An Exposition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in John 6, and a Common Protestant Rejoinder

Giotto, The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1306), by Giotto. Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua.

[The fruit of another discussion somewhere.]

The Real Presence of Christ does not appear in Scripture? You must be stretching really hard not to see it. 😉 As I said above, Jesus makes painfully clear his literal intentions in John 6:

“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

“I am the bread of life. … This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.” (John 6:48–50)

“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.” (John 6:51)

When the Jews hear this, naturally, they are alarmed and confused — is this man suggesting we become cannibals? “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52). Obviously, they are misunderstanding Him, right? Surely He didn’t mean for them to take this literally, right? So you would think He would correct them.

But He doesn’t. He does just the opposite.

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Consequently [Greek οὖν, so, therefore, consequently, accordingly] Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:52–53)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto.

A lot rests on that οὖν: It connects Jesus’s repeated admonition that the people must eat His flesh and drink His blood as a direct response and consequence of the crowd’s supposed “misunderstanding”: Rather than saying, “No, you’ve got it wrong; I’m only being ‘spiritual,'” he tells them, “Yes, I’m bloody serious.”

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)

“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:55) (The word here translated “true,” ἀληθής, can alternately be translated real, genuine, actual, not imaginary.)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56) (He even uses a different, much more visceral, if not vulgar, word for “eat” here: τρώγω, the word for animals feeding or munching.)

“As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6:57)

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio.

Jesus says, not once, not twice, but some dozen times altogether, not only that “He is the bread of life,” but that “this bread is actually My flesh” and “this drink is actually My blood” and “you must eat Me and drink Me” to have eternal life. He uses explicit words that cannot be mistaken for “spiritual” terms, even using several different words in the discourse to make Himself clear. When the crowd questions, in disgust, whether He is serious, He makes no effort to correct them, but instead affirms using even stronger language that what He is saying is the literal truth. And in the end, as a direct result of this discourse, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66), muttering that “this is a hard saying” (John 6:60), because they did take His words literally. And yet Jesus made no attempt to clarify Himself if they were mistaken, but instead reaffirmed again and again his literal meaning. He could not have been more explicit if He tried — for in fact He did try.

And then, as if this weren’t enough — but he then gives His Apostles the actual occasion to eat His flesh and drink His blood:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” (Matthew 26:26)

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” (Mark 14:22)

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)

And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24)

If any one of these four authors had meant to imply that this giving of His Body and Blood were meant to be mere symbols, one would think they would have used less explicit and more figurative language.

Not a Gate, or a Vine, or a Light?

vineyard

Regarding your rejoinder that Jesus also said He “is the Door,” “the Vine,” the “Way,” etc. [and that these cases are not to be taken literally, so why should we take John 6 literally?] — yes, this is the common Protestant response. But allow me to point out a couple of things:

1. When Jesus expresses these metaphors, they are directly related to the verbs he applies to them, which are to be taken literally:

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

We are literally supposed to follow Jesus, enter into eternal life by Him, believe in Him, come to the Father by Him, and abide in Him. This rhetorical device applies in every case in which Jesus says I AM something.

2. But in John 6, Jesus says, using several different verbs:

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.” (John 6:51)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56)

Et cetera. So, for these times, following the other times Jesus said I AM something, are we not also supposed to literally eat and drink Him? In all these cases, though Jesus is speaking metaphorically, He is also speaking quite literally — and this case is no different.

What is more, your position supposes that every Christian from the Apostles to the sixteenth century — who certainly read Jesus’s discourse literally and believed Jesus was really and substantially present in the Eucharist — was mistaken in their interpretation and “silly.” Even John Calvin believed fully that Jesus was really present in the elements in a spiritual sense, and read John 6 literally.

The Eucharist: The Source and Summit of Our Faith

Juan de Juanes, La Última Cena (ca. 1562)

La Última Cena (ca. 1562), by Juan de Juanes. (Wikipedia)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Yeah, I’m a little late on that one, but it’s been a busy and stressful few weeks. I’m still trying to settle back in at home, and re-situate my books and my life, and make progress on my thesis.

I’ve been stressing, too, you know, about the next post in my series on the Sacraments: an introductory post on the Eucharist. How can I do such a subject justice in a single brief post, or even in a dozen? It’s had me bound up for weeks, researching fervently and never feeling worthy. So I finally decided to sit down and give you, rather than the ultimate, perfect, authoritative post, a human and personal reflection.

Eucharistic adoration

We Catholics say that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the whole Christian life.” (Second Vatican Council [1964], Lumen Gentium III.11.1, lit. totius vitae christianae fons et culmen — those words are a lot richer than they come across in English: fons is the fount from which the blessings of our faith flow; culmen means the very peak, the summit, the apex, the culmination). As a Protestant growing up, I had no notion of this — we rarely celebrated Holy Communion in the churches I was a part of — and even early in my conversion, after I’d begun attending Mass, I couldn’t comprehend it. I used to think as a Protestant that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was merely a pious superstition, one inconsequential to the substance of the Christian faith and message: what does it matter whether He’s really there or not, as long as we believe in Him and follow Him? What is the big deal about the Lord’s Supper? Why make Communion the central act of the Christian life — the very reason for going to church? Don’t we have better things to focus on, like edification through preaching and teaching, and fellowship and support through community, and ministry to the lost and hurting? As I heard Mass, as I witnessed it and stood in the presence of the Eucharist, though unable to partake, a glimmer of the truth began to dawn on me; but it wasn’t until the very moment of my First Communion, the first time I came to the Eucharistic table and experienced it for myself, that the full reality, the full mystery, hit me and overwhelmed me.

van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), center panel

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden. The center panel, showing the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the whole Christian life because it is Christian life itself. In the Eucharist we have the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, really and truly present. In Holy Communion we share in His full humanity and His full divinity; we partake of His eternal life itself — the love and the life of God delivered to us directly, not just spiritually but corporeally and viscerally. We are united with Him more intimately than we can ever be united with anyone else, in the flesh as well as in the spirit; united with the very Body of Christ, in Communion not only with Him but with all the saints and believers who have been united with Him over the ages, in the Church on earth and in His eternal kingdom. The Eucharist is our font and our apex because from it flows all else: all the grace by which God forgives us and saves us; all the faith and hope and love with which He imbues us; all the power and authority and ability He gives us to turn from sin and follow Him, to pursue His righteousness, to love and minister to others. All the preaching, all the teaching, all the ministry, all the fellowship are subsumed to the Eucharist because without the Eucharist we could have none of those. It is the source of our life; our very food from heaven.

In the grace of the Eucharist, I find so much strength, but at the same time see how truly weak I am, how desperately I need Christ, how I am nothing without Him. Where before the Lord’s Supper was “no big deal” to me, a nice symbol and memorial, now not only my faith, but my entire life orbits the Eucharist. I know I cannot live without His Presence; the Lord’s Day is the center of my week; my soul and my body ache to be departed from Him even the few days in between. What is this miracle, what is this mystery, what is this treasure God has given us?

The Protestant will ask, can you support that biblically? And yes, Jesus states it plainly (John 6:22–71):

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. … I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. Somehow, by some tragic blindness, Protestants interpret this passage as symbolism and metaphor. But the universal witness of the early Church attests to the belief of the earliest Christians in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and of its centrality to the Christian life. For Christian life is about communion with Christ — even Protestants should admit this — and it is only in the Eucharist, the Most Blessed Sacrament, that we have the true and full Communion with Him that His Body was broken for; that He gave to us for all time.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Witness of the Early Church, and Three Important Lessons He Can Teach Us

Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr. St. Ignatius was born in Syria ca. 50, and is believed to have been a disciple of the Apostle St. John. He became the third Bishop of Antioch, following St. Peter and St. Evodius, in ca. 69. In about 108, on the authority of the emperor Trajan, St. Ignatius was arrested and condemned to die for his faith before a Roman audience.

It is at this point that he becomes for us one of the greatest μάρτυρες (martyrs) of the Early Church. A martyr in Greek literally is a witness, one who gives testimony — and in his death, St. Ignatius not only bore great testimony for his faith in Christ, but he bears great testimony to us in this day of the faith, beliefs, and practices of the Early Church. For on his way to Rome, he wrote seven letters to the Churches of Asia Minor, exhorting them to remain firm in their faith, and to the Church at Rome, admonishing the believers there not to intervene and prevent him from giving his ultimate witness.

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

A.D. 108 — this is scarcely two generations from the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, at the very closing of the Apostolic Age: the Apostle John is believed to have died as late as ca. 100. Ignatius of Antioch lived early enough to have known several of the Apostles and heard their teachings. He was held in high esteem by the entire Church, a well-known, respected, and authoritative bishop and teacher. He was notorious enough even outside the Church for Trajan to have made an example of him. So we have every reason to trust Ignatius’s testimony regarding the faith of the Christian Church of his day — the faith received from the Apostles.

What Ignatius can teach us

The Authority of the Bishop

Bishops' Croziers

The crozier, one of the symbols of the episcopate.

There has been considerable debate among historians about the development of the episcopacy and at what point in the growth of the Church the office of bishop came to mean what it means to the Church today. Bishops (or overseers — the Greek is ἐπίσκοποι* [episkopoi]) are described in the New Testament (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:7), but it appears that in the earliest days of the Church, the offices of bishop and presbyter (πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], or elder — the presbyters of the Church became what we call priests) may have been to some extent synonymous. (For example, in 1 Peter 5:1, St. Peter refers to himself as a fellow presbyter†; in the above passage in 1 Timothy 3, St. Paul describes the offices of bishop and deacon but not presbyter.) The governance of the local church by only one monarchical bishop, as came to be the model and continues to be the model, is known to historians as the monoepiscopacy — with some liberal scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, suggesting that it was not established until well into the second century. This has particular bearing on the claims of the Church of Rome — for its bishop is also known as the pope, and as the successor of St. Peter, claims primacy over the whole Church.

* See “Bishops and Priests” for a lengthier discussion of the Greek for this terms.

† In the Church to this day, however, all bishops are presbyters (priests), but not all priests are bishops.

St. Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Clement), dated ca. 95, does not give explicit evidence of the monoepiscopacy (neither does it contradict it). But St. Ignatius’s letters, dated ca. 107, give absolute and undeniable evidence of the monoepiscopacy, and he asserts it as a known and established fact, not as a recent institution:

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery [i.e. the priests] as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8)

Not only does the bishop have absolute authority in the local church, but neither baptisms nor the Eucharist are valid without the ministry or approval of the bishop. This establishes definitely the monoepiscopacy, the subordinate roles of presbyters and deacons, and the authority of the bishop over the Sacraments of the Church. Ignatius compares the office of the bishop in every community of believers to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist — Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (This is also the earliest known description of the Church as Catholic, or universal.)

The Belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

Eucharistic adoration

The Catholic Church believes that in the Eucharist, the elements of bread and wine become in reality the Body and Blood of Christ. Many Protestant detractors argue that this doctrine is a later development and not a true apostolic teaching (despite clear statements in Scripture, e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29). St. Ignatius, however, attests firmly to the Church’s belief in the Real Presence in the first decade of the second century — a much earlier time than Protestants would like to admit, and too soon after the Apostles for such a doctrine to have been “invented”:

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh (σάρξ) of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6–7)

The Compilation of the New Testament

Codex Vaticanus

A leaf from Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

Third and finally, Ignatius’s writings demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the New Testament Scriptures, and he quotes from them as if from memory — it is unlikely that he would have been traveling to his death with a full church library. Working from the citations labeled by the editors of the texts at New Advent, I find:

  • Matthew
  • John
  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 1 John

Considering the contemporaneous Martyrdom of Ignatius, believed to have been written by eyewitnesses to Ignatius’s death — probably the believers who accompanied him to Rome — adds Acts and 2 Corinthians to the list above.

NOTE (2013/10/30): I may have to review this argument. It seems the editors of the Ante-Nicene Fathers may have been a little overzealous in their citations, and marked as Scripture references passages and phrases that were not explicitly Scripture references. I withhold a verdict at this time, until I can study the problem more deeply.

That makes for a fairly comprehensive collection of New Testament documents. Ignatius was familiar with the writings of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John, and St. James, as well as the Gospel of Matthew — the citations ascribed to which, I suppose, might include references to the other Synoptic Gospels also. For a date mere decades after these documents were written — and these documents having been written in diverse parts of the Christian world — the Church seems to have very quickly assembled the collection known as the New Testament nearly in its entirety. And what’s more, Ignatius quotes from the New Testament with the same authority as he quotes from Old Testament Scripture — certainly the Church in Ignatius’s day considered the Gospels and apostolic letters holy, inspired writings. By the first decade of the second century, the Church had nearly (if not fully) assembled intact the body of Scripture that has been handed down to the Church today.

Eat my flesh and drink my blood: A crucial Gospel passage, the Catholic Eucharist, and bad Protestant commentary

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio. (WikiPaintings.org)

Often when it comes to the Scripture readings at Mass — especially in early morning Masses — I must confess, my eyes sometimes tend to glaze over a little and I don’t absorb them as well as I should. This is why it’s important for me to have read them beforehand, something I often don’t do in my hurry. But yesterday, in my recent commitment to greater spiritual study, I decided to take the time to thoroughly study today’s Mass readings, knowing that I wouldn’t have time in the morning. And it made an incredible difference. When it came to the Liturgy of the Word, the words of Scripture rang glowingly into my ear, like dear, familiar friends. Even in my undercaffeinated state, my mind grasped them and made connections, especially when Father Joe illuminated them in the homily.

The past few Sundays the Mass readings have focused on John Chapter 6, which culminates in Jesus’s proclamation, “I am the Bread of Life.” This is one of the most crucial passages in all the Gospels, not only for the good news of salvation, but even more particularly for the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:54-55). Catholics read this, together with the narratives of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23), as an explicit statement of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, and of the Eucharist itself as the source and summit of our faith, the Sacrament through which we intimately encounter Christ and receive his graces.

Holy Communion

As a Protestant, of course, I didn’t read it that way. Much as I do at early morning Masses, my eyes glazed over and I saw only what I had always been taught. I could not see, despite Jesus’s best attempt to be frank and make Himself clear. Jesus saying that He is the Bread of Life is of course a metaphor. “Eating” and “drinking” Jesus just means, metaphorically, that we should consume and inbibe the Word of God. Of course He didn’t mean that we should really eat Him. The thought never even occurred to me; it would have startled me if it had — as it did the moment I first read it in the light of the Catholic explanation, at age thirty-something.

Once I saw that, there was no going back. I could never again read the passage and see anything but the obvious. I have a difficult time now even grasping at alternate, symbolic interpretations for the sake of argument. So I was taken aback to read the Protestant commentary on this passage in the study notes of my heretofore favorite Bible, the evangelical ESV Study Bible. This is by far the glibbest, most sectarian analysis I have yet found here. It exhibits either willful ignorance of the historical Christian (and Catholic) understanding, or wanton dishonesty.

Poussin, Institution of the Eucharist (1640)

Institution of the Eucharist (1640), by Nicolas Poussin. (WikiPaintings.org)

I am hesitant to name names, but this is a matter of some import — the very underpinning of historic Christianity and of the Catholic faith. I am thankful that my ESV Study Bible at least gives ample credit to the contributors of each book’s study notes. The notes to the Gospel of John are by Dr. Andreas J. Köstenberger [1, 2], Senior Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary — someone who should know better. I do not here aim to slam Dr. Köstenberger — I cannot fault the man, or the editors of the ESV Study Bible, or the executives at Crossway, for stating an evangelical interpretation in an evangelical publication for an evangelical audience. But I am here calling him out for some flagrantly bad commentary, that doesn’t even consider — even to reject it — a prominent theological view held not only by the majority of the world’s Christians, but by the entirety of the Christian Church until the Protestant Reformation (as we have seen). It seems rather to reflect a desire to sweep the historical view under the rug, to pretend it doesn’t exist, has not been historically significant, and is not widely held to this day. This is not an uncommon evangelical tactic, but I expected higher of the ESV Study Bible and of Dr. Köstenberger.

The Bread of Life

Alvazovsky, Jesus Walks on Water (1888)

Jesus Walks on Water (1888), by Ivan Alvazovsky. (WikiPaintings.org)

This is a lengthy passage of Scripture — encompassing in its full context John 6:22-71, some fifty verses and 1,000 words. I encourage you to read the whole thing. The ESV translation of the text itself is solid, as I have found it to be elsewhere almost without exception. For the sake of brevity, I will summarize and paraphrase a bit.

This speech takes place very soon after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus fed the multitude (earlier in the chapter in John’s Gospel, John 6:1-15). The Apostles got in the boat to cross to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and Jesus walked on water to meet them (John 6:16-21). When the crowd — the Jesus groupies — realized where He’d gone, they flocked to Him and resumed asking Him questions (John 6:22-25). Jesus answered:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” (John 6:26-27)

Rembrandt, The Supper at Emmaus (1648)

The Supper at Emmaus (1648), by Rembrandt. (WikiPaintings.org)

The crowd still had food on the brain; their own stomachs, or what they could get out of Jesus materially or temporally: how Jesus could help them in their day-to-day lives and make them prosperous and healthy (not unlike many Christians today). Jesus urged them not to work for temporal, perishable food, but the food that He will give to them, the food of salvation. The crowd asked how they were supposed to work for this food (John 6:28). Jesus answered:

“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)

The crowd expected Jesus to perform a sign for them, as a prophet would, that they might believe in Him. Moses made manna, bread from heaven, fall to feed our fathers in the wilderness (John 6:30-31). Jesus answered:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32-33)

Okay, yes, Jesus is building a metaphor here — a beautifully rhetorical one. Manna came down from heaven from God, and it gave nourishment to the Israelites. The Son of Man came down from heaven, and will give life to the whole world. And…

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

Christ (1585), by El Greco. (WikiPaintings.org)

In reading this passage and other similar passages, one should understand that in Greek, the person (i.e. first person, second person, third person) is contained in the verb. Writing only εἰμι contains the full sense of “I am.” So when the personal pronoun is added in addition (ἐγώ εἰμι, or egō eimi), it makes a strong, emphatic declaration. “Just to be clear, y’all: This bread from heaven I’m talking about? It’s me. I am the bread of life. Come to me and believe in me, and you’ll never hunger or thirst again.”

Verses 36 through 40 — containing the statements that God the Father gives Christ those who will be saved, and it is God’s will that Christ should lose none of them, and that all who believe in Christ should be saved and have eternal life — have a lot of bearing on soteriology, especially in discussion of divine election. I don’t gloss over them here to avoid that discussion, but because it’s not my point at the moment.

The Jews grumbled among themselves. “Who does this guy think he is, saying he is the bread of life and that he came down from heaven? We know his parents; he came from right down the road” (John 6:41-42).

And we come to the point of contention:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus (1602)

Supper at Emmaus (1602), by Caravaggio. (WikiPaintings.org)

And Jesus’s beautiful metaphor hit the floor with a sickening splat. What!? All this talk about being the bread of life; “believe in me and you shall never be hungry again” — and then He brought it back to the stomach, with a stomach-turning suggestion. He had so far been drawing the metaphor between the Israelites eating manna in the desert for their daily, temporary sustenance, and Himself being the true bread, with which they would never hunger or thirst again; that the work of receiving this bread is only to believe in Him. And then Jesus blew the metaphor away. “If you eat this bread, you will live forever. And oh, this bread is my flesh. That’s right. I want you to eat my flesh” (John 6:47-51). And the Jews understood His words exactly like that: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52)

Here is where I will begin addressing Dr. Köstenberger's commentary. For the above verses, he writes:

living bread. The “bread” Jesus gives is his flesh (a reference to Jesus’ death on the cross). Jesus’ statement intermingles physical and spiritual truth. Jesus is not talking about literal “bread,” but he is the true “living bread” in the sense that those who believe in him have their spiritual hunger satisfied. He becomes this spiritually satisfying “bread” by sacrificing his own physical body in his death on the cross, and in that sense he can say that this spiritual bread is my flesh.

Now, that is actually helpful. I had not thought of His “flesh” here referring to the Crucifixion; to giving of His flesh for the whole world, by which we are able to consume it. It is an important and valid point. In this sense the metaphor continues. But Köstenberger’s note does not address the more immediate point: Jesus just disgusted His listeners with perhaps the most repugnant notion possible in the Jewish world, one so unthinkable that the Torah doesn’t even address it: cannibalism; the eating of human flesh. So, presuming Jesus was speaking metaphorically, He is now going to clarify the misunderstanding, right?

No; in fact, He just made it worse:

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53-55)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto. (WikiPaintings.org)

“Not only do I want you to eat my flesh, but I want you to drink my blood.” The Jews have one of the most hemophobic cultures on this planet; there is little that is more disgusting and offensive to a Jew than being expected to touch blood, let alone consume it. And Jesus did not use the standard Greek verb “to eat” here when he emphasized this eating and drinking: φᾰγεῖν (phagein) is the standard, classical Greek verb “to eat,” the way humans eat a meal. The verb here instead is τρώγειν (trōgein), used especially of animals eating or feeding, most literally translated as “to bite, chew, gnaw.” The ESV translates this word above and in the following verses as “whoever feeds on my flesh.” Jesus, in explaining his proposition, was possibly being vulgar. “You must feed (as a horse feeds) — you must munch — on my body.” At the very least, His use of this word removed any doubt that He was referring to a physical eating, not a spiritual or metaphorical one. If Jesus was aiming to turn off his followers, He was doing a fine job.

Now, this verse — verse 55 — actually conceals what appears to be a significant question in textual criticism. I haven’t studied it in depth; I have a feeling a lot has been written on it, which I’d be interested to read. But where Jesus said that His flesh is “true food” and His blood is “true drink,” there are variant readings for the word translated “true.” The variation is minor, only a single letter; but it significantly shapes how the verse is understood. Is the word here ἀληθς (alēthōs), an adverb, or ἀληθής (alēthēs), an adjective? The words are of course related; but the variation means the difference between “My flesh is true food” — as modern textual critics and translators have concluded — or “My flesh is truly food” — as the texts available to the King James translators (i.e. William Tyndale) read.

"aletho" in Codex Sinaiticus

The disputed word in Codex Sinaiticus. The original text reads ΑΛΗΘѠϹ (αληθως), but note the correction: an eta (Η) written in superscript over the omega (Ѡ) — and then erased.
(Source: CodexSinaiticus.com)

(N.B. You can skip this paragraph unless you want the fine, nerdy details of the textual variant. I for one love a textual mystery!) And the disagreement is meaty. While generally the oldest and most reliable manuscripts — Codex Vaticanus (4th century) and Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus (5th century) being the best witnesses — give the adjectival reading, there is evidence of early confusion. Codex Sinaiticus (4th century) originally read with the adverb, but was corrected to the adjective — and then re-corrected back to the adverb. The only two papyri extant for the passage — Papyrus 66 (ca. A.D. 200, one of the oldest of all manuscripts) and Papyrus 75 (3rd century) — also show the disagreement. Papyrus 66 originally read with the adverb, but was corrected to agree with Papyrus 75, which contains the adjective. Among the oldest manuscripts, the adjectival reading appears to have won the debate. But in the longer term, the Majority (Byzantine) Text, which came to dominate and is represented by the majority of later extant manuscripts, and formed the so-called Textus Receptus used in the King James translation — received the adverbial reading. In sum: I tend to think, as an educated amateur, that the question is significant enough to at least warrant a footnote in modern translations of the alternate reading. I think there’s a possibility that the adverb — “truly” instead of “true” — was the original reading. But NA27, on which most recent Bible translations are based, selects the adjectival reading; and they know a lot more than I do.

Whether ἀληθής or ἀληθῶς — the adverb is derived from the adjective — the meaning is clear and explicit. Both the BDAG and the LSJ agree: the adjective means “true, real, genuine.” I personally think the adverb makes for a funner translation: “truly, really, actually, in reality” — because I would love to translate this word “for real.”

Jesus said, “My body is real food and my blood is real drink” — or “My body is really food and my blood is really drink.” In response to the Jews’ question, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus not only didn’t correct them, but restated his original statement even more explicitly. “If you want eternal life, you must actually eat my body and drink my blood.”

But of these verses, despite Jesus’s insistence and clarity, Dr. Köstenberger comments:

Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood cannot be intended literally, for no one ever did that.

Dürer, Last Supper (1510)

Last Supper (1510), by Albrecht Dürer. (WikiPaintings.org)

What? Really? No one ever did what? Of course no one ever fed on Jesus’s flesh while attached to His frame, literally gnawed it from His bone; but Christians have been literally eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking His blood for 2,000 years. Or does Köstenberger mean, “No one ever intended (that reading)”? In either case, this statement, quite ridiculously, skirts over the many centuries of history when all Christians — every great Church Father and theologian — in fact did interpret this statement literally. In disputed passages of other books of the ESV Study Bible, the commentators give their evangelical interpretation, and then politely explain why they believe the Roman Catholic understanding is false. To comment on such a passage as this, and not even note that the majority of Christians in the world, Catholic and Orthodox, have a very different understanding of it, is misleading and a disservice to even evangelical readers, who should be aware of such an important disagreement.

Köstenberger continues:

As Jesus has done frequently in this Gospel, he is speaking in terms of physical items in this world to teach about spiritual realities. Here, to “eat” Jesus’ flesh has the spiritual meaning of trusting or believing in him, especially in his death for the sins of mankind. (See also v. 35, where Jesus speaks of coming to him as satisfying “hunger” and believing in him as satisfying “thirst.”) Similarly, to “drink his blood” means to trust in his atoning death, which is represented by the shedding of his blood.

Yes, this is the way Jesus teaches. But in this speech, He made clear that the act of “eating” and “drinking” encompasses both physical and spiritual realities. To “eat” Jesus’s flesh and “drink” His blood does indeed have the spiritual meaning of trusting and believing in Him. But if the spiritual meaning were the only one Jesus intended, why His emphasis, to the point of revulsion, on physically “eating” and “drinking”?

Murillo, Baptism of Christ (c. 1665)

Baptism of Christ (c. 1665), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. (WikiPaintings.org)

One of the keys to understanding Catholic theology — and one of the beauties, in its simplicity and complexity at the same time — is that just as this passage conveys both a physical and a spiritual sense, each of the Sacraments conveys both a physical and a spiritual effect. The Sacraments consist outwardly in simple, physical actions: washing with water, anointing with oil, the laying on of hands. And these actions not only symbolize a spiritual reality — the washing away of sins, the passing of authority and commissioning of duty — but they actually accomplish spiritually what they represent physically. It does what it says on the tin. Baptism not only symbolizes and outwardly represents the washing away of sins; but the physical washing with water, by the power of the Holy Spirit, actually accomplishes the spiritual washing away of sins. The consecration of Holy Orders by the laying on of hands not only symbolizes the passing of authority and binding to service; but it actually accomplishes the infusion of spiritual authority by apostolic succession.

And likewise the Eucharist, by the simple act of eating and drinking the consecrated Hosts, that have truly become the Body and Blood of Christ, not only symbolizes and represents Communion in Christ’s Body, but actually infuses us with His grace. We literally, physically, spiritually share in Christ’s Body and Blood, in His humanity and divinity, in His eternal life, as He here made plain in this Scripture.

Köstenberger again:

Although Jesus is not speaking specifically about the Lord’s Supper here, there is a parallel theme, because the receiving of eternal life through being united with “the Son of Man” is represented in the Lord’s Supper (where Jesus’ followers symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood; cf. 1 Cor. 11:23–32). This is anticipated in OT feasts (see 1 Cor. 5:7) and consummated in the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9).

Giotto, The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1306), by Giotto. Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua. (WikiPaintings.org)

No way! You think? What an incredible coincidence, that Jesus would speak of eating his body and drinking his blood here, and then again at the Lord’s Supper! And both here and there, this eating and drinking is how one receives eternal life! Jesus said that one must eat his body and drink his blood to receive eternal life — and then at the Lord’s Supper, he offered the Bread as His body and the Cup as His Blood. Even when I was an evangelical, I understood the John 6 passage to be not only parallel to the Lord’s Supper, but an explicit reference, a foreshadowing.

After Jesus was done speaking, his disciples said to Him, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60) “Jesus, that’s disgusting. Who wants to hear about eating your body and drinking your blood?”

But Köstenberger takes just the opposite interpretation:

It was a hard saying because they wrongly interpreted Jesus’ statements literally.

Yes, that’s the way they interpreted it; but if they wrongly interpreted His statements literally, Jesus had yet another opportunity here to correct them, when they directly challenged what He said. But instead He answered:

“Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”

The words are not just spirit, they are also life. This reads as a continuing insistence that what He said before is what He meant. “But some of you still don’t get it.”

“After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66). Because they are disgusted and disillusioned by what Jesus had just said. And still Jesus made no attempt to correct them, if there were some misunderstanding.

But Köstenberger seems to suggest that this statement is not even connected to His prior speech:

Many of these early disciples were not genuine disciples of Christ, for they turned back. Their initial “faith” was not genuine and they were perhaps following Jesus only because of the physical benefits he gave, such as healing and multiplying food.

This just happens to be where John notes their departure. But emphasizing that these departures are in fact connected to his previous words:

So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “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.” (John 6:66-69)

The context of this all is still Jesus’s “words of eternal life.”

Curiously, after all these explicit statements about eating Jesus’s body and drinking His blood, the Gospel of John contains no narrative of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. All three of the Synoptic Gospels have it; why doesn’t John?

Veronese, Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples (1580s)

Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples (1580s), by Paolo Veronese. (WikiPaintings.org)

I recently read a very compelling book review that deals with just this problem. In Eucharist and Covenant in John’s Last Supper Account, Msgr. Anthony La Femina proposes that Christ’s washing of the Apostles’ feet (John 13:1-20) — the central action of John’s narrative of the Last Supper, but something none of the Synoptics mention — is in fact an analogy for the institution of the Eucharist. According to La Femina, the footwashing narrative contains all of the elements of the institution of the Eucharist — the command to repeat the action, a foreshadowing of Jesus’s death, a reference to his betrayer Judas Iscariot, and covenantal language which La Femina says echoes the language of Near Eastern treaties. It seems a compelling thesis that I would like to read more about.

But as for Jesus’s speech in John 6:22-71, there seems little question about what Jesus meant: If He did not intend for His words to suggest an actual eating and drinking of His body and blood, He would not have emphasized this statement more explicitly when questioned about it, and He would have made some effort to clarify the misunderstanding when His disciples protested, if it was in fact a misunderstanding. Dr. Köstenberger’s notes in the ESV Study Bible seem not only to present a sectarian interpretation — which is expected — but to consciously ignore and dismiss the historical understanding of the passage. At best, they present unhelpful commentary, missing and dismissing obvious connections and leading away from a thorough understanding of the text rather than toward it.

The Body and Blood of Christ

Eucharistic adoration

Today at Mass we celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. According to the Roman Missal, the actual date of the feast worldwide was last Thursday, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday; but in countries in which Corpus Christi is not a Holy Day of Obligation, including the United States, it is commuted to the following Sunday. In short, I get a slight reprieve for forgetting to blog about it on Thursday.

Corpus Christi celebrates the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Brad made a brilliant and fascinating post over at SFC on the historical origins of Corpus Christi, to which there is little I can add. But in the spirit of my own blog, I wanted to say a few words about my journey toward a belief in the Real Presence, and share my own tribute.

The Doctrine of the Real Presence in Scripture and Theology

First, what do I mean by “Real Presence”? I take for granted that most people know, but I certainly didn’t until I studied the Church in school. Catholics (and Orthodox, too) believe and affirm that Christ’s Body and Blood are really present in our Eucharist — that our Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is not just bread and wine, but that by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the elements actually become the Body and Blood of Christ. I am not theologian enough to argue to the fine point of transubstantiation, but it amounts to this: we believe that the substance of the the bread and wine change into the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ; while everything that we can see, feel, smell, and taste (the appearances, or species in Latin) remains the same. Christ’s Body and Blood are contained in the Eucharist, under the forms of the bread and wine. Father Joe has a great, accessible post from a week or two ago on the doctrine of transubstantiation, St. Justin Martyr, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Many Protestants, on the other hand, believe that Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, is only a symbol or memorial. Others, like Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists, have varying ideas about the Real Presence. Growing up, I was taught that it was only a memorial, though the doctrine was never clearly stated. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Christ said in St. Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist. “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26): these are the verses that were always emphasized. I frankly, now, have a very difficult time understanding how Protestants can read even this passage (and especially the parts before and after it) as describing anything but a real, actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist; let alone the passages in when Jesus was describing it (Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:17-20, and especially John 6:22-59). I simply don’t see any other way to interpret it than as the Eucharist being Christ’s Body and Blood. I would be very happy if some of my Protestant friends could discuss that with me (civilly and, I hope, productively).

Eucharist

I’ve posted about the Real Presence before, and gave some important proof texts attesting to the very early belief in the Real Presence. It is very clear that St. Paul, the Apostles, and their followers all believed the Eucharist to be much more than a symbol. How did Protestants fall away from a belief in the Real Presence? I know Luther rejected transubstantiation, but affirmed a different idea of the Real Presence. Did Calvin reject the Real Presence? According to the wiki, Calvin rejected a real, physical presence, but still affirmed a definite spiritual presence. Apparently we owe the view that the Eucharist is only a memorial to Zwingli. Many thanks to the wiki.

The Real Presence in My Journey of Faith

Growing up, despite believing that Communion was only a symbol, it was always an occasion for solemn reflection. The churches I was a part of never had Communion with particular frequency; only about once a month (I suppose the Methodists had it every week). It was in college, as I learned about the Church in history classes, that I first learned of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence. And immediately, I admired it, and somehow longed for it, long before I even realized I was longing for it: it was something real, something substantial, something tangible; something more than I was getting: a way to actually touch the presence of my Lord. Every time we took Communion after that, I began receiving it with the idea of “what if” this is really Jesus; until I began to think that “I want” it to really be Jesus.

It wasn’t until I was halfway converted already that I realized how wrong it was that I admired the Church Fathers so much, while discounting so much of what they believed, including the Real Presence. And by that time, there was no turning back. So much of my belief in Catholic doctrine was less a process of having to be convinced, than of acknowledging that the Catholic Church was the True Church, and belief in its doctrine falling in line after that.

Eucharistic Hymns

Before I close, let me share with you a couple of my favorite reflections on the Real Presence in the Eucharist. I have always loved Ave verum corpus, even long before I was Catholic, especially through Mozart’s setting:

St. Thomas Aquinas’s Adoro te devote is also very important to me, reminding me that even though what we see is bread — even though even the most brilliant minds may doubt — it is our Lord beneath the species:

I devoutly adore you, O hidden Deity,
Truly hidden beneath these appearances.
My whole heart submits to you,
And in contemplating you,
It surrenders itself completely.

Sight, touch, taste are all deceived
In their judgment of you,
But hearing suffices firmly to believe.
I believe all that the Son of God has spoken;
There is nothing truer than this word of truth.

On the cross only the divinity was hidden,
But here the humanity is also hidden.
I believe and confess both,
And ask for what the repentant thief asked.

I do not see the wounds as Thomas did,
But I confess that you are my God.
Make me believe more and more in you,
Hope in you, and love you.

(There is more).

Emotion and the Leap of Faith

I wondered if receiving the Real Presence would feel any different than any other time I’d taken Communion in my life.

Eucharistic adoration

I wondered if the Sacrament of Confirmation would evince any inward or outward change in me — if I would feel that, too.

Through the years of confusion I experienced as a Pentecostal, I learned to be very distrustful of my emotions. If I feel a sensation, I wondered, can I rightly ascribe it to God? By what justification? How do I know it’s God, and not my own self-stimulation? Because I know well how easy it is to drive myself to feel, even to believe, things that I dearly want to feel and believe. How do I know if it’s real?

It all, of course, comes down to faith. What can be observed empirically and proven objectively about God never quite reaches all the way across the chasm of unbelief. There has to be a leap of faith* — and I’m pretty sure this is by design. No matter how much God reveals about Himself, He always leaves that ever-so-slight gap, foiling any attempt at absolute proof. Because of what value would faith be if everything about God could be explained and proven — if the existence of God and the truth of Christ were as certain as the physics of the sun and the moon? How could believers be a people set apart if every scientist and every joe on the street had to believe, however grudgingly, or if God were as obvious and as commonplace as Barack Obama? How could we trust God with faith like a child if we could pin Him to a specimen board and probe Him with all our powers of scientific observation?

(* I am told Kierkegaard wrote about this “leap of faith” and in fact coined the phrase, but I’m not much of a philosopher and haven’t read Kierkegaard — though I’d like to.)

And this is where, I think, there’s room for experience and emotion — especially for people like me who experience strong emotions. I cannot found my faith on emotion — this for years has been my greatest fear: to build my faith on the shifting sand of emotion, and to have it all collapse out from under me yet again. But if emotion, deep feeling, sensibility to the stirrings of the heart, is a gift that I’ve been given — can it not be another set of eyes, one more lens to edge me yet a little closer across that chasm?

I also have a rational brain and acute intellectual tools — but these are faculties I’ve had to build and cultivate and train; my natural inclination is to follow my heart. I have had to discipline my heart and my mind; temper my strong emotions with the moderation of reason. I hear so many reactionary Christians lash out against academia and education in fear and anger — but this is what the academy has done for me: not destroyed my faith, but given me the implements to build a sturdier and more secure foundation for God to base my faith on. My faith is stronger and more unshakable, by worlds, than at any moment of the fervency of my youth; and paradoxically, by equal measure, it’s also more passionate and deeply felt. When I believe with my reason that the object of my faith is real, then I am free to feel with my heart all the love and joy and peace with which I have been blessed. When my faith is founded upon what I know and can observe and can reason, then emotion becomes the beautiful and glorious ornament built on top that reaches even higher: all of my most soaring effluences of feeling become exultant spires raising to the heavens.

So did it feel different? Yes, it did! I went back to my pew, ruminating on what had just happened: I had just consumed, taken into my body, the true, real, physical Body and Blood of my Redeemer. I had joined my flesh to His flesh and my spirit to His Spirit; I had communed in His very elements; I had been touched by God. And it felt like the most intimate thing I had ever experienced. The most beautiful, most precious feeling I had ever felt: a feeling of total love and absolute acceptance.

Holy Spirit as Dove

And my Confirmation: “Be sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit,” Father Joe spoke. The Sign of the Cross on my forehead: the oil of chrism marking me as Christ’s for all eternity. It was the sweetest smell I had ever smelled in my life; I didn’t want to wash my face that night, but even after I did, I could still smell it. I could still feel the mark there; I still can. It felt like the most precious kiss of heaven: a sign, both temporal and eternal, of love and belonging and protection; a brand identifying me as Christ’s and binding me to His Church, a member of His flock for all time. Now, I believe I have known the Holy Spirit for quite some time: but this most certainly marked a fresh and special outpouring; a total immersion in His grace. And I feel like a completely different person.

Broken Communion

EucharistToday I’m troubled by the first major challenge from my parents to the Catholic Church: not so much, thankfully, to my personal journey, but ostensibly to the Catholic practice of closed communion.

My father feels offended to be excluded from the Catholic Eucharist. As a baptized Christian, he feels he is privileged to partake. He feels that in denying him communion, the Church is in effect saying he is not a Christian. He feels that the practice of closed communion perpetuates division in the Body of Christ. My mother is hurt that she could not come to my church and take communion with me, or I with her at her church.

Frankly, I had no expectation that this would be an issue. It had not even occurred to me that this would be upsetting to anyone until I googled and found that many Protestants were troubled by this matter. From the very first time I attended Mass some seven years ago, then a thoroughgoing Protestant, it seemed perfectly natural and reasonable to me for the Catholic Church to exclude non-Catholics from the Eucharist. I recognized, even then, that the Church held the Eucharist to be most sacred, was very protective of it, and didn’t offer it to just anybody.

Further study revealed that closed communion is nothing new; it’s one of the most ancient customs of the Church:

But let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist, but they who have been baptized into the name of the Lord; for concerning this also the Lord has said, “Give not that which is holy to the dogs” (Didache 9, ca. mid to late first century A.D.).

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 has rejoined (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 65, ca. A.D. 150.).

So the Eucharist was closed to non-Christians; it was only open to baptized Christians who believed the truth of catholic teaching. Certainly, in those early days, when Christianity was outlawed and persecuted, an unknown stranger could not have simply shown up at a Christian meeting, professed to be a baptized Christian, and been received into the Mysteries; no, he would have to have been a known, accepted, and approved member of that community, or else commended to it by other known, accepted, and approved Christians. The Eucharist was closed for the Church’s protection. The unbaptized were not even allowed to be present at the Eucharist, let alone to receive it.

Pope Benedict distributing the Eucharist to a child

Pope Benedict distributing the Eucharist to a child.

What says, then, that communion should be open? My dad points out that there is nothing in Scripture that says explicitly that communion should be closed; but likewise there is nothing in Scripture that says that it should be open to all without restriction. St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians, is writing to the church at Corinth, a closed communion of Christian believers. He does not recommend that the church open its doors and its table to strangers from the street; he is advising the church in the context of its own private, closed Eucharistic celebration. The Eucharist, the Communion of believers with Christ and with each other, is the most intimate and precious of all the Christian Mysteries. It was closely protected and guarded.

But this is 2012. There is no longer the need for such protection, is there? The liturgy of the Mass is no longer a closely-guarded secret; there are no longer accusations of cannibalism in Christians consuming the Lord’s Body and Blood; there are no longer persecutions unto death in our country. My parents are both baptized Christians. Shouldn’t they, known, accepted, and approved Christians, be allowed to receive the Eucharist, too?

That depends on what you believe the Eucharist to be. Evangelical Protestant communities that practice open communion by and large believe that the Lord’s Supper is merely symbolic, a memorial gesture of communion with the Lord, with no sacramental value. When I questioned my dad, this is basically what he affirmed. Christ extends the offer of grace and salvation to all; so why wouldn’t communion in His Body and Blood be extended to all? This exclusivity, this seeming denial of grace to the uninitiated, is what offends my dad.

Eucharistic adorationBut if you believe, as the Catholic Church believes, that the Eucharist is a real, actual, physical communion, in body and spirit, with the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, a sacramental commingling of our elements with His Elements, then it seems to me that you would have no choice but to be protective of that communion, and selective of who partakes in it. The Early Church allowed only those who believed and affirmed the reality of that Holy Communion. Why would the modern Church allow anyone who denies that reality? Should the Church offer the most intimate communion with our Lord to just anyone who walks in off the street, who doesn’t even have faith in Him? You may be a Christian — and the Catholic Church affirms that, if you have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have a right to be called Christian (Unitatis Redintegratio I.3 § 1) — but if you deny His Real Presence in the Eucharist, it is you who are denying yourself full communion.

If you don’t share the Catholic belief in the Real Presence, why would you be offended at the closed communion? I think that is why it has never offended me: I recognized and respected that I believed differently. I think what offends my dad is the thought that since Christ’s death on the Cross was freely offered to all, why should participation in His Communion be offered to only a select few? This perception of exclusivity is in fact false. The Church has never excluded anyone from grace who sought it. She welcomes all Christians into full, Eucharistic Communion. But they must first affirm what she teaches: the reality of Christ’s presence in that Communion. What “perpetuates division” is Protestants’ continued denial of this core Catholic truth, the “source and summit of our faith.”

I think what offends my dad, even more fundamentally, is the idea that the Church has authority at all: the authority to tell anyone that they cannot celebrate the Eucharist when, where, and exactly how they wish. In the democratic and individualistic mindset that has ascended in modern evangelicalism, any individual is free to approach Christ outside and without the Church at all. It’s a misguided interpretation of the “priesthood of all believers,” taken to its furthest extreme: each believer individually is his own priest, and therefore needs no one else at all. And this gets into a whole ‘nother barrel of worms that I’ll have to deal with another time.

Suffice it to say that I am troubled. This will not stop the course I know I have been placed on; but I don’t want my parents to be offended or hurt. I don’t want them to feel excluded or rejected. But I’ve talked to my dad at length, and I don’t think there’s any getting past this; he’s unwilling to see the matter any other way.

The Real Presence

The Four Doctors of the Western Church

The Four Doctors of the Western Church: Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome.

I have admired the Church Fathers for a long time, since my first serious introduction to them some eight years ago in Dr. G’s History of the Christian Church. I conducted my first study of them in depth five years ago. And yet through all that time and reading, my own bias never occurred to me, until just a couple of weeks ago. “What have I been thinking?” it hit me with a start. I had been honoring these men, for their faith, their erudition, their devotion; and yet I was discounting and dismissing most of what they believed.

Did I somehow consider myself above their “superstitious,” “archaic” beliefs? Did I believe that in this age of science, we had adopted a more “rational” view of faith? Did I suppose that we moderns were too “reasonable” to subscribe to such “foolish” doctrines as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist?

Yes, reasonable like believing that the very Son of God would be born of a Virgin in a backwater Palestinian town? That he would make blind eyes see and the lame walk, with the power of his healing hands? That he would be crucified for the sins of humanity, and rise again from the dead in glory, to judge the living and the dead at the end of the age? That the Holy Bible is the written Word of God? If we believe all of this in faith, how is it any more “unreasonable” to believe that the bread and wine of our Eucharist become for us Christ’s Body and Blood? This is what Christ told us; this is what St. Paul affirmed; this is what every one of the Church Fathers believed.

One can (and has) written extended doctrinal treatises expositing this idea in Scripture and patristic thought; I don’t have time to go there, and you don’t have time to read it. So a few examples will suffice.

The key passage in the Gospels is in John 6. Jesus tells his listeners in the synagogue at Capernaum that he is the Bread of Life come down from heaven; that in eating him there would be eternal life. The Jews were incredulous, and wanted to take his words metaphorically; but rather than clarifying his statement, Jesus insisted:

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true [some translations, truly, indeed] food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (St. John the Evangelist, The Gospel according to St. John 6:52-55, ESV)

Many of his own disciples were confused and troubled by these claims — certainly outrageous, taken literally. “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (v. 66). But still he made no effort to correct them.

Similarly, at the Last Supper, Jesus spoke unambiguously:

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. (St. Luke, The Gospel according to St. Luke 22:19-20, ESV)

St. Paul, in describing the Eucharist, certainly understood it to be something more than a symbol:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (St. Paul, First Epistle to the Corinthians 11:27-29, written ca. A.D. 56)

Eucharistic adorationThere is no doubt that the earliest Fathers of the Church believed the bread and wine of the Eucharist were the actual Body and Blood of Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Church at Smyrna, ca. A.D. 110:

[Speaking of those with “heterodox opinions”] They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, since they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father raised up again in his kindness. (St. Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrneans 7)

St. Justin Martyr, in his First Apology (ca. A.D. 150), explains the Eucharist at length:

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 has rejoined. 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 are nourished, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus. (St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 65)

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the middle of the fourth century, declares:

Do not, therefore, regard the Bread and Wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catecheses 22, 6).

These are just a few of many, many examples I could have cited. From the very earliest witnesses, though the Middle Ages, the Real Presence was an accepted fact of the Christian religion. It was never seriously questioned until the Protestant Reformation. Since then, evangelical Protestants have insisted, with little justification, that the Eucharist is only a symbol or memorial. Most do not even consider that theirs is the new, unfounded doctrine, without scriptural or historical support.

[Sources for patristic quotations: Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988), 237-238; St. Ignatius quote supported by consultation of, and slight emendation from, Bart Ehrman, ed. and trans., The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003), 302-303]