The Lord Jesus Christ was a faithful Jew, and it should come as no surprise that he celebrated Passover with his Twelve Apostles, also faithful Jews.

We read in the Gospel of Luke 22:1-16:

Now the feast of Unleavened Bread, called the Passover, was drawing near … When the day of the feast of Unleavened Bread arrived, the day for sacrificing the Passover lamb, he sent out Peter and John, instructing them, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.” … Then they went off and found everything exactly as he had told them, and there they prepared the Passover. When the hour came, he took his place at table with the apostles. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for, I tell you, I shall not eat it [again] until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”

The meal, which we call “the Last Supper,” when the Holy Eucharist was instituted and to which the Gospel of St. Luke refers was the traditional “Passover Seder” celebrated annually by the Jewish people. The Passover Seder commemorates the story of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt, taken from the Book of Exodus (12:1-30) in the Old Testament.

Catholics find the basis of our belief in the Lord Jesus Christ’s Last Supper institution of Holy Eucharist as his own Body and Blood (Holy Thursday) in the New Testament. 

Matthew 26:26-29

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins.

Mark 14:22-24

While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed for many.”

Luke 22:14-20

When the hour came, he took his place at table with the apostles. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer, for, I tell you, I shall not eat it [again] until there is fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and said, “Take this and share it among yourselves; for I tell you [that] from this time on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me.”  And, likewise, the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.”

First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 10:16-17

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?  Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.

First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 11:23-25

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”  For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

After the Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, prior to the writing of these Scripture accounts, the Apostles and the early Christian community continued to celebrate the Eucharist, “the breaking of the bread,” in fulfillment of his command at the Last Supper, “Do this in memory of me.”

The Acts of the Apostles bear witness to that ritual practice:

Acts of the Apostles 2:42-46

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. … Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart.

Acts of the Apostles 20:7

On the first day of the week when we gathered to break bread …

Acts of the Apostles 20:11

Then he (Paul) returned upstairs, broke the bread, and ate; after a long conversation that lasted until daybreak, he departed.

Acts of the Apostles 27:35

When he (Paul) said this, he took bread, gave thanks to God in front of them all, broke it, and began to eat.

For the next several hundred years, the Church’s celebrations of the Eucharist became more formalized in rituals established and observed by the early Christian community. With that ritualization of “the breaking of the bread,” the Catholic Church’s theology and doctrine of the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ developed but the fundamental belief in the Eucharist did not and has not changed over the centuries.

The development of theology and doctrine refers to a growth in understanding and depth of clarity. In other words, the Catholic Church’s subjective grasp of doctrines and truths increased without doctrines or truths changing in an essential way.

The development of theology and doctrine is the principle of a living, breathing tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit and also the consciousness of the Church as a whole throughout time (“Development of Catholic Doctrine: A Primer,” National Catholic Register, Jan. 5, 2018). That is true of the Eucharist and all the teachings and beliefs of the Catholic Church.

The writings of the early Fathers of the Church, councils, and the great theologians and saints throughout the history of the Catholic Church bear that out, especially with regard to the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (d. 118) wrote in the second century AD in his Letter to the Philadelphians, 4:

Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.

St. Justin Martyr (100-165) mentioned in this same regard in his First Apology, 65-67:

And this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.

St. Augustine (354-430) wrote in his Marginalia Contra Julianum:

What since the days of antiquity was preached and believed throughout the whole Church with true Catholic faith is true, even if it is proved by no argument, explained by no words.

These ancient texts are but three of the foundational theological understandings of the early Catholic Church’s belief in the Eucharist that endure to the present day. There are many more such passages found in the Catholic Church’s history and theology, unfortunately too many to quote and reference here. All affirm the Catholic Church’s belief that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, his “Real Presence” and the central act of Catholic prayer, worship and spirituality.

One of my favorite prayers about the Eucharist was composed by St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), one of the greatest minds in the history of the Catholic Church:

O sacred banquet! in which Christ is received, the memory of his Passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory to us is given. Alleluia.

In Part Four of this series, we will consider contemporary Catholic teaching on the Eucharist and some of the themes that contribute to a deeper understanding of its significance and meaning in the Catholic Church.