We develop the operational semantics of an untyped probabilistic lambda-calculus with continuous distributions, as a foundation for universal probabilistic programming languages such as Church, Anglican, and Venture. Our first contribution is to adapt the classic operational semantics of lambda-calculus to a continuous setting via creating a measure space on terms and defining step-indexed approximations. We prove equivalence of big-step and small-step formulations of this distribution-based semantics. To move closer to inference techniques, we also define the sampling-based semantics of a term as a function from a trace of random samples to a value. We show that the distribution induced by integrating over all traces equals the distribution-based semantics. Our second contribution is to formalize the implementation technique of trace Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) for our calculus and to show its correctness. A key step is defining sufficient conditions for the distribution induced by trace MCMC to converge to the distribution-based semantics. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first rigorous correctness proof for trace MCMC for a higher-order functional language.