The Eucharist is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “the source and summit of the Christian life,” the true body and blood of Jesus Christ; it contains “the whole spiritual good of the Church” (No. 1324). All that the Church is flows from and is rooted in the reality of the Eucharist.
Likewise, the Sacrament of the Eucharist is the source of the supernatural communion that is entirely unique to the Church. A key description of this communion is koinōnía; it is used by St. Paul in today’s reading from the apostle’s First Letter to the Corinthians: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not participation [koinōnía] in the blood of Christ?” It can also be translated as “fellowship.”
St. Paul compares the unbloody Eucharistic sacrifice with two other types of offerings: those made by the Israelites at the altar in the Temple and those made by pagans to idols (1 Cor 10:19-20). The sacrifices of the Old Testament created covenantal bonds between the God and his people, reminding them of their inability to be a holy people without God’s power and protection.
But those sacrifices of bulls and lambs were not ends in themselves. They pointed to the need for spiritual sacrifice and foreshadowed the ultimate sacrifice: the death of the Incarnate Son of God on the cross for the sake of the world. Christ’s sacrifice brought to completion and fulfilled all of the sacrifices and burnt offerings prior, for the Lamb of God ascended the altar of the cross and offered himself up out of love as “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2). And now, as the great high priest of the new covenant, he continually offers himself as Eucharist to the members of his mystical body. “At the Last Supper, on the night when He was betrayed, our Saviour instituted the eucharistic sacrifice of His Body and Blood,” states Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. “He did this in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the centuries until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection” (No. 47).
In a Nov. 8, 2000, general audience, Pope John Paul II reflected on St. Paul’s words about koinōnía, noting, “This communion is more precisely described in John’s Gospel as an extraordinary relationship of ‘mutual interiority’: ‘He in me and I in him’. Jesus, in fact, says at the synagogue in Capernaum: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him’ (Jn 6:56)” (No. 3). Today’s Gospel is, I think, one of the most stunning passages in the entire New Testament, for Jesus made claims about himself — “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” — and what his true disciples must do — “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” — that don’t allow for equivocation. There can be no riding on the fence of faith about the Eucharist.
The Eucharist not only establishes and nourishes this communion, it also causes divisions. Just as God tested the people of Israel in the desert, he tests us now in the desert of the world. And just as God offered miraculous manna and water so the Israelites might live, he offers the Blessed Sacrament so we can remain in life-giving communion — that is, have koinōnía — with Jesus Christ, for “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.