My GodSon was a student in my teen ECF class several years ago and I could always count on him for a great discussion opener. One day he asked me why on earth Jesus would want us to do something so grotesque as to devour his flesh and blood. Great question, deserving of an honest answer.
In receiving the Eucharist we are not receiving the Lord's body as physically present, but as sacramentally present. We are not eating a toe or finger nail or any particularly physical attribute of the body of Jesus, but we are receiving his Substance. The Lord is truly present under the physical appearance of bread and wine, this is the part (called the Accident, referring to the accidental attributes of the gifts) of the Eucharist that is not altered by the act of consecration. In other words, it still looks, smells, feels, and tastes like bread and wine. (Of course, our loving Lord would not want us to be too disgusted at this command of His, so He made it as easy as He could for us to partake of His Body and Blood) Yet, the "substance" of the bread and wine is changed into Christ. This is not cannibalism. It is the Eucharist and there is nothing to which it can be compared.
But why? Why does Christ ask us to do this in the first place? Let’s see what scripture says. From the Gospel of John, Christ tells His disciples:
John 6:51-69 "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us (his) flesh to eat? " Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. 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. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever" These things he said while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
Then many of his disciples who were listening said,"This saying is hard; who can accept it?" Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, "Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe." Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father." As a result of this, many (of) his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?" Simon Peter answered him, ";Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God."
It is clear that Jesus spoke literally, because if He had not, do you believe that He would have let the unbelievers just leave like that? How compassionate would Christ have been if He had been speaking figuratively yet let his followers be mislead and leave the Church? The only option left is that Christ truly meant what He said; His flesh IS real food and His blood IS real drink.
The early church evidently understood this concept because we can read about it in their writings.
Ignatius of Antioch “I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3 -110 AD)
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes”
(Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2-7:1 - 110 AD)
Justin Martyr “We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it , except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism ] and is thereby
living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus"
(First Apology 66 -151 AD)
Irenaeus “If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?” (Against Heresies 4:33-32 - 189 AD)
“He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life –flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?” (Against Heresies 5:2 - 189 AD)
Now that we have established that the early church as well as Catholics of today, are to believe and be certain in the fact that the Eucharist is truly the Glorified Body and Most Precious Blood of Our Lord, we must consider the frame of mind and heart with which we are to receive Him. Let us consider that the first consecration happened during the Passover meal. This meal was to have been a precursor, yes; it was to have been a memorial of a past event. Therefore, both the eating of the Passover sacrifice and the eating of the Eucharistic sacrifice signify one and the same thing. If we look at the regulations for the eating of the Passover meal given to the Jews in the book of
Exodus, we see the following:
Exodus 13: 47-48 All the congregation of Israel are to celebrate this. But if a stranger sojourns with you, and celebrates the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near to celebrate it; and he shall be like a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat of it.
Nobody who was not a Jew was allowed to celebrate the Passover, let alone eat of the lamb! This is why no one who is not a Catholic, that is, a member of the Church (one who did not leave when Christ proposed His true presence in the Eucharist), may receive the Eucharist during Divine Liturgy. Paul goes even a step further by stating :
1 Corinthians 11:23-32 For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread. And giving thanks, broke, and said: Take ye, and eat: this is my body, which shall be delivered for you: this do for the commemoration of me. In like manner also the chalice, after he had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me. For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come. Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord. Therefore are there many inform and weak among you, and many sleep. But if we would judge ourselves, we should not be judged. But whilst we are judged, we are chastised by the Lord, that we be not condemned with this world.
Paul tells the Corinthians that to eat and drink of the flesh and blood of the Eucharist without knowing it is His Body and Blood (discerning the body) is guilty of His Body and Blood. In Jewish culture this means that they carry the guilty of His murder! How can one be guilty of
His Body and Blood if it ISN”T His Body and His Blood? It MUST be! One thing is abundantly clear. Christ, Himself, taught His twelve disciples (His future priests) to consecrate bread and
wine into His Body and Blood at the Passover Supper (the future Mass). He told ALL the disciples (70+) to accept it from them and EAT it. Some could not do so because they found it too disturbing and left the Church. Christ let them go rather than recant what He declared. The early Church is unanimous in their upholding of the teaching of the real presence, and the practice is continued in the Catholic Church even today.
Matthew 28:16-20 And the eleven disciples went into Galilee, unto the mountain where Jesus had appointed them. And seeing them they adored: but some doubted. And Jesus coming, spoke to them, saying: All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.