christians of the first and second centuries AD understood the Eucharist only in the sense we Catholics do. Albeit, not in the precise, technical language later centuries developed.

St. Clement, Bishop of Rome (c. 96 AD or 80 AD)

First, I'll quote from St. Clement I, Bishop of Rome (r. c. AD 92-101) "Letter to the Corinthians" (or 1 Clement), 44.4 (THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, ed. and trans. by William A. Jurgens, Vol 1, page 10 [The Liturgical Press: 1970] ).

"Our sin will not be small if we eject from the episcopate those who blamelessly and holily have offered its Sacrifices. Blessed are those presbyters who have already finished their course, and who have obtained a fruitful and perfect release; for they have now no fear that any shall transfer them from the place to which they are appointed. For we that in spite of their good service you have removed some from the ministry in which they served without blame."

St. Clement was rebuking the quarreling Christians of Corinth for unjustly deposing their bishops. Note the reference to the Eucharist as SACRIFICES.

St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (c. 107 AD)

St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (d. c. AD 107), "Letter to the Romans," 7.3 (Jurgens, THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, 1, p. 22):

"I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the Bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his Blood, which is love incorruptible."

St. Ignatius, "Letter to the Philadelphians" (Jurgens, THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, 1, p. 22):

"[3.2] Those, indeed, who belong to God and to Jesus Christ -- they are with the bishop. And those who repent and come to the unity of the Church -- they too shall be of God, and will be living according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren: if anyone follow a schismatic, he will not inherit the Kingdom of God. If any man walk about with strange doctrine, he cannot lie down with the passion. Take care, then, to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his Blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons."

St. Ignatius, "Letter to the Smyrnaeans" (Jurgens, THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, 1, p. 25):

"[6.2] Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. For love they have no care, nor for the widow, nor for the orphan, nor for the distressed, nor for the hungry and thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes. It would be better for them to have love, so that they might rise again. It is right to shun such men, and not even to speak about them, -- neither in public nor in private."

This passage from St. Ignatius is especially plain. Note how he described the consecrated bread and wine as the literal Flesh and Blood of Christ.

"[8.1] You must all follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as you would the Apostles. Reverence the deacons as you would the command of God. Let no one do anything of concern to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears, let the people be there; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. Nor is it permitted without the bishop either to baptize or celebrate the agape; but whatever he approve, this too is pleasing to God, so that whatever is done will be secure and valid."

St. Justin Martyr (c. 150 AD)

St. Justin Martyr (d. c. AD 165), FIRST APOLOGY (inter AD 148-155), quoted from Jurgens, THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, 1, p. 55.

"[65] After we have washed [baptized a convert] the one who has believed and has assented, we lead him to where those who are called brethren are gathered, offering prayers in common and heartily for ourselves and for the one who has been illuminated, and for all others everywhere, so that we may be accounted worthy, now that we have learned the truth, to be found keepers of the commandments, so that we may be saved with an eternal salvation. Having concluded the prayers, we greet one another with a kiss. Then there is brought to the president of the brethren bread and a cup of water and of watered wine; and taking them he gives praise and glory to the Father of all, through the name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and he himself gives thanks at some length in order that these things may be deemed worthy. When the prayers and the thanksgiving are completed, all the people present call out their assent, saying "Amen!" Amen in the Hebrew language signifies so be it. After the president has given thanks, and all the people have shouted their assent, those whom we call deacons give to each one present to partake of the Eucharistic bread and wine and water; and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.

"[66] We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor 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, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus."

"The Apostles, in the Memoirs which they produced, which are called Gospels, have thus passed on that which was enjoined upon them: that Jesus took bread and, having given thanks, said, "Do this in remembrance of Me; this is My Body." And in like manner, taking the cup, and having given thanks, He said, "This is My Blood." And he imparted this to them only. The evil demons, however, have passed on its imitation in the mysteries of Mithra. For, as you know or are able to learn, bread and a cup of water together with certain incantations are used in the initiation to the mystic rites."

This too is a plain description of both the Mass and an affirmation of the Real Presence of Christ in the Mass. Alert readers should note how St. Justin recorded how the Church taught baptismal regeneration and an early statement of the law that only Catholics (aside from some special, rare exceptions canon law permits) may receive Communion.

St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (c. 180 AD)

St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons (d. c. AD 202), quoting from his AGAINST HERESIES (c. AD 180) 5, 2, 2 (Jurgens, THE FAITH OF THE EARLY FATHERS, 1, p. 99):

"They are vain in every respect, who despise the entire dispensation of God, and deny the salvation of the body and spurn its regeneration, saying that it is not capable of immortality. If the body be not saved, then, in fact, neither did the Lord redeem us with His Blood; and neither is the cup of the Eucharist the partaking of His Blood nor is the Bread which we break the partaking of His Body. ...As we are His members, so too are we nourished by means of created things, He Himself granting us the creation, causing His sun to rise and sending rain as He wishes. He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be His own Blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, He has established as His own Body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life -- flesh which is nourished by the Body and Blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of Him?

In this regard the blessed Paul says in his epistle to the Ephesians: "Because we are members of His Body, from His flesh and His bones." ...In the same way that the wood of the vine planted in the ground bears fruit in due season; or as a grain of wheat, falling on the ground, decomposes and rises up in manifold increase through the Spirit of God who contains all things; and then, through the Wisdom of God, comes to the service of men, and receiving the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the Body and Blood of Christ; so also our bodies, nourished by it, and deposited in the earth and decomposing therein, shall rise up in due season, the Word of God favoring them with resurrection in the glory of God the Father."

St. Irenaeus wrote AGAINST HERESIES to refute the errors of the Gnostics, who denied--among other things--the goodness of the material creation. Hence the context in which he used the very realistic language about the Eucharist.

Sean M. Brooks