"I am the living bread which has come down from heaven.The first and most important truth that we must believe about the Eucharist is precisely that It is Jesus Christ Himself. Every other fact, every other aspect, every belief and devotion surrounding the Blessed Sacrament is centred on this basic reality: that what once was bread and wine, after the words of consecration are pronounced by the priest, have now been substantially changed into the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of the risen and glorified Jesus Christ. At the moment when the priest of God invokes the Holy Spirit and prays over the gifts with the words of Christ Himself, "This is My Body...This is My Blood," the bread and wine cease to be, and instead are changed into Jesus Himself.
Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever;
and the bread that I shall give
is my flesh, for the life of the world....
"For my flesh is real food
and my blood is real drink" (John 6:51, 55).
Now, I say that the bread and wine are substantially changed, because, to all outward appearances, what one sees, smells, touches, and tastes is still bread and wine. However, on a deeper level (dubbed "substance" in Aristotelian physics), that which makes bread, bread, and wine, wine, has been done away with, and in its place is the very Substance of the God-Man. This is the fundamental mystery of the Eucharist--that Jesus makes Himself present and yet hides Himself in such an extraordinary way.
This mystery is what the Church officially refers to as "Transubstantiation", a term coined by Hildebert de Lavardin, Archbishop of Tours, (c. 1100), and given a thorough definition by St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas was renouned for how he took the best of Aristotle's philosophical thought and "baptised" it by showing how it was compatible with Catholic theology on many points. His masterpiece, the Summa Theologica, is a great example of this synthesis. So is the concept of Transubstantiation. According to Aristotle's view of the world, things were composed of "substance" and "accidents". "Substance" refers to what a thing is, in and of itself. "Accidents" refer to the particular qualites that make up or describe a particular substance. For example, birds come in all shapes, sizes, colours, and so forth. Yet the substance of "bird" is common to them all, whether the particular bird is black, blue, red, or so forth. A canary and an ostrich share the same substance of "bird" although their accidents are drastically different. On the other hand, an ostrich does not share the substance of "canary" with the canary. The average airspeed of an unladen swallow is an accident, as is whether it is African or European.
If that's even remotely clear (this site might help), what has it got to do with the Eucharist? Well, since the very beginning of Christianity, the Church has taught that Jesus really meant what He said when He said, "This is My body." Christians believed that even though they still saw bread, that it had been transformed into His flesh. It requires a very profound act of faith to embrace something that one's senses clearly reject, and for centuries the Church puzzled over exactly how to understand and explain the mystery of Jesus' bodily presence, yet the appearance of bread and wine. St. Thomas' understanding of Aristotle's categories gave us the notion of Transubstantiation. Unlike most changes in material things, where the accidents change but the substance remains the same; and even unlike other miraculous changes, such as Jesus' turning water into wine, where both the substance and the accidents are changed, in the Eucharist, the accidents of bread and wine remain, but the substance of bread and wine are changed into the substance of Jesus Christ. That is, that underlying reality that makes Jesus, Jesus--typically formulated as His "Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity" become present under the appearances of bread and wine.
...not Physically Present
As a theory of the Eucharistic Mystery, Transubstantiation dated back to the late 11th or early 12th Century, and the term was widely used by the time the 13th Century rolled around, even being used at the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. However, it was not until Protestant challenges to the doctrine that the term and its Thomistic understanding were officially promulgated at the Council of Trent. Nevertheless, the belief that the term was attempting to describe, namely, that Jesus Christ was truly present, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in the Eucharistic elements, goes all the way back, as I said, to the Early Church. This is illustrated by the fact that one of the earliest and principle accusations against the Early Christians by their persecutors, was the charge of Cannibalism. This charge was indicative that Christians were practicing and proclaiming a belief that went beyond a simple memorial meal with symbolic associations to the Saviour's death. Such memorial meals existed in other, pagan religions. The oddity was the Christians' insistence that this was, indeed, more than simply a symbolic association with Jesus, but that they were, in fact, eating Him.
As such, the initial response that Christians are cannibals seems justified. Even the Jewish hearers of Jesus' preaching reacted with similar disgust and abhorence when Jesus proclaimed that He would indeed give His flesh and blood to His followers to eat, and that by eating it, they would be united to Him, and have eternal life (cf. John 6:51ff.). We'll examine Jesus' words in the Bread of Life Discourse, and other relevant Scripture regarding the Eucharist later in this post. For now I'll simply offer a rebuttal to the charge of cannibalism.
Cannibalism involves the killing and eating of another person in order to gain certain attributes of that person. While on the one hand, we do receive grace from the Sacraments--that is, we receive God's life and strength to enable us to live more holy lives--the difference between consuming the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist lies in the fact that Christ's flesh and blood, while truly and substantially present, are not physically present, in the manner in which they were when Jesus Christ walked the streets of Galilee with His Apostles. This fact is illustrated in the official writings of the Church, which, though stressing the reality of Christ's presence, and that He is present "Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity," they are very careful not to describe this presence with the term "physical". We are not carving up Jesus and devouring Him piecemeal in the Eucharist. Rather, He makes Himself fully present in each and every particle of each and every Host, and in each and every drop of sacramental wine. In fact, on those rare occasions throughout history, known as "Eucharistic Miracles", when the Bread and Wine are actually physically changed into Jesus' flesh and blood, they are not consumed for this very reason--Catholics are not cannibals!
The Witness of Scripture
On my journey into the Catholic faith, I was very invested in what the Bible had to say, having come from a Protestant background that stressed that the Bible alone was our sole authority. While as a Catholic, I no longer believe in Sola Scriptura, I still absolutely believe that it is the inspired Word of God, and as such, is an integral source for knowing and living our faith. Moreover, since many of the people who object to the Church's teaching of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, are themselves Protestant, it is absolutely important to know what the Bible has to say on this topic.
What never ceases to amaze me, when turning to the Scriptures regarding this topic, is the overwhelming testimony to the truth of the Catholic claims. I say this is amazing, because on the one hand, so many who claim to go "by the Bible alone" reject out of hand the clear teaching of Scripture, and, on the other hand, the Scriptural teaching on the Eucharist just couldn't get any clearer! For the purposes of this article, I will examine three or four passages that speak most clearly about Jesus' Real Presence.
1 Corinthians 10:16
The blessing-cup, which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ; and the loaf of bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?We'll examine 1 Corinthians 10 at greater length in the next article, on the Eucharist as Sacrifice, but foundational to the concept that the Eucharist is Christ's sacrifice re-presented for us is the truth that the Eucharist is truly Christ Himself. And just as in the Old Testament sacrificial system, the people participated in the effects of the sacrifice by consuming the victim (cf. v. 18), so we in the New Covenant participate in the salvific power of Christ's sacrifice by our participation in the Eucharist--by eating the flesh and blood of the Lamb of God.
1 Corinthians 11:23-32 (cf. Matt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20)
For the tradition I received from the Lord and also handed on to you is that on the night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread, and after he had given thanks, he broke it, and he said, 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.' And in the same way, with the cup after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this as a memorial of me.' Whenever you eat this bread, then, and drink this cup, you are proclaiming the Lord's death until he comes. Therefore anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily is answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.After his brief discussion of the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist in chapter 10, St. Paul returns to discussing the Eucharist in chapter 11, rebuking the church at Corinth for their lack of reverence and charity when they partake of the Lord's Supper. He goes on to remind them that the Eucharist is not simply a communal meal among believers, but a sacred event. The tradition, he says, was directly revealed to him by Jesus Himself. Either this occurred at some point after his conversion, not recorded in Acts, or perhaps his statement is a testament to the authority of the Church in ordaining him to proclaim the Gospel and celebrate the Eucharist (cf. Luke 10:16). In any case, he emphasises the absolute primacy of this Tradition.
Everyone is to examine himself and only then eat of the bread or drink from the cup; because a person who eats and drinks without recognising the body is eating and drinking his own condemnation. That is why many of you are weak and ill and a good number have died. If we were critical of ourselves, we would not be condemned, but when we are judged by the Lord, we are corrected by the Lord to save us from being condemned along with the world.
Paul then gives us the oldest account of the Institution Narrative in Scripture (since 1 Corinthians was written earlier than the Synoptic Gospels). Jesus' words of institution again reaffirm the reality of His presence, for He says quite clearly, "This is My body...This is My blood." In order to bring that point home, Paul warns us that partaking of the Eucharist unworthily is tantamount to murdering Jesus: we are "answerable for the body and blood of the Lord" (v. 27)--a legal phrase meaning to be guilty of homicide.
He concludes by explaining just what it means to partake unworthily--that is, they do not recognise the Presence of Christ in the meal, and do not act with charity toward others in the congregation. The two great commandments then find their fullest expression in the Eucharist--and failure to obey them in this setting leads to dire consequences: sickness and death (vv. 29-30). Such dire consequences are hardly appropriate for a symbolic ceremony, but make perfect sense if, in fact, by partaking unworthily, a person is indeed guilty of an equivalent crime to the recrucifixion of Christ!
John 6 (Don't worry, I won't be quoting the entirety here)
After this, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee--or of Tiberias--and a large crowd followed him, impressed by the signs he had done in curing the sick. Jesus climbed the hillside and sat down there with his disciples. The time of the Jewish Passover was near...John 6 is perhaps the clearest and most explicit biblical statement about the Eucharist being the Flesh and Blood of Jesus. The fact is, He couldn't be any more clear. The narrative begins with the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Just in case we are tempted to divorce the event from the Eucharist, St. John gives us two pointed indicators. First, in verse four, he seems to randomly point out that it was almost time for Passover, the same feast on which Jesus would institute the Eucharist. Second, when St. Andrew (whose feast we celebrate today) brings the boy who gives Jesus the five loaves and two fish, John describes Jesus distributing them with the Eucharistic formula of "took, blessed, broke, and gave" (cf. Matt 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 24:30; 1 Cor 11:23-24). This formula is used in every case where Jesus is described as celebrating the Eucharist, and its usage in all the accounts of the feeding of the five thousand led the Early Christians to interpret a Eucharistic significance to that miracle. As such, John is clearly alluding to the connection between Jesus' teaching, and the Blessed Sacrament, as if such pointed "wink, wink; nudge, nudge" behaviour was necessary.
Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were sitting there; he then did the same with the fish, distributing as much as they wanted...
Jesus answered: 'In all truth I tell you, you are looking for me not because you have seen the signs but because you had all the bread you wanted to eat. Do not work for food that goes bad, but work for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of man will give you, for on him the Father, God himself, has set his seal.'
Then they said to him, '...Our fathers ate manna in the desert; as scripture says: He gave them manna from heaven to eat.'
Jesus answered them: 'In truth I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, it is my Father who gives you the bread from heaven, the true bread; for the bread of God is the bread which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.'...
'I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate manna in the desert and they are dead; but this is the bread which comes down from heaven, so that a person may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.'
Then the Jews started arguing among themselves, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?' Jesus replied to them: 'In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person. As the living Father sent me and I draw life from the Father, so whoever eats me will also draw life from me. This is the bread which has come down from heaven; it is not like the bread our ancestors ate: they are dead, but anyone who eats this bread will live for ever.'
This is what he taught at Capernaum in the synagogue. After hearing it, many of his followers said, 'This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?' Jesus was aware that his followers were complaining about it and said, 'Does this disturb you? What if you should see the Son of man ascend to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.' For Jesus knew from the outset who did not believe and who was to betray him. He went on, 'This is why I told you that no one could come to me except by the gift of the Father.' After this, many of his disciples went away and accompanied him no more.
Then Jesus said to the Twelve, 'What about you, do you want to go away too?' Simon Peter answered, 'Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the message of eternal life, and we believe, we have come to know that you are the Holy One of God.' (vv. 1-4, 11, 26-28a, 31-33, 48-69)
Even after all the signs that Jesus has performed, including feeding the five thousand, the people still demand a sign, and specifically refer to the Manna that came from heaven that their ancestors ate in the desert. This reference to the Manna prompts Jesus' Bread of Life discourse, the first half of which deals with the reference to "coming from heaven" and the second half stressing that the Bread from Heaven who is Jesus is to be eaten. Jesus calls Himself the Bread of Life, the Bread of Heaven, or some such derivitave a total of twelve times, and reiterates that this Bread is His flesh, and must be eaten, a staggering four times. And each time He becomes more emphatic, and His words become more and more obviously literal, and less possible to interpret metaphorically.
And His audience realises this. They begin to complain that His teaching is difficult and His language is intolerable. They know He's not playing word-games. In fact, because of His teaching, they actually stop following Him. Now, at other times in His ministry, when Jesus' hearers misunderstood Him, He took the time to correct them--or at least to set His Apostles straight (cf. Matt 16:5-12). However, now that He's placed eternal life or eternal condemnation on the table, Jesus surely would not let even those considered His disciples to walk away over a simple misunderstanding. But He did let them walk away--because they understood Him perfectly well.
Many, wanting to deny the clear and obvious meaning of this text try to find some way to foist a figurative interpretation onto Jesus' incredibly literal words. They try to compare it to other statements, such as "I am the Vine, and you are the branches" or "I am the Light of the world." The difference, however, is that in those other cases, the figurative meaning makes sense: We do derive all our life and ability to be good from Jesus; and His teaching and His grace does expose and free us from the darkness of sin and error. But the metaphorical meaning of eating one's flesh and drinking one's blood, in ancient Palestine, meant to attack someone. As Fr. John A. O’Brien explains in his book, The Faith of Millions, "The phrase 'to eat the flesh and drink the blood,' when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by calumny or by false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense" (p. 215). The prophet Micah gives a graphic example of this usage:
Then I said,The other "out" that those trying to foist a figurative interpretation on the text try to use is John 6:63, where Jesus says, "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." This, they say, means that eating Jesus' flesh isn't literal, because it would avail nothing. Rather, Jesus' words are "spiritual", which they try to make mean "metaphorical." But holding this view leads to several problems. First, "spiritual" is never used in Scripture to mean "figurative". Second, it would mean that Jesus' Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection meant nothing, for these were all physical acts where Jesus took on flesh, and through that, brought about our redemption! Finally, we'd be understanding the passage to mean that Jesus had just said that it's faith in His teaching, not the Eucharist, that brings life. But what was His teaching? What were His life-giving words? That we must eat His flesh and drink His blood. Jesus' words only bring us life if we obey them (cf. Matt. 7:21-27)! To avoid the clear, literal teaching of John 6 by making it figurative is to reduce the text to an enormous, non-sensical bundle of contradictions.
'Kindly listen, you leaders of the House of Jacob,
you princes of the House of Israel.
Surely you are the ones who ought to know what is right,
and yet you hate what is good and love what is evil,
skinning people alive, pulling the flesh off their bones,
eating my people's flesh, stripping off their skin,
breaking up their bones, chopping them up small
like flesh in the pot, like meat in the stew-pan?' (Micah 3:1-3)
The fact is, it is the Spirit that gives life--the Spirit of faith. Our fleshly, worldly reliance on human reason can do us no good when we approach the sacred mysteries. While our reason is good, and can lead us to much truth, there comes a time when it reaches the end of its ability, and we must trust in faith on the revelation of Jesus--and the Eucharist is a prime example of just such a time.
The Witness of the Church Fathers
Before I conclude, I wanted to offer a few quotations from the Early Church Fathers, to verify what I said above, that belief in Jesus' Real Presence goes back to the earliest time of Christianity. This seems obvious from the fact that it is so clear in Scripture, and yet reading the unanimous testimony of the Church's Tradition further bolsters our faith in this mysterious Sacrament.
One of the earliest witnesses is St. Ignatius, who himself knew John the Apostle. Writing against certain heretics in AD 110, he says, "Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes" (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1).
In his First Apology (66), St. Justin Martyr writes about 40 years later, "We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus."
Lest I bore you, dear reader, with the length of this post, I'll limit myself to one more quotation before I conclude. In the most intimate terms, St. Clement of Alexandria writes toward the end of the second century, "'Eat my flesh,' [Jesus] says, 'and drink my blood.' The Lord supplies us with these intimate nutrients, he delivers over his flesh and pours out his blood, and nothing is lacking for the growth of his children" (The Instructor of Children 1:6:43:3).
Examples could be multiplied. For a good starting place, I'd recommend reading the Catholic Answers tract, The Real Presence, from which the above quotations were drawn.
Conclusion: An Intimate Encounter
St. Clement's words above reveal something of the intimacy inherent in the Eucharist. Jesus Christ is not only truly present to us in the Eucharist, but we partake of Him, we eat Him, and are nourished by His very life--Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. There are many, including myself, who have likened this intimate union to the marriage act, but indeed, it goes even deeper than that.
Ultimately, when we partake of the Eucharist, as St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10, we are doing in a fully efficacious way what the Israelites did when they ate the victim of their animal sacrifices. We are uniting ourselves to the Sacrifice of Christ, and appropriating it to our own lives. We are accepting Him as our "personal Lord and Saviour" every time we receive Him. This sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist will be the theme of our next article.
Feast of St. Andrew, Apostle
(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Sacraments--The Eucharist)