Session 8   The Eucharist

 The Eucharist



All Christian doctrine is based on Scripture so the first thing we must do is to examine the account of what is known as the Institution of the Eucharist, which of course is the account of the Last Supper.  We find accounts of this in Matthew (26;26-29) Mark (14:22-25) and Luke’s Gospel ( 22;19-20)  all known as the synoptic Gospels because they all have a similar view of the life and teaching of Christ. 


Also, St Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (11:23-27)  recalls the events of the Last Supper, reminding the reader of the importance of the reverence that should be shown when the early Christians gathered in each others homes for the celebration of the Eucharist.  He recalls the whole event that had been told to him by the Apostles and emphasises that it is the body and blood of the Lord that they are receiving.  In another part, he says words like “Don’t you know that it is the body of the Lord.  Don’t you know that it is the blood of the Lord?”


So what did happen at the Last Supper?  The Apostles had gathered with Jesus to celebrate Passover.  This is the annual feast, still celebrated to this day by Jews, when they recall the time when they escaped from slavery at the hand of the Egyptians in Old Testament times.   They were told to sacrifice a lamb and place the blood on the door posts to identify them as Israelites.  When the angel of death came by, he would pass over those homes but not those of the Egyptians, whose eldest sons were killed.  So the Israelites were saved by the blood of the paschal lamb


Now there are several threads which we must think about in these events but let us look at the actual Last Supper.  There would have been different kinds of food on the table, probably including lamb which is still the traditional Passover food, but it was ordinary bread and wine – the every day food and drink of the time, which Jesus took.  He used the words “This is my Body. This is my Blood.”  He did not say that the bread and wine represented his body and blood but they actually are his body and blood.  This is why the Church continues to teach the doctrine of Transubstantiation – that is, the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ.  This particular belief causes much angst when we are unable to offer Eucharistic hospitality to those who do not share this belief.   (One Bread, One Body the teaching document of 1998 in which the Bishops’ Conferences of England & Wales, Ireland and Scotland reiterate Eucharistic teaching and outline the occasions when Eucharsitic hospitality can be offered.)


If we go into a deeper understanding of the Eucharist, we can see that there were several

incidents in the Old Testament which foretold the whole idea.  For example:

The Paschal Lamb which we have already mentioned. (Exod. 12)         

The manna in the desert    (Exod. 16)

            The sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.       (Gen. 22)

The sacrifice of bread and wine by Melchisedeck (Gen. 14:18)


We’ve mentioned three of the Gospels.  What about the Gospel according to John?   You may be wondering why John does not give any details of the Institution of the Eucharist.  It’s thought that John was writing for an established community of Christians, possibly in Ephesus.  This Gospel is a theological work giving a deeper explanation of the Eucharist to these people who already knew the details of the Institution.  It is interesting to note that John’s account of the Last Supper emphasises Christ washing the feet of the Apostles.  John is giving his readers a deeper meaning to the Eucharist i.e. service to others.



Also Chapter 6 of John’s Gospel is rich in Eucharistic teaching.  It starts with the miracle of the loaves which is full of Eucharistic meaning.  Then follows the teaching of Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum with such words as:


“I am the bread of life.  No one who comes to me will ever hunger.  No one who believes in me will ever thirst.”  v.35      and


“ ..... if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”   v 52


Now these are strong words and some of his listeners questioned what he was saying and some chose to walk with him no more.   So we can see that Eucharistic teaching is a real test of the strength of our belief.


Deeper Understanding

It is very significant that Jesus sacrificed himself on the Cross at the same time as the Jewish Passover.  To us Christians, Jesus is our Paschal Lamb.  It is by his blood that we are saved from evil.  Christ’s sacrifice brought about our redemption.  So it is important for us to see the celebration of the Eucharist as the continuation of that sacrifice as well as it being the Lord’s Supper.  That’s why we talk about the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  This is the Sacrifice of the New Testament which replaces those of the Old.  It’s interesting to note that after the destruction of the Temple on A.D. 70, there have been no Jewish sacrifices.


So just to recap, we have mentioned Supper, Sacrifice and Redemption and these together with the whole idea of Christ’s Resurrection are motifs which constantly run through the liturgy.  These together with the Trinity are the themes that present themselves to us throughout and are intertwined in the daily celebration.  No wonder we sometimes refer to it as the Sacred Mysteries.  And there is another element – the Incarnation.  Jesus took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary in a way anticipating the Eucharist.  She became the tabernacle, so to speak, for the Son of God.  Now in the Eucharist, he becomes sacramentally present again by the power of the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Trinity) when the priest utters the words of consecration as we are gathered around the altar.  The Holy Spirit

v     was there at the beginning of time when the world was created – he moved over the earth like a gentle breeze. 

v     he was there at the Annunciation when Mary conceived the Saviour in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit.

v     he was there when the Apostles were gathered in the upper room after the Ascension.

v     he is there when the priest spreads his hands over the chalice during the Eucharistic Prayer.

v     he is there to guide us whenever we call upon him to help us throughout our lives


We mentioned earlier that belief in the real presence of Jesus under the appearance of bread and wine was held by the early Christians.  St Cyril of Jerusalem (4th century) noted for his wonderful sermons of instruction to those preparing to come into the church, said in one of those sermons:


“Do not therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that, for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ.  Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm.  Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by faith, not doubting that you have been made worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ.”


Unfortunately, at the time of the Reformation, new ideas contrary to this were being spread on the Continent but it is interesting to note that Martin Luther held onto the old beliefs concerning the Real Presence, as did Henry VIII who although he broke away from Rome, held onto all the Church’s teaching and still considered himself a Catholic. It was only in the reign of his son, Edward VI who was still a child, that the new ideas were introduced by others who favoured these new thoughts which were spreading from the Continent.


The celebration of the Sacred Liturgy is our way of thanksgiving to God and of creating communion with him and with each other.  The word Eucharist is derived from the Greek word meaning thanksgiving.


It is worthwhile considering a fairly new practice especially in new or re-ordered churches, of siting the Tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is kept, in a side chapel rather than on the high altar.  Now I know some people do not like the idea of what may appear to be sidelining the Blessed Sacrament.    If I can give you an example: Worth Abbey! The body of the church is a huge circular expanse which allows for all the different ceremonies which take place during the course of a typical liturgical year.  The Blessed Sacrament is kept in a special chapel more or less behind a wall on the left of the altar.  I distinctly remember hearing someone say “It’s a disgrace!  Fancy hiding the Blessed Sacrament away like that.”  On the face of it, that’s quite a valid statement, until we start to think about it.  First, the custom of reserving the Blessed Sacrament was in order to take the host to the sick who were unable to be present for Mass and secondly so that the faithful could adore the Divine Presence.  It makes liturgical sense to start the celebration of Mass with an empty altar to where bread and wine, the gifts of the people are brought in procession and handed to the priest who then offers them to our heavenly Father.  Eventually, those same gifts by the power of the Holy Spirit and through the action of the priest, become Christ’s own body and blood.  And what happens then?  They are given back to us in the form of Holy Communion.  (How typical of a loving parent!  How many times have children given chocolates to parents who have shared them with those children!)  We should now be able to understand the thinking behind why some parishes do move the Tabernacle, so as, in a way, not to distract from the action of the Mass.


The Liturgical Movement

It is worthwhile considering a little about the development of the Liturgy.  We know that in the early Church, the Eucharist was celebrated in the houses, when the laity would be involved and not just spectators. It was in the 4th century that Christianity became the official religion under the Emperor Constantine. Churches were built, priests were allowed to wear the dress of Roman officials and a more ceremonial approach to the liturgy was introduced.  Gradually over the centuries the laity was distanced from the sacred action, especially as Latin was used instead of the language of the people who started to indulge in their own devotions, for example the Rosary. Then in 1903, Pius X coined the phrase active participation and made great efforts to re-establish greater involvement by the laity.  You may remember that it was Pius X who introduced the custom of children receiving Holy Communion.  Six years later, the idea of active participation was emphasised at a National Congress. Three monasteries on the continent (one of which was Maria Laach in Germany, close to Godalming’s twin town of Mayen, [also Mont-Cesar and St. Andre in Belgium] were responsible for the start of what became known as the Liturgical Movement.   The most important thing about this was the idea of active participation in the Eucharist. The late 1950s saw the reform of the Easter Vigil which gave the whole congregation opportunity to join in the celebration and talk of the need to change the liturgy to the language of the people.   It was not until the 1960s with the Second Vatican Council that the Mass was in English and the real emphasis was put on active participation which would be the key to unlocking the treasures of the Eucharist to us.


The Vatican II document on the sacred liturgy went into great detail on the meaning of the Eucharist and gradually changes were made which allowed us more active participation and because the language of the people is used, everyone can understand the Mass in our own language.  We sometimes hear people say that when we used Latin, wherever we went in the world, the Mass was the same but it’s worth while realising that although we may have been able to follow the Mass in Latin especially with the help of a Missal in both languages, there were millions of the faithful throughout the world who were unable to follow.  The changes also mean that various ministries are open to the laity.  We have readers, and extraordinary ministers of Communion.  We are encouraged to take part in the presentation of the gift and welcoming the people as they arrive, and so on.  But despite what we may think at first, these activities are not what is meant by active participation.  This term refers to being actively involved with heart and mind with the priest who is the main celebrant.  It may mean that we never ever leave our seat, except say for Holy Communion but while we are there we engage with the action of the priest and not be just a spectator or a listener.


Generally it is thought that these changes were for the better but there is always a downside to such changes so let us consider these:

v     Our rich heritage of beautifully sung Masses including plainsong seemed to be mothballed over night.

v     Informality seems to have crept in, which has led to a certain amount of lack of respect especially among the generations who were not brought up to be awe-inspired by the sacred mysteries which perhaps we did not fully understand.


The Magisterium, or the Church Fathers have become concerned with this and although most people do not want to go back to the old format, it is felt necessary to encourage more respect and to put the Eucharist back on a pedestal, so to speak.  For this reason, our late and beloved Holy Father, John Paul ll wrote his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia in 2003 and then declared 2005 to be the Year of the Eucharist.  In his encyclical, John Paul goes into great detail about Church teaching on the Eucharist .  One section emphasises how the Eucharist is important for building up Christ’s Church.  St. Augustine says: “The Eucharist makes us Church.” Our Baptism incorporates us into the Body of Christ, his Church and Holy Communion is a way of constantly renewing this incorporation.  Not only do we renew our relationship with Christ but also with each other.  That is why the sign of peace is so important and takes place before we receive Christ in Holy Communion and why it is unwise not to take part in it.  The Assembly (for that is what the word ‘church’ means) is gathered together as a community not as a collection of individuals wearing blinkers and earplugs. 


So what is important for us is to consider the two aspects of this development of the Eucharist – the active participation and the reverence which should be shown to the Blessed Sacrament.  We should make sure that we are fully involved with our mind and heart with what is going on in the action of the Mass and should always show great respect by our manner and behaviour. We should always genuflect when we first come into church.  This means that our knee should touch the floor and our backs straight – not the funny little bobs that we see such a lot of these days.  Let me also say, that it is not considered necessary to do a full genuflection every time we pass the tabernacle if we have to move about the church to see to various things – a bow from the waist is sufficient and still shows the respect that is due to our Blessed Lord in the tabernacle.


The Priesthood

We cannot think about the Eucharist without acknowledging the importance of the ordained priest.  I have said much tonight about the importance of the laity but without the ordained priest, we cannot have the Eucharist.  We mentioned that Baptism incorporates us into the Body of


Christ; his Church and Baptism also enable us to have a share in the kingly, priestly and prophetic office of Christ. [We can read this in the Vat. ll document Lumen Gentium which is the document on the Church. #31]  and this idea of the laity sharing in the kingly, priestly and prophetic office of Christ is sometimes referred to as the priesthood of the people or the common priesthood  but it should not be confused with the ordained ministry by which a priest is empowered to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, to administer the sacraments, to proclaim the word of God and to provide the pastoral care needed by his flock.  Although the laity can be involved in many parish activities, even baptising and witnessing marriages in certain circumstances, for example in missionary countries where specially trained lay people may be appointed by the Bishop, it is only the ordained priest who is the celebrant at Mass. If a priest in not available, there can be no Mass although a Eucharistic Minister may conduct a Service of Scripture Readings and  Prayers and administer Holy Communion using hosts which have been consecrated by a priest at a precious Mass.



Although the Mass consists of many parts, it can be divided roughly into two important sections. 

a) the Liturgy of the Word

b) the Liturgy of the Eucharist.


Both of these are as important as the other.  We cannot have one without the other.  We must see the chalice and Scripture side by side in equal partnership, so to speak. 

They are both food for the soul


So let us take a little time to tease out all of this.  


We start Mass with what is known as the Penitential Rite when we express sorrow for our sins for example with the Confiteor or I confess and the Kyrie or Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.   How appropriate to tell God that we are sorry for our sins before we start anything else!


The Gloria follows – that wonderful prayer of praise, mentioning Father, Son and Holy Spirit, another mention of the Trinity.


The Liturgy of the Word,

This of course is the section where we listen to Scripture, the word of God.  The first reading is sometimes from the Old Testament.  This together with the Psalm, link us with the first Chosen People of God, the Jews, into which race, Jesus himself was born.  The second reading is usually from Paul’s Epistles or from the Acts of the Apostles which puts us in touch with the early Christian Church.  During these readings, we sit so that we can listen in a comfortable way, but when it comes to listening to the Gospel  from either Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, we get up on our feet, in order to acclaim the teachings of Jesus.  In fact we say “Let us stand to acclaim the Gospel”   We are expressing with our action that we believe in the teaching of Jesus. Note that it is always the priest (or a Deacon) who reads the Gospel.  Remember we said that to proclaim the word of God is one of his ministries.  This is followed by the priest’s homily (or sermon) when he breaks open the word of God, so to speak.  He leads us into a deeper understanding of the Scripture that we have just listened to. 


I would like to draw your attention to the powerful account of the incident on the road to Emmaus.  (Luke 24;13-35) You will remember that after Jesus had risen from the dead, he accompanied two travellers who were on their way home to Emmaus. Even though he explained the scriptures to them, it was only after he broke bread with them that they recognised him and understood all that he had said.


The Creed follows when we again are on our feet as a sign that this is what we believe.  In the Creed we list all the basic beliefs taught by the Christian Church, such as belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Christ’s death and Resurrection, Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, life everlasting after our own death and the final resurrection of our own body on the last day, and so on.  In the Creed, we assert our Christian beliefs before approaching the altar of the Lord.    


The Bidding Prayers follow  for our needs, both local and global.


The Liturgy of the Eucharist

Then we get down to the very serious business of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.   This starts with the Presentation of the Gifts when the laity bring up gifts of bread and wine and we give our donation to the upkeep of the Church in the collection. 


The Eucharistic Prayer then starts.  There are basically four to choose from and the priest usually tells us which one he will say so that we can select the correct one from our missal. The priest then offers these gifts of bread and wine     (Fruit of the vine and the work of human hands.”)


to the Father, through the Son

and for the whole Church – including  the Pope and our Bishop both of whom are mentioned by name.


The priest also mentions Mary, the blessed mother of Jesus.  This indicates the honour that the Church gives to her.  It was because she said “Yes” to God’s request that the Saviour came into the world.  She played a very important part in our Redemption. John Paul II in his encyclical on the Eucharist calls Mary “the woman of the Eucharist”  The Church has always taught that Mary is so important because she leads us to her Son.  She is present at the Eucharist, still leading us in the same direction. 


The words of consecration remind us of the words of Jesus at the Last Supper.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, the priest changes the bread and wine into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ.  We remember that there is great emphasis on the Trinity in the Eucharist:  to the Father, through the Son and by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We are reminded of the Trinity every time Father, Son and Holy Spirit are mentioned.  By the action of the priest, Christ is made present once more on the altar.  It is not just an action in memory of the Last Supper, the Death and Resurrection.   All of the Sacred Mysteries are made to happen once more, just as when Jews celebrate the Passover, they make it happen again – it is not just a remembrance.


Immediately after this we remember the Paschal Mysteries and the whole congregation says out loud Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  The priest follows with a prayer to the Father recalling Christ’s death, Resurrection and Ascension.  There is mention of the sacrifices of Abraham and Melchisadech, then prayers for the dead and mention again of the saints in heaven.  One important teaching of the Church has always been that of the Communion of Saints.  We on earth are joined with the saints in heaven and with the Holy Souls in Purgatory.  The Eucharist bridges the gap between heaven and earth. 


The Doxology or Praise and the Great Amen

The priest says:

            “Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, almighty Father, for ever and ever.

and we should all answer very firmly Amen.


Communion.      Before we receive the host and from the chalice, we all stand to say that wonderful prayer that Jesus taught us   “Our Father who art in heaven .......” 

            “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”  are particularly appropriate words before we offer the sign of peace to those around us.


We also say the words “Thy will be done.  Thy Kingdom come.”  And God’s Kingdom starts on this earth and we are called upon as Christians to spread this Kingdom.


We finally ask for mercy and peace when we say “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.” Then we are ready to receive the Lord.


Communion under both kinds.

Before Vatican II, we did not receive from the chalice so it’s worth while considering why changes have been made.  Church teaching tells us that we receive Jesus entirely under the appearance of bread and entirely under the appearance of wine.  Some time during the Middle Ages the church decided not to offer the chalice because of spillage, a custom which was easily accepted.   After the Second Vatican Council, the chalice was re-introduced.  When we receive Holy Communion under both kinds, we take part more fully in the Sacrament.


Finally, the priest gives us his blessing and says words such as “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” or “Go in the peace of Christ”  This is not just a liturgical equivalent of Cheerio or Goodbye.  The priest is reminding us that we have to go forth and put our faith into practice as an example to the rest of mankind and that the main  mission  of the Church is to spread the Gospel.  At this troubled time in our history, we realise that God is wanting the whole of the human race to learn how to live peacefully with each other. (This of course may not mean that we all agree with one another) These words of dismissal at the end of the liturgy sum up the words in the Gospel: “Love God and love your neighbour” and have a firm message that we must involve ourselves in issues of justice and peace in order to spread God’s Kingdom on earth.


Thinking Liturgically

If we start to think in a liturgical way, we will understand the full meaning of the words and actions of the Eucharist.   It is not just ritual.   Everything that is said or done has a significance in this great act of worship instituted by Christ himself, in which we celebrate the Sacred Mysteries: “By your cross and resurrection you have set us free.”  In other words, we are redeemed. 


Inculturation.  Talking about ritual, there has been emphasis in recent years in what is known as inculturation.  This means that the liturgy can be adapted to fit in with the culture of the people.  For example, in African countries you may find that the Offertory Procession/presentation of Gifts, involves dancing.  This is what comes naturally to the people.  Also, the vestments may be more in keeping with clothes worn at special times.


“Source and summit”

Vatican II calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life.”  (Sacrosanctum Concilium #10)  which means that


v     everything comes from the Eucharist

v     everything leads to the Eucharist


We might say colloquially that the Eucharist is the be all and end all of everything and the more we study the Church’s teaching, the more we get out of the Mass and the more we understand it.  We will be able to answer such questions as :-



v     “What is the significance of the priest adding a few drops of water to the wine?”

Answer:  it symbolises the human nature of Christ mingled with his divine nature symbolised  by the wine.

v     Why do the Stations of the Cross end with the 14th Station when Jesus is buried in the tomb?

Answer:  the 15th Station, the Resurrection, happens on the altar every time the Eucharist is celebrated.

v     Why do we make the Sign of the Cross on our head, our mouth and our heart before the priest reads the Gospel?

Answer: We remind ourselves to know the Gospel, to speak the Gospel and to love the Gospel  



Difficulty with our faith

Like all mysteries, the Eucharist is one of God’s secrets which we can never understand fully while we are on earth.  (The Trinity is another )


In the fourth century, St. Anselm said:  “Lord, I do not first seek to understand in order to believe but I believe in order to understand.”



A Few Thoughts to conclude

v     Let us remind ourselves why Jesus took human flesh and lived among us with the words of John’s Gospel: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life.”   (Jn.3:16)

v     The church requests that we take part in Sunday Mass.

v     Dignity and reverence are both important in the celebration of the Eucharist, whether it be a simple Mass in our local parish or a more grand celebration such as the funeral of a Pope or the inauguration of a new Pope.

v     We become what we eat – the Eucharist transforms us into a life with Christ.

v     The Eucharist forgives our minor sins.

v     Last but by no means least, some words from the homily of Pope Benedict XVI with the Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel on 20th April 2005: 


"The Eucharist makes the Risen Christ constantly present, Christ Who continues to give Himself to us, calling us to participate in the banquet of His Body and His Blood. From this full communion with Him comes every other element of the life of the Church, in the first place the communion among the faithful, the commitment to proclaim and give witness to the Gospel, the ardour of charity towards all, especially towards the poor and the smallest.”