A Friendly Letter on the Eucharist
By Scott Windsor
Why am I doing this? Well, one of my sons asked about how to respond when non-Catholics refer to the Eucharist as a “cracker.” He did not want to offend or fight with the non-Catholic, but wanted to know how to answer this person. Being born and raised in a Protestant home as I was, I told my son that we need to be understanding of the Protestant mindset. Protestants are taught that the Eucharist is bread and wine, and that’s it. The ceremony surrounding “Holy Communion” for Protestants is the memorial which Jesus commanded we participate in, and since it is purely a memorial, no priests are involved and, in fact, Protestants encourage one another to celebrate Holy Communion in their own homes or in groups of family and/or friends. I recall one day preparing to have Holy Communion with Paul and Jan Crouch of TBN, I had it all laid out on my living room coffee table and went through “the narrative” with Paul Crouch (who was “leading” it for all those following along on television). I also remember the “Confirmation Camp” I attended shortly after being confirmed in the Lutheran faith, where our “leaders” passed out bread and wine and we, the youth, repeated “the narrative” ceremony then amongst ourselves we distributed the “Holy Communion.” Both of these events were emotionally stirring and motivational to me, as a Christian. It seems a lot of Protestantism is based in feelings and emotional responses - but this is something I did not see as a Protestant - and can now see, looking back objectively.
Before we get much into who “celebrates” Holy Communion – we need to discuss what exactly the Eucharist is. What are the foundational scriptural teachings for the Eucharist? Let us start with John 6.
John 6 opens with a very grand and literal miracle – the feeding of the five thousand from five barley loaves and two fishes. The next part takes us to a discussion of the real and literal feeding of the people of Israel in the desert with miraculous water and manna. Then Jesus emphatically and repeatedly states that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us! The preface of this command to eat His flesh and drink His blood are two very real and physical miracles. So, where many of our detractors insist the command to eat His flesh and drink His blood are figurative, the command is prefaced in the same chapter by two very real and literal miracles.
The next consideration is the fact that many of Jesus' disciples who heard Him teach this could not abide by it and rather than accept Him at His word, they "turned and walked with Him no more." They took Him literally and could not handle the teaching, so they walked away. Would Jesus let them walk away with an erroneous understanding? Or, did Jesus know they took Him literally and He let them walk away precisely because they took Him literally and they were walking away because they would not accept Him at His word? I submit, Jesus did not mislead them nor allow them to walk away with the wrong impression - they "got it" - they just were unwilling to accept it. I repeat, they walked away with the proper understanding, just not the faith necessary to accept and believe that Jesus would provide them with the means of fulfilling this command. Jesus commanded, and repeated this command several times in John 6, that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have "no life" in us. Ask yourself, do you believe what Jesus said? Do you accept what Jesus said? Or, do you understand the words here - but refuse to accept them as they are written and as He spoke them? Do you add to what is written and say this is figurative? If you walk with Him - then accept what He said.
And whilst they were at supper, Jesus took bread and blessed and broke and gave to his disciples and said: Take ye and eat. This is my body. And taking the chalice, he gave thanks and gave to them, saying: Drink ye all of this. For this is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins.(Mat 26:26-28 DRB)
And whilst they were eating, Jesus took bread; and blessing, broke and gave to them and said: Take ye. This is my body. And having taken the chalice, giving thanks, he gave it to them. And they all drank of it. And he said to them: This is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many.
(Mar 14:22-24 DRB)
And taking bread, he gave thanks and brake and gave to them, saying: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me. In like manner, the chalice also, after he had supped, saying: This is the chalice, the new testament in my blood, which shall be shed for you.(Luk 22:19-20 DRB)
St. Paul's Accounting of the Eucharist
First, let us look at St. Paul's words:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread, And giving thanks, broke and said: Take ye and eat: This is my body, which shall be delivered for you. This do for the commemoration of me. In like manner also the chalice, after he had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in my blood. This do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me. For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come. Therefore, whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.
(1Co 11:23-29 DRB)
In St. Paul's Letter to the Corinthians we see that the partaking of the Eucharist in an unworthy manner is a sin against the body and blood of the Lord - it is not a sin against bread or wine, for how can one offend bread or wine? What he is asking us to do is examine ourselves prior to approaching the Eucharist. This is why the Sacrament of Confession (aka: Penance or Reconciliation) is necessary prior to receiving the Eucharist if one has the stain of mortal sin on their soul. Our objectors here will state that the context does not mention mortal or venial sins - and we must agree, it does not; however, the context does speak of being "unworthy" to receive the Eucharist. The only thing which would make us unworthy to receive the body and blood of our Lord is mortal sin. So let me discuss that briefly next.
Mortal v. Venial Sin
We discuss this in the middle of a discussion on the Eucharist because of the fact that St. Paul warns us not to approach the Eucharist unworthily. So we must ask ourselves, what would make us unworthy? If one is in venial sin, that is offensive to God still - but does not separate one from the state of grace - or a state of salvation (those who die in the state of grace will be saved). However, mortal sin (a "sin which is unto death") does separate us from the state of grace. To approach the Sacrament of the Eucharist while not in the state of grace would be to do so unworthily. The first objection our detractors will have is that God does not distinguish sin, and that is simply not true.
He that knoweth his brother to sin a sin which is not to death, let him ask: and life shall be given to him who sinneth not to death. There is a sin unto death. For that I say not that any man ask. All iniquity is sin. And there is a sin unto death.
(1 John 5:16-17 DRB)
As you can see, St. John the Apostle clearly makes the case for a "sin unto death" in comparison to a "sin which is not to death." That is precisely the distinction Catholics speak of in mortal v. venial sins.
This takes us back to the point St. Paul was making about approaching the Eucharist and especially receiving it unworthily, and one who does so eats and drinks judgment unto their self for not discerning the body of the Lord. We must emphasize the point, the sin is in not realizing the body of the Lord. Consider that carefully. It is not a sin to eat bread and/or wine unworthily - but to partake in Eucharist unworthily brings upon one's self the judgment of the Lord - and why? For not recognizing the Eucharist IS His body and blood. For one to knowingly in a state of mortal sin and approach and receive the Eucharist it would be a denial of the body and blood of Christ - for what true Christian would dare bring the body and blood of the Lord into such an unworthy vessel?
So as to not get too long and "preachy" in this letter, I will close now with a summary of the points.
Catholics do not view the Eucharist as a "cracker" - and hopefully those reading this will respect our faith and our own feelings to not make reference to something we hold so reverently as a simple "cracker." Catholics have faith in the words of our Lord that what He said was absolutely true, the bread IS His body and the wine IS His blood which was shed for us. Partaking in the Eucharist fulfills the command He repeated many times in John 6 demanding we eat His flesh and drink His blood or we have no life in us. Realizing that the Eucharist IS the body and blood of our Lord, we do not approach the Sacrament unworthily - but examine ourselves first and if necessary seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Penance/Confession) prior to receiving the Eucharist so that we do not incur the judgment for not discerning the body and blood of our Lord.