Godtalk: Understanding the Eucharist


How should we understand the Eucharist?  When instituting the Eucharist at Last Supper, Jesus didn’t ask his disciples to understand what they were doing, he only asked them to celebrate it faithfully until he returned.  When he offered them bread and said, “This is my body”, and then offered them wine and said, “This is my blood”, they would not have understood.  There must have been considerable confusion and bewilderment: How are we supposed to understand this?

Their understanding of what they were doing in celebrating the Eucharist only developed as they grew in their faith. Jesus didn’t ask for much of an understanding, nor did he give them a full explanation for what he was celebrating with them. He simply asked them to eat his body and drink his blood.     

Jesus gave no theological discourse on the Eucharist at the Last Supper. He simply gave us a ritual and asked us to celebrate it regularly, irrespective of our intellectual understanding of it. But some hint of the meaning of the Eucharist is there in his symbolic action of washing his disciples’ feet.

Little has changed. We too aren’t asked to understand the Eucharist fully or even adequately. Our faith only asks that we are faithful in participating in it.  In fact, as is the case for all deep mysteries, there is no satisfactory, rational explanation of the Eucharist. No one can, to anyone’s intellectual satisfaction, adequately lay out the psychology, or even spirituality of eating someone else’s body and drinking his blood.    

We need instead to rely upon metaphors and icons and an inchoate, intuitive understanding. We can truly know this mystery, even as we can’t fully understand it.   We may not grasp this Mystery but we can allow the Mystery to grasp us.

This may be helpful in our thinking about what to say to young people who no longer go to Church and who tell us that the reason they don’t go is that they don’t find the Eucharist meaningful: ‘Why should I go to Church, it doesn’t mean anything to me?’, they say.

The British theologian, Ronald Knox, speaking about the Eucharist, makes an important point.  We have never, he claims, as Christians, been truly faithful to Jesus. In the end, none of us have truly followed those teachings which most characterise Jesus.  We haven’t turned the other cheek. We haven’t forgiven our enemies. We haven’t purified our thoughts. We haven’t seen God in the poor. We haven’t kept our hearts pure and free from the things of this world.

But we have, he submits, been faithful in one very important way; we have kept the Eucharist going. “Do this in memory of me” said Jesus:  and this the Church keeps on doing, every day throughout the world, until the end of time.

Peter Knott SJ