From the very beginning, the Christian community understood that in some wonderful and mysterious way Christ was present to them when they gathered for the Eucharist. It wasn’t just in their gathering as the Body of Christ. It wasn’t just in the words of Scripture. Somehow, someway Christ was present to them in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup and that the bread truly became His body and the wine His blood. The earliest account of this is found the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 11:23-27 where Paul writes that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” In the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we find the institution of the Eucharist at the last supper where Jesus clearly says that the bread is His body and the wine His blood. Even more so, the language in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6 makes quite clearly that the Christians understood the presence of Christ in the Eucharist to be a substantial reality and not a symbolic one. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a given for the Christian community. They didn’t ask how this came about in the sense of what happens to the bread or the wine so that they became the Body and Blood of Christ. That was a later medieval endeavor which led to the theological development of theory of transubstantiation. The early Christians just knew that that Christ was present to them under the appearance of bread and wine.
In the mid-2nd century, a man named Justin Martyr wrote a series of “Apologies,” two of which we still have copies. An “Apology” was a form of writing which was intended to inform or persuade the reader as to facts of the matter or issue being discussed. In his “First Apology” Justin writes to the Roman Emporer Antoninus Pius regarding the unjust treatment of Christians throughout the empire and he seeks to set the facts clear as to who the Christians are and in what they believe. Regarding the Eucharist he writes: “And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the
remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
This understanding of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is one that remains with us right down to today in our Catholic faith. We understand that somehow, someway in the celebration of the Mass, the resurrected and glorified Christ becomes truly present to us under the form of bread and wine, not in symbol, but in reality. The Eucharist is not a reanimation of the body of Jesus Christ the Word made man. Over two thousand years ago, God chose to become man and be present among us in human flesh. From the time of Christ’s ascension into heaven until today, God continues to be present among us not in the form of human flesh but in the form of the Eucharist. Among many things, this is a wonderful gift to us because it allows us to receive the Bread of Life and the Cup of Salvation under the appearances of bread and wine without feeling any revulsion as to what it is we receive.
This weekend, a number of our children will receive their first communion. They will process into the church, the little girls in their white dresses, the boys in their white suits, as spotless and clean as their parents could get them. They will receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the first time and move one step further along in their full initiation into the Church, begun with baptism and completed with confirmation. They, like all of us who receive the Body and Blood of Christ, will be encouraged “to become what it is they receive.” They will do so with help and encouragement of their families, their friends, their teachers, and all of us present in the community of St. Margaret Mary parish. May they grow in their for love God and their love for the Eucharist each and every day.