“Whoever eats my flash 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” (Jn 6:54-56)
Who would believe such a thing? It sounds absurd, and more than a little grotesque. Everyone can nod in agreement when Jesus instructs us to “love thy neighbor” and “consider the lilies,” but eating His flesh and drinking His blood? This sounds more like a horror film than the gospel. It is no wonder the Jews were quarreling about this. It is no wonder so many of them stopped following Jesus at this point in the gospel narrative.
After so many left Jesus that day, because they either could not comprehend or could not stomach His command to eat His flesh and drink His blood, our Lord looked upon the Apostles and asked if they, too, would leave Him. Peter simply said, “To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:68-69). I love Peter in this moment, because by his answer he admits his own lack of understanding; but his faith in Christ allowed him to trust that the understanding would one day come.
“Faith seeking understanding” was the motto of the great St. Anselm and it certainly applies to our approach to the Eucharist. For there is only one reason to believe the Catholic Church’s teaching about the Eucharist, and that is trust in Jesus Christ. For when Christ says, “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” we believe He meant it, and has the power to make it so. When Christ said at His last supper, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood,” we believe He meant it, and has the power to make it so. We do not understand how this happens, any more than Peter did. But like Peter, we have come to know Jesus is God Incarnate. And so we believe. And we stand in awe at the God who not only would put on flesh and dwell among us, but would make that flesh into a form we could consume. For this God is not content to dwell among us. He desires to dwell within us. What a gift our God gives in the Eucharist. It is no wonder the word eucharist means “to give thanks.” What other response would be appropriate?
It is no surprise then that Catholics throughout the ages have had a great devotion to the Eucharist. St. Paul said that, “The bread we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). St. Ignatius of Antioch called the Eucharist, “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again” (Letter to the Smyrneans, c. 110 AD). St. Justin Martyr, writing in the year 155 AD, says, “This food we call the Eucharist… we do not receive these as common bread and drink. For Jesus Christ our Savior, made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation. Likewise we have been taught that the food blessed by the prayer of His word — and from which our own blood and flesh are nourished and changed — is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh” (First Apology, c. 155 AD).
St. Augustine, in the fourth century, preached, “You ought to know what you have received, what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily. That Bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. The chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ” (Sermons 227, 21).
These holy Fathers of the Church had such faith in the Eucharist because they had faith in the Christ who said, “This is my body.” St. Juliana also had a great devotion to the Eucharist. She lived during the first half of the thirteenth century and was superioress of the convent at Mont Cornilln in Belgium. She longed for the Church to have a feast dedicated to the Body and Blood of Christ. The Church has always commemorated the institution of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday, but as a part of Holy Week, anticipating as it does the death of Jesus on Good Friday, it is a season of sadness for the faithful. St. Juliana desired a feast to celebrate joyfully the gift of the Eucharist. She is said to have had a vision of the Church under a full moon. In her vision, there was a single dark spot on the moon, signifying the absence of a solemnity to commemorate the Eucharist. She mentioned the idea to several prominent figures in the Church, including Bishop Robert de Thorete of Liege and Pope Urban IV.
At that time bishops had the privilege of ordering feasts celebrated in their diocese of their own authority, and so Bishop Robert ordered such a celebration to be held. Pope Urban IV admired the feast and on September 8, 1264, issued a papal bull called “Transiturus” that extended the celebration to the entire world. St. Thomas Aquinas, known as the Angelic Doctor, was asked to compose the Mass and Office for the new solemnity. His prayers written for this occasion are still to this day some of the most beautiful ever written.
The celebration of Corpus Christi quickly spread and many local customs grew up around this great feast. One that has stayed with us to today is the Corpus Christi procession. Very early in the fourteenth century, not long after the feast was instituted, the custom developed of carrying the Eucharist in a procession through the town after the Corpus Christi day Mass. Bishops and Popes encouraged this devotional practice, some even granting special indulgences to those who participated. In the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent recommend Corpus Christi processions as way of publicly professing Catholic faith in the Real Presence of the Eucharist, which was being challenged by many Protestant sects, including the followers of Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, who believed the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence to be “derogatory to the heavenly glory of Christ” (Institutes book IV, ch xvii, 10 sqq).
Just as in John 6, there continue to be those scandalized by the Eucharist. How can the infinite God of heaven become bread? But one just as well may ask how that infinite and eternal God could become man? Man or bread, both are finite and so equally distant from the infinite. For God all things are possible. The wonder is that God would love us to much that He would desire to so humble Himself for the sake of His creatures. Thus are the Incarnation and the Eucharist intimately linked. Both are essential to the Christian faith. In our own age, the Second Vatican Council has called the Eucharist, “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11). Our Catechism teaches that “in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ Himself” (CCC 1324).
The Eucharist is the starting point of our faith, humbly receiving Jesus. And it is the greatest height our faith can reach, union with our Creator. It is the beginning and the end for it is Jesus Christ, who is Alpha and Omega. It can be a cause for division, as history has shown. But it can also be, and should be for us, the cause of great unity. For it is through the Eucharist that we are united with Christ. And when you and I are united with Christ we are also united with one another in Christ. “Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many,are one body, for we all partake in the one loaf” (1 Cor. 10:17).
I will leave you with the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, writing of the wonder of the Eucharist.