Eucharist

Biblical and patristic studies about the Eucharist

Jesus wanted to leave the Church a sacrament that perpetuate the sacrifice of his death on the cross. Therefore, before starting his passion, he met with his apostles at the Last Supper, instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist, making bread and wine into the same living body, and gave it to eat; he shared his priesthood to the apostles and told them to do the same in his memory.

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Talking with my evangelical friends about the Eucharist

By José Miguel Arráiz

You can read it in SpanishEnglish and Portuguese.

Diálogo

We reproduce excerpts of conversations between Catholics and Evangelicals from the book "Talking with my evangelical friends", very useful in helping our fellow Christians understand the Catholic faith.

Michael: Joseph, I would like you to explain why the Catholics believe that in the Lord’s Supper the wine and the bread literally become the body and blood of Jesus. 

Pauline: And to me it seems very wrong to worship that piece of bread as if it were Jesus himself, because that’s idolatry.

Joseph: It would be idolatry if they don’t convert, but they do. At every Eucharist, we receive a beautiful gift with an infinite value, which is the body and the blood of Jesus Christ, who is also the real God that we should worship[1].

And we believe it’s because that’s what the Bible says, that Jesus in the Last Supper whit his Apostles before the crucifixion “took bread; and blessing, broke and gave to them and said: Take ye. This is my body. And having taken the chalice, giving thanks, he gave it to them. And they all drank of it. And he said to them: This is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many.” (Mark 14,22-24).

It’s Jesus himself who tell us that in the Lord’s Supper, the bread is his body and the wine is his blood[2].

Pauline: I don’t see why we must interpret these particular words literally. Christ used to talk in a symbolic way through metaphors. For example, Christ said: “I am the vine” (John 15,5) and because of that, we must interpret that Christ is a plant. He also says that he is the door of the sheep (John 10,7) and because of that, we believe that he has a handle or lock.

The Bible must be taken literally when it means to be, but not if it means an analogy or symbolism and when the exaggerated attention to the letter violates the logic or the laws of God.

Let me give you some examples. The psalmist said, “He will overshadow thee with his shoulders: and under his wings thou shalt trust” (Ps 91,4). Do we imagine that God is a huge bird?

When Jesus cried over Jerusalem, he said: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, that killest the prophets; and stonest them that are sent to thee, how often would I have gathered thy children as the bird doth her brood under her wings, and thou wouldest not?” (Luke 13,34). I’m sure he wasn’t speaking literally, but he was identified as the One of whom Moses wrote in Psalm 91.

Jesus called on humanity to believe in him. He spoke to Nicodemus of believing, so “whosoever believeth in him may not perish, but may have life everlasting.” (John 3,16), and who believes in him would bring a new birth. However, he didn’t mean a physical birth, but a spiritual birth, a fact that you Catholics recognize. He promised to give to the woman at the well “living water” and even a “font of water” welling within her (John 4,10-14), but he surely didn’t mean physical water. He said to Jews who believed in him, “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7,38), but he didn’t mean a physical womb or real physical rivers[3].

Joseph: You’re right. Many times Christ spoke symbolically, but there are a lot of reasons why we don’t think that the words of Christ should be taken as symbolism this time. Let me explain.

Pauline: Go on.

Joseph: Let’s read as a starting point Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, which tells us what happened after Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves:

I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the desert: and are dead.  This is the bread which cometh down from heaven: that if any man eat of it, he may not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.

The Jews, therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat?  Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen, I say unto you: except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me: and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna and are dead. He that eateth this bread shall live forever.

These things he said, teaching in the synagogue, in Capharnaum.

Many of his disciples, hearing it, therefore said: This saying is hard; and who can hear it? But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at this, said to them: Doth this scandalize you?

If then you shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?

It is the spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that did not believe and who he was that would betray him. And he said: Therefore, did I say to you that no man can come to me, unless it be given him by my Father.

After this, many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him. Then Jesus said to the twelve: Will you also go away? And Simon Peter answered him: Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6,48-68)

I know that when you read this text you might think that when Jesus talks about eating and drinking his blood, he meant to have faith in Him and to feed of the Word of God[4]. Under this way of understanding, where Jesus is also saying that He is the bread, he was speaking metaphorically, as when he said that He was the vine (John 15,1.4.5) or the door of the sheep (Juan 10,7), however, there are some problems with this interpretation:

First: If Jesus were speaking symbolically, he will be using what is known as “metaphor”. As you know, a metaphor is a figure of speech which consists of identifying a real term with a symbolical term which is similar or an analogy.  When Jesus says for example, that He is the vine, he is comparing the real term (Jesus himself) with a symbolic term (the vine), and the relationship is that like the branches should be attached to the tree, we must be united to Christ. When he says that he is the door of the sheep, it is the same case (Jesus is the real element and the "door" is the symbolic), the relationship is that to enter to a pen, you have to go through the door, to enter to the Father must be done through Jesus. It is the same when he said that He is the light of the world, we the salt of the earth, I’m the bread of life, etc. 

The metaphors must always have this structure to collect meaning: a symbolic element is always accompanied by a real element. Instead, there is a part of the text where it does not, and it is when Jesus says:

the BREAD that I will give IS MY FLESH, for the life of the world” (John 6,51)

Here the bread, as a symbolic element, could not symbolize another symbolic element, but a real one, and if the bread is symbolic, what is real? Evidently his flesh, otherwise instead of clarifying, it induces confusion.

Imagine that Jesus had said in these examples: "The door of the sheep is the vine" or "the vine is the light of the world". You would not understand to what he is referring, because he would be using two symbolic elements and the real element is absent, which is what gives them meaning.

Therefore, what Jesus did was give meaning to the metaphor that he had just used: "I am the bread of life" (John 6.48). There the real element is Jesus; the bread of life is the symbolic one. Jesus then explains exactly what he means with the bread that he will give us as food, "That bread I will give you is my flesh" (v. 51). It is quite significant that while he is explaining the real meaning of the bread that he will give to us, he says "the bread that I will give you is the faith" that would have tied the symbolic element (the bread) to the real meaning (faith), but He says "my flesh". Put it in another way, understood in your way, we would have to conclude that the bread symbolizes the flesh which also symbolizes faith, and that makes no sense.

Then Jesus insists again and again on the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life[5]:

“Amen, amen, I say unto you: except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (v. 53)

“He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day.” (v. 54)

“For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed.” (v. 55)

“He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me: and I in him.” (v. 56)

“… he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me” (v. 57)

“He that eateth this bread shall live forever.” (v. 58)

Second: When Jesus was speaking symbolically, either the meaning was so obvious that it was clear for everybody, and if it wasn’t the case, he explains and clarifies at least to his disciples. Let’s check the same examples that you have mentioned. When Jesus talks to Nicodemus and says that it is necessary to be born again to enter in the kingdom of heaven (Juan 3,3), this is misinterpreted by thinking that he means to be born again physically. Jesus explains to him “Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” (John 3,5). In another time, Jesus says to his disciples: “I have meat to eat which you know not.” (John 4,32), and they don’t understand, he explains: “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, that I may perfect his work.” (John 4,34). When Jesus says to his disciples “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt 16,6) and they misinterpret this because they think he was talking literally, he explains: “Why do you not understand that it was not concerning bread I said to you: Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees? Then they understood that he said not that they should beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” (Matt 16,11-12). In the same way, he explains to them the meaning of the parables when they don’t understand (Mark 4,13-20; Mateo 14,18-23). Here, however, something else happens, because then they understand literally and Jesus doesn’t tell them that he is not speaking symbolically but some of his disciples left to follow him (John 6.66). Jesus would not have let them go because of a misunderstanding.

Michael: Wait a minute, I think that he actually explains to them that he was speaking symbolically, because he says: “It is the spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6,63)

Joseph: Say that the words that he said were spirit and life. Isn’t that equivalent to saying that he was speaking symbolically? Whit this Jesus is rejecting that his words were interpreted in a cafarnaitic way, as if you’re eating a ram in a table or in a cannibalistic way, and because of this he clarifies, “It is the spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing”.

It is not about understanding his words as his Pharisees did. We have to distinguish between the natural body and the sacramental body.  Christ is really present, but not in his natural way, like he lived on this Earth, suffered and died, but in a sacramental way[6]. This distinction is crucial to a deep understanding of the Eucharist and would only be clarified after the last supper when Jesus takes the bread and says “this is my body”. With this speech, all would charge full of meaning and the apostles understand that what they were getting was not a mere symbol but really the body and blood of the Lord as meat indeed and drink indeed, but not the flesh of the natural body which they had at that moment.

And here's another interesting fact because when Jesus says “It is the spirit That quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing”, his disciples didn’t understand that he was speaking symbolically, otherwise they would not have ceased to follow him. Why do we have to understand that?

Third: Another evidence that Jesus was not speaking symbolically, is that metaphorically, eating the flesh and drinking the blood of someone means in a biblical language “bloody chase” ordestroy” a person[7].  There are so many examples: “Whilst the wicked draw near against me, to eat my flesh. My enemies that trouble me, have themselves been weakened, and have fallen.” (Ps 27,2); “And I will feed thy enemies with their own flesh: and they shall be made drunk with their own blood, as with new wine: and all flesh shall know, that I am the Lord that save thee, and thy Redeemer the Mighty One of Jacob.” (Isa 49,26); “Who have eaten the flesh of my people, and have flayed their skin off them: and have broken, and chopped their bones as for the kettle, and as flesh in the midst of the pot. Then shall they cry to the Lord, and he will not hear them: and he will hide his face from them at that time, as they have behaved wickedly in their devices.” (Mic 3,3-4)

If Jesus had spoken symbolically, he would have chosen the most confused figure to explain, because eating his flesh symbolically means destroying him and exterminating him. Nothing could be more contradictory than to hear him say that to have eternal life, they had to want to destroy him. But Jesus insisted, and the disciples had to accept his teaching although they didn’t fully understand it at the time: “Then Jesus said to the twelve: Will you also go away? And Simon Peter answered him: Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6,67-68)

Pauline: It is clear that Jesus referred to himself as the Bread of Life and encouraged his followers to eat His flesh in John 6. But I don’t think we need to conclude that Jesus was teaching what the Catholics have understood as transubstantiation. When Jesus gave this speech, the Lord's Supper had not yet been established. Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper until much later, to the point that is narrated after seven chapters in Chapter 13 of the Gospel of John. Therefore, reading the Lord's Supper in John 6 is unwarranted. As it was suggested above, it is best to understand this passage in light of coming to Jesus, in faith, for salvation. When we receive Him as Savior, placing our trust in Him, we are “consuming His flesh” and “drinking his blood.” His body was broken (at His death) and His blood was shed to provide our salvation. So the Bible says “For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come.” (1 Cor 11,26)

Joseph: That Jesus has given his speech before instituting the Lord's Supper does not imply that the two things are unrelated, however, it is quite natural to prepare his disciples in advance so when they were at the time of the Last Supper, they could understand what they would receive. So when they saw him take the bread and wine and listen to him saying that it was his body and his blood, they may recall the speech and understand that this was not a mere symbol. Paul lets us witness that they understood because he says: “The chalice of benediction which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread which we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord?” (1 Cor 10,16-17). It is Paul himself who relates the Lord's Supper with eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, which is precisely what Jesus spoke in John Chapter 6. How can we say that these two events are unrelated if the apostle himself is the one who relates them and they were written in the Bible?

Later, when Paul is still talking about the Lord's Supper, he told them about the great responsibility of those who come to participate in the Eucharist without the appropriate steps, making no distinction between the body of Christ and an ordinary meal, so they convert into "bread of death" which is his "bread of life". He says, “Therefore, whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.” (1 Cor 11,27-29). These harsh warnings do not understand if they took unworthily a symbol, to the point of becoming prisoners of the body and blood of the Lord and be punished with illness and even death.

And not only the Apostles understood this in that way, but all Christians unanimously for 16 centuries. For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of San Pedro and San Pablo in 107 strongly condemns the Gnostics who believed that Christ had no true body and therefore denied his real presence in the Eucharist, to which he responds: “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again[8]. Additional testimonies abound in other early Christian texts such as the Didache, the works of St. Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Origen, St. Cyprian, Firmilian, Novatian, and many others.

Let’s make a summary of the facts: Christ gave a speech where he said he is the “bread of life” and he clarifies that the bread that he will give us is his flesh. Then, he insists over and over that to have eternal life, we must eat his flesh and drink his blood (Juan 6). In the Lord’s Supper, he gave sense to this speech and consecrates the bread and the wine saying that they are “his body” and “his blood”. The early Christians understand that by receiving the bread and wine, they are consecrating communion with the body and blood of the Lord (1 Corinthians 10.16 to 17) and to eat unworthily of this bread made them prisoners of his body and blood (1 Corinthians 11 27-29). The early Christians unanimously believed in the real presence and there is evidence dating from the first century onward, until the arrival of Ulrich Zwingli. He  knew the apostles, nor had contact with the early church because he was born sixteen centuries later, and ended by opposing Martin Luther and then began the first wave of divisions within Protestantism, because he assumes, based only on his own interpretation of the Bible, that all Christians have been wrong for centuries. Paradoxically he defends and disseminates the position taken by the Gnostic heretics in the first century who were not even Christian but pagan. Unfortunately, that is the position that most evangelical churches have adopted today, and they think they are based only on the Bible.

NOTES

[1] The Evangelical Christianity accepts the divinity of Christ like we Catholics do. However, there are protestant denominations that identify themselves as evangelical who don’t accept it, but they can be considered as an exception because they are a minority. Obviously, these arguments won’t be convincing for these people, because if they don’t worship Jesus Christ, they won’t worship his body and his blood. To talk to these people, we must explain to them the Catholic Faith concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, so they can understand what is explained here.

[2] The first controversy between protestants interpreting these texts occurred between Martin Luther (who understood Christ’s words “This is my body and This is my blood” literally and defended de Real Presence), and Ulrico Zunglio (who believed only in a spiritual presence). In 1529 was the Marburg Colloquy in which both reformers tried to reach an agreement and to maintain the doctrinal unity but both failed miserably (You can check with detail the arguments used by the two parts in the work of Ricardo García-Villoslada, Martín Lutero, Volume II, en lucha contra Roma, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, Segunda edición, Madrid 1976, page 304-322). When Luther was near to his death he publishes a clear confession of eucharistic faith where he proclaims his firm belief in Christ’s words: This is my body and This is my blood, understood literally, and at the same time, he glared violent anathemas calling heretics and twisters to the ones who distorted its natural  sense with swinging insults: “That blasphemous mouth will never be with me, God willing; I will not address a single word; I do not want to talk to him or see him or hear him. He or his damn gang of fanatics Zwinglians and similar praise or censure me, I do the same thing if I praise or censoring the Jews, the Turks, the pope or the devil himself. And then I’ll find myself on the verge of death, I want to give this testimony of my faith before the tribunal of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, declaring that fans and foes of the sacrament, Karlstadt, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Schwenckfeld and his disciples Zurich, or where they are, I have condemned sternly and I avoided, as mandated by the Apostle: Al heretical man after the first and second admonition, avoid "(Martin Luther, Kurzes Bekenntnis vom heiligen Sakrament: WA 54141 -67).

Today, the Lutherans still believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic, but unlike Catholics, they believe in the consubstantiation (persistence of the bread and the wine with the body and the blood of Christ), while we Catholics and Orthodox believe in transubstantiation (total conversion of the bread and the wine into the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. Although the bread and wine still retain their original appearance and flavor (accidents), we think they are really the Body and Blood of Christ hidden under the appearance of bread and wine). Calvinists believe only in a spiritual presence, and the vast majority of evangelical Christian denominations do not believe in any presence, but the bread and wine are only symbols and the Lord's Supper is just a memorial.

[3] I have taken these arguments from the Transubstanciación, ¿Milagro o Fraude? Article of the evangelical apologist of baptist denomination Daniel Sapia, which is essentially the same argument used by Zwinglio agains Luther in the Marburgo Colloquy, and the same argument used by the branch of the evangelical denominations that unlike Lutherans, don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic.

[4] Brothers evangelicals argue that as Jesus start his speech by saying "He That believeth in me hath everlasting life" (John 6.47) to talk about eating His flesh and drinking His blood to have eternal life he also refers to believe in Him.

[5] The natural meaning of the words also emphasizes the real presence and realistic expressions that Jesus uses "real food" and "real drink".

 

[6] As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, in order to Christ, his natural being and his sacramental being are not the same (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica III, q. 76, art. 6) The sacramental way of being of Christ is closer to the form he achieved with his glorious resurrection to that of the historic form, though it doesn’t match it. Like the glorious existence is characterized, above all, not to be subject to the laws of space and time (for specialized explanation should be consulted (in Spanish) Michael Schmaus, Manual de Teología Dogmática, Vol IV, Ediciones Rialp, Madrid 1961, p. 312s).

 

[7] An article named “What is the Catholic sacrament of Holy Eucharist?” published in the site GotQuestion.org tries to show that eating and drinking in the Jewish culture was understood as read and understand God's covenants, so when Jesus spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, what he meant is that you had to believe in Him. They quote the book Ecclesiasticus or Sirach which is not in their Bibles and considered apocryphal, “that they eat me, Shall yet hunger: and They that drink me, Shall yet thirst. That I hearkeneth to me, Shall not be confounded: and That They work by me, Shall not sin”(Sirach 24.21 to 22). However, there is nothing about eating the meat of someone or drinking blood, an expression that does appear related symbolically in several biblical texts like chasing, exterminate and destroy someone (Already cited in this respect Psalm 27, 2; Isaiah 49.26; Micah 3,3-4)

[8]  Ignacio de Antioquia, The Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 7,1
Daniel Ruiz Bueno, Padres Apostólicos, Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos 65, Quinta Edición, Madrid 1985, pág. 492


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