In the Gospel of John, chapter 6, verses 51 and 52, Jesus proclaims: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.“
Reading “bread from heaven,” we cannot help but recall the manna in the Old Testament, a tangible sign of divine provision and spiritual sustenance that both represent. Just as manna was the food God provided to the Israelites in the desert, Jesus as the “living bread” is the necessary spiritual nourishment for a life of faith and salvation. We trust in His real presence in the Eucharist, receiving His nourishment to strengthen our souls and continue on the path toward communion with God. Both are gifts from God that feed and guide His people on their pilgrimage to eternal life.
However, Jesus’ assertion of being “the bread of life” has been subject to various interpretations throughout the history of Christianity.
Some Protestants argue that Jesus used metaphorical language in this statement, based on previous comparisons where He referred to Himself as “the door,” “the vine,” and “the shepherd.”
In John 10:9, He said, “I am the door: by me, if any man enters in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” Here, the metaphor of the door refers to Jesus as the access to salvation and abundant life.
Furthermore, in John 15:5, He declared, “I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.” By comparing Himself to the vine and believers to the branches, Jesus emphasizes the importance of maintaining a spiritual connection with Him to bear abundant fruit.
Likewise, in John 10:11, He stated, “I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.” Here, the shepherd metaphor highlights the care and protection that Jesus offers to His followers, even giving His life for them as an act of redemption.
However, it is essential to consider that, from the perspective of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, the teaching on the Eucharist differs from a purely symbolic interpretation. Catholic doctrine holds that, during the celebration of the Holy Mass and through the consecration of bread and wine, they are truly transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, the real presence of Jesus.
This belief is based on Jesus’ words at the Last Supper when He instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, saying, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” (Matthew 26:26-28). Throughout history, the Church has firmly affirmed the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, a mystery that goes beyond a simple metaphor and involves participation in Christ’s redeeming sacrifice.
The bread: A mere metaphor?
When Jesus said, “This is my body,” He was referring to the bread at the Last Supper. It is essential to understand that the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is a deeply rooted theological matter in the magisterium of the Catholic Church and is not solely based on symbolic or metaphorical interpretations.
To support this, we can turn to the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 22, verse 14, which provides more context on the moment of the Last Supper:
“When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.’“
In this passage, Jesus shows a deep desire to share this Passover meal with His apostles before facing His passion and death. The Jewish Passover was a celebration that commemorated the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. However, at the Last Supper, Jesus gives new and transcendent meaning to this event, instituting the Eucharist.
Subsequently, in the same context, we find Jesus’ words about the bread and wine: “Then he took the bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after the supper, he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.’” (Luke 22:19-20).
Here, Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to His disciples, clearly identifying it as His own body given for them. He also takes the cup of wine and declares it as the new covenant in His blood poured out for them. These words leave no room for doubt about Jesus’ intention to establish a sacrament in which He would be truly present under the appearances of bread and wine.
From the perspective of the magisterium of the Catholic Church, the Eucharist is the center of sacramental and liturgical life, and in it, Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ, His body, blood, soul, and divinity, under the species of bread and wine.
The First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11, verses 16 and 17, emphasizes the importance of recognizing the body of Christ in the Eucharist: “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God. But in the following instructions, I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.”
In this passage, the Apostle Paul warns the Corinthians about the importance of maintaining unity and reverence in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is essential to recognize and understand the true meaning of the Eucharist, which is the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. It is not a mere commemorative gathering.
Continuing in 1 Corinthians 11, verses 27 to 29 expand on this teaching:
“So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves.“
These verses emphasize the importance of approaching the Eucharist worthily and with consciousness. One should not participate in the Lord’s Supper superficially or without recognizing the real presence of Christ in the sacrament; this would be “eating and drinking unworthily.” The Eucharist is not merely a symbol or a metaphor but the very presence of Christ Himself among us.
In 1 Corinthians 10:16, St. Paul refers to the Lord’s sacrifice in the context of discussing the participation of Christians in the Lord’s Supper, i.e., the Eucharist. Let’s see the verse:
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?“
In this passage, Paul highlights that, by participating in the Eucharist, Christians are in communion with the blood and body of Christ. The Eucharist is not just a symbol or a representation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but it is a real participation in that same redeeming sacrifice.
The connection between the table and the altar is accentuated in the Christian Eucharist, which has its roots in Jewish tradition. In the Eucharist, the bread and wine are presented and consecrated on the altar during the Mass. Thus, the table of the Lord, which is the altar, becomes the place where the sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ is offered.
In the Eucharist, the Catholic Church maintains that Christ is offered in an unbloody manner at every Mass, as a perpetual and eternal sacrifice that transcends time and space. It is on the altar, under the appearances of bread and wine, that the redeeming sacrifice of Christ on the cross is renewed, making present His death and resurrection.
In this way, the table of the Lord as an altar in the Eucharist represents the most precious and sacred offering, where the faithful can participate in communion with Christ and receive Him sacramentally in the gift of His Body and Blood.
Jesus, the spotless lamb
In John 1:29, we encounter a powerful statement from John the Baptist as he sees Jesus approaching him: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!‘”
This declaration is significant because it establishes a connection between Jesus and the lamb mentioned in the Old Testament, specifically in the book of Exodus, chapter 12. In this passage, the event of the Passover is narrated, where the people of Israel were enslaved in Egypt, and God was about to send the final plague, which would be the death of the firstborns. To avoid this plague, God gave specific instructions to the Israelites.
In Exodus 12:3-7, it is established that each family should take a spotless lamb and sacrifice it, sprinkling its blood on the doorposts and lintel of their houses. The lamb’s blood would serve as a sign for the destroying angel to pass over that house and spare the firstborns. Additionally, they were to eat the roasted lamb’s flesh along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, following God’s precise instructions.
Here we see how the lamb played a crucial role in the liberation and salvation of the people of Israel. The lamb’s blood acted as a means of protection and redemption for the people.
Now, in the New Testament, John the Baptist identifies Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” This declaration alludes to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, where He offered Himself as the perfect and spotless Lamb for the redemption and salvation of humanity.
In Luke 22:7, a reference is made to the Passover meal, a significant event in the life of Jesus and His disciples:
“Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.”
In this passage, it is mentioned that Jesus and His disciples were preparing to celebrate the Jewish festival of Passover, an annual celebration commemorating the liberation of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. During the Passover, the paschal lamb was sacrificed as a reminder of the lamb offered in the Old Testament to protect the Israelites from the death plague of the firstborns.
Now, in 1 Corinthians 5:7, the Apostle Paul offers an important teaching related to Jesus’ death:
“Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.“
In this verse, Paul refers to Jesus as our true Passover lamb, the perfect and spotless Lamb that has already been sacrificed for us. Here, the Apostle makes a clear connection between the Jewish Passover, with its sacrifice of the paschal lamb, and Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross.
Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, culminating in His resurrection, becomes the definitive and eternal Passover for all of humanity. As the sacrificial lamb, Jesus offered His life as a sacrifice to free us from sin and spiritual bondage, fulfilling the promise of the Old Testament Passover in a spiritual and transcendent sense.
The Priest’s role in the Mystery of Transubstantiation
The role of the priest in transubstantiation can be understood through the teachings present in the Letter to the Hebrews. This letter is a rich source of information about the priesthood in Jewish tradition and how it finds its fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ.
In Hebrews 9:1-7, the old sacrificial system and the role of the high priest in Jewish worship are described. In this passage, it is highlighted how the high priest was the only one privileged and responsible for entering the Most Holy Place once a year, offering sacrifices for the sins of the people. The priest played a crucial role in mediating between God and the community, presenting offerings and sacrifices for purification and reconciliation.
Then, in Hebrews 7:11-12, the priesthood of Melchizedek is mentioned, and its connection to Jesus Christ:
“If perfection could have been attained through the Levitical priesthood (and indeed the law given to the people established that priesthood), why was there still need for another priest to come, one in the order of Melchizedek, not in the order of Aaron? For when the priesthood is changed, the law must be changed also.“
Here, it is established that the Levitical priesthood, represented by the descendants of Aaron, was not sufficient to bring perfection and ultimate redemption. Instead, Jesus Christ is established as the high priest in the order of Melchizedek, an ancient priest and king mentioned in the Old Testament.
Jesus Christ, as the High Priest according to the order of Melchizedek, represents a superior form of priesthood that surpasses the Levitical priesthood. His priesthood is eternal and indestructible, and His sacrifice on the cross is the perfect and complete offering that redeems all of humanity.
Finally, in Hebrews 10:9, it is explained how Jesus Christ establishes a new worship and a new priestly order:
“Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second.“
With these words, it is emphasized that Jesus Christ comes to fulfill God’s will and establish a new priestly order, a new worship based on His own sacrifice on the cross. This new worship, which is the sacrifice of the Eucharist, transcends the previous worship of the Old Testament and brings to fulfillment God’s redemptive action.
In the Eucharist, the priest acts in persona Christi, that is, in the person of Christ, to re-present the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Through transubstantiation, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, and the sacrifice of the cross is made present for the salvation and eternal life of believers.
In Luke 24:29-30, a crucial passage is recounted after Jesus’ resurrection, where two disciples were walking to Emmaus and encountered an unknown man, who was actually Jesus, though they did not recognize Him at first:
“But they urged him strongly, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.’ So, he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them.“
In this passage, we can see how the disciples did not recognize Jesus at first, despite walking with Him and spending time together. However, everything changed when Jesus, as they sat at the table together, took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them. It was in this act of breaking bread and offering it that the eyes of the disciples were opened, and they recognized Him as the risen Lord.
This narrative from Luke has a notable analogy with the current Catholic Mass, specifically in the liturgy of the Eucharist. In the Mass, the priest, acting in persona Christi, performs gestures similar to what Jesus did in Emmaus.
As he takes the bread and wine during the consecration, the priest presents them to God the Father on behalf of the entire community, performing the same action that Jesus did at the Last Supper. Through the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the words of consecration, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, while still retaining the appearance of bread and wine.
Then, during the fraction of the bread, the priest breaks the consecrated bread in the host and shows the unity of Christ in the sacrament. Just as in Emmaus, where the disciples recognized Jesus when the bread was broken, the faithful in the Mass recognize the real presence of Christ at the moment of the breaking of the bread.
This passage from Luke 24:29-30, along with the liturgy of the Catholic Mass, highlights the significance of the gesture of breaking bread in the Eucharist, where the faithful can experience a living encounter with Jesus Christ. In the breaking of the bread, the redeeming sacrifice of Christ is renewed, and the faithful are invited to recognize the Lord present in the Eucharist.
Jesus, the living bread
Let’s go back to John 6:51, where Jesus declares:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.“
In this passage, Jesus identifies Himself as the “living bread,” indicating that His presence in the bread transcends mere symbolism or metaphor. Jesus affirms that His flesh is the bread that He will give for the life of the world, suggesting a real and living presence in the bread.
Then, in John 6:55, Jesus continues to say:
“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”
With these words, Jesus insists that His flesh is true food and His blood is true drink. Here, Jesus underscores the sacramental and transcendent reality of His presence in the consecrated bread during the Eucharist.
The Catholic Church, based on the teachings of Jesus and Apostolic Tradition, has maintained the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Transubstantiation is the term used to explain the substantial change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ during the consecration.
By offering Himself at every Mass, Jesus Christ renews His redemptive sacrifice on the cross. His death and resurrection are made present in every Eucharistic celebration, and His sacrifice is offered on behalf of all humanity. In this way, the Eucharist is not a repetition of Jesus’ sacrifice but its sacramental and mystical actualization, transcending time and space.
Through the Eucharist, Catholics believe that Jesus Christ is truly and substantially present in the consecrated bread. It is a real and living presence; not merely a remembrance or symbol, but rather Jesus Himself remaining present in the Eucharistic sacrament.
Partaking of the consecrated bread in the Eucharist is an intimate and real participation in the redeeming sacrifice of Christ on the cross. By feeding on His Body and Blood, we are spiritually nourished and strengthened to follow Christ and live according to His will.
In the Eucharist, we receive the immense gift of eternal life, as Jesus promised that those who eat of His bread will live forever. Communion unites us with Christ and His Body, which is the Church, and makes us partakers of His love and mercy.