The Eucharist as the real presence of Jesus Christ body and blood, and not just a representative thereof, is an issue that has been debated since the beginning of the Church. For Catholics this debate is not one from which we should run, but was one that Christ instilled in His first followers.
The Bible is a complicated book. Its many languages, authors and interpretations are a lot to chew on. This is true in the case of the Eucharist — no pun intended. I’ll begin with a question. Did you know that the Greek word “trogo,” which you hear in John 6 as “eat,” was for the Greeks a word which signified a gnawing or even a crunching? Therefore when Jesus told the Jewish crowds “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you,” He meant it (John 6:53). We can look to the manna in the desert, which fell from Heaven and was eaten by the Jews, as its foreshadowing.
Another Bible passage that elucidates the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Jesus’ body and blood is 1 Cor. 10:16 in which we read “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Here Paul is showing us that in the Eucharist we are consuming the actual body and blood, and not just a symbol.
The early Church fathers had a lot to say about the Eucharist as well. We read about the Eucharist in the Didache, a document written by Christ’s first followers in the time after His death and resurrection. In it we discover a prayer after Communion, in which the early church prayed, “Thou gavest food and drink to men for enjoyment, that they might give thanks to Thee; but to us Thou didst freely give spiritual food and drink and life eternal through Thy Servant.” There’s a connection, from the beginning of our Church, between corporal food and a spiritual reality. If we can’t trust the views on the Eucharist from the same people who learned directly from Christ throughout His public ministry, then who can we believe?
We read, too, in 100 AD in Ignatius’ letter to the Smyrnaeans, “The Gnostics abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” Less than 100 years after Christ’s death, St. Ignatius of Antioch is confirming what we believe today: the Eucharist is not just a symbol.
A mere 80 years later in his “Against Heresies,” Irenaeus says that “the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly.” This belief continued. For example in 411AD St. Augustine says in sermon 227 “That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ.”
We as Catholics should be proud of our belief in the Eucharist, a belief that was accepted by those who walked along side and knew Jesus the best. Let’s never forget that this belief was also accepted by all of Christendom until 500 years ago.