The word ‘Eucharist’ comes from the Greek word eucharistein. It simply means ‘to give thanks’. Eu means ‘well, good’ and charis means ‘gift’, so when we say ‘Eucharist’ we are saying ‘the gift is good!’ In the Eucharist we exchange gifts with God. We offer to him the bread and the wine, and he gives us his own body and blood.
The Eucharist is a shared meal. Eating and drinking together is one of the most sociable things we can do, and during the Eucharist we join with the whole of the Church to eat and drink together. But the Eucharist is more than just a cosy meal, it is also a sacrifice. The roots of the Eucharist lie in the Jewish Passover meal which commemorates the delivery of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The story is told in the Old Testament, in the Book of Exodus. In order to persuade a reluctant Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go free, God killed every first-born son. During the first ‘Passover every Jewish household was instructed to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on their door posts so that the angel of death would see the blood and ‘pass over them, sparing the life of their first-born son. When Jesus spoke of himself as ‘the lamb of God’, and the bread and wine of the last supper as his body and blood, he was speaking of himself as the Passover sacrifice, the lamb whose blood would be shed so that the people of Israel might go free.
The Mass is the new Passover, with Jesus offering his own body and blood so that we might go free. In other words, as well as being a sacred meal, the Eucharist is also a link with Jesus’ death. When we take part in the Eucharist we take part in the Passover meal which he celebrates with us now, shedding his blood so that we might be saved.
Mass is celebrated every day, but above all on a Sunday — the first day of the week, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. The Mass we celebrate today has the same overall structure as it has done throughout the centuries:
It is in two parts,
The liturgy of the word, with readings, a homily and intercessions,
The liturgy of the Eucharist which consists of the presentation of bread and wine, the consecration and communion.
The Church teaches that Christ is really present in the bread and wine that have been blessed by the priest at Mass. This means that the bread and wine have become the body and blood of Christ. Although the bread and wine still look and taste like bread and wine, the substance, what is actually there, has changed. The word ‘transubstantiation’ is used to describe this real change. Transubstantiation just means ‘a change in substance’.
When we talk about the Eucharistic celebration we often refer to it simply as ‘the Mass’. This is the name it has been given from at least the sixth or seventh centuries. The word ‘mass’ comes from the Latin word ‘missio the sending. This refers to the words of dismissal at the end of Mass: ‘ite missa est’ — Go! It is sent forth!’ which in today’s Mass is translated; ‘The Mass is ended, go in peace to love and serve the Lord.’
From the earliest days the Christian community has come together to celebrate the Eucharist or, as it is often referred to, the Mass. The Acts of the Apostles, written around the year 70 AD tells how the early Christians met regularly for “the breaking of bread” (Acts 2:42).
The first thing we see is people coming together. They come from different homes and situations: some happy, some sad, some fulfilled, some lonely. But there is a unity. Catholics are united in that we believe that coming together for the Sunday Eucharist, or Mass, is important. For we believe that, despite all the problems, God’s power is at work in the world and that God’s strength can overcome human weakness. Our coming together as Christ’s followers brings this belief in God’s power within each one of us into focus.
The second thing we see at Mass is that very soon everyone sits down to listen to the Scriptures being read. There are a lot of ways in which we believe that God has spoken and continues to speak to people. Human experience and our own conscience, for example, are ways in which God touches everyone. Yet for Christians there is something more: there is Jesus Christ and all that he has taught us about God and his love for his people. That’s why, at the final reading, which is from the Gospels, we stand to listen to the words Jesus himself spoke. When we listen to God’s word in the Scriptures it brings God’s voice in the world into focus.
The third thing we see as central to the Mass is what Catholics call the Eucharistic Prayer. The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek word meaning “thanksgiving”. Everyone gathers around the altar with the priest to re-enact what Christ did with his disciples at the Last Supper. We listen afresh to Christ’s words thanking and praising God saying:
“Take this all of you, and eat it. This is my body which will be given up for you.”
Then, “Take this, all of you, and drink from it:
This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.
It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.
Do this in memory of me.”
We believe what Christ said. We believe that when we remember and act on his words, Jesus is present. This is the most precious moment of life. The bread and wine which has been brought forward to represent our life and work are now changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. He is present, as he said he would be, and is our reminder of God’s unending promise. But this precious moment doesn’t mean that what’s happening in the rest of the world is irrelevant. The opposite is true. This moment reminds us of the importance of every single person in God’s eyes.
Finally, at the heart of the Mass is Holy Communion. This is a personal moment. When we share in this sacred meal we do indeed share in the life of Christ. We are experiencing the result of God’s great desire to come to us and be one with us. To make the bread and wine for our Communion, grapes and grain are crushed. Jesus Christ was also crushed for our communion. He was crushed and crucified on the Cross, so that the power of God’s love for all could be shown. In all our lives there is suffering, but our suffering is not meaningless. For when suffering is faced with love, that which is crushed and broken is transformed by such love into new life. Our celebration of Communion brings into focus the cost of all true loving and shows us where such love will lead us- into the hands of God the Creator of love.
What does the Eucharist tell us?
When we think about the reality of what our celebration at Mass tells us it becomes clear that in the Eucharist we find all that we need in life. We find unity with others, guidance from our heavenly, Father, food for the journey and confirmation of the promise which was made to us by Jesus Christ. The Lord has not the slightest intention of leaving us to our own devices and our narrow outlook on life. Having created each of us to be special and unique he doesn’t leave it there any more than we would leave a new born baby to fend for itself. No, our heavenly Father intends to nurture and cosset us every moment of our lives until the day we are completely one with him in love, unity and peace.
What is the Eucharist?
Most Catholics are familiar with the word transubstantiation which has been used by the Church since the 12th century to describe the changing of bread & wine to the body & blood of Christ. The substance of the bread changes; but the accidents do not.Accidents are those qualities which are perceived by the senses — taste, touch, sight etc. The substance is what is grasped by the mind. Only an intelligent human being can say “what” a thing is.Usually, when the senses perceive the qualities of whiteness, softness etc. the mind, left to itself, says, “that is bread”. But Jesus Christ has not left the mind to itself. He tells us that by the power of his word the bread and wine are changed into his Body and Blood.
Eucharist means thanksgiving
The eating of the bread and wine, which are changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to be the food of eternal life, is the sign of our union with Christ. In the synagogue in Capernaum Jesus said, “Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life and I shall raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:54)
Then Jesus took some bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it and gave it to them, saying,
‘This is my body which shall be given for you; do this as a memorial of me’. He did the same with the cup after supper, and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you.’
In the Eucharist then, we are united with Christ through the power of the Spirit and so united with the risen Christ’s worship of his Father. “Nourished by his body and blood and filled with his Holy Spirit, we become one body, one Spirit in Christ” and so are able to offer glory and honour to the Almighty Father.