Sacraments are rituals instituted by Christ, woven together with signs and symbols, (CCC 1145) that “make present efficaciously the grace that they signify.” (CCC 1084) St. Augustine described them as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” They are not just symbolic, but are “real symbols,” which actually make present that which they signify. Sign and reality are one. Initiation into the sacraments initiates us into the mystery, or mystagogy, of Christ. (CCC 1075) They draw us ever deeper into Himself.
One such “real symbol” is the Eucharist. It is the real presence of Jesus Christ: body and blood, soul and divinity. The whole liturgical life of the Church is oriented towards the Eucharist. It is communion with the sacred flesh and blood of Christ into our bodies, and the sanctifying grace of His soul and divinity into our souls.
It is Jesus Himself who first speaks about His real presence in the Eucharist: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (Jn. 6:53-54) The word John uses for “to eat” is the Greek word “trogein,” which literally means “to gnaw”; you gnaw on real meat, not a symbol or an idea. Many of Jesus’ disciples and non-disciples alike are aghast at this, believing He is speaking of cannibalism. Roman pagan historians would later record false rumors of Christians participating in cannibalistic rituals – a clear misunderstanding of the Mass and the real presence. Jesus knows, of course, that this is difficult for them to believe, and says, “Does this shock you?” (Jn. 6:61) We know it did, because, as John records, many of His disciples abandon Him at this point. (Jn. 6:66)
After they leave, Jesus reassures His skeptical Apostles, telling them, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (Jn. 6:63) They cannot understand this with their fleshy, materialistic minds, but rather, by trusting in God’s supernatural power. This is not a cannibalistic ritual but a heavenly sacrament. Directly before Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse, John relates two other miracles, Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves and Jesus walking on water. Both miracles reveal that physical matter, nature itself, is subject to Jesus. Immediately before we see the bread and wine becoming His flesh and blood, John demonstrates with these miracles that material boundaries are no constraint upon Jesus.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, His appearances to His disciples further establish the importance of the sacraments. When Jesus first approaches the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “their eyes were kept from recognizing Him.” (Lk. 24:16) After He took bread and broke it, Luke says, “then their eyes were opened,.” (Lk. 24:31) Jesus illustrates that He is no longer with them as He once was, but will now remain with them sacramentally in the form of the Eucharist. He has demonstrated the Eucharistic formula for the disciples starting with the Last Supper. Now, the disciples continued this going forward as the beginnings of the Mass and Eucharist, devoting themselves “to the breaking of bread.” (Acts 2:42)
A millennium and a half later, at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, the doctrine of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist was reaffirmed in precise language. Transubstantiation is ultimately the term they arrived at to define what happens in the mystical sacrament of the Eucharist. Under the veiled appearance of bread and wine, “the whole of Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (CCC 1374; Trent 1551) Jesus becomes our spiritual food, and our “medicine of immortality.” (St.Ignatius, 110 AD) Receiving Holy Communion brings us into intimate union with Christ. Just as material food nourishes our bodies, so Holy Communion nourishes our spiritual soul. (CCC 1392)
Moreover, it also transforms us as a whole community of believers, the Church, into the Mystical Body of Christ. In the Mass, after the priest invokes the Holy Spirit, an epiclesis prayer, to transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, he again, invokes the Holy Spirit, a second epiclesis, that those who eat the body and blood of Christ may be “one body, one Spirit in Christ.” He says, “Grant that we, who are nourished by His body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ.” This is, in effect, a second transubstantiation: the transformation, by the power of the Holy Spirit, of those who eat the Eucharist into the one Mystical Body of Christ. This recalls Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane to the Father that His followers “may be one, as We are one.” (Jn. 17:11) The Eucharist unites us mystically together in Him as living sacramental realities.
As such, the Church comes together to offer “praise, sufferings, prayer, and work” in union with the sacrifice of Christ. (CCC 1368) We, by virtue of our common priesthood, can unite all that we are and do with the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass. Jesus put an end to the millennia-old, ritualistic and violent bloodletting of the pagan ancient world. Alas, He is the pure offering. “For from the rising of the sun to its setting My name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering; for My name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (Mal.1:11). Christ in the Eucharist transforms us into His image, so that His presence enters into the world again, and in us, continues His pure offering to the Father.