Monday, April 25, 2011

Apologetics toolbox: The Real Presence

"I look at it under a microscope, and it still looks like bread and wine to me." I've heard this before; you probably will hear it yourself. It tempts me to retort, "Would you feel better about it if they looked and felt like flesh and blood?" (As has happened at least once, in Lanciano, Italy.)

As far as I know, only the Catholic and Orthodox Churches still maintain that the elements actually become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ through transubstantiation. The Lutherans and Anglicans go more for consubstantiation: Christ is present "with, in and under" the elements.

Other Protestant churches hold the Eucharist to be symbolic, and that Jesus intended it to be so. Theologically "liberal" or "progressive" Christians also tend to hold that the Eucharist is merely symbolic, generally operating on the presumption that a literal transubstantiation is superstitious if not barbaric.

The problem with both consubstantiation and mere symbolism is that neither is true to the beliefs of the apostles and the Church Fathers. Without a literal understanding, its power as a symbol diminishes, though it doesn't quite become meaningless.

A full defense of miracles goes beyond our present scope. Suffice it to say that a God radically incapable of miracles isn't the God of Christianity. Moreover, the philosophical materialist who denies all miracles is more consistent than the Protestant who claims miracles ended with the passing of the apostles. If miracles were possible then, they should be possible now; if they're not possible now, they never were: God's eternal nature puts Him beyond temporal boundaries.

In the "Bread of Life" discourse (Jn 6:27-59), Jesus tells his followers,

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate [ephagon] the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat [phagē] and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats [phagē] this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. … Very truly I tell you, unless you eat [phagite] the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats [trōgōn] my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats [trōgōn] my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on [trōgōn] me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate [ephagon] manna and died, but whoever feeds on [trōgōn] this bread will live forever (vv. 48-51, 53-58 NIV).

In the Greek text, Jesus moves from phagō, which is the human act of eating or devouring, to trōgō, a stronger word implying gnawing or chewing and primarily used for animals. Instead of trying to backpedal his meaning, he deliberately makes it more graphic.

Then, when his followers murmur uneasily among themselves ("This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"), Jesus challenges them directly:

Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe. … This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them (vv. 61-65).

So difficult and challenging is this teaching that this is the only point recorded in Scripture where Jesus loses followers (v. 66); this is also where John first mentions Judas Iscariot as Jesus' betrayer, from which we can infer that this episode is where he began to lose faith.

Here we encounter the Protestant objection: "But he just said 'the flesh counts for nothing'! So he must have been speaking metaphorically." However, this idea renders the whole passage confusing, if not utter nonsense. We see in other places (Jn 4:31-34; Mt 16:5-12) where Jesus uses food as a metaphor; this passage doesn't fit the pattern.

Jesus uses the phrase "flesh and blood" in other places, most notably in Matthew 16:17, to speak of the human as unaided or uninformed by the Holy Spirit: Man in his materiality. Saint Paul also uses this expression in such a manner (e.g. 1 Cor 2:14-3:4). Consistency requires we read "flesh" in verse 63 as a contraction for "flesh and blood"; the verse means that humans unaided by the Holy Spirit could never reason this fact out for themselves.

In 1 Corinthians 10:16, St. Paul asks, "Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation [koinōnia] in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?" The bread and wine of the Eucharist he equates with the participation of the Levitical priests in the sacrifices on the Temple altar, as an argument towards avoiding food offered to other gods or demons.

The identity of the Eucharist as being one with Christ's sacrifice on the cross goes back to the very beginning. Saint Paul refers back to Jesus as the "Passover lamb" (1 Cor 5:7) just as St. John the Baptist refers to him as "the Lamb of God" (Jn 1:29); the paschal lamb was not only sacrificed for its blood but was also eaten (Ex 12:8, 46).

And this identity with the crucifixion is reinforced when, in repeating to the Corinthians the Words of the Institution that Jesus himself taught St. Paul, the apostle says, "'Do this in remembrance [anamnēsin] of me." The use of anamnēsis specifically ties the memorial to a sacrifice: "But those sacrifices are an annual reminder [anamnēsis] of sins" (Heb 10:3).

To be clear: The Catholic teaching isn't that the Eucharist is an additional sacrifice of Christ; in no sense is he being nailed to the cross again, since the sacrifice is once for all (Heb 10:11-18). Rather, each Eucharist is tied back through time and space to the original sacrifice: it's a re-presentation of the first instance, not a reiteration of it. If you wonder how that could be, then remember that the "Bread of Life" discourse takes place after the Feeding of the Five Thousand (Jn 6:1-14)!

To reinforce the literal nature of this participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, St. Paul tells the Corinthians:

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep (1 Cor 11:27-30 NIV).

We know that the apostles taught that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were the real Body and Blood. And this belief carried through to the Church Fathers.

The first recorded thought comes to us from St. Ignatius of Antioch, who railed against the Donatists: "They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again" (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 7).

Then we have St. Justin Martyr, addressing the Emperor Hadrian: "For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh" (First Apology 66).

"If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist are contained truly, really and substantially the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ, but says that He is in it only as in a sign, or figure or force, let him be anathema" (Council of Trent, Session 13 Canon 1, Oct. 11, 1551; Enchiridion Symbolorum 883). As a dogma, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a matter of faith of the highest level (de fide), requiring the positive assent of faith of all Catholics (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church §§ 1356-1381).

This point of faith explains not only the Catholic devotion of Eucharistic Adoration and the insistence on being free from mortal sin (eating and drinking judgment on oneself), but also why Catholic communion is a "closed table". Even if we were to consider the Eucharist in solely symbolic terms, the Eucharist as a symbol of Christian unity would have power only so far as Christians were visibly united in faith. This union is radically and undeniably absent; in fact, it's a source of scandal in the classic sense.

And it's the Eucharist which demands that we make "disciples of all nations" (Mt 28:19), encouraging our separated brothers and sisters to come into the fold as well as those outside Christianity altogether. To share in the Eucharist is to share in the fullness of the faith; one isn't complete without the other.

Additional Resources:
Catholic Answers tract — further patristic citations on the Real Presence
Catholic Answers tract — further patristic citations on the Mass as a sacrifice


  1. Orthodox Christians do, indeed, believe that the Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ. We do not use the word 'transubstantiation,' with all of its Scholastic overtones. We do not use the Thomistic explanation. Then again, you didn't either. We recognize that bread and wine are chaged to the body and blood of Chirst, and that it is sacred.

  2. @ Hira Animfefte: Thanks for the clarification. In this matter, I'm not much inclined to quibble over the road taken, as long as it leads to the same destination. I suspect Eastern Catholics take a similar approach to yours; Thomist thought is largely the product as well as the informant of the Latin rite. Come back again!


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