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The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the Eucharist as a Sacrifice

(an excerpt from “The Eucharist in Dialogue with the Poor and Suffering”, a Catechesis of + John Cardinal Onaiyekan, Archbishop of Abuja in Nigeria delivered during the 51stInternational Eucharistic Congress in Cebu City, Philippines on January 24-31, 2016)

REAL PRESENCE

It is a mystery of faith that Jesus is fully and truly present in the Eucharist, under the outward forms of bread and wine. It is a great mystery, a great miracle which God decided to perform and continues to perform everyday, everywhere that the Eucharist is celebrated. The church down the ages has developed the theological terminology of Transubstantiation, meaning that the essence of the bread and wine is completely changed into the body and blood of Jesus. 

In the 6th chapter of the Gospel of St. John, Jesus already categorically states it in blunt terms that “my flesh is real food and my blood real drink”. He further delares that unless we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we will not have life in us. This was a statement which was most difficult for the hearers. Only the apostles stayed with Jesus believing in what he said no matter how difficult it was for them to grasp the meaning. 

At the Last Supper, Jesus took the bread, blessed it, gave it to his disciples and said, “This is my body.” He did the same with the wine and gave it to his disciples saying: “This is my blood”. He then gave them to eat and to drink, asking them to “do this in memory of me!” This must have brought more clarity in the minds of the apostles about the statements of Jesus earlier: “You must eat my body and drink my blood”. And so at the Last supper, with the institution of the Holy Eucharist, the Apostles shared the body and blood of Christ under the form of bread and wine which he gave to them. This remained a truth of faith that they held most vigorously. 

St. Paul, writing later to the Corinthians tells them that “I hand over to you what I myself have received.” And he goes ahead to narrate the events of the Last Supper. He then draws the conclusion that since this indeed is the body and blood of Christ, we must be sure we are well prepared to eat and drink it. He strongly warned that whoever eats or drinks unworthily eats and drinks damnation unto himself. 

Eventually, the “Breaking of Bread” namely the celebration of the Eucharist quickly became the characteristic worship action of the Christian community. And so it has remained from that time until now. 

The real presence continues for as long as the physical specie of the Bread and Wine remains. That is why even after the celebration of the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ is carefully guarded. Through an age old tradition, the sick who could not participate in the Eucharistic celebration often had the opportunity of being fed with the Holy Eucharist in their homes in their sick beds. The pastoral care of the sick makes a particularly great impact with the administration of the Holy Communion. By the same token, the Eucharist becomes a healing remedy for those who are sick. Many miracles of healing have been recorded in Pilgrimage Centres like Lourdes where the Holy Eucharist is carried in devotion in procession for the contemplation and prayer of the sick who line up in the procession route. Even those who do not receive physical miracles, get divine consolation as they devoutly look up to the Body and Blood of Jesus carried in the Holy Monstrance. This holy practice has become frequent in many of our local churches under the forms of what is often called “Healing Ministries”. Many poor people who have no access to good health care facilities often fall back on such “ministries” as a last resort, with faith in the healing power of the Holy Eucharist. 

A particularly significant expression of the faith in the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is when it is brought to the bedside of a dying Christian. Looking at the Holy Eucharist in faith, the dying person feels the presence of God on his or her way to heaven, thus receiving food for the journey into eternity. 

The devotion to the real presence of the Lord Jesus in the Holy Eucharist has become very traditional in the reservation of the Eucharist in the tabernacle. There, Jesus is present for adoration, contemplation and for prayer. The practice of a regular visit to the Blessed Sacrament deserves to be constantly encouraged for all our people, irrespective of age or social status. It is most edifying to observe the faith of children and simple people in this regard. In more recent times, the practice of Perpetual Adoration in a particular chapel has become more common, especially in many of our mission territories. This too deserves to be encouraged. 

Icon of the Last Supper

THE HOLY EUCHARIST IS A SACRIFICE 

We are supposed to be imitators of Jesus Christ in everything, and especially in his sacrifice on the cross. Jesus told us to take up our cross and follow Him. We need to be prepared to join Him in his sacrifice. This is particularly clear in the actions of the Holy Martyrs who shared their blood to complete, as it were, what was left of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. St Ignatius of Antioch described in very graphic terms how his anticipated martyrdom to be crushed by the beasts in the Coloseum in Rome is like the grapes crushed to produce the wine which is the Blood of Christ. He prides himself with the honour and privilege of his own body being crushed so that like the wine from the grapes so the blood from his body will become mingled with the Blood of Christ. 

The cross as an instrument of execution had existed before the time of Jesus and many people had been crucified before Jesus. Two others were crucified with Him on the same Calvary hill. Since He died on the cross, what had been until then a symbol of a shameful death has become a great symbol of the glory of Christ in His glorious crucifixion. But the cross still remains the symbol of the victory of the Lord Jesus. 

For us Catholics, the Holy Eucharist when celebrated is the Holy sacrifice of the Mass, which is the supreme prayer that the Church has at her disposal. In it, Jesus is both Victim and Priest whose pleas cannot but be favourably received by His heavenly Father. 

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