A while back, I got up early for Mass one Sunday so that I could join a friend at her church afterwards. Sitting in a run-down old auditorium, I enjoyed some lovely music, some decent preaching and some interesting theology. And then came communion. The worship leader approached a table laden with bread. She began to speak.
“On the night before he suffered, our Lord took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.’” Then she lifted the bread up for all to see.
Despite the fact that it was a woman in jeans on an auditorium stage, the ceremony was eerily familiar. After she blessed the grape juice, communion ministers distributed bread and wine to those who came forward, saying, “The body of Christ” and “The blood of Christ.”
I sat there stunned–how could they use those words when they didn’t believe them? How could they say “This is my body” when they thought it was a symbol? How could they say “The body of Christ” about something that wasn’t?
And then I realized. They’re just quoting the Bible. And the Bible says it’s his body.
Now, there are a lot of things that Catholics and Protestants disagree on. And while I can use Scripture to defend the Catholic position on every one, I respect that there are generally verses in Scripture to support the Protestant opinion as well. I mean, you can’t read James 2 and come out saying sola fide, but Romans 3 and Romans 10 sure do seem to suggest it. But I really don’t see how anyone could possibly read the Bible and end up with a symbolic understanding of the Eucharist.
I mentioned the Eucharist one time in a class discussion of different Protestant denominations. “Now Shayna’s Pentecostal,” I said, “so she doesn’t believe in the real presence.”
“Yes, I do,” she called out.
“You do?” I asked, confused. “But I thought you were Pentecostal.”
“I am,” she confirmed. “I don’t know what my church says, but in the Bible, Jesus says it’s his true flesh. I’m gonna go with that.”
God lays the groundwork for the Bread of Life in the Old Testament. Melchizedek (the archetypal priest, traditionally viewed by Jews as being without beginning or end–see Hebrews 7:3) offers a sacrifice of bread and wine in Genesis 14. The Jews are told to eat unleavened bread at the time of the Passover; in subsequent years, it was called matzoh and began to look like this:
From what I can tell, the holes are there to make sure there aren’t large air bubbles that cause the bread to “rise.” Notice that the unleavened bread here is pierced and striped–now look up Isaiah 53:5…I know, right?
And then, of course, the manna in the desert–the bread from heaven that saves God’s people–that Jesus himself associates with the Eucharist in John 6.
What’s that you say? John 6? Don’t mind if I do.
If you’ve got a Bible handy, do us both a favor and flip to John 6. If not, try this.
Now, John tends to group events intentionally (or, I suppose you could say, Jesus tends to group events intentionally. It’s certainly more evident in John’s Gospel), so we’ll start at the beginning of the chapter: the multiplication of the loaves. Here, Jesus works a miracle with bread in order to feed the hungry. Then, the walking on water, where he works a miracle with his body and is miraculously present where he wasn’t expected to be. Bread miracle, then body miracle. Following me?
Then we’ve got what the New American Bible calls “The Bread of Life Discourse,” possibly because Jesus uses that phrase so much you almost start to wonder if it’s the secret word on Pee-wee’s Playhouse (AAAAAAHHH). This huge lecture explains the Eucharist, a bread=body miracle. See what I did there?
Jesus starts off by pointing out that they’re looking for him because they ate the loaves (v. 26), a foreshadowing of the Eucharist, the source of our faith. Then, in true Johannine irony, they ask him if he can do a miracle just like Moses used to do with bread. Seriously, people? I just did a huge bread miracle yesterday! Don’t any of you pay attention around here?
But Jesus is more patient than I and decided to explain the Eucharist anyway.
“I am the bread of life” (v. 35). Then he says a bunch of other stuff but apparently none of them listen because they’re still stuck on the first line (see v. 41). Apparently, he wasn’t clear enough for them, so he repeats himself:
I am the bread of life. (v. 48)
I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world. (v. 51)
So his followers started to ask each other:
How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (v. 52)
Apparently, they were thinking it sounded a little crazy, that he must be speaking symbolically, because he repeats himself again:
Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever. (v. 53-58)
I’m sorry, but that just doesn’t sound symbolic to me. I mean, maybe “I am the bread of life” one time could be like “I am the vine” and “I am the gate.” But over and over? It doesn’t sound symbolic to me; but let’s imagine that it were. When do we see that symbolic language used by Jews? Psalm 27:2 and Micah 3:2-3. Both times, the symbolic “eat my flesh” means “attack me.” So if Jesus is speaking figuratively here, he’s telling his followers that in order to inherit eternal life, they personally have to beat him. Not just “I have to die for you” but “unless you beat me you have no life within you.” That’s terrible theology.
And starting in verse 54, Jesus stops using the human word for eat and starts using the more graphic word used for animals; it’s really more like gnaw. He tells them over and over to gnaw on his flesh.
So here, he says to them, “I am the bread of life. I am the bread of life. No, really, I am the bread of life. Eat my flesh, drink my blood. For real, my flesh is really food. No joke. Eat my flesh, drink my blood, eat my flesh, drink my blood, gnaw on my flesh, slurp my blood, take a bite.”
But he totally meant it symbolically.
Some years ago, a friend of mine was at Mass, kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer. If she’s anything like me, she was probably counting the number of states with more vowels than consonants or planning what she would eat for the next 17 meals–anything but focusing on the holy sacrifice. Fortunately, the little boy behind her was paying very close attention.
“Take this, all of you, and eat it,” the priest prayed. “This is my body–”
“Ew, Mom, gross! Let’s get out of here!!” shouted the observant child.
The parishioners, I’m sure, chuckled at the silly boy and went back to making their grocery lists or trying to remember their first grade teachers’ names. Or maybe that’s just me.
But what happened here was huge. This little boy listened for the first time and heard, for the first time, the very same words that the disciples heard so many years ago. The same sentiment that elicited the same response in John 6. In verse 60, they say exactly what that little boy did: ew. Jesus had made it abundantly clear that he was speaking literally here. From what they could tell, he was commanding them to be cannibals. And when they were grossed out, he didn’t explain. He didn’t say, “No, guys, hang on. I meant eat crackers and think about me! I didn’t mean for real eat my body–that’d be nasty!” Instead, he challenges them:
Does this shock you? (v. 61)
In modern terms, “Come at me, bro.”
And, just like the little boy, they can’t handle it. And they leave (v. 66).
Now, if Jesus hadn’t been for real, if he hadn’t actually meant that the Eucharist would be his body and blood, he would have been morally obligated to stop them, right? They’re leaving because they think he wants them to eat his flesh. If he doesn’t, he has to stop them, to explain the symbolism. What does he do?
He. Just. Lets. Them. Leave.
And then he turns to the Twelve. He doesn’t explain further. He just asks them (v. 67), “Are you going, too?” Because he can’t compromise on this. He’s not willing to give up his real presence here with us. He’d rather start over from scratch than give up on this. This is no symbol.
So here, one year before the Passion, at the time of Passover (v. 4), Jesus tells his followers to eat his flesh in the form of bread.
The Last Supper
The following year, Jesus institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper, described in all three Synoptic Gospels. Each time the story is told, we see that Jesus makes a special point of gathering for a meal with his Apostles. You’d think he’d focus on his Passion or on their future mission, as he does in John. But no. The last time he’s going to be with them before he dies and he wants to talk about bread.
“So I’m about to die, y’all. I’ve got, like, 2 hours left. I’m just wondering–what’s your favorite kind of bread? I like bagels. You know what I hate? Pumpernickel! I always think it’s chocolate and then EWWWW bitter surprise.”
He’s having a Passover meal with them. If he was going for analogy or a symbol, it would have made perfect sense to talk about the lamb that had been sacrificed (or would be sacrificed if you’re following John’s chronology). The unblemished lamb slain to save them–that’s a perfect analogy. But he doesn’t make an analogy. He doesn’t say “This is like my body” or “This represents my body” or “This corresponds to my body” or “My body can be likened to,” the way he does in a dozen parables. There are any number of ways he could have expressed symbolism. Instead, he uses the word “is.” He defines it. In fact, he transubstantiates it. In that moment, he changes it from bread to his body.
This IS my body.
Some argue that “in remembrance of me” means it was symbolic. Honestly, I just don’t see it. Let’s say we always went to Chick Fil-A on Tuesdays and I was moving away to some awful place without Chick Fil-A. If I asked you to get chicken nuggets every Tuesday “in remembrance of me,” would I mean that you should think about chicken in my honor? No! I’d mean you should actually go get the nuggets. (You’re welcome for that, by the way. Those things are delicious.)
In case all four Gospels weren’t enough, St. Paul’s got our back on this one, too. Now, remember, Paul wasn’t around for Jesus’ public ministry. So he tends to paraphrase Jesus instead of quoting him exactly. In fact, if you’ve got red letters in your Bible, they show up exactly twice in Paul’s 13 epistles. Once, Paul’s telling about a revelation he had (2 Cor 12:9-10). The other is in 1 Corinthians 11:
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (v. 23-25)
What does this unique instance tell us?
- Unlike with every single other thing Jesus said, it’s not just the meaning of Jesus’ teaching that matters; the words themselves are essential. Which means they can’t just be a description of an analogy; they must actually do something.
- Paul knows not just the significance of Jesus’ words but the exact words themselves, most likely because he was hearing them recited over and over again at Mass.
Paul goes on to say that anyone who receives unworthily (in a state of sin or disbelief) will be condemned.
Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. [also translated "to his own condemnation"]
Now if this bread and cup weren’t really Jesus, if the Eucharist were just a reminder of Jesus or a vessel for his spiritual presence, how could misusing it get you damned to hell?
An amazing student once gave me this souvenir from her travels:
It’s not really Jesus. Let’s be honest, he’s not even spiritually present here. It’s just a symbol. When I shine it in people’s eyes and shout: “I AM THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD,” do I mess around to my own condemnation? Of course not.
What about the Bible–it’s not really Jesus, but he’s spiritually present there. When you read the Bible for a lit class and not out of faith, do you analyze to your own condemnation? No, because it’s not the real presence of Christ. We respect it, honor it, revere it, but we don’t worship it.
The Eucharist, though, is the real presence of Christ, not just the symbolic or the spiritual presence. If we receive the Eucharist for the wrong reasons or while in the improper state, we eat and drink to our own condemnation.
Paul wouldn’t damn you for misusing a symbol or a temporary vessel of God’s presence. He only gets that real when it gets that real.
I’ve read the entire Bible 10 times and the Gospels at least 20. I’ve never–not once–encountered a single passage that in any way suggests that the Eucharist is not in fact the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Scripture is clear unless you want to pull a Clinton and start redefining words. You cannot read John 6 and come away with anything but the real presence–not unless you’re deceiving yourself. If you don’t believe me, turn to the word of God. Read what it says, read what Christ says. Then tell me it’s not his flesh and blood.
“Jesus Christ said over the consecrated elements, “This is my body” you say “No. It is not his body!” Who then am I to believe? I prefer to believe Jesus Christ.”-Bl. Dominic Barberi
Up next: Everybody’s Doing It: Church Tradition on the Eucharist
(It’ll be shorter, I promise.)