A friend asked me “exactly when do the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass?”
This question was debated for centuries in the Early Church. During the Middle Ages people generally received Communion only once a year (usually around Easter). Their worship experience and spiritual life with the Eucharist was mainly looking at the consecrated Host at Mass when raised high over the priest’s head rather than eating it. So, knowing when Christ became present at Mass was very important to them. To decide the question, bible scholars looked at the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. The same words are found both in Scripture and the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass, when he said “This is my body” and “This is the chalice of my blood”. These words are called “the Institution Narrative." Over time, the Institution Narrative became widely accepted in the Catholic Church as the point during Mass when the bread and wine actually become the Body and Blood of Jesus.
Today, the answer is found in the Catechism. Paragraph 1353 says as soon as the Institution Narrative begins, the Lord is present in the elements of bread and wine. That is why we kneel during the Eucharistic Prayer. It’s also why at this point in the Mass, the priest holds up the consecrated Host and shows it to the congregation because the transformation of the bread and wine into the Real Presence of Jesus is complete. When I was young, I remember people making the sign of the cross and saying aloud “my Lord and my God” at this point. Some still do.
But, there is a deeper, more personal question we should ask ourselves. That is “at what point do WE become the Body and Blood of Christ?” Because, the bread and wine are not consecrated for Jesus’ own sake, but for the good of the church and for the world – and that would be us. Maybe knowing the answer to “when” the bread and wine are transformed will lead to the more critical and personal question as to “why” the Lord comes to us in Holy Communion. That’s something to think about as we continue our journey on the way to the end of Lent with celebrating the Last Supper at Mass on Holy Thursday evening.
Adapted from an article by Fr. James Field at uscatholic.org