At 'The Last Supper', Christ gave his disciples a gift and a special instruction to go with it. Christ's gift to us: the Eucharist; and his intruction to go with it: "Do this in memory of me" (Luke 22:7-23).
Why do Catholics hold the Eucharist in such high-esteem? Anti-Catholics suggest that Catholics commit the sin of idolatry ("again") when we revere the bread and the wine, and why? Mainly because they think we're simply bowing down to a symbol; nothing more than a wafer of bread; "grape juice and crackers" and some demeaningly put it; a "graven image" as the anti-Catholic also suggests.
For starters, we believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that by transubstantiation, the bread becomes the body of Christ, just as Jesus suggested himself when he said at the Last Supper:
"And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me'". - Luke 22:19 (NIV)
The first argument the anti-Catholic may make is on the use of the word "Eucharist" itself, that the word never appears in the Bible and thus the sacrament of the Eucharist is "false doctrine" and "unbiblical". The anti-Catholic believe they've come up trumps with this argument and this attack may seem indefendable by even the most staunch of Catholics, because yes: the word "Eucharist" itself does not appear in scripture. But the anti-Catholic would then need to ask themself this question: "Why would a Greek word appear in an English translation of the Bible?"
The word "Eucharist" is derived from the Greek word "eukaristos" which, when translated, means "grateful" or "to give thanks". Now pay attention to the wording of Luke 22:19 with that information in mind (and I'll use different translations of the Bible just for kicks):
"And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me'". (NIV)
"And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me." (KJV)
"And when He had taken some bread and 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.'" (NAS)
"Then Jesus took bread and spoke a prayer of thanksgiving. He broke the bread, gave it to them, and said, 'This is my body, which is given up for you. Do this to remember me.'" (GWT)
"And taking bread, he gave thanks, and brake; and gave to them, saying: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me." (Douay-Rheims)
Eucharist = "grateful/to give thanks"
When Catholics go to Mass to celebrate Holy Communion, we come together to give thanks for a few reasons:
1.) To thank God for sending us His son that we may truly know how to relate with Him, the Eternal Father;
2.) To thank God for offering His son as a living sacrifice for our sins, so that we may have Eternal Life;
3.) To thank Christ for offering himself for us so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have Eternal Life;
4.) To thank Christ for giving us a means to come together to remember Him as he instructed: "do this is rememberance of me" (Luke 22:19); and of course
5.) To thank God for His Word: wisdom given to us and found in Sacred Scripture, as we listen to readings both from the Old and New Testaments.
The other and probably most scathing argument on the Eucharist anti-Catholics make (or at least they think it's a scathing argument) is that when Jesus spoke of his body being bread and bis blood, wine, in John 6, he was being figurative. But the attack does not stop there. Anti-Catholics also seem to think that at the Catholilc Mass, during the Eucharist, Christ through this sacrament is resacrificed; an offense to them since we already know that Christ's sacrifice in the cross for us was sufficient. Such was an argument I received from a fellow Youtube user (who will remain nameless for the sake of his own embarrassment). I'll call him "Thomas" for all intensive purposes:
"Transubstantiation is false. In John 6:63 Jesus states that His words are spirit and the flesh profits nothings. READ John 6:48-63. Its not literal. Catholics believe in re crucifying Christ for the sins of the people in Mass. Which means that Catholics think His work on the cross is incomplete. THIS IS BLASPHEMY! Try reading Heb 9:12, 26, 28; 10:2, 10, 14; 1Pt 3:18. Communion is a REMEMBRANCE not a REENACTMENT. Re crucifying Him over and over again is SLAPPING Him in the FACE. REPENT REPENT..."
Firstly, let's have a look at what John 6:63 says:
"The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life."
Thomas is taking 6:63 out of context. When Jesus says that the flesh "counts for nothing" (or "profits nothing" in other translations of the Bible) he is of course referring to a life led by the flesh rather than the spirit. Galatians 5 consolidates the discourse of a life in the spirit rather than the flesh. Jesus in this instance is not speaking about or even referred to the kind of flesh he was speaking of earlier in the chapter:
"Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.'" - John 6:53-56
If we go by the anti-Catholic's argument, that Christ's flesh "counts for nothing" (or "profits nothing"), then applying this logic one could argue that Christ's physical death for us, i.e. death of the flesh (crucifixion), itself counted for nothing and is completely contradicted and made void! Not only then is this anti-Catholic argument ridiculous, it's self-contradicting. Not to mention it highlights the anti-Catholic's inability to read scripture in context and how they distort scripture to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16).
On to the argument of Catholilcs "resacrificing" Christ at the Eucharist, we know very well that Christ's sacrifice on the cross for us was more than sufficient for our salvation. Christ's life, death and resurrection are the central points of the Christian religion and this is no different for Catholics (let's ignore for the moment the fact that many anti-Catholics don't seem to think that Catholics are Christians themselves, which is utterly ridiculous). In the Mass, we remember the sacrifice Christ made for us; He is not "resacrificed" at the Eucharist. The Mass is a memorial of Christ's life, death and resurrection. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes this quite clear:
"The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ's Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, in the liturgy of the Church which is his Body. In all the Eucharistic Prayers we find after the words of institution a prayer called the anamnesis or memorial." - CCC 1362
"In the sense of Sacred Scripture 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. This is how Israel understands its liberation from Egypt: every time Passover is celebrated, the Exodus events are made present to the memory of believers so that they may conform their lives to them." - CCC 1363
"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. '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.'" - 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.' In the Eucharist Christ gives us the very body which he gave up for us on the cross, the very blood which he 'poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'" - CCC 1365
*a sacrifice; not "another sacrifice" or "resacrifice".http://www.cfpeople.org/page18.html
The Eucharist makes present Christ's sacrifice on the cross because, as Christ said himself as he took bread and gave thanks, "This is my body, given for you..." (Luke 22:19). Christ speaks of the same body (flesh) in John 6 where he says: "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him" (John 6:56). Christ is never re-crucified or dies at every Mass. The sacrifice of Calvary and the sacrifice of the Mass are one and the same sacrifice, the manner in which they are offered is alone different. The Council of Trent (1562) put it in these terms:
"And forasmuch as, in this divine sacrifice which is celebrated in the Mass, that same Christ is contained and immolated in an unbloody manner, Who once offered Himself in a bloody manner on the altar of the cross; the holy synod teaches that this sacrifice is truly propitiatory, and that by means thereof this is effected that we obtain mercy, and find grace in seasonable aid…For the victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the cross, the manner alone of offering being different."
And what of the anti-Catholic argument of Eucharistic "symbolism", that Jesus wasn't being literal in John 6:41-59? What is worthy of note is when some of Jesus' followers walked away (John 6:66) because they were disgusted with what he was suggesting ("eat of my flesh; drink of my blood"), Jesus didn't stop them and say, "Hey guys, don't go; I was only being figurative" (or something to that effect). In fact, the ones that walked away said this:
"'This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?'" - John 6:60
What's important to keep in mind is that Jesus was in the habit of explaining what he meant when he was being figurative - namely when he was speaking in parables - but not in this instance; he wasn't being figurative (i.e. John 6:41-59). Had Christ's discourse on his flesh and blood in John 6 been figurative (i.e. not literal) he would have offered an explanation for it and very likely in an attempt to stop his followers from leaving him. But no, Jesus says this when his followers fail to accept what he is teaching:
"Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, 'Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.' For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, 'This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.'"
It doesn't seem like Jesus is attempting to make any explanation here, in fact, Jesus seems surprised that these followers have rejected this discourse:
"From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." - John 6:66
Jesus then goes on to ask Simon-Peter and the other disciples if they are going to leave as well. We see here that Jesus was perhaps fearful that others would abandon him:
"'You do not want to leave too, do you?' Jesus asked the Twelve." - John 6:67
Simon-Peter's response is the resposne of a true believer and one that has a stoic faith:
"Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.'" - John 6:68
You don't see Simon-Peter asking Jesus if he was being figuartive, do you? No. Simon-Peter, in this instance, exemplifies the kind of faith that it takes to affirm and know that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, that at the Last Supper as Jesus commands, the bread becomes His body and the wine, His blood (Luke 22:19,20).
Jesus cannot make it any simpler:
"... For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." - John 6:33
Jesus did not say: "For the bread of God is like he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
"I am the bread that came down from heaven." - John 6:41
Jesus did not say: "I am like the bread that came down from heaven."
"I am the bread of life." - John 6:48
Jesus did not say: "I am like the bread of life."
"This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." - John 6:51
Jesus did not say: "This bread is like my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."
And from John 6:53-58...
"I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you..."
Jesus did not say: "... unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood which is like bread and wine, you have no life in you."
"For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink."
Not: "For my flesh is like real food and my blood is like real drink."
Can you see the difference? How can anyone say that Christ was being figurative in this instance? Christ's discourse on the body and blood is the most profound and poignant of all his teachings, and yes, while for many it is difficult to accept for unbelievers, we learn from Simon-Peter and the 12 the great faith and belief in Christ required to accept all that he taught us.
If you're a Catholic and you don't believe that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, then fold your arms across your chest when you approach the priest during the Communion Rite and before you attend Mass again, pay heed to the words Christ spoke in John 6; he wasn't kidding around or speaking in parables; his life, death and resurrection is serious business, and his body and blood at the Eucharist offers us eternal life. This is not possible without a two-fold faith:
a) Faith that affirms that Christ is the Son of God and that he gave his own body in atonement for our sin and for our salvation; and
b) Faith that affirms that if we eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood, we will have eternal life, and Christ will raise us up at the last day (John 6:54). By doing so Christ remains in us, and us in him (John 6:57).
If you're an anti-Catholic that rejects transubstantiation and belies Christ was not being literal in John 6, then take into consideration what has been said in this blog and don't just stop there: read, pray and ask! Here's some further reading which you may find useful:
http://www.staycatholic.com/ecf_the_real_presence.htm - The Early Church Fathers on The Real Presence
http://www.catholic.com/library/Christ_in_the_Eucharist.asp - Christ in the Eucharist
http://www.catholicapologetics.org/ap060500.htm - The Eucharist: The Lord's Supper
http://catholicapologeticsresource.com/wiki/index.php?title=The_Eucharist - The Eucharist
http://www.chnetwork.org/journals/eucharist/eucharist_5.htm - Transubstantation and the Eucharist
But what does the Eucharist mean to me personally?
For me, every time I go to Mass and partake in Holy Communion, I feel as though I am sitting with Christ and his disciples in a dining hall in the city of Jerusalem, and I am filled with an undying warmth within me knowing that Catholics for nearly 2000 years have been doing as Christ instructed and taught as he did in John 6 and at the Last Supper. For nearly 2000 years the chain has gone unbroken and Catholics today share in the miracle and gift of the Eucharist, for my faith concerning the Eucharist is two-fold:
a) I believe that Christ is the Son of God and that he gave his own body in atonement for our sin and for our salvation; and
b) I believe that if I eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood, I will have eternal life, and Christ will raise me up at the last day (John 6:54). By doing so Christ remains in me, and me in him (John 6:57).