The Sacrament which is most central to the life of the Catholic Church is the Eucharist celebrated at every Mass. It is a re-presentation of the Last Supper that Jesus ate with His disciples the night when He was betrayed into the hands of His enemies, the night before He was tortured and killed by being crucified.
The Last Supper was itself a celebration of the Jewish Passover. Every year, the Jewish people commemorate their Exodus from Egypt, when God, through Moses, led the Israelites out of slavery (Exodus 11-13). In the Passover, a lamb is sacrificed, and its blood is shed and put on the door posts so that the angel of death (God’s wrath) will pass over and spare the life of the first-born son of those who accept this sacrifice and eat this commemorative meal.
Jesus, when He celebrated this Passover with His disciples, fulfilled the prophecy contained in the Passover: He showed that He is the Lamb of God who would be sacrificed and whose blood would spare the life of those who believe in Him and free them from slavery to sin.
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 be shed for many.”Mark 14:22-24; see also, Matthew 26:26-28 and Luke 22:19-20
Jesus thus offered Himself to His Apostles sacramentally the night before He died and, the next day, offered Himself on the cross as the sacrifice for sin.
When Catholics celebrate the Sacrament of the Eucharist, we commemorate and re-present what Jesus did in His Last Supper and in His sacrifice on the cross. The Eucharist, as a re-presentation of the Last Supper, is the centerpiece of Catholic worship, the Mass. At Mass, the priest acts in the person of Christ; that is, Jesus Christ acts through the words and actions of the priest.
So, when the priest, during the Eucharist, says the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper, Jesus Christ is speaking. Jesus showed Himself to be the Lamb of sacrifice (of the Passover) by saying that the bread He gave them was His Body. Likewise, when the priest, holding bread, says “This is my body,” Jesus makes Himself really and truly present there in the priest’s hands, even though He appears as mere bread. The same happens with the wine: when the priest says, “This is my blood,” Jesus is really and truly present, though appearing as wine.
What looks like bread and wine is no longer bread and wine, but the real, actual presence of the living Lord, Jesus Christ. In the Eucharist, Catholics are living out the promise Jesus made when He said,
I am the bread of life. . .. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life. 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.John 6:48, 54-56
Jesus really means what He says here; He really does give His body and blood as food and drink, under the appearance of bread and wine.
All of Jesus is present in each and every part of the consecrated bread and wine.
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.Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1374
Just as He is present in all parts of the Eucharist, so He is present in His complete reality as both God and man, living and glorified.
The belief in Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist and the fact that the Mass re-presents the Last Supper and Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is one of the most important Traditions that has been handed on from the Apostles to their successors. This is a clear case where Sacred Tradition gives the proper understanding of Sacred Scripture. And it is clearly identified in Scripture as something that was first handed on to the Apostles from Christ Himself.
St. Paul never met Jesus before His crucifixion. Paul met Christ after He had risen from the dead, and He appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul was called to be an Apostle by Jesus in the months following this encounter, and Jesus instructed him about the Gospel he was to preach. As St. Paul tells the church at Corinth:
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 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.1 Corinthians 11:23-29
In saying that those who receive the Eucharist unworthily sin against the Body of the Lord, St. Paul is telling them that Jesus’ Body is truly present in the Eucharist. Paul is saying that the one who eats of the Eucharist should discern Jesus’ body, be able to see and understand that He is there. Furthermore, Paul is clear in saying that he received this teaching directly from Jesus Himself, after Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven.
If any part of Scripture is to be understood literally and plainly, it is Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, the Sacrament of Himself as true food. The food of Christ’s own self sustains our spiritual life and sanctifies us so that we live with Jesus’ own life.
How is Mass Jesus’s Sacrifice?
Most active Catholics have a pretty strong belief that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, and that what looks like bread and wine is no longer bread and wine, but the real, actual presence of the living Lord Jesus Christ.
In the Eucharist, Jesus fulfills the promise He made when He said in the Gospel of John, Chapter 6,
I am the bread of life. … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life. 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.John 6:48, 54-56
We Catholics believe that Jesus really means what He says here; He really does give His body and blood as food and drink, under the appearance of bread and wine.
A recent study, though, indicates that only around 1/3 of people who identify as Catholic do not believe this. We have to do better in sharing this truth of our faith even with our fellow Catholics.
But what even some active Catholics may miss is that the Mass itself makes present not just the living Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus, but His very sacrifice by which He saves us. This is why attending Mass is so important, and why it is more than our opportunity to receive Jesus in Holy Communion (though it is that, too).
We need to understand that the Mass is a memorial of the Last Supper and the Last Supper was itself a memorial celebration of the Jewish Passover. But a memorial in this sacred, Jewish sense is not just a calling to mind of what happened in the past – like looking at a photo album, or retelling family stories – but a renewing and reliving of the Covenants God made and makes with the people He chose and chooses for His own.
In commemorating their Exodus from Egypt, Jewish people every year, not only remember, but relive the central events which define them as God’s own Holy People, when He, through Moses, led the Israelites out of slavery (Exodus 11-13). In this celebration of Passover, a lamb is sacrificed, and its blood is shed and put on the door posts so that the angel of death (God’s wrath) will pass over and spare the life of the first-born son of those who accept this sacrifice and eat this commemorative meal (CCC, 1363). In this, they not only remember and relive these events, but also renew their commitment to God, and their covenant with Him, which He made with them through these events.
Jesus, when He celebrated this Passover with His disciples at the Last Supper, engages in this same memorial action (remembering, reliving and renewing the covenant), but He also fulfills and completes the promises made in the original Passover by revealing that He is the true Lamb of God who would be sacrificed and whose blood would spare the life of those who believe in Him and free them from slavery to sin. And He made this Covenant present to His disciples the night before He actually fulfills the sacrifice and establishes this New Covenant on the cross the next day, on Good Friday.
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 be shed for many.”Mark 14:22-24; see also, Matthew 26:26-28 and Luke 22:19-20 and 1 Corinthians 11:23-29.
There is only one New Covenant which Jesus made in shedding His blood for the salvation of mankind. It was fully realized on Good Friday on the cross. But He made that very same sacrifice present the night before that event. And so, when we Catholics celebrate the Eucharist at each Mass, we commemorate and re-present – make present again – what Jesus did in His Last Supper and in His sacrifice on the cross.
The Mass is not a new sacrifice of Jesus; Jesus made only one saving sacrifice. As the Letter to the Hebrews says, Jesus
because he remains forever, has a priesthood that does not pass away. Therefore, he is always able to save those who approach God through him, since he lives forever to make intercession for them. He has no need, as did the high priests, to offer sacrifice day after day, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did that once for all when he offered himself.Hebrews 7:24-27
As the Catechism says:
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. “As often as the sacrifice of the Cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch has been sacrificed’ is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out.” (Vatican II, Lumen Gentium 3; cf. 1 Corinthians 5:7).CCC, 1364
Because it is the memorial of Christ’s Passover, the Eucharist is also a sacrifice. The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution: “This is my body which is given for you” and “This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood.”CCC, 1365
The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit.CCC, 1366
The sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist are one single sacrifice.CCC, 1367
The Mass is also our sacrifice which we make with and in Jesus’s offering of Himself to the Father
The Eucharist is also the sacrifice of the Church . . . which is the Body of Christ [who] participates in the offering of her Head. With him, she herself is offered whole and entire. … [our] praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value.CCC, 1368
And the rest of the Church is present, too – especially the Church Triumphant in heaven.
To the offering of Christ are united not only the members still here on earth, but also those already in the glory of heaven…. In the Eucharist the Church is as it were at the foot of the cross with Mary, united with the offering and intercession of Christ.CCC, 1370
So don’t miss Mass so you won’t miss out on all that is made present there.
Let me know if you have any questions about Catholic belief and practice.