In order to save the church we need to understand, really understand what is meant by the theological term “real presence”. The real presence refers to the absolutely real presence of our Lord during the Eucharistic sacrifice and during related sacramentals as in adoration of the Blessed Host. We moderns find it hard to believe these things but thinking on them, and pondering them in one’s heart will yield renewal. While the other sacraments make Christ present through the graces they effect in us, the Eucharist gives us Christ’s himself in bodily form. This is called the “real presence”. As Pope John Paul II puts it: “In it he is received in person as the “living bread come down from heaven” (Jn 6:51), and with him we receive the pledge of eternal life and a foretaste of the eternal banquet of the heavenly Jerusalem (Mane Nobiscum Domine [MND] 3). We cannot fully grasp the tremendous power of the Eucharist to make Christ bodily present unless we use the eyes of faith: “Faith demands that we approach the Eucharist fully aware that we are approaching Christ himself” (MND 16). It is this issue of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist that scandalizes some protestant sects today just as Jesus’ message to his contemporaries, that they must really eat his flesh and drink his blood if they were to find salvation, scandalized them.
The Eucharist is not merely a symbolic event—it is an actual sacrifice where a victim is immolated for the remission of sins. It makes really present Christ’s original sacrifice on the cross. When the Eucharist is properly celebrated we transcend time and become present at Golgotha, at the sacrifice of the cross. Christ’s sacrifice is the key event for the atonement of mankind with God, it is the key event in redemption history, and this event is present during Eucharist. “The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice: “The victim is one and the same: the same now offers through the ministry of priests, who then offered himself on the cross; only the manner of offering is different.” “And since in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, the same Christ who offered himself once in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross is contained and is offered in an unbloody manner. . . this sacrifice is truly propitiatory.” (CCC# 1367)
Because we truly become present at the sacrifice of Christ, the Eucharist is not to be thought of an additional sacrifice beyond the original historical event of the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross at Golgotha. Rather, it is the representation of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice offered during His passion and death. While the original event was bloody, the Eucharist is the unbloody re-presentation of that bloody sacrifice on the Cross.
Christ becomes physically present as bread and wine during Eucharist by the process of transubstantiation. When the priest invokes the power of the Holy Spirit over the offerings fo bread and wine these items do not change their ‘accidental’ appearances. They still look like bread and wine. Nevertheless, their real fundamental, substance changes. Their substance becomes Christ’s flesh and blood. “This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation” (CCC 1376). The term transubstantiation captures this change in substance without change in appearance or accidentals. The term was elucidated by St. Thomas Aquinas. In Eucharistic miracles, however, both substance and accidental are changed into flesh and blood. The host may transform into a piece of flesh and the wine may become blood. These miracles which have happened throughout history confirm faith in the real presence of the body and blood of the Lord in the Eucharist.
While in the Eucharist the sacrifice of the cross is relived and Christ becomes really present in the bread and wine of the communion altar, the Mass itself is a memorial of Jesus’ passion, death, and Resurrection. The memorial of the Mass, however, is not just a remembering. It is also a re-living or a living into the paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. “…the memorial is not merely the recollection of past events but the proclamation of the mighty works wrought by God for men. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become in a certain way present and real. … In the New Testament, the memorial takes on new meaning. When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ’s Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all on the cross remains ever present…” (CCC# 1363-1364). Because Christ becomes literally present at the memorial of the Mass, the mass itself is best understood as an encounter with the full redemptive mystery of the crucified and risen Christ.
When a Christian receives the host during the Eucharist he receives into his own bloodstream and body the resurrection body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is the stuff of the New Man of God’s creation. This is real material that transforms our current bodies into a higher physical and sacred reality. In short, we humans become united with the Godhead and we rest in the union with the beloved. This is called communion. “When the disciples on the way to Emmaus asked Jesus to stay „with‟ them, he responded by giving them a much greater gift: through the Sacrament of the Eucharist he found a way to stay in them” (MND 19).
Hahn says that to live without the sacraments is to live outside the covenant with God and that is no life at all (Hahn 152). This is all the more true for the Eucharist, given that it is in the Eucharist that we become united with Christ himself and through him with all of the church. Jesus himself said that the Eucharist was absolutely necessary: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:53-54). Here Jesus says explicitly that without the Eucharist we have no life in us. The Eucharist is also absolutely necessary for the Church’s life. The priesthood exists to bring the Eucharist to the people. Baptism, confession and confirmation exists to purify us so that we can partake in Eucharist and achieve union with Christ.
Eucharist and the missionary life of the Church
We cannot effectively evangelize others unless we have something or someone to give them. In Eucharist we receive the joy of Christ in utterly real terms. It is this joy and this person Christ that we give away to others in evangelistic activity. This joy impels us to genuine missionary activity, which is always a sharing of good news. In Mane Nobiscum Domine, John Paul II points out that the disciples who suddenly recognized Jesus after he broke bread with them, immediately set out for Jerusalem to share the good news with the other disciples. “Once we have truly met the Risen One by partaking of his body and blood, we cannot keep to ourselves the joy we have experienced” (MND 24).
Eucharistic miracles give us a sign that testifies to the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine on the altar. One such miracle is the one that created the tradition of Eucharistic adoration as well as St Thomas Aquinas’ profound meditations on the mystery of the real presence. That miracle occurred in 1263 in Orvieto and Bolseno, Italy, long before the controversies erupted over the real presence with the protestant reformation. A priest by the name of Petrus was skeptical of the concept of the real presence, until one day while saying mass blood began to stream out of the host and onto the corporal at the moment of consecration. On news and investigation of this miracle pope Urban IV created the feast of Corpus Christi and then asked St Thomas to compose the office for the feast, which we still celebrate to this day.
Although Christ’s once and for all sacrifice won for us justification in the eyes of God, we need to participate in that sacrifice in order for it to become operative in us. We need to cooperate with the grace won for us by Jesus if it is to bring us to heaven. God does not force salvation on us. We need to cooperate with grace in order to become Christlike. We do this by uniting ourselves with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We “merit” heaven by sacrificing ourselves via union with Chris’s meritorious self-sacrifice. We unite our sacrifice with Christ’s when we participate in eucharist. “Merit and reparation, in short, are events in the life of man, reflecting God’s working within him; they cannot affect God; rather they reveal His design for man”
In the Eucharist Christ as High Priest offers himself as pure and holy victim for remission of the sins of humanity. This self-offering of Christ on behalf of humanity is re-lived each time the mass is performed. During the Eucharist we imitate Christ’s self-offering by offering our own selves up to God. Just as Christ gave himself totally in obedience to God the Father, so too do we during Eucharist. When we take up our daily crosses and offer them up to God during Eucharist they become united with Christ’s offering which has infinite value in the eyes of God.
Our self-offering to God flows from Christ’s self-offering insofar as we unite our crosses and sufferings with those of Christ himself when he was crucified on the cross. Since he was spotless and without sin His sacrifice was of infinite value and it ransomed us away from the evil one so that we could become children of God once again.
At the last supper Jesus explicitly said that the bread and wine were his real body and blood, and that if we did not eat his flesh and drink his blood we would not be saved. The church exists for the salvation of the world. But the salvation of the world depends, as just mentioned, on eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ, i.e. the Eucharist. Therefore, Church itself depends on the Eucharist. As O’Neill says, “…the central idea to grasp is that Christ’s primary intention was to leave his body (via the Eucharist-pm) with the Church…His body is the foundational sacrament of the mystery of the redemption” (O’Neill 163). The Church quite literally is the body of Christ. This theological reality is most evident in the Eucharist, but it is also the reality that vivifies the Church and gives it power to sanctify men.
Because Jesus is bodily present in the Eucharist, the consumption of His sacred body and blood literally unifies us with Him. Our flesh becomes one flesh with Him. This power to bring man into union with God is the key to the graces the Eucharist bestows on men and it is the key to its power to create Church. “The other [sacraments] derive their power from the body of Christ active through them; this one, however, contains the body “of itself” …it has power to give grace‟ (O’Neill 171).
A very significant effect of the real presence of Christ in Eucharist therefore is to create Church, the mystical body of Christ. The body of the resurrected Christ is a new, higher physical and spiritual reality that, as scripture says, continually gives off power (Luke 8). That power is the power to heal, to bring peace, to sanctify and to bring people into communion with one another and with God.
There is no magic in this. Easting the flesh and drinking the blood of this higher sacred reality that is the body of Christ, produces sanctity, and union with God because it produces the supernatural virtues in us, faith, hope and charity. “The Eucharist, in short, causes the unity of the mystical body because it causes charity. … There is no charity and nothing belonging to the Church which escapes the influence of the sacrament” (O’Neill 173). The incarnate and resurrected body of the Son of God is the very essence of God. God is Love. Therefore, when we eat this bread and drink this blood, we become Godlike insofar as we let Love flood our hearts and minds. Through Christ’s body come all graces and the Church is Christ’s mystical body this side of time, in the world.
The ecclesial existence of Christ, i.e. Christ’s vivification of His Church, happens primarily through the sacraments with the Eucharist being the summit sacrament. In addition, Christ vivifies His Church by mediating between man and the Father. The Father looks, as it were, at humanity and sees the perfect response of obedience that Christ accomplished for us.
Finally the body of Christ gives us nourishment or food for the journey through this life and onto the higher reality of heaven, where we will put on bodies much like the resurrected body of Christ. The Eucharist vivifies us just like it does the Church itself. It nourishes our spirits so that we can be active, full members of the body of Christ and in this way it builds up the mystical body of the Church.
The Eucharist makes the Church because it communicates to each member of the Church that receives the Eucharist the real presence of the Lord Himself. It brings to life or manifestation the resurrected body of Christ in each member of the Church. When someone receives the Eucharist they are mingling into their bodies the God-substance of Christ as well as His resurrected humanity. They are literally putting on the New Man in Christ. They become new persons. They are no longer composed merely of fallen human physical substance. Instead they carry within the new physical, bodily reality of this Christ. All of the Church’s other sacraments are preparatory to and attendant upon the Eucharist. Baptism, confirmation and penance all are meant to purify and prepare the soul to receive Christ in the Eucharist. The Eucharist, because it transfers Christ’s bodily substance, gives power to all the other sacraments. The sacraments in turn are the lifeblood of the Church.
Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana; Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1997. Print.
Hahn, Scott. Swear to God: The Promise and Power of the Sacraments. New York: Doubleday, 2004. Print.
O’Neill, OP, Colman E. Meeting Christ in the Sacraments. Revised ed. New York: Alba House, 1991.
Pope John Paul II. Mane Nobiscum Domine, 2004. www.vatican.va,
Acknowledgement: This piece is excerpted and modified from a longer work by Augustinus submitted to St Joseph’s College in 2012