Wednesday, 16 November 2022 08:52

How can Jesus Christ be truly present in what still appears to be bread and wine?

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Jesus giving himselfFrom the very beginning, the Church has believed and celebrated according to the teaching of Jesus Himself: “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” (Jn 6:54-56). It is not “ordinary bread and ordinary drink” that we receive in the Eucharist, but the flesh and blood of Christ, who came to nourish and transform us, to restore our relationship to God and to one another.

In the Eucharist, with the eyes of faith we see before us Jesus Christ, who, in the Incarnation became flesh (Jn 1:14) and who in the Paschal Mystery gave Himself for us (Ti 2:14), accepting even death on a cross (Phil 2:8). St. John Chrysostom preached that when you see the Body of Christ “set before you [on the altar], say to yourself: ‘Because of this Body I am no longer earth and ashes, no longer a prisoner, but free: because of this I hope for heaven, and to receive the good things therein, immortal life, the portion of angels, [and closeness] with Christ.’”

How can Jesus Christ be truly present in what still appears to be bread and wine? In the liturgical act known as the epiclesis, the bishop or priest, speaking in the person of Jesus Christ, calls upon the Father to send down his Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, and this change occurs through the institution narrative, by the power of the words of Christ pronounced by the celebrant.

The reality that, in the Eucharist, bread and wine become the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ without ceasing to appear as bread and wine to our five senses is one of the central mysteries of the Catholic faith. This faith is a doorway through which we, like the saints and mystics before us, may enter into a deeper perception of the mercy and love manifested in and through Christ’s sacramental presence in our midst. While one thing is seen with our bodily eyes, another reality is perceived through the eyes of faith. The real, true, and substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the most profound reality of the sacrament. This mysterious change is very appropriately called by the Church transubstantiation. 

Though Christ is present to us in many ways in the liturgy, including in the assembly gathered, the presiding minister, and the word proclaimed, the Church also clearly affirms that “the mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique.” As St. Paul VI wrote, “This presence is called ‘real’ not to exclude the idea that the others are ‘real’ too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man.” In the sacramental re-presentation of His sacrifice, Christ holds back nothing, offering Himself, whole and entire. The use of the word “substantial” to mark the unique presence of Christ in the Eucharist is intended to convey the totality of the gift He offers to us.

When the Eucharist is distributed and the minister says, “the Body of Christ,” we are to look not simply at what is visible before our eyes, but at what it has become by the words of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit — the Body of Christ. The communicant’s response of “Amen” is a profession of faith in the Real Presence of Christ and reflects the intimate personal encounter with him, with His gift of self, that comes through reception of holy Communion.

Taken from The Mystery of Eucharist in the Life of the Church, produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2021