On Holy Thursday, we celebrate Jesus' last supper before his death. On that night, "He said to them, 'I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.'" (Luke 22:15) "And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' And likewise the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.' " (Luke 22:19-20)
Throughout the centuries the Church has fulfilled Jesus request at the Last Supper to "do this in remembrance of me" through the sacrifice of the Mass and the sacrament of Holy Communion.
What does Jesus actually mean by his words at the Last Supper? Not every Christian or even every Catholic agrees on their meaning; however, the Catholic Church officially teaches that the Gospels mean just what they say and are literally true.
"It is common knowledge that among all the Scriptures, even those of the New Testament, the Gospels have a special preeminence, and rightly so, for they are the principal witness for the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our savior. The Church has always and everywhere held and continues to hold that the four Gospels are of apostolic origin. For what the Apostles preached in fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they themselves and apostolic men, under the inspiration of the divine Spirit, handed on to us in writing: the foundation of faith, namely, the fourfold Gospel, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John... Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels just named, whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation until the day He was taken up into heaven (see Acts 1:1). Indeed, after the Ascension of the Lord the Apostles handed on to their hearers what He had said and done." (see Dei Verbum Chapter 5, 18 and 19)
The Catholic Church teaches that Holy Communion is not merely symbolic and that in this sacrament Jesus gives us his very self to nourish us spiritually and to help us become more united to himself so that we might have "life". Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." The Church teaches that when we receive Holy Communion we are receiving Christ's actual body, blood, soul and divinity.
"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.' 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." It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ's body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament. The Church Fathers strongly affirmed the faith of the Church in the efficacy of the Word of Christ and of the action of the Holy Spirit to bring about this conversion." (CCC1374-1375)
That is why the Church teaches that "the Eucharist is 'the source and summit of the Christian life.' 'The other sacraments, and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate, are bound up with the Eucharist and are oriented toward it. For in the blessed Eucharist is contained the whole spiritual good of the Church, namely Christ himself...' " (CCC 1324)
Despite these very clear official teachings of the Catholic faith, there was a Gallup poll taken in 1992 of Catholics regarding Holy Communion of 519 U.S. Catholics and in this poll only 30% of those asked said they believed that in Holy Communion we actually do receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ under the appearance of bread and wine (also known as the Real Presence). For this reason I would like to go into some logical reasons that we can accept this teaching (even though if we really understand our Catholic faith we come to understand that the Church has infallible teachings, and this is one of them, so really each Church teaching does not need to be proven, rather as the Catechism states that having the Catholic faith means that: "We believe all 'that which is contained in the word of God, written or handed down, and which the Church proposes for belief as divinely revealed' " CCC 182.)
So what other evidence besides Church teaching do we have that Jesus actually meant what he said literally at the Last Supper? Below are some reasons and even some miracles supporting this teaching.
Many or most Christians believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but the question remains, what is the correct interpretation? Why do many denominations believe something different if the Bible is easy to understand? The answer is that we have other information (including Sacred Tradition) about Jesus that is not contained in the Bible and that sheds light on what he meant.
To me it is reasonable to believe that Jesus would make sure through his personal instructions to his apostles and also through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that Peter and the apostles would understand what He taught and meant so they could teach these truths to the world. So it is logical to believe that the apostles and those whom they personally instructed would understand what Jesus' words at the Last Supper meant as well as his other teachings... and if they did not understand right away, Jesus would make sure they understood through the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and before he commissioned them to preach the Gospel to the whole world.
So what did the apostles and early Christians believe about Holy Communion? We have both the Bible and early church writings to see what they meant. Below are some examples.
In the Bible we see what St. Paul's said in Corinthians:
"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." (1 Cor. 10:16-17)
"For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, 'This is my body which is 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 Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself." (1 Cor. 11:23-29)
Also in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, we see that Jesus has already introduced the idea of eating his body and blood before the Last Supper:
Jesus said in John 6:48-65: " '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. 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.'"
If Jesus really meant what he said literally we would expect the early Christians to also believe this way (having been taught by the apostles and their successors) and we find historically that they did take Jesus' words about Holy Commuion literally and not just symbolically as some do today. Below is a short sample of what some of the Early Church Fathers of the first few centuries said about the Eucharist.
Justin Martyr: "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 [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ 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 nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus" (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]).
Irenaeus: "If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?" (Against Heresies 4:33–32 [A.D. 189]).
St. Augustine: "What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ. This has been said very briefly, which may perhaps be sufficient for faith; yet faith does not desire instruction" (Sermons 411).
"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 unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] 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?" (ibid. 5:2).
Clement of Alexandria: "’Eat my flesh,’ [Jesus] says, ‘and drink my blood.’ The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutrients, he delivers over his flesh and pours out his blood, and nothing is lacking for the growth of his children" (The Instructor of Children 1:6:43:3 [A.D. 191]).
We also have the witness of some early Christian martyrs who gave up their lives because of their believe in this teaching.
Besides the official teaching of the Church, the Bible and Early Church Fathers, there have been various miracles throughout the centuries to point to the "real presence" of Jesus in the Eucharist. Some of these miracles have been scientifically validated in modern times like the one at Lanciano where in the presence of an unbelieving priest and those present the host actually took on the appearance of real human flesh. To find out more click here. To read about other Eucharistic miracles click here.
Also the Saints through whom God has worked many miracles had a great devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist. Here are a few examples:
St. John Vianney: "If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy." "There is nothing so great as the Eucharist. If God had something more precious, He would have given it to us."
St. Jerome: "Without doubt, the Lord grants all favors which are asked of Him in Mass, provided they be fitting for us; and, which is a matter of great wonder, ofttimes He also grants that also which is not demanded of Him, if we, on our part, put no obstacle in the way."
St. Leonard of Port Maurice: "Be now confounded for very wonder, reflecting that the proposition just laid down is indeed most true; a soul assisting with adequate devotion at holy Mass renders more honor to God than that which all the Angels and all the Saints put together render with all their adorations."
The above examples are just a few quotes from Church teachings, Early Church Fathers, teachings of the Saints, and also miracles associated with the Eucharist. So what is one to make of all this? Perhaps some Christians who believe in the Bible and take it literally don't take these words of Christ literally, but upon in-depth study of the sources mentioned, if one takes the time to study them it seems most reasonable to take Jesus' words literally remembering that God can do all things. It is just a matter as to what Jesus really meant by his teachings, not whether this is possible or even probable, because the Bible says that "with God all things are possible." (Matt. 19:26)
Our Catholic faith teaches us when we go to Mass that Jesus is not only there in spirit but is actually physically present in Holy Communion and that we can be united to Jesus in this special way by receiving him. After all it is Jesus himself who said in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6, that we must eat his body if we want life within us. The disciples didn't understand what Jesus could mean when he first said this and some of them left, but we find out at his last supper what he meant. Jesus was referring to Holy Communion and repeated this teaching at the Last Supper when he said, "Take and eat; this is my body." (Matt 26:26) and said to do this in remembrance of him which we do at each Mass.
We can be united to Jesus in a very special way here on earth through the reception of Holy Communion. This is what Jesus desired. I can see no other way we can be closer to Jesus on this earth both physically and spiritually than receiving him with devotion and love in Holy Communion.
There is so much to say about Holy Communion that a short article like this cannot cover. I would invite everyone to read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the Sacrament of the Eucharist. It is online here at: http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p2s2c1a3.htm. At my website at catholicspiritualdirection.org there is a page with links to Church documents and writings of the saints here. There are also some very good talks and books on the Mass and Eucharist such as Scott Hahn's The Lamb's Supper. If we want to really know our faith we need to take time to study.
If you are not sure if Jesus really meant what he said at the Last Supper to be taken literally and/or about any other Catholic teachings, I invite you to study the actual teachings of the Church (i.e. the Catechism, papal encyclicals, teachings of the saints, writings of the Early Church Fathers, and solidly Catholic books on the subject), and also to ask Jesus in prayer with an open heart to show you his desire and the truth regarding this and other teachings. For those of us who do believe, let us have a greater devotion and reverence to Jesus in this Sacrament and faithfully attend Mass at least each Sunday.