When I first began attending Mass, I noticed Catholics always genuflected (bending one knee to the ground while crossing oneself) before entering a pew. It was over a year before I understood the significance of that gesture.
Every week at Mass, as one united Catholic family, we receive Christ through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. This is, without a doubt, the most crucial part of our worship. Unlike most Protestant services, which builds to the sermon, the Eucharist is the final focal point of the Mass.
Now, before I go any further, let me say that there is enough theology about the Eucharist to fill a library. Obviously, I can’t cover everything here, but for those looking to read deeper into this Sacrament, I’ll provide some links at the end.
The Eucharist is also known by other names: The Lords Supper and Communion being among the most popular. Every Christian sect and denomination has their own variation of how to celebrate it. The Catholic Church stands apart from the rest, however, because we believe when the Priest consecrates the bread and wine it literally becomes the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
And yes, I mean literally. There’s nothing symbolic about it. It is called Real Presence and it is why we Catholics show a sign of deep reverence before receiving Communion — bowing or genuflecting — to show respect to the Body of Christ. Real Presence is also why some Catholics receive on the tongue, for they feel unworthy to touch the Body of Christ with their hands.
For those of us who completed RCIA consuming the Body and Blood of Christ became the sum of our faith, and it fulfilled the scriptures.
Jesus said: “I am the bread of life… 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 life within him, 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.”
It’s often debated whether or not Jesus was speaking literally, but we have plenty of evidence to believe he was. In the 6th Chapter of the Gospel of John, Christ repeats THREE TIMES that we must consume His Body and Blood. His followers understood him literally. We know this because it actually scared some of them away. If Jesus was talking about something so crucial to salvation — and only meant it symbolically — why did he not call after them to come back so he could clear up the confusion? Instead, he let them leave.
It was hardly a new concept, though. The Jewish faithful always ate the sacrificial lamb at Passover in order to atone for their sins. In fact, if they didn’t consume the lamb, the sacrifice wasn’t complete. And we Catholics believe Jesus is the Lamb of God, the final sacrifice.
Real Presence is also not a new concept. It has been taught in the Catholic Church since its infancy. The early Church Father’s interpreted the scriptures that way, and since the first century Catholics have celebrated in the literal consumption of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.
The apostle Paul also verified Christ’s words in his letters to the Corinthians.
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”
It’s widely known that we do not allow Christians from other denominations to receive the Eucharist at Mass. And no, it isn’t because we think we’re better than other Christians. It’s because other Christians who don’t understand or embrace the theology of Real Presence should not receive. Paul counseled on the matter in the 11th Chapter of 1st Corinthians: For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. Communion means “community in union” — but unless all believe the same, we are not in union and should not pretend otherwise.
Transubstantiation is the process by which ordinary bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, and this happens during the consecration at Mass. The authority to conduct this consecration is endowed only to priests who receive Holy Orders, thereby maintaining the lineage of the apostles of the Roman Catholic Church. That is why we Catholics are forbidden from receiving communion in other churches — because it is a break from that lineage.
When the consecration begins, everyone either stands or kneels. It is the proper show of respect for acknowledging the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus. We stay on our knees until Communion is over. Any leftover consecrated hosts are placed inside the Tabernacle near the Altar for consumption at a later date. And it is the hosts, inside the Tabernacle, to which we genuflect as we enter the pews — to show our respect for the Body of Christ that is present among us.
Following Communion, the priest will purify the elements. He will consume every crumb of the hosts and drink every drop of the Precious Blood. He will then clean the cups and patens with special cloths called Purificators. Those Purificators are then washed in a special sink that drains to the outside ground. (It is unthinkable that any remnant from the Body and Blood of Christ would make its way to a sewer.)
When I first started attending Mass, the idea of Real Presence was not only foreign to me, it was difficult to accept. It even sounded a bit ridiculous at first. But as I continued to attend Mass, read the scripture, hear the words, and watch Father consecrate the bread and wine every week, I went from confusion and skepticism to complete understanding — and that led to an almost unbearable longing to receive. The day I was confirmed, the first time I truly received Christ, was one of the most fulfilling moments of my spiritual journey. Today when I stand in the Communion line, waiting to receive Our Lord, I know I am joined by millions of Catholics around the globe who are, at that very moment, also standing in line to receive our Savior.
The Eucharist is the heart and the summit of the Church’s life, for in it Christ associates his Church and all her members with his sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving offered once for all on the cross to his Father; by this sacrifice he pours out the graces of salvation on his Body which is the Church. –The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1398
For more readings on the Eucharist, just click on any of the following links: