This Saying is Hard
If you're Catholic, and you claim that you have no difficulty whatsoever in believing the doctrine of the Real Presence, then there's a good chance you haven't yet deeply reflected on what you're saying "Amen" to at the front of the Communion line at Mass. When the priest presents the Host to you and says, "The Body of Christ," and you respond, "Amen," you are literally saying you believe that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Eternal Word by whom the entire universe was created out of nothing, is being placed on your tongue and sliding down your throat into your stomach. If you take a moment to step back and consider how insane that sounds, you can better sympathize with Protestants and other non-Catholics who reject what the Church teaches about the Eucharist. I can think of only three possible explanations for a person having no doubts or difficulties accepting the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: 1) an ignorance of what the Church actually teaches about the Eucharist, namely, that the bread and wine are substantially changed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, 2) a false sense of piety that is really laziness, and allows one to blindly accept what one is told without any attempt to personally understand it, or 3) a special grace from God, most likely granted in response to much humble prayer and contemplation.
So then, what if Catholics are wrong? What if the Eucharist was intended by Christ to be only a symbol of his body and blood? What if it was his body and blood, but it was only a one-time deal, and The Last Supper really was The Last Supper? Hasn't modern science disproved an idea as anti-scientific as the Eucharist?
The Eucharist is NOT Merely a Symbol
One starting piece of evidence for understanding the literal nature of the Eucharist comes from The Last Supper. If Jesus was only speaking symbolically when he said that his body would be bread given up for us, then why did he pick up an actual piece of bread and say, "This is my body" (Mt: 26:26)? At this point in the discussion, many Protestants will point out that, elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus tells people that he is "the gate," "the vine," "the light of the world," and "the shepherd." There is an important distinction to make between these claims of Christ and the claim he made about the Eucharist. Jesus didn't hold up a gate or a vine and say, "This is my body." Obviously, Jesus wasn't literally (i.e. physically) any of those things – they are symbols he used to teach us about his relationship with us. Couldn't the Eucharist be like these then, another symbol used to remind us that Christ nourishes us and is always present among us? Indeed it can be, and it is, but it's a mistake to think that it is only that. To put it plainly, if Jesus intended the Eucharist to serve as just a symbol of his body and blood, then nobody got the message. This is evident in the reactions of the people in the story, which ranged from confusion and disgust to trusting acceptance. The Jews were clearly scandalized and said, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6:52), many of his disciples said, "This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?" (v. 60) and they no longer followed Jesus (v. 66). Question: Is it a hard saying if Jesus is speaking symbolically? Not really. It surely wouldn't have been hard enough that the same people who were willing to leave behind their families, friends, homes, and jobs just to follow Jesus would walk away when they heard it. After all, many of these people were probably present when Jesus said he was "the gate" and "the vine," and they handled that pretty well, because they knew he wasn't speaking literally.
If Jesus wanted to reassure everyone that he was only speaking symbolically, or at least tone down his language a bit, then he had plenty of opportunities to do so. Instead of doing this, or letting his apostles know what he "really" meant, like he did in the past when he explained parables to them, he gives them an ultimatum, putting them on the spot in front of everybody: “Do you also wish to go away?” (v. 68). Peter, speaking on behalf of all the apostles, responded, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (v. 68-69). Here Peter was effectively saying, "Well, we don't understand exactly how this is possible, but we know you Jesus, and so we know that we can trust what you say." Had Jesus not waited until near the end of ministry to teach his apostles about the Eucharist, until after they had developed a relationship with him, they probably would have walked away with the others. Later, Jesus would say to Peter, "Feed my sheep" (Mt 21:17). Feed them what, Jesus? "The bread which I shall give for the life of the world," my flesh, which is "food indeed," and my blood, which is "drink indeed" (Jn 6:55).
Were the apostles just an anomaly though, the only ones who both took Jesus literally and believed him, perhaps out of some sense of fanatical discipleship? Not hardly. If Jesus wasn't speaking literally about the Eucharist, then Saint Paul, a convert who had severely persecuted Christians, was also very confused. When writing to the Corinthians about the Eucharist, he begins by asserting that what he is teaching is not his own invention, but was given to him directly by Christ: "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you (1 Cor 11:23). He goes on to make a series of bold statements:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord (11:27).Guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Wow, don't you think that language is a bit strong, Paul? What did he mean by this? Consider this analogy: If I were to take a gun and shoot a picture of your grandmother, that would be disrespectful, right? Right, but I wouldn't be guilty of homicide, because the picture is merely a representation or symbol of your grandmother––it's not her actually body. The same logic applies to the Eucharist. If the bread and wine are only symbols of Christ's body and blood, then while it would certainly be inappropriate to disrespect them, you couldn't be considered guilty of Christ's actual body and blood. Furthermore, why does one need to be "worthy" to receive a symbol or representation? Saint Paul speaks more about this as he continues:
Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (11:28-30).More strong language here: Discern the body, or you will eat and drink judgement upon yourself, get sick, and possibly even die (yikes!). The word "discern" means "to perceive or recognize something by the senses or by the intellect." Given the physical appearances and properties of bread and wine, which remain after Consecration, we cannot perceive the Real Presence with our human senses. However, this fact alone does not justify skepticism towards the Eucharist, because you couldn't physically see or sense Christ's divinity when he was on Earth either! Therefore, the skepticism that rejects the Eucharist is the same breed of skepticism that rejects the Incarnation. Both the Incarnation and the Eucharist are unexpected and even seem counterintuitive, or at least too good to be true. That is why they must be spiritually discerned to be believed, which is probably what Jesus meant when he followed up his teaching on the Eucharist by saying, "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (Jn 6:63). You cannot ascent to the Truth of the Real Presence by worldly reasoning. Saint Paul explained this concept to the Corinthians:
The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2:14).When reading any story in the Bible, it is useful to imagine where we fit into the story. For example, in the parable of the Prodigal or Lost Son, I identify most with the lost son, who rejected his father but later returned and received unconditional love, forgiveness, and mercy. In this account of Jesus' teaching about the Eucharist, ask yourself this: "Where am I in the story? Am I with Peter and the other apostles? Or am I with those who walked away from Jesus, who 'drew back and no longer went about with him?'" (Jn 6:66). To whom will you go?
The Eucharist is an Ongoing Reality
"I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:51).In this passage, notice how Jesus uses both past and future tense verbs: "I am the living bread which came down [past tense] from heaven..." and, "...the bread which I shall give [future tense] for the life of the world is my flesh." As Christians, we believe that Jesus has always been God, but that he came into Creation by the Incarnation at a specific time in history, making it a past event (not his being Incarnate, but the actual moment he was conceived). So, what about the future tense here? What did Jesus mean when he said, "...the bread which I shall give..."? Some will say that perhaps Jesus was using an analogy here, referring to how he would give his body (the bread) to us by his dying on the cross for our sake. This is certainly true in one sense, but is that all that he meant by it? It can't be, because at the Last Supper he commanded his apostles, "Do this in memory of me" (1 Cor 11:24) meaning that what he was giving them was to be repeated in the future, which is exactly what a Catholic priest does every time he celebrates the Mass.
Don't Try to Fit the Eucharist in Your Box
Some Catholics, who I'm naturally inclined to agree with, think that we should point skeptics to the countless, well-documented Eucharistic miracles as proof of the Real Presence. While some people, if they are especially open-minded, may be swayed by the evidence of historical and ongoing Eucharistic miracles, and a select few even convinced by it, this strategy usually isn't very effective. Why not? It certainly seems like it should work: "Don't believe in the Real Presence? Well, take a look at this picture of heart tissue that has been sitting in a ciborium in Lanciano, Italy since the 8th century and hasn't decayed without any preserving agents!" See photo.
The miraculous pieces of flesh, in
a ciborium at St. Francis Church
in Lanciano, Italy.
...we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism...we are forced by our a priori [not based on experience] adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, not matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.In other words, "We need solid evidence before we will believe anything, but we're pretty sure we already know what reality should be like, so we've taken the liberty to define 'evidence' in such a way that we won't have to be bothered by any supernatural funny-business." Sounds pretty open-minded, right? At least he's honest, I suppose, because that's where you always have to begin in any search for the truth. If you find it hard to accept the Eucharist on scientific grounds, realize that the Church's claim about the Real Presence is not a scientific claim––it's a metaphysical (beyond physical) claim. The apostles didn't accept what Jesus said because they were ignorant and believed that bread and wine changing into flesh and blood didn't violate the laws of nature. Rather, they accepted it because they believed that the one making the claims was the Son of God, the God who created the natural world and wrote its laws.
At the risk of taking up even more of your time, I'll conclude my thoughts here. If you're not Catholic, I hope you've learned a little more about what we believe regarding the Eucharist. If you are Catholic, I hope your understanding of the Eucharist has been illumined, your belief in it fortified, and your ability to articulate and defend that belief strengthened. I appreciate you taking time out of your day to read this longer-than-usual post, and I hope you enjoyed it! I'll leave you with this quote about the Eucharist from Saint Justin Martyr, who was one of the early Fathers of the Church, and a great defender of the Faith:
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 that is for the remission of sins and for regeneration (i.e., has received baptism) and is thereby living as Chris 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 that 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 blood of that incarnated Jesus [First Apology 66 (c. A.D. 151)].May God Bless you!
† Under the Mercy,
Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.
Catholic Church. Lumen Gentium. Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011. Print.
Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best. Catholic Answers: San Diego, 2010. Print.