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  • Amy MacKinnon

How to Teach the Eucharist, Part 2: Sacred Tradition

When you tell younger kids that the Eucharist is Jesus Himself they tend to accept that pretty easily, but as they get older they ask a lot more questions!

It’s a very important for them to be able to ask questions about the Eucharist, and how, when, and why bread and wine can become God. There is a LOT to explain when you answer those questions, and anyone who is going to receive the Eucharist needs to know what it is and why it matters.

In this post, I’ll show you how I've explained this to both adults and children, and you'll see why it works so well for teaching people in any age group.

How do you explain it so that it makes sense?

I'm from New England. If you look up photos of New England during the months of September and October you'll see the beautiful fall foliage when so many of the leaves on the trees change color.

That's why when I explain how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass, I use a leaf to help explain how things change and it works well for students of any age. I’ve used it to teach second graders preparing to receive the Eucharist for the first time, teenagers, and adults.

Here’s how I describe how that change happens by using an acorn and leaf:

In the spring, you start to see buds forming on oak trees. Gradually those buds grow, and then they open up. If you look at one closely, you can see that it now looks like a very small green leaf. That leaf continues to grow until it reaches its full size. In the fall, that leaf begins to change color and then it falls off of the tree.

Everything about that leaf that we can observe has changed: its size, shape, color, and location.

With each of these changes:

  • Beginning as a bud

  • Opening up to becoming a small leaf

  • Growing into a full-size leaf

  • Changing color in the fall

  • Falling off of the tree and onto the ground

we still continue to say that it’s the same thing.

And of course that seems obvious to us. But why is it obvious?

Every single thing about it has changed, so how can it still be the same thing?

At least, everything about it that we can perceive with our senses has changed. We even call it by different names at each of the different stages. So how can we say that it's still the same thing?

Because we know that even though it changes, it still continues to exist. The bud doesn't die and disappear, only to be replaced by a small leaf.

As the leaf continues to grow, it keeps changing but the leaf of a previous size or color doesn't disappear and then get replaced by an entirely new thing.

Each time there is a change, the thing that changes still has something that didn't change. It's the same with everything that changes. Despite every change that is made, we still say that despite the change, there is something that tells us that it is still the same thing.

All of those things that change are called the accidents.

But there is still that "something" that stayed the same throughout all of those changes, and that allows us to recognize that it’s the same thing even though everything that we can observe with our senses has changed.

That “thing” is the reason we still say that it’s the same leaf (even when we go from calling it a bud to calling it a leaf), and that thing which we say is the same throughout that process, is what we call the substance, essence, or nature.

That kind of change happens all the time, and even though we notice it we don’t usually think about it in more detail:

  • Babies become adults

  • Puppies become dogs

  • Kittens become cats

  • Caterpillars become butterflies

Sometimes you can see the similarity between the “baby” and the fully grown adult, but even when you can’t see a similarity, you can recognize that it’s the same thing, like with a caterpillar becoming a butterfly.

That’s because even though the accidents of each of these things constantly change, the substance remains the same. When we identify any of these things, we use a word that points to its nature (or essence, or substance). When we say that the thing itself is still the same thing whether its in its initial state or “infancy” as it is when it’s fully grown, it’s because we recognize that it is the same thing that it was all along.

  • A cat is still the same animal that it was when it was a kitten

  • A puppy isn’t replaced by a different being when it becomes a dog

  • An adult human being is still the same person from infancy all the way through to adulthood

Each one has the same substance all along, but the accidents continue to change throughout its lifetime.

The Eucharist is found in both tradition and scripture. In this post, I explain the tradition which explains how bread and wine become God Himself through transubstantiation
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The Eucharist is the Reverse

One of the most important things to teach is that no human being has the power to change anything—much less bread and wine—into God.

All of the sacraments were initiated by Jesus Himself during His earthly ministry—the priests who consecrate the bread and wine during the Mass (“Divine Liturgy” in the Eastern Churches) are only able to do that because it is God who is working through them.

During the Mass, when the priest repeats the words of Christ that He commanded the Apostles to say at the Last Supper, and when he follows the command of Christ to do what He told them to do, that is the moment when the bread and wine become God Himself.

We describe that change by saying that the substance changes but the accidents remain.

The accidents are what we can observe through our senses (see, smell, touch, taste), and the substance is the nature.

When little kids start pointing at objects but don't know how to identify them, adults give them the name to use. When we tell them the name of the object, we're identifying the nature of the object. If we describe what the object looks like, how it sounds, smells, tastes, etc. then we're describing the accidents.

What Does Transubstantiation Mean?

When bread and wine are changed into the Eucharist, the substance changes, but the accidents don’t—they remain the same. It’s the opposite of what we usually see happen when see things in the world change.

The substance/nature/essence, or “what” it is, is now the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ.

This is why we use the word, “transubstantiation” to describe the change.

  • Trans means change

  • Substance means nature, essence, or “what” a thing is

  • “ation” on the end indicates that it is an action taking place

So transubstantiation is the word that describes the process of changing the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.

Since it’s only a change in substance but they still look, taste, and feel like bread and wine, we say that it’s a change in substance while the accidents remain (I have some links to etymology of the word, and an explanation by Thomas Aquinas are below).

As long as they still have the appearance of bread and wine, the substance remains. When the form changes and no longer looks like either bread or wine, it's no longer the Eucharist. That happens after we consume the Eucharist and our body digests the matter (the accidents of the bread and/or wine).

Right after we receive the Eucharist, and before the form of it has been broken down, we carry the Eucharist within our bodies, so we become a type of tabernacle during that time because God Himself is present in the sacrament, and the sacrament is inside of us.

This is why Catholics and Orthodox Christians treat the consecrated bread and wine with such reverence even after the Mass (or Divine Liturgy) are over. It's also why even the cloths and vessels used which come in contact with the Eucharist in either species are treated with reverence: they are used to consecrate the bread and wine and then hold the Eucharist, and even after they have been consumed, they may still contain particles of the Eucharist. The priests, deacons, and those who volunteer to help always take great care when cleaning the vessels and cloths afterwards.

For more from the tradition, I've added a few quotes and references below

Blog Series: Teaching Grace, the Sacraments, and the Church

How to Teach the Sacrament of Eucharist Part 2: Sacred Tradition (this post)

How to Teach the Sacrament of Marriage

How to Teach the Sacrament of Holy Orders

How to Teach the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick

How to Teach About the Catholic Church

How to Teach About Sacramentals

Additional Resources:

transubstantiation (n.)

late 14c., "change of one substance to another," from Medieval Latin trans(s)ubstantiationem (nominative trans(s)ubstantio), noun of action from past participle stem of trans(s)ubstantiare "to change from one substance into another," from Latin trans "across, beyond" (see trans-) + substantiare "to substantiate," from substania "substance" (see substance). Ecclesiastical sense in reference to the Eucharist first recorded 1530s.

Quotes from St. Ephraim the Syrian

St. Ephraim the Syrian, a Doctor of the Church, was a priest who lived in the fourth century AD. He was first a pagan priest from Nisibus in Mesopotamia, and was then baptized at age 18 and became a Catholic priest. More of his biography can be found here

There is a lot of Eucharistic imagery throughout the Bible, beginning in Genesis. St Ephraim wrote a number of hymns and gave homilies drawing comparisons between the two. I've listed brief quotations from some of them below, with links to each of the sources if you'd like to read more.

“So the fruit of the tree of life is given as food to the faithful and to virgins, and to those that do the will of God has the door been opened and the way made plain.”

This is the link to the full text, but the site isn't set up to link directly to the page where the quotation is from so you would need to download it to read the full text.

Homily on Our Lord

4. This is the Son of the carpenter, Who skilfully made His cross a bridge over Sheol that swallows up all, and brought over mankind into the dwelling of life. And because it was through the tree that mankind had fallen into Sheol, so upon the tree they passed over into the dwelling of life. Through the tree then wherein bitterness was tasted, through it also sweetness was tasted; that we might learn of Him that among the creatures nothing resists Him. Glory be to You, Who laid Your cross as a bridge over death, that souls might pass over upon it from the dwelling of the dead to the dwelling of life!

Source. Translated by A. Edward Johnston. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1898.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.


St. Ephrem is most famous for writing hymns on Genesis. I've listed part of one below where he compared the fruit of the Tree of Life to Jesus hanging on the Cross. It expresses a deeper understanding of the Eucharist within the scriptures (also spelled: Ephraim, depending upon the translator; I used both based on the different sources I used).

Hymn 15.5 Hymns on Paradise

So likewise that Wood,

which is the Tree of Knowledge,

can, with its fruit, roll back

the cloud of ignorance,

so that eyes can recognize

the beauty

of that Tabernacle

hidden within;

but because Adam and Eve

ate it in sin,

the vision that should have caused joy of heart

resulted in grief of heart.

This is found in 2 places:

The Nisibene Hymns: Hymn 14.8

To the first Tree that which killed,

to it grace brought forth a son.

O Cross offspring of the Tree,

that didst fight against thy sire!

The Tree was the fount of death;

the Cross was the fount of life.

Translated by J.T. Sarsfield Stopford. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13.Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co.,1890.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight.<>.

The Pearl: Hymn 14.1

The thief gained the faith which gained him,

and brought him up and placed him in paradise.

He saw in the Cross a tree of life;

that was the fruit,

he was the eater in Adam’s stead.

St. Ephraim's reference in the first line is to Luke 22:42

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