The Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper
When God saved his people from death by the blood of the Passover lamb and delivered them out of bondage and oppression in ancient Egypt, he told them to eat unleavened bread and each year thereafter to observe this day as a memorial of the Passover of the Lord. The meal taken in community, which generation after generation then celebrated, was thus integrally connected with the circumstances of the liberation and captured in ritual what God was about to effect in history.
In the fullness of time centuries later, John the Baptist would acclaim Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) and the Lord would proclaim that he is himself the bread of life, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). The Apostles, however, did not yet understand what Jesus was saying and when they went to celebrate the Passover for what would turn out to be the last time, they no doubt expected it to follow the usual ritual. Instead, it was the establishment of the new, definitive and everlasting covenant.
At this meal called the Last Supper, Jesus instituted a new memorial sacrifice – the Eucharist. The true Lamb of God was about to be slain and all was to be new. But first Christ would suffer and die on the Cross, the sacrificial offering that frees us from the bondage of sin and death, before rising, which is our pledge of new life.
In the context of the Passover meal, Jesus said a blessing as he took the unleavened bread and the cup of wine. “This is my body that is for you,” he said. “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Bidding his Apostles and through them us to eat and drink, he said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Unlike the Passover, however, in the Eucharist the events of redemption and salvation are made a present reality in our lives in a way that enables us to participate and share in them.
Every time we do this at Mass, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the words of consecration, Jesus becomes truly present – Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity – in sacramental form under the outward appearance of bread and wine. As the unbloody re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice, the Eucharist is the central mystery of faith, “a mystery which renews history and the whole cosmos.” Pope Benedict XVI explained it this way: “The substantial conversion of bread and wine into [Christ’s] Body and Blood introduces within creation the principle of a radical change, [which] penetrates to the heart of all being, a change meant to set off a process which transforms reality, a process leading ultimately to the transfiguration of the entire world, to the point where God will be all in all” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 10, 11).
In the Eucharist, our Lord gives us himself so that we might be transformed and for the renewal of the world. What a wondrous and wonderful blessing and grace this is.