By Father John Carville 

On Memorial Day, a month ago, the Advocate carried an editorial about remembering the sacrifice of our fallen military. A note at the end of the editorial said that it was a yearly rewrite with some changes to bring it up to date. That was proper, the editors thought, because we must celebrate this important holiday every year to remind all Americans that “freedom is not free.”  

The following Sunday we Catholics celebrated our yearly feast of Corpus Christi (the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ). The same could be said for the purpose of that feast, although it has several closely connected meanings for the Mass that we celebrate every day. It is no wonder that the Mass has layers of meaning, since one tradition came from St. Mark, and then St. Matthew writing 10 years later who followed St. Mark. A second tradition is that of St. Paul who wrote in the 50s, 10 years or more before St. Mark. St. Luke, St. Paul’s disciple, treats the Mass like St. Paul, but adds a eucharistic story that has deep meaning for us today.  

St. Mark, St. Mathew and St. Luke all have the same words of consecration. Jesus took bread, broke it and said, “Take and eat. This (bread) is my body.” “Take and drink. This is the cup of my blood which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Only St. Luke separates the consecration of the bread and wine, as they would have occurred in the Jewish Passover celebration. I guess he learned that from St. Paul, since he was a Greek physician, not a Jew.  

St. John does not write about the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. However, what St. John wrote in the sixth chapter of his Gospel is extremely important for what we, as Catholics, believe the bread and wine to be: truly the real presence of the risen Jesus under the sacramental signs of the bread and wine. Only Catholics, and Episcopalians or Anglicans, and Lutherans believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Other Protestants and Evangelicals believe that celebrations of the Eucharist are just memorials, like Memorial Day is a memorial of our war dead. We remember them, but there is no substantial or real change in us or the dead.  

To understand the difference, read St. John 6:53-58. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as (your) fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”  

St. Paul was just as realistic when he referred to the eucharistic “cup of blessing” as “participation in the Blood of Christ’ and the eucharistic bread as “participation in the Body of Christ” (1 Cor 10:16). This isn’t mere symbolism. Jesus says that he abides in us through the Eucharist and whoever communicates with him in this way will live forever. It was a hard saying for some of his own disciples to believe. But, as we say today, Jesus didn’t walk back what he said, instead he doubled down on it. “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.”  

In his Emmaus story of Easter Sunday about the two disciples and their mystery guest, St. Luke teaches us something important. To the plea of the disciples to stay with them and continue explaining the Scriptures, the mystery guest responds not with a lecture but with a ritual action. He breaks bread and gives it to them. Then, at the moment they recognize him as “the risen one,” he vanishes from their sight. St. Luke is writing for future generations like us, who have not seen, but believe. He wants us to see that we encounter the risen Christ in the Eucharist. In God’s plan, the church continues through the presence of the sacramental Christ. God no longer wants animal sacrifices. He wants our lives consecrated to him through our union with Jesus. And Jesus gives us his body and blood in the bread and wine of the Mass as his real presence with us, wanting, in return, our lives offered as living sacrifices. Even more than freedom, grace is not cheap.  

Lacking the Mass, at his great evangelical meetings, Billy Graham invented altar calls. We, following the oldest tradition, have always had ours. What we do in memory of Jesus is our vow, renewed in every communion, to live in him and by him and through him. 

It is a mystery, as to some extent, all sacraments are. Great theologians have created words like transubstantiation to try to explain it. It remains a mystery, yet true in the faith, consolation and strength, that it gives. Perhaps the philosopher Blaise Pascal captured the best way to think of the Eucharist. He wrote: “How I hate this folly of not believing in the Eucharist! If the Gospel be true, if Jesus Christ be God, what difficulty is there?”  

Father Carville is a retired priest in the Diocese of Baton Rouge and writes on current topics for The Catholic Commentator. He can be reached at johnny
carville@gmail.com.