"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.” (St. John 6:54-55)
I grew up “hearing” those words, but I didn’t “know” those words. Raised in a Methodist family, we had “Communion Sunday” six times a year, and our understanding was that it was a “memorial,” a “remembering” of the Last Supper. Why it was important to eat a cube of white bread and sip some Welch’s grape juice from a very small shot-glass escaped me at the time, but I wondered about it. I had heard what Catholics believed about their Mass, and I knew it was nothing like what we had as protestants. In fact, I found it a bit scandalous when I gave it any real thought, and I was happy just to feel sorry for those “poor Catholics” with what I thought was their superstition, and as I went through my teenage years and approached adulthood I was more and more confirmed in what I thought was the “superior” protestant understanding of what we called “The Lord’s Supper.”
So certain was I of the rightness of my position that I decided to prove it in what I thought would be a more scholarly way when I was in the second year of my undergraduate studies. We were allowed to choose an “independent study” in theology, under the direction of a professor, which would be counted as a four-credit course, on any approved topic. This was my opportunity, I thought. I decided do my independent study on “The Understanding of the Eucharist in the Early Church.” (I had no idea at the time, but this study would lead me to become an Anglo-Catholic, which eventually would lead me into the Catholic Church.)
Certain that my protestant understanding of things would be vindicated, I began. I looked in the scriptures and began to assemble my references. A little discomfort began to set in when I read in St. John’s gospel about our Lord speaking about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. But not to worry, I thought. I was certain there must be a simple explanation, until I realized that when Jesus first spoke those words in the synagogue at Capernaum, most people were scandalized. It seemed like nonsense to them, this “eating flesh and drinking blood.” The Jews were offended. People left him and wouldn't follow him anymore. They thought he was crazy or a blasphemer. And even worse, Christ let them leave. He didn’t call them back and say, “Wait a minute. Don’t take me literally. I didn’t really mean it.” Apparently he did mean it, and he let them go. Even the disciples were deeply disturbed by Jesus' words, so much so that he asked them, “Are you going to leave me too?” They stayed, because, as St. Peter said, “Who else has the words of life?” But they were thinking to themselves, “What could their Teacher possibly mean?” They were puzzled, and remained puzzled, until that fateful night, the night of the Passover, the night in which Jesus was to be betrayed by one of his own, and would be given over to be tortured and killed.
An upper room had been prepared. The unleavened bread was baked. The Passover Lamb had been sacrificed and roasted. Jesus was at the head of the table with his Twelve, his Israel, his family. He took the large piece of unleavened flat bread that signaled the opening of the Passover meal. He gave thanks to his Father for the gifts. He broke it and gave the pieces to his disciples. Up until this point, theirs had been a Passover like any another Passover, recalling God's grace to Israel when he had brought them out of slavery in Egypt into freedom, through the blood of the lamb smeared on their doorposts.
Then Jesus spoke, and what he said at that moment had never before been said at a Passover meal. "Take, eat. This is my body, which is given for you." And again, after the supper, Jesus took a chalice of wine called the thanksgiving or blessing cup, gave thanks and then said something that had never before been said at a Passover meal, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." Jesus was treating the Passover as though it was his own, because it was. Jesus is the Lord, and this is the Lord’s Passover.
With these words, Jesus transformed the Passover meal forever, and as I came to realize this, my understanding began to grow. As I read the early Church Fathers, I came to realize that under the outward form of the bread, Christ gives his body as food – the very body he received from his mother Mary; the body that was conceived in her through the Word spoken by the angel in the power of the Holy Spirit; the body that was wrapped in swaddling-clothes and laid in a manger; the body that was whipped and beaten, spit at and slapped; the body that was nailed to the cross, laid in the tomb, and raised from the dead on the third day. St Paul asked the question: “Is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” And of course, it is! Christ’s words declare it to be so, and his words are true. Jesus gives his body to us, as though it were bread to eat; but this which is in his hand, and in the disciples’ mouths, is truly and completely his body.
And in the cup, he gives his blood. This is the blood of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. The medieval artists who depicted a chalice at the foot of the cross and a stream of blood pouring into it from the wounded side of Jesus understood the force of Christ’s words. The blood that was shed on Calvary's cross is our drink. Once again, St. Paul asked the question: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” Of course it is! Jesus' words declare it to be so, and his words are true. Jesus gives his blood to us as though it was wine to drink. This which is in the Lord's chalice, and in the disciples' mouths, is truly and completely his blood. Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. He was offered up on the Cross for our sins, and in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, this offering is perpetually brought before the throne of Almighty God – and it is that which demands our understanding of Christ as our Eternal High Priest, who offers up himself as the Sacrifice.
Consider the eternal character of Christ’s priesthood. It’s easy enough, of course, to see how he was exercising this office of priesthood when he laid down his life on the cross. He was the Victim, “led as a lamb to the slaughter.” But he wasn’t an unwilling or reluctant victim. He didn’t die by constraint, as one who was compelled to yield up his life. But he is not only the Victim. At the same time he is the priest who offers up the sacrifice. It was he who did this, and not another. What could be more plain than his own words, when he said, “I lay down my life for the sheep… No man takes it from me, but I lay it down myself.” In this way, he gave himself as a ransom for many.
But we need to understand also that Christ’s priesthood is eternal – his life was laid down, but his priesthood is not. Certainly, his sacrifice was completed; scripture teaches us that he made that sacrifice “once for all,” and we believe it to have been “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” So then, what need is there for Christ still to exercise the office of priest? Why shouldn’t he have resigned that function when the sacrifice was finished?
We get a hint of the answer in the epistle to the Hebrews, which says, “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.” That passage, along with other references in the Epistle to the Hebrews, alludes to the ceremonies of the great Jewish day of Atonement. In the ritual of that one day, the whole sacrificial system of the Jews culminated, and was gathered up into one point. On that day alone in the year, the high priest entered into the Holy of Holies in the temple at Jerusalem. But before he dared to venture into the immediate presence of the Most High God, the sacrifices first had be offered outside in the court. There, at the altar of burnt-offering, the high priest was to slay the animals for the sin-offering; then passing through the veil, he was to bring the blood into the most holy place, that there, in the midst of a cloud of incense which he offered before the Lord, he would sprinkle the blood upon the mercy seat of God, and so “make atonement” for all the people of Israel. It’s in connection with all of that that we read in Hebrews of Christ having “entered once for all into the Holy place…”
In the Jewish system of sacrifice, when the victim was slain, from one point of view, the sacrifice was complete. In the sacrifice, the blood was shed which could alone make atonement for sin. But from another point of view, there was still something lacking; namely, the presentation of the blood to God. In more familiar terms, it’s rather like getting a gift for someone. When it has been purchased and wrapped, one can say that you have a gift for so-and-so. But there is more to it than simply that. The gift must be “presented” to the one for whom it is intended, in order for it truly to be a gift.
This relates to Christ’s eternal High Priesthood. The sacrifice was offered once for all on Calvary. When the blood was shed, without which there could be no remission of sins, there still had to be the presentation before the Father in heaven – a presentation which must be made by the great High Priest who offered the sacrifice. And this is what Christ does perpetually in heaven. This is what he does each time the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered. Remember, Christ is the celebrant of every Mass, and it is his all-sufficient sacrifice which he offers to the Father every time we offer what he has commanded. There he is, still continuing his work as the High Priest, exhibiting his sacred wounds, presenting before the Father the merits of his perfect sacrifice.
How much I was missing, but came to know in this larger, fuller and richer Catholic teaching. In the Mass it is Christ who is our Mediator and High Priest, still pleading for us, and lifting up his holy hands before the Father on behalf of us all. It is no dead Christ whom we adore. It isn’t some distant figure from the past whom we revere. No, our participation in the Mass is our appeal to a present, continuous, and abiding work. We are claiming to be heard through the intercession of a still-active Mediator; and we are united with him in his continuous work of pleading the Sacrifice which, although a finished event, nevertheless is living in its operation and application – and it is for this we give continual thanks to Almighty God in the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.