Why do we receive the Eucharist? To some, that may seem like a silly question. It’s the body and blood of Jesus, so why wouldn’t we receive it? However, I don’t think the issue is quite so simple. Yes, it’s great to have God physically present among us, but why would we want to eat and drink that presence? What exactly does consuming Jesus’ body and blood do for us? That’s a much tougher question to answer, and in this article, I want to look at how the Bible answers it. Specifically, I want to look at what Jesus said about the importance of the Eucharist in our spiritual lives.
For the Life of the World
Many Catholics are familiar with the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel. In it, Jesus gives a sermon that scholars call the Bread of Life Discourse, and this sermon (particularly verses 51-58) is often used in apologetics to show that the Eucharist really is Jesus’ body and blood. He repeatedly tells his followers that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood, clearly confirming the Catholic belief that the Eucharist is not just a symbol.
However, this sermon teaches us more than just the bare fact of Jesus’ real presence; it also tells us a bit about the role the Eucharist is supposed to play in our spiritual lives. In particular, one thing Jesus says in it is packed to the brim with meaning:
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)
When we read Jesus’ words about his flesh being given “for the life of the world,” most of us understand him to be referring to his sacrificial death. On the cross, Jesus gave his life, his flesh, to redeem the entire world (1 John 2:1-2), and he gives us that very same flesh in the Eucharist. However, I would suggest that there is more here than meets the eye. Yes, Jesus is referring to his death, but his words have a second meaning as well, one that tells us a lot more about the role the Eucharist should play in our spiritual lives.
The New Manna
If we go back and read this verse in context, we can see that the Bread of Life Discourse was prompted by a short dialogue that Jesus had with his audience. In this dialogue, the people ask him what sign he would perform so they could know for sure that he came from God, and they cite the manna, the miraculous bread from heaven that sustained the Israelites as they traveled to the Promised Land after their exodus from Egypt (the story is recounted in Exodus 16:1-36), as an example of the kind of sign they’re looking for (John 6:30-31). In response, Jesus tells them that the manna foreshadowed the “true bread from heaven” that God would later give his people (John 6:32), and then he begins his Bread of Life Discourse, where he explains that he himself (and ultimately his body and blood in the Eucharist) is the “bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:41, 51).
With that background, we can see that when Jesus says that his flesh is given “for the life of the world” in the Eucharist, he means that his flesh is the new manna, the “true bread from heaven” that is intended to sustain all of us on our journey to our heavenly homeland just as the manna in the Old Testament fed the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land. However, this raises a question for us. How exactly does the Eucharist sustain us spiritually? What does it really mean to say that the Eucharist is our food for our journey to heaven?
In the rest of the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus gives us a few clues to help us answer those questions. First, he tells us:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:53-54)
In this passage, Jesus teaches us that the Eucharist quite literally sustains our spiritual lives. Without it, as he says, we “have no [spiritual] life” in us. In other words, it helps to sustain the life of grace within us, the grace that we receive at baptism and that we believe will flower into the life of heaven once we die, just as earthly food sustains our physical lives. More specifically, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, the Eucharist “preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace,” “separates us from sin,” and “preserves us from future mortal sins” (CCC 1392-1393, 1395).
Abiding in Christ
Secondly, Jesus tells us that “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:56). Now, this verse is interesting because it’s the reverse of what we would expect him to say. We would expect Jesus to first say that the Eucharist allows him to abide in us (after all, we receive him in this sacrament, not the other way around) and only secondly to say that it allows us to abide in him, but that’s not what he does. No, he reverses the order, implying that our presence within him is more important than his presence within us.
But what does that mean? How can we abide in Jesus? He doesn’t answer this question in the Bread of Life Discourse, but he picks up this loose thread later in John’s Gospel and subtly explains what he means:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:5-6)
Now, the connection between these two passages is obscured a bit in many English translations. In the Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus says that the Eucharist allows us to “abide” in him, and here he’s saying that we must “remain” in him. Those are two different verbs, but in Greek they’re actually the same word. Consequently, for John’s original readers, the connection would have been crystal clear.
And what precisely is that connection? The Eucharist allows us to “abide” or “remain” in Jesus just as branches abide in their vine. Just as a vine gives life to its branches and allows them to grow and flourish, so too does the Eucharist connect us to the source of our spiritual life, Jesus, allowing us to grow and flourish spiritually. It allows us to bear fruit for God, obeying his laws and following his will for our lives, and without it, we can’t fulfill our vocations or live faithful Catholic lives. In a nutshell, this sacrament connects us to the source of all grace and holiness, and the more we receive it, the stronger that connection becomes.
Food for the Journey
So the next time you go to Mass and receive Communion, remember that you’re not just performing some archaic religious ritual that Jesus instituted a couple thousand years ago. No, when we receive the Eucharist, we nourish our souls with the new manna, the new bread from heaven that sustains our spiritual lives just like the manna in the Old Testament sustained the Israelites’ physical lives. It strengthens us to live as faithful Christians in a hostile world, making sure that we remain connected to the source of all holiness and spiritual strength, Jesus Christ. Simply put, the Eucharist is food for our journey home, food that helps us to survive the hostile desert of this world and arrive safely at our heavenly homeland.
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