Jesus Meant What He Said

July 24th, 2011  |  Published in New Roman Missal

You have probably heard about the survey done a few years back that suggested that many Catholics today don’t really believe that the bread and wine of the Eucharist truly become the body and blood of the Lord. There are serious doubts about the accuracy of such surveys, but it seems a good idea to recall the Church’s ancient teaching. To put it simply, the Church has always believed that Jesus meant what he said. At the Last Supper, as we recall in every Mass, he took bread, said the blessing, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body which will be given up for you.” After the meal he took the cup filled with wine, gave God thanks and praise and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.”

Notice that Jesus does not say that the bread and wine are only signs of his body and blood. He says, “This is my body; this is the cup of my blood.” We take him at his word. Now, of course, we don’t believe that the bread becomes a piece of flesh. Christ’s physical body was his way of being fully present with us, and now he takes bread and wine and says that these will be his way of being fully present, physically present with us.

How this is possible is ultimately a mystery. The Church has used the term “transubstantiation” to express the truth that the substance, the deep reality, of the bread becomes Christ’s body. But this does not explain how. The best we can say is that it is by the power of Christ’s word and the action of the Holy Spirit. We can’t explain just how, but we believe that Jesus meant what he said.

Jesus also meant what he said when he told us all to take and eat and to take and drink. For too many centuries, Catholics received Communion under only the species of bread. This was a reaction to a medieval heresy that said you didn’t really receive Christ if you only received one species. After that issue faded, the Protestants restored both species, so the Catholic Church did not. Judging that this reason, too, was no longer valid, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council called for the restoration of Communion under both species.

Bread, the staff of life, speaks of sustenance. Wine speaks of the spirit and the joy of life. Christ used both to communicate the fullness of his being. He intends us to receive both. Sharing the bread reminds us of our unity in one body. Sharing the cup speaks of sharing in the covenant, as Jesus’ words indicate. It reminds us, too, that we share the same lifeblood with Christ and with one another. Those who cannot drink any alcohol and those who cannot eat any wheat can, of course, receive under only one species. It’s still the whole Jesus — the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church §1374). Nevertheless, receiving both the body and the blood is a more complete form of Communion and a “fuller sign of the Eucharistic banquet” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, §281). Besides, it’s what the Lord told us to do, and he meant what he said.

© 2004 Lawrence E. Mick. Revised 2006.
Distributed by the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC), Washington DC 20017