Understanding the Eucharist With Special Attention to the Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas

The Church was born of the Paschal mystery and thus the Eucharist, the Sacrament of the Paschal mystery, stands at the centre of the Church’s life. (Ecclesia De Eucharistia, n. 3) For St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), The source and summit of the whole Christian life is Christ. So this Sacrament [the Eucharist] perfects the others by joining us to Christ. (In Sent  IV d.8 q.1 art.1.)

The Second Vatican Council reiterates what St. Thomas says: that the Eucharist constitutes “the source and summit of the Christian life”. (LG 11, c.f. Ecclesia De Eucharistia, n. 1.) The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, explained four ways in which we encounter Christ in His Church; through the actions of the priest, “His minister”, through the proclamation of His Word and when the Church prays and sings (c.f. Matt 18:20), but special emphasis is placed on the fact that Christ is present “especially under the Eucharistic species.” (SC 7, CCC 1373). This post will examine what St. Thomas taught about Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist and how this comes to be. It will then address the sacrificial dimension of the Sacrament and examine what in St. Thomas’s teaching directs us to a fuller understanding of the integral relationship between the Real Presence of Christ and the Sacrifice of the Mass.

What is Present in the Eucharist?

What is present in the Eucharist is Christ’s humanity. This is “the gift par excellence, for it is the gift of Himself, of His person in his sacred humanity, as well as the gift of His saving work.” (Ecclesia De Eucharistia, n. 11.). In His divinity, He is necessarily omnipresent in any case, but His glorified body is in heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father since His Ascension. 

The actions of Jesus at the institution of the Eucharist provide important insights into this mystery. The events recorded by the Gospels demonstrate parallels with the Jewish berakah. Jesus breaks the bread and distributes it; the very act that creates community, carried out by the head of the family, who, through this giving, sharing, and uniting, gives the stranger a share of what is one’s own. There is sense in which Jesus can be seen, through this action, to represent God the Father, 
“...who gives us everything, through the earth’s bounty, that we need for life...God’s bountiful distribution of gifts takes in a radical quality when the Son communicates and distributes Himself in the form of bread.”— Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth Holy Week: From the Entrance to Jerusalem to the Resurrection, London: CTS, 2011, p. 129.
What is present in the Eucharist is the true manna: communion with God in the risen Christ. Both the Cross and the Resurrection are intrinsic to the Eucharist. That the first Christians understood the Eucharist as an encounter with the Risen Lord is clear from Scripture. We see in Acts 20:6-11 that the “breaking of bread” was already fixed for the morning of the day of Resurrection, even in the apostolic age. 

St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the bodily presence was appropriate to the Eucharist because it belongs to friends to share a common life and so eat together. He saw the Eucharist as the appropriate Sacrament for spiritual nourishment. Just as Baptism is the Sacrament of spiritual birth and Confirmation the Sacrament of spiritual growth, so the Eucharist provides nourishment in order that we might maintain our spiritual lives. In this way, St. Thomas begins his investigation into the Sacrament by considering the elements, which are food and drink. 

In his commentary on the Gospel of St. John, St. Thomas demonstrates how Jesus teaches the true sustenance that is derived from the Blessed Sacrament. He notes how Jesus refers to wholesome doctrine which is what will deliver us from the spiritual death ultimately suffered by the Israelites in the desert; "a type of that spiritual food which was now to be tasted in reality" (St. Thomas Aquinas, Catena Aurea (Southampton: The Saint Austin Press, 1997), p. 238). 

This may draw us to consider His feeding of us, our hunger for God, as evidenced in the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves in John 6. Here Scripture begins with the hunger of the people who have been listening to Jesus. He does not send them away without food, but does not stop with physical sustenance; biological and material necessities. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4; Deut 8:3). Yet the eternal Logos does not concretely become bread for us until He has “taken flesh” and spoken to us in human words. (cf. Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. 156). This motif also runs through Jesus’ temptations. The devil’s challenge to Jesus is one of proof—unless you can feed us you are not a good God. Jesus’ response sets everything in its proper context and order. By internalising & living by the Word of God we will foster an attitude which will feed the world. (Ibid, pp. 30-34. c.f. Cantalamessa, R., The Eucharist: Our Sanctification (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1993), p. 28.). 

We can see prefigurings of this in Ezekiel 2:8-9; 3:2-3,  where the great prophet is fed with the Word of God directly into His mouth. Likewise in Psalm 81:11, we are told: “open your mouth and I will fill it”. With this in mind, one can understand that it is no accident that, between the multiplication of the loaves and the attempt to make Jesus king in John’s Gospel, we find the following statement: “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world” (Jn 6:14). Reflecting on this, and on the Mass, we may recall the humility of the Centurion “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Mt 8:8; Lk 7:6) and approach the Sacrament cum amore ac timore, like little children, allowing ourselves to be fed and thus receive the kingdom of God (Lk 18:17). cf. Schneider, A., Dominus Est—It is the Lord! (New Jersey: Newman House Press, 2008), pp. 26-29.  

St. Thomas notes the past, present and future dimensions of the Eucharist by connecting the common terms of reference with the Sacrament; a sacrifice commemorating the Lord’s Passion (past); communion, signify the unity of the Church (present); and viaticum; the map to our heavenly homeland and therefore, the bliss of life in the Trinity (future). (ST 3a 73,4.). Jesus left us with this sacramental presence as He was at the point of withdrawing His visible presence from us, as a way of representing the Passion He was about to endure. This was in order that we might be brought to faith in Him. (ST 3a, 73,4). For St. Thomas, the Eucharist is a sacrifice because of this representation of Jesus’ Passion, but it is also an offering (hostia) because Christ is truly present therein. (ST 3a 73,5). The key word here is “memory”, the appreciation of the force of which constitutes one of the great discoveries of Eucharistic theology. For the Jewish mind, use of such a word constituted not simply the calling to mind of an event, but moreover a memorial filled with the reality of that which it commemorates. This deeper understanding indicates the ritual established by Our Lord is to be understood as the living memorial of the events commemorated therein, that is, His sacrificial death and Resurrection.

In order to answer the question of whether Christ is truly present in the Sacrament, St. Thomas argues that, indeed, He must be. In studying the Bread of Life discourse in St. John's Gospel, he asserts that in verse 51, Jesus says "My flesh" and not "the sign of my flesh" (Catena Aurea, op. Cit., p. 240). The transformation takes place through "a mystical benediction" which is conveyed in "unutterable words" and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This is vital for a proper understanding of the relationship between the Real Presence and the Eucharistic Sacrifice as will be demonstrated later. St. Thomas explains that we cannot see the flesh itself because due to God's condescension to our infirmity; in other words, because the reality would revolt us to such a degree that we would be unable to partake in the communion.

The reasoning behind the Real Presence is examined in Summa Theologica; that Christ truly suffered for the perfection of the New Law. The Old Law contained a pre-figuring of all that Christ would achieve through His Passion death and Resurrection (Heb 10:1), but the New Law, instituted by Christ, should necessarily contain Christ in truth and thus perfect all the other Sacraments, “in which Christ’s virtue is participated.” (ST 3a 75,1). This idea was earlier proposed by Paschius Radbertus, author of the first treatise on the Eucharist in 831; De Corpore et Sanguine Domini. He strongly asserted the reality of Christ's presence in the Eucharist by distinguishing between the truth of the sacrament and its appearances, and by drawing on the fact that figures belong to the Old Testament whereas the New Testament contains the fulfillment of these prefigurings. (ST 3a, 75,1).

Similarly, St. Thomas reasons that Christ’s presence in the Blessed Sacrament is not something that one may apprehend by sense or understanding, but by faith alone. We have faith in Jesus as the truth (Jn 14:6) and so, if He is the Truth, he cannot lie. This is expressed more beautifully in St. Thomas’ famous hymn to the Eucharist, the Adore te Devote:

Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,

Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. 

Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius; 

Nil hoc verbo veritátis verius. 


Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:

How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed; 

What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do; 

Truth Himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.

How is Jesus Present?

Having established the truth of the Real Presence, St. Thomas turns his attention to the manner of Christ’s presence. He does not understand the body of Christ to be as as a body is ordinarily present in another material reality, that is, through the contact of quantity with quantity. Rather it is more in the way in which the soul is present in the body; metaphysical rather than physical, thus avoiding Paschius’ crude materialism. He considers the idea of consubstantiation, and asks whether the bread and wine remain after the consecration. He reasons that if the bread and wine remain, this would mitigate the truth if the Sacrament because Jesus did not say “This bread is my body” (ST 3a 75,3).

The substance of bread is not Christ, and if bread remained, it would be idolatry to worship the Sacrament (ST 3a 75,3).  This is echoed in the encyclical letter of Pope Paul VI, which states that "on the conversion of the bread and wine's substance, or nature, into the body and blood of Christ, nothing is left of the bread and wine but appearance alone" (Mysterium Fidei, n. 46). The Eucharist can only be one thing or another, it cannot be two things at the same time. To say "the Real Presence of Christ in the elements of bread and wine" as the CTS booklet The Eucharist does is incorrect. 

Jesus comes to be present in the Sacrament by a conversion of the substance of bread into Himself, not by locally moving to it. St. Thomas explains that this is because that would require Him to be in several places at once. 

Christ's presence in the Eucharist is objective, it does not depend on the faith of the communicant. This is one of the ways in which the Eucharist differs from the other six Sacraments; they only occur when they are received, whereas the Eucharist already is Jesus. When this transformation occurs, the bread and wine no longer exist, they are substantially changed into the body and blood of Christ because Christ's body and blood are present in the Eucharist in the way of a substance. 

St. Thomas also asserts that the bread and wine are not annihilated. Rather, what takes place is a conversion; the transition of one thing into another (cf. Ott, L., Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Illinois: Tan, 1974), p. 380.). The substances of the bread and wine cease, because they are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. St. Thomas quotes St. Ambrose’s instruction to catechumens in the cathedral of Milan in order to illustrate this: “If God can bring things into existence out of nothing, he certainly has the power to change the whole being of a thing into another thing.” (De Sacramentis IV c. 4, 15). St. Thomas notes that God can change the whole substance of a thing  as He is the author of form and matter. The change effected is a supernatural change because bread and wine have no natural power of their own to turn into the Body and Blood of Christ. 

Key to the question addressed by this post is St. Thomas’ conclusion that this change is not effected gradually (ST 3a 75,5), it is instantaneous and complete when the last word of each set of consecrating words is spoken over the respective element. Theologians following St. Thomas, especially those influenced by Duns Scotus (+1308) had a different notion of of metaphysical reality and thus considered that the conversion did occur, but they only conceded this because of the teaching of the Church, especially the Fourth Lateran Council (D.S. 802). Their conception of reality led them to place more emphasis on the notion of presence, from which pervaded the expression “Real Presence” had its genesis. 

These concecrating words are spoken  by the priest, “or rather he puts his voice at the disposal of the One who spoke these words in the Upper Room and who desires that they should be repeated in every generation by all those who in the Church ministerially share in his priesthood.” (Ecclesia Eucharistia, n. 5.) Just as the world was created by the Word “he spoke and they came into being” (Ps 32:9), so the Eucharistic conversion is effected by the words of Christ Himself, who is God. The difference is that at Creation, God’s Word was imperative “Let there be light” (Gen 1:3). Here at the institution of the Eucharist, it is indicative: “This is my body” (Lk 22:19). Once Jesus consecrates the unleavened bread, it is no longer a symbol of the Old Covenant Passover (Deut 16:3) but the substance of the New Covenant Passover: Christ Himself (CCC 1365).

The Hebrew understanding of the importance of “words” takes on great significance, and assists understanding the Real Presence here. In Israel words had great meaning and power, names hurt more than sticks and stones and calling someone by the wrong name made them a non-person. If human words have power, than how much more efficacious is God’s Word (Is 55:10)? The Word succeeds in what He was sent to do (Is 55:11), the word bara—to create in Hebrew is reserved for God alone (Gen 1:1). Isaiah 43:1 the God who calls us, reforms us; 43:6 preparing a way from exile to return to Israel. God’s Word cannot fail (Is 40:6-8), it endures forever. The Fathers of the Church spoke of Mary becoming pregnant through her ear; she heard God’s Word and it was so powerful that it took flesh from her and became Incarnate. When we track this understanding of the potency of God’s Word through Scriptures and our faith we can begin to understand how important Jesus, the Word’s own words are at the institution of the Eucharist.

It is also significant that Jesus omits the sacrificial lamb from the Passover haggadah, and identifies Himself with the blessed bread and wine which were its accompaniments in the ritual. Consuming the sacrificed lamb was the only way a faithful Jew could renew his covenant with God. Jesus presents Himself as the new Passover victim to be fed on at the Supper, the breaking of the bread is thus a cohesive representation of the violence of the death Jesus suffered. 

In Question 76, St. Thomas discusses the manner of Jesus’ presence in the Blessed Sacrament, whether He is present wholly, or if not, in what part He is present. This leads us to reflect on the extent to which the whole dimensive quantity of Christ is present, and, if Jesus is present in the Sacrament, does His body in heaven diminish with each consecration? St. Thomas argues that because the hypostatic union continues in heaven, we receive the whole Christ under each sacramental species (ST3a 76, 1-3). The miracle of the loaves demonstrates that Christ’s body is not diminished. The two food miracles in John involve bread (Jn 6:1-14) and wine (2:1-11) and together anticipate the Eucharistic liturgy (CCC 1335). They both speak of the superabundance of a God overflowing in generosity,  lavishly spending Himself for His creation “This abundant giving is His “glory”.” (Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, op. Cit., p. 252, c.f. pp. 248-250.) In order to understand the way in which a body can share itself out into all places and times, it is necessary to consider the way in which the Eucharist works in us. Normally when we eat something, our body breaks it down and assimilates it, converting its matter into energy which builds us up. This trajectory is reversed when we truly communicate, as it is Christ who is the truly existent being. Thus we are taken out of ourselves and assimilated  into Him. Christ is communicable because He is risen. His rising defines His openness and giving of Himself expressed in the biblical language of the Eucharist “This is my whole person which is given up for you”; this denotes a person who is existing completely for others. It is for this reason that St. John hands down the speech of Jesus which correlates the Eucharist with the Resurrection, and why the Fathers say that the Eucharist is the medicine of immortality.

The Sacrificial Dimension

In this section the post will attempt to deal with the question of how Aquinas’s understanding of the sacramental reality of Christ’s Body and Blood can help us to appreciate the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist today. 

There seems to be some confusion over this aspect of the Eucharist and it could be argued that much of what has been written fails to properly grapple with the sacrificial dimension. To understand why, one needs to consider that there is a great deal of historical background to the situation. As is usual with such matters, the faith of the Church holds in perpetuity that which it believes until that belief is challenged. Serious heresy then leads to a Council where the Church is forced to define in precise terms, what it believes about a given issue. The Real Presence was not formally defined until the Council of Trent in 1551 and the sacrificial nature of the Mass in 1562. During the first millennium of Christianity the faith remained “tranquilly possessed.” Although there were discussions centered around the Real Presence, these were a reaction to the treatise of Radbertus (q.v.) and concentrated on what some perceived to be his over-literalist interpretation of the words of Jesus about eating His flesh (rather than the sacrificial nature of the Sacrament).

Ongoing discussions about the manner of Jesus’ presence failed to address the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist, it was enough that the unanimous teaching of Christian antiquity, interpreting the text of Scripture, regarded the Eucharist as the unbloody Sacrifice of the New Law. Thus, when Luther began his attack on the Sacrifice of the Mass, Catholic theology was not well placed to meet his objections. 

From a modern perspective, it could be argued that humanity has lost any concept of cultic sacrifice, and thus any use of the term is misleading and unintelligible. Other theologians have suggested that, in a modern society, any talk of sacrifice seems primitive and alien. Yet the Church maintains that “The Eucharist is above all else a Sacrifice.” (John Paul II, Letter to the Bishops of the Church Dominicae Cenae, (24th february 1980), n. 130). Certainly, the sacrificial implications of Jesus words explicit in in Mark and Matthew’s Gospel are implicit in the traditions of Luke and Paul. This shows that whilst the latter focus on Eucharist as the celebration of the New Covenant foretold in Jer 31:31-34, the former focus their attention on the Covenant sacrifice in Ex 24: 3-8; the words over the cup are closely patterned on the words of Moses in Ex 24:8. This demonstrates that the early Christian communities found clear continuity between there own Eucharistic celebration and the sacrificial categories of the Sinai event; just as Moses established the Old Covenant in the blood of ritual sacrifice, so Christ seals the New Covenant, both on the Cross and in the Eucharist. 

Christ’s Sacrifice is not just an additional instance within the genus “sacrifice.” In the light of our christology it appears as really the prime analogate of all sacrifice, what Augustine called the verissimum sacrificium.

It wasn’t until the twelfth century that the question was addressed by Peter Lombard. His answer, however, is clearly unsatisfactory as it fails to clarify how the Eucharist, as a memorial, is a sacrifice in itself. To gain a proper understanding of the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist, one must utilise the historical concept of sacrifice and all the theological dimensions ramifications therein.

All the Sacraments achieve what Christ did for us on the Cross; they derive their power from the Cross and apply its saving power to us. They free us from sin and perfect us for the worship of God. St. Thomas says that this is especially true in the case of the Eucharist. The Mass is the perfect act of worship, initiated by Christ Himself, (ST3a 62,5), by His perfect act of worship: offering Himself in obedience as an oblation on the Cross (Eph 5:2). St. Thomas calls the Eucharist an imago representativa of Christ’s Passion (ST 3a 83,1). This means that the Mass is an “image” of  the Passion which re-presents (makes present) those events to the Father (CCC 1366), sacramentally, signifying this through both words and actions. The Mass is a sacrificium visible (D 1740), the visible ritual action itself is a sacrifice. It cannot be merely the visible manifestation of a sacrifice which in itself is invisible. The correct interpretation of the doctrine of the Council of Trent in this regard must maintain  that the sacrificial character of the Mass is to be sought on the plane of the visible liturgical action. If the Real Presence isn’t the Real Presence, the Eucharist is not a sacrifice; the Mass is not a re-presentation of Jesus’ Sacrifice to His Father. The sacrificial nature of Christ’s actions are explicit in the words of institution; “This is my body which is given for you...This cup which is poured out for you is the New Covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:19-20).  This body and blood is the very same as that given up for us on the Cross (CCC 1365).

St. Paul addresses the possibility or validity of the Eucharist in a community whose members do not love one another in 1 Cor 11:17-34. In 1 Cor 11:26 St. Paul explains how the Eucharist is re-presented continually until the parousia; the death of Jesus, which is an act of love (Gal 2:20), is proclaimed existentially (2 Cor 4:10-11) in and through the Eucharistic celebration. In this way, every sacrifice points to the Passion, which covers the whole of history: Mass is this same Sacrifice, offered in an un-bloody way. This is clearly formulated by St. John Chrysostom in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“In Christ the saving victim was offered once, Then what of ourselves? Do we not offer every day? Although we do offer daily, that is done for the recalling of his death, and the victim is one, not many. But how can that be—one and many? Because Christ was immolated once. For this sacrifice is what corresponds to that sacrifice if his: the same reality, remaining always the same, is offered and so this is the same sacrifice. Otherwise, would you not say that because the sacrifice is offered in  many places, therefore there are many Christs? No, but there is one Christ in all those places, fully present here and fully present there. And just as what is offered in all places is one and the same body, so there is one and the same sacrifice. Christ offered a victim and we offer the self same now; but what we do is a recalling of his sacrifice. Nor is the sacrifice repeated because of its weakness (since it is what perfects mankind), but by reason of our own, because we sin daily.” —Clark, op. Cit. This is Peter Lombard’s version from IV Sent., d. 12, c. 5, translated and quoted by Clark on page 75.

Here we can see revealed the past and future aspects of the Mass which focuses all of human history toward this act of salvation, as foretold by the prophet Malachi (Mal 1:11).

To conclude, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is vital; the truth of the Sacrifice and of the heavenly banquet the Sacrifice signifies stands or falls on the reality of the Presence. The Father sent the Son to give life (Jn 3:16-17), and the life which the Son has is the Father’s own life given to the Son (Jn 5:26), this life is now extended to the believer who partakes in the Eucharist (Jn 6:57). “Our partaking in the body and blood of Christ tends only to make us become what we eat.” Whoever eats the Body of Christ lives “because of” Him or due to the life He gives and He lives “in view of” Him, and that is to say, for His glory, His love, His kingdom. This is not solely a banquet and manifestation of the Church; as this essay as shown, the sacrificial dimension is a truth of Christ’s life and death and we are asked to unite ourselves to Him through our own daily self-sacrifice, for the same cause for which He died. In this way it makes sense that the Eucharist cannot be just banquet, Resurrection and community. It must also incorporate the aspect of self-sacrifice giving and dying, through which alone the kingdom and the community of the Resurrection became possible.

Ultimately, the Real Presence “cannot be apprehended by the senses”, says St. Thomas, “but only by faith, which relies on divine authority.” (CCC 1381). Despite this, Joseph Ratzinger insists that the kind of reality which pertains to the Eucharistic presence is not reducible to the merely material “not the superficial category, to which everything we can measure or touch belongs.” (Ratzinger, God is Near Us, op. Cit., p. 85.) Rather it “is more real that the things we have to do with every day.” (Ibid, p. 88). The Real Presence is the source of our Resurrection (CCC 1391), the means of our incorporation into the Holy Trinity; the Sacrifice which “marries” us to God and to His life: Christ’s humanity is also the door by which we enter into the sheepfold of eternal life, where Christ is the shepherd who feeds his flock with his own body and blood (Jn 10:9). 
I hope that this post has demonstrated the fact of the sacrificial terms in which Christ instituted the Eucharist. This demonstrates the reality of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, and unless Christ is really and truly present under the appearance of bread and wine, what is offered up in the Mass (as Christ commanded) is not what is offered up by Christ to the Father: His Sacrifice on the Cross. Moloney, Rahner and others argue that the Real Presence exists because of the Sacrifice. Undoubtedly the link between the two are integral, but  consideration of the teaching of St. Thomas on the Real Presence would lead us to conclude that the Sacrifice depends on the Real Presence, the Eucharist having been instituted for spiritual nourishment rather than satisfaction (ST 3a 79,5). Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is rather the creative power of the God’s word changing bread and wine into his body and blood, which he gives up to his Father for us.


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