Church Fathers on the Nature of the Holy Eucharist

Church Fathers on the Nature of the Holy Eucharist

Bertilla Fracca

Humility, faith, love: sacrifice, thanksgiving, life

Throughout the ages, the Fathers of the Church have made a remarkable contribution to the knowledge and understanding of the Eucharistic Mystery. Their truly unique recommendation is for the faithful to draw close to this Mystery in order to have a deep, intellectual knowledge and heartfelt experience of it.

They did not dwell on the exterior, visible elements of the Eucharist but examined it from the inside, starting from the Mystery that it expresses among the realities of this world.

The inspiration for their research always came from the Scriptures. They developed it in accordance with the categories of biblical thought in which the One who is divine Truth makes himself understood and becomes essential in the believer's life.

The Church Fathers explained the Eucharist through the personal mystery of Jesus, the Incarnation, which culminates in his Pasch. They were deeply impressed by the realism of the sacrifice of the Cross, not only at the time of Christ's death but throughout his life and right up to the moment in the Upper Room when, under the signs of bread and wine, he offered his Body to the Disciples gathered there, who represented the Church of every epoch.

The Fathers never tired of pondering the affirmations of Jesus who made himself the Bread of life: he, the Risen One, became our food. The teaching they have handed down can be summed up in three words: humility, faith and love.

As a help to examination, reflection and adoration during this Year of the Eucharist, let us look at some of the meaningful sayings of certain Fathers who carried out their apostolic activity among the People of God.

The early Church years were marked by the persecutions of the Roman Emperors, which enabled Christians to emulate the Master in their witness of faith.

Justin, himself a martyr who died in 165, liked to argue with the Roman Authorities of his time for being too rigid towards Christians. In his teaching on the Eucharist, Justin broadened his gaze to the People of God.

He explained clearly that the offering of the bread and wine constitutes the sacrifice prefigured in the Old Testament and instituted by Jesus as the New Sacrifice. It is now offered as a commemoration of the passion, principally by the one who presides at the celebration but also by the entire people, to praise and thank God as he deserves for the favours he has bestowed upon us in the creation and in redemption.1

Christ offered as sacrifice

While Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, faithfully follows Justin's position,2 he underlines the surprising analogy between the two transformations: "...the bread and the wine, from being earthly, become heavenly; the Christian, from being corruptible, becomes fit for eternal life".3

Irenaeus has the honour of being the first Christian author to make a systematic use of Old and New Testament writings to prove their continuity, in accordance with God's plan.
The famous third century apologist and writer, Tertullian, who also defended the rights of Christians, confirms the sacrificial character of the Eucharist but without explaining its nature.4

Cyprian, on the other hand, elected Bishop of Carthage by popular acclaim in 429, dedicated one of his writings exclusively to the Eucharistic Celebration: his Letter 63, addressed to Cecilius and entitled On the Sacrament of the Cup of the Lord. His exposition appears to be entirely dominated by the idea that Christ is present in the Eucharist to be offered as a sacrifice to God.5

Ignatius of Antioch gives a particularly clear explanation of the Real Presence and the significance of Christ's sacrifice: "The Eucharist is the flesh of Our Saviour Jesus Christ, who suffered for our sins and whom the Father in his goodness resurrected".6

Falsely accused in the trial prior to his martyrdom, he wrote to the faithful of Smyrna that he longed to be torn to shreds by the teeth of wild beasts so as to become the bread of Christ.

The salient feature of Bishop Caesarius of Arles was his passion for teaching the faith to the people. Every Sunday, he would send his priests to the rural areas of his ecclesiastical jurisdiction to celebrate the Eucharist and read the homily that he himself had written. It is in one of these homilies that we find these words:

"Externally we receive nothing extra, for the change is from within... when you go to the altar for your hunger to be satisfied, you look through faith at the Sacred Body and the Sacred Blood of your God.... His power, has ordered that in the presence of His Majesty the bread and wine be changed into the nature of the Body of Christ, and man himself can be seen to become the Body of Christ, through the work of divine mercy".7

Ambrose of Milan (339-397) offers deep insight on Jesus' words at the Last Supper. This holy Bishop based all his theological thought, hence, his apostolic activities, on diligent study and meditation on the Word of God, as Augustine testifies.8

Thus, Ambrose wrote: "Before the Blessing with the heavenly words, the object is called by its proper name; after the consecration, it is body that is meant. This is my Body. Before the consecration another thing is talked about, after the consecration it is called blood.
This is my Blood. And you say Amen, in other words, it is true".9

The Spirit is freedom

St Ambrose's Commentary on Psalm 118 also has significant and inviting passages: "He is the bread of life. Any one who eats life cannot die.... Go to him and satisfy your hunger, for he is the Bread of Life. Go to him and drink, for he is the source. Go to him and be enlightened, for he is light. Go to him and be set free, for where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom...".10

This pressing invitation addressed to Christians expresses the Bishop of Milan's ardent desire for them to want to be aware of what the Eucharist means in the life of the baptized. We do not eat just any kind of bread at the divine table, nor do we drink just any kind of wine, but the Body and Blood of Our Saviour, food consecrated by the thanksgiving prayer that is formulated in the very words of Christ. The grace of the Holy Spirit at the moment of the epiclesis brings about the transformation through the words of institution, when the minister addresses our heavenly Father.

From Augustine of Hippo's abundant reflections and teachings, we read the following that conveys his steadfast faith in the Eucharist: "We do not call the Body and Blood of Christ either Paul's voice or his parchments and ink, or his words or the written letters in his books, but only what we produce from the fruits of the earth that we consecrate with the mystical prayer and consume ritually for our spiritual salvation ...".11

Augustine commented shrewdly on the Jews' wild protests when they realized that Jesus came from mysterious divine origins, since they did not understand how the two realities, divine and human, could coexist: "They were far from that heavenly bread and unable to hunger for it. The mouth of their heart was sick. Their ears were open but they were deaf; they saw but they were blind. Indeed, this Bread requires the hunger of the inner man" .12

This thought recalls the reflection of the Evangelist John: "Indeed, although Jesus had performed so many signs before their eyes, they did not believe in him" (Jn 12:37).

The inheritance of those who would eat of the bread come down from Heaven was to be the participation of the human reality in the divine life that begins here on earth: "To eat the living bread, in fact, means to believe in him. Anyone who believes, eats; in an invisible way his hunger is satisfied and, likewise invisibly, he is reborn from within and in his innermost depths becomes a new person. When he is renewed, he is satisfied".13

In a discourse intended to reveal the most significant realities of the Eucharist, Augustine explained: "When you sit down to dine with a ruler keep in mind who is before you and be accordingly prepared (cf. Prv 23:1-2). That table where the food is constituted by
the Lord of the banquet himself is holy. No one feeds their guests with their own flesh: only Christ the Lord does this. He is the one who invites, he is the food and he is the drink".14

'Without a time limit'

Jerome (347-420). also reflects on the offering of the bread and wine. After an adventurous life of exploration and experiences, he decided to settle in Bethlehem to translate the Scriptures.Among others, he left us this writing: "The Eucharist is the one and only good of this life. It is Christ and not Moses who gives the true bread, the bread from heaven, the bread that appeases hunger.... He is the fellow guest invited to eat at the table at the same time he is the banquet, the food and the nourishment of life. Christ is both the One who eats and the One who is eaten. He is the historical Jesus; he is the Child lying in the manger; he is the Christ who suffers the passion on the Cross, for his Body is broken, his Blood is poured out and sprinkled over humanity.... And please God we may receive the Eucharist without a time limit!".15

We should make our own the hope of this Church Father whom artists have portrayed humble and naked when receiving his last Eucharist on this earth.

John Chrysostom's contemplation of the mystery also has unique features: "The Magi worshipped this body lying in the manger.... Now you no longer see him in the manger but on the altar; you do not see a woman holding him in her arms, but the priest who is standing and the Holy Spirit who flies with great liberality over the offerings placed on the altar. You must believe that today too, it, is the same supper as the one at which Jesus presided. There is no difference between that Eucharist and this one. It is the Body that bled, pierced by the lance, from which flowed blood and water, the sources of salvation for the whole earth. Do not let them be an object of contempt among its members, that is, among the poor who have no clothes with which to cover themselves. Christ emerged from the abyss in radiant light, and leaving his rays here behind, him rose to the heavenly throne. Now it is this Body that you can see here on earth. Indeed, not only do you see it, but you even touch it; not only do you touch it, but you also eat it and go home having received it".16

Who knows how often John Chrysostom paused in these reflections, when he was exiled by the Empress Eudoxia to Armenia, as he wrote, "the remotest corner of the world".

The Fathers also emphasize that the changing (transubstantiation) of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord is the work of the Holy Spirit and that the transformation happens in the natural elements, but especially in the lives of Christians participating in the Eucharist.

Creating reconciliation

As well as being a sacrifice, the Eucharist is a banquet that creates understanding and reconciliation. Eating with others has always been a sign of solidarity and communion, a privileged moment for the exchange of words, ideas and conversation. Sharing and acceptance are a fundamental experience to which there are many references in the Bible.
The most-incisive example is that of Abraham under the terebinth of. Mamre. "Looking up, he saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and bowing to the ground, he said: 'Sir, if I may ask you this favour, please do not go on past your servant. Let some water be brought that you may bathe your feet, and then rest yourselves under the tree. Now that you have come this close to your servant, let me bring you a little food, that you may refresh yourselves; and afterward you may go on your way'. 'Very well', they replied, 'do as you have said'. Abraham hastened into the tent and told Sarah, 'Quick, three seahs of fine flour! Knead it and make rolls'. He ran to the herd, picked out a tender, choice steer and gave it to a servant, who quickly prepared it. Then he got some curds and milk as well as the steer that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree while they ate (Gn 18:2-8).

In commenting on this passage, Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-395) paused to contemplate the mystery of this visit and to invite everyone to the same banquet: "Here is our tent open to welcome you all. It is in the shade of our oaks of Mature and by the water of our fountains, this bread is kneaded by our women.... All this to refresh you, before you continue on your way".17

The recovery of strength is the joy of the table on which the bread, an image of prosperity, is the symbol par excellence of God's gift. In the Bible we find numerous descriptions, of it:
"Go, eat your bread with joy and drink your wine with a merry heart, because it is now that God favours your works" (Eccl 9:7).

"Nourish your people with the food of angels and furnish them bread from heaven, ready to hand, untoiled for, endowed with all delights and conforming to every taste" (Wis 16:20).
And in his second discourse, Moses confirms to Israel: "He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger and then fed you with manna, a food unknown to you and your fathers, in order to show you that not by bread alone does man live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the Lord" (Dt 8:3).

Real Presence among us

Commenting on Luke's Gospel (cf. Lk 2:7-8) Cyril of Alexandria compares the Eucharistic table with the manger and observes: " will find no hay in it but the bread of heaven and the body of life".

And in illustrating the institution of the Eucharist, he says that it is essential to obey the Lord's command in the Book of Numbers: "The Lord said to Moses: ...'When you enter the land into which I will bring you and begin to eat of the food of that land, you shall offer
the Lord a contribution consisting of a cake of your first batch of dough'" (Nm 15:17-19). Thus, it is necessary to be expeditious, "...for Christ made man, like one of us — from our same dough — ... was offered to the Father as the first sheaf of corn taken from the threshing floor".18

The Eucharist is life, thanksgiving and sacrifice, an offering and an immolation that perpetuates the Real Presence of God among human beings. It is the fulcrum of the life of the Church, the Bride who at every Eucharistic celebration prepares herself to welcome her Bridegroom and brings about the intimate connection that exists between the Mystery of Christ and the other Christian mysteries.

For believers, as the Fathers taught, the Eucharist is the extension of the Incarnation, it is the union with the Trinity, the sacrament of mercy, the sign of unity and the bond of charity.

1 Cf. J. Quasten, Patrologia I, Turin, 1975, pp. 192-194.

2 Cf. Adversus Haereses, IV, 17, 5; 18, 1-6; 33, 2.

3Ibid., IV, 18, 5; and V, 2, 3.

4De Oratione, 19.

5Epistula LXIII, 4.

6Letter to the Church in Smyrna, VII, 1.

7Easter Homily, PL 67, 1053-1056.

8 Augustine, Confessions, VI, 3, 3.

9 Di Nola, Monumenta Eucharistica, vol. I, p. 453.

10 Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on Psalm 118, 18-28, PL 15, 1203.

11 Augustine, The Trinity, 3, 10.

12 Augustine, In Johannem, 26, 1.


14 Augustine, Discourse329, 1-2.

15 Jerome, Letters. To Lucinius 71, 6.

16 John Chrysostom, On I Cor, 24, 5 PG 61, 204; On Matthew, Homily 50, 3 PG 58, 507; Homily 24, 4 PG 61, 203-204.

17 D. Ange, Dalla Trinità all'Eucaristia, Ancora, Milan, 1974, p. 117.

18 Cf. Di Nola, Monumenta Eucharistica, vol. II, p. 491.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 August 2005, page 6

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