Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke, as well as St. Paul, recall the institution of the Holy Eucharist in their Gospel narratives in phrases that fairly well parallel the words of consecration heard every day at a Catholic Mass. “This is my Body which is given for you… This is the chalice of my blood that is shed for you…Do this in remembrance of me.” St. Matthew devotes eighteen verses to this first Eucharistic meal; St. Mark allows nineteen verses to convey the message of the Last Supper; and St. Luke dedicates thirty-one verses to Jesus’ final meal before his death. In great contrast, St. John dedicates five entire chapters — thirteen through seventeen, for a total of one hundred and fifty-five verses — to Jesus’ Last supper in the Upper Room. Yet St. John, oddly, nowhere records the words of consecration.
There is no “This is my Body…This is the cup of my Blood” in the fourth Gospel. Now some might argue that the other three evangelists as well as St. Paul’s letter to Corinth had sufficiently recorded the Holy Thursday episode in proper detail so that St. John had no need to repeat the citation. Others might contend that the Mass and the words of institution had become such a part of Catholic life by the time that St. John put pen to paper that it need not be retold. Others unfortunately might interpret St. John’s omission as evidence that the words of consecration are not important. For them, the first Eucharist was not a holy sacrifice as Catholics maintain but simply a common meal like those shared by Jesus after his resurrection.
Yet all doubts and hesitations and denials fad away when the reader learns that St. John actually devoted more than five chapters to the Eucharist. The whole of chapter six in St. John’s Gospel account is given over to the Eucharist, from the multiplication of the loaves to a final Eucharistic sermon at a local synagogue. And therein, Jesus leaves no doubt that the Eucharist is a sacrificial meal: “And the bread I will give is my flesh given for the life of the world.” Perhaps more than the other New Testament writers St. John drives home the profound reality of the Eucharistic bread and wine: “My flesh is real food and my blood real drink.” “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”
The crowd gathered around who had enjoyed the multiplied loaves now begin to take exception to Jesus’ insistence that the authentic bread he would give is actually his own flesh. “How can this fellow give his flesh to eat?” the assembled crowd asks in disbelief. Clearly Jesus is not speaking here in similes or metaphors. Christ’s expressions here are not allegorical like “I am the Good Shepherd,” or “I am the vine; you are the branches.” The crowd knows that Jesus intends his flesh to be real food and his blood to be real drink. His words are no figure of speech. The listeners’ skepticism is such that even a number of his disciples no longer walk with him but abandon the mission, put off by his fantastic claims of heavenly bread and sanctified flesh that would give life to the world.
Worshippers in Christianity’s third millennium enjoy the spiritual insights of two thousand years of reflection on the Eucharist. For many believers the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is dominant in their religious lives. The true presence of Christ in the host received at the altar as well as the hosts reserved in the tabernacle and the consecrated species displayed in the monstrance are reassuring and consoling to a vast number of believers — and rightly so. For many other believers the Eucharist is the binding force that unites the faith community in prayer and charity, one member looking out for another member’s spiritual and material needs. Such unity at the altar demands unity at home and in the streets.
The manifold glories of the Eucharist are consequently both vertical and horizontal. The Eucharist is indeed heavenly food, the bread of angels, strengthening the soul with Divine graces. The Eucharist is as well earthly sustenance, the food of pilgrims, sustaining and uniting those on their journey to the ultimate Promised Land. St. John and the other Biblical authors knew well that no number of chapters and verses could exhaust the grandeur of the Eucharist. Wisely did the medieval theologians label the Eucharist the “most excellent of sacraments.”