Shortly before he was to die, Jesus sat down with his disciples for the Passover meal, the meal which commemorates the night of the tenth plague of Egypt. A lamb is slain, roasted over a fire, and consumed. On the night of the tenth plague, the blood was smeared on the sides and top of the door frame, so that the angel of the Lord passing through the city would know these were of God’s chosen people, and would move on to the next home. The sacrificial lamb of Passover saved the Hebrews from death. It is a deeply significant meal, steeped in ritual and liturgy. And it’s at this time which Jesus chooses to do something extraordinary.
He breaks the bread, blesses it, and gives it to the disciples saying “Take, eat. This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” He then takes the cup of the “fruit of the vine” (that is, wine), and says “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-29 & Luke 22:14-23) Curious that at this feast which is all about the sacrificial lamb which is to be consumed, Jesus does this very pointed and liturgical act, telling his disciples that he is the lamb which is to be slain, and here is his flesh to eat. It’s a new covenant, and just as the Hebrews were to “do this” Passover meal for all time, Jesus tells his disciples to “do this” with this flesh and this cup that is his blood.
The exact meaning of what Jesus means here has, of course, been hotly debated for centuries. Some would hold it’s a symbolic act, a commemoration like that of the old Passover meal. Some would say it has a real spiritual aspect to it that brings it to a level beyond mere symbolism, even if the exact nature of it remains incomprehensible (as all divine things are for man). But Guardini has very pointed words to say regarding the words of this new covenant meal:
“Hence, when we ask what they mean, let us first be clear as to how they should be taken. There is only one answer: literally. The words mean precisely what they say. Any attempt to understand them ‘spiritually’ is disobedience and leads to disbelief. It is not our task to decide what they should mean in order to express ‘pure Christianity,’ but to accept them reverently as they stand, and to learn from them what Christian purity is.”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
To be clear here, what Guardini means by “the words mean precisely what they say” is that the bread literally and truly does become the flesh of Jesus Christ, and the wine in the cup literally and truly does become the blood of Jesus Christ. For those who think of the Eucharist as symbol, Guardini’s take on this matter may seem quite harsh, perhaps even offensive. I can imagine it would feel that way. But without going into all the historical theological disputations or Biblical critical analyses or tomes upon tomes which have been written on this topic, perhaps we can just consider the words as they are, the context in which they were said, and by whom they were spoken.
I’ve already mentioned some of the context of the words. It is during the Passover meal, this ritual into which Jesus inserts himself, quite loudly proclaiming that the true lamb to be slaughtered is himself and the true food to be eaten is his flesh and the true drink to be drunk is his blood (recall the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, as the disciples certainly would have). The words are steeped in mystery, to be sure, but the disciples would have grasped the reality contained within them—this truly is the body and blood of Jesus.
“The disciples were no symbolists, neither were they nineteenth- or twentieth-century conceptualists, but simple fishermen much more inclined to take Jesus’ words literally—if not with crude realism, as they had at Capernaum—than spiritually . . . Aware of all this, the Lord yet spoke and acted as he did.”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
This simple fact stands out: Jesus knew his audience, better than anyone. Jesus was not one to issue caveats and nuances and expound on ethical and theological and philosophical implications of his teachings. He says things as they are, spontaneously, as they issue from his inner being outward (as every man ought to be ordered, as we read earlier) and he does so with a mind to the people. Had the disciples stopped him to ask “So we are to pretend this is your flesh, then? It is not truly, surely?” I am certain we would hear a swift “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
It is a divinely revealed reality, one which we are told by Christ himself to believe and to “do” just as the Hebrews were told to “do” the Passover meal. That ought to be enough for us. The “how” of it matters little. It is divine mystery, the mysterium fidei. It is a sign of the new covenant, and it is also the source of our very life! Unless we eat and drink, we have no life in us! Lumen Gentium calls it the “fount and apex” of the Christian life (Lumen Gentium 11), both the source of our life and the highest expression of it. For it is in the Eucharist that we participate in that sacrificial meal, that eternal sacrifice of the lamb by which we are all saved. Truly this is the source of our lives, and ought to be the summit which we all desire.
Every day of Lent, I am writing a reflection piece on two chapters of "The Lord" by Romano Guardini. If you'd like to read or follow along, you can find the full calendar of where we're at below, or Click Here for the main landing page.