True food? True drink?    

The Last Supper

For nearly 2,000 years, the Church has taught that bread and wine consecrated during Mass become the actual body and blood of Jesus. However, almost half of Catholics polled believe she teaches they are merely symbols of the body and blood of Christ.

“That is the fundamental miracle and controversy of the Catholic faith,” according to Patrick Coffin, host of the radio show “Catholic Answers Live.”
Coffin was one of several theologians interviewed in “The Eucharist: Source and Summit of Christian Life,” a video of the Symbolon series produced by the Augustine Institute, a Catholic graduate school based in Greenwood Village, to help Catholics understand this central teaching of the Church.

“(People ask) ‘How can God’s body be available to me? How can this bread be God’s body?” he said. “I think the answer is—Jesus himself says it is.”

From the first days of the Church, Christians have celebrated the Lord’s Supper as Jesus instituted it on Holy Thursday, when he took the bread, blessed it, broke it and said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:27-28).

“What did Jesus mean by this?” Edward Sri, Ph.D., Augustine Institute chancellor and professor, asked in the Symbolon video. “Did he really intend for us to eat his body and drink his blood?”

According to a 2010 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 55 percent of Catholics said ‘yes,’ while 41 percent said ‘no,’ they are symbols. Roughly 3 percent said they do not know what Church teaching is.

Sri explained a teaching earlier in Jesus’ public ministry that helped shed light on it.

“In the passage known as the bread of life discourse (Jn 6:51), Jesus teaches on the Eucharist,” Sri said. “He makes it very clear that he’s speaking realistically, not just metaphorically, not just figuratively, but realistically about us eating his very body and drinking his blood.”

In the passage, he described himself as the living bread and goes on to say the bread he will give “is my flesh for the life of the world.”

The Jewish people were scandalized, Sri said, and asked: How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

Instead of backing down, Jesus responded with even stronger language: “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” (Jn 6:54-56).

“These are not the words of a man speaking merely metaphorically,” Sri said. “No, Jesus is speaking quite realistically. He wants to give us his very body and blood in the Eucharist. And why? Because in the Jewish biblical world of Jesus’ day, the body expresses the whole person, and the life is in the blood.”

That is why Catholics call reception of the Eucharist “holy Communion.”

“It is just that,” he said, “it is an intimate and holy communion with our Lord Jesus Christ.”

However, this Communion with the Lord, available at every Mass, is not always taken seriously.

“Catholics often take for granted how mysterious, how glorious, how magnificent the holy Mass is,” Coffin said. “We’re going to be transformed with an encounter with God himself.”

It is the most amazing thing happening in the universe, Sri said.

“Every chance we get to go to Mass, Jesus becomes present among us,” he said. “The bread and wine are really changed into his very body and blood … and he’s coming because he loves us. He wants to be near us, he even wants to enter inside us.”

It is the time when the faithful are closest to the Lord.

“You are what you eat, we become like the thing we’re being fed by,” Coffin said. “The Eucharist has been a saint-making machine for 2,000 years, because the Lord knows we can’t be saints without him. His power in us is the secret.”

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> Jewish roots of the Eucharist

One of the keys to understanding the Eucharist is to see how it was instituted in the context of one of Israel’s greatest feasts, the feast of Passover, according to Edward Sri, Ph.D., of the Augustine Institute.

“Every year at Passover, the Jews would take a lamb, sacrifice it and offer it up to God, but that wasn’t enough,” Sri explained. “They had to go on to a next step, which was to eat of the lamb. For the Jews, it was the partaking of the lamb that symbolized and established covenant union with God.”

When Jesus, on the night before he died, in the context of a Passover meal, said this is my body and this is my blood, he was using sacrificial language.

“(This was) language normally used to describe the Passover lamb, but (he was) applying it to himself,” Sri said. “Indeed Jesus is the new Passover lamb.”

After a sacrifice is made—this time Jesus’ body on the cross—a communion meal would be expected.

“It’s not enough for the lamb to be sacrificed, you have to eat of the lamb,” Sri said, “because it is the communion meal that forms the covenant with God.”

True food, true drink

If you haven’t read Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” you should.  Like all of Greene’s work, the novel is compelling—and deeply Catholic.

In fact, “The Power and the Glory” contains one of the most powerful reflections on the Eucharist in the western canon of literature.

The scene is absolutely agonizing.  And deeply beautiful.

The book is set in a period of religious persecution in Mexico.  The protagonist is a priest, clandestinely providing ministry to faithful bands of Catholics across the countryside.  His ministry keeps the faith alive.

At one point, the priest needs to purchase wine for Mass—wine which can only be purchased on the black market.  He arrives at the home of a bootlegger, and is told there is no wine.  To avoid suspicion he must purchase brandy—useless, and a waste of his money.  He despairs.

Finally, for the last of his money, the bootlegger produces the last bottle of wine in town—some of which the smuggler drinks himself.

Just when the priest has hope, the chief of police arrives.  He bursts into the room to the terror of the priest.  But he makes no arrests.  Instead, he asks for a drink.  A drink of the priest’s wine.  He has one glass, then another.  The priest sits in agony, a smile masking his despair, as the chief of police drains his bottle of wine.  The priest sits watching, with “all of the hope of the world draining away.”

To the priest and his people, the Eucharist was “all of the hope of the world.”  They needed the Eucharist.  They clung to it.  Without it, the priest knew, believers would begin to scatter.  The faith would be lost.

The priest’s agony reveals the truth Jesus proclaims about the Eucharist: his flesh is true food, his blood true drink.  No one agonizes over a symbol. No one risks everything for a sign.

The Eucharist is the true presence of Jesus Christ—true food which provides true nourishment. And we should depend on it.  Pope Benedict XVI recently encouraged Catholics to “rediscover a taste for feeding ourselves … on the bread of life, offered as sustenance for his disciples.”

To survive the Christian life, we need to feed ourselves on the bread of life—the Eucharist.  It sustains our life.  Without the Eucharist, we face sure and certain spiritual death.  With the Eucharist, our faith will be alive—we will live in Jesus Christ.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church reflects that “life in Christ has its foundation in the Eucharistic banquet … growth in Christian life needs the nourishment of Eucharistic Communion, the bread for our pilgrimage until the moment of death.”

Too few of us appreciate the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, or its potential.  When we receive the Eucharist faithfully and when we adore it regularly, we know concretely the transforming power of Jesus Christ.  Until we develop those habits, we may have no idea what we are missing—only that without Christ, something truly is missing.

Whenever you receive the Eucharist, speak heart to heart with Jesus Christ.  He is uniquely present to you at that time.  Open yourself to him.  Open yourself to him in Eucharistic adoration as well—I encourage you and your families to adore the Eucharist weekly.

It is now one month since the tragic shootings in Aurora took place.  For many, the healing has begun.  But for many, life is still marked by uncertainty, anxiety and fear.  For many, the pain and sadness is still very real.

Our Lord is waiting—in the tabernacle, in the monstrance and at Mass.  He wants deeply to give his true presence to us.  He wants to free us from sin, from fear and from darkness.  He desires to heal us.  He is “the hope of the world.”

The grace of the Eucharist is unimaginable.  But it seems, to many, implausible.  It is truly, as Our Lord says, “a hard teaching.”

But the words of Jesus are the words of eternal life.  We need only trust in them and commit to them—and we will have life in Him.


COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.