On the Real Presence of the Eucharist

This article is the first of a two-part series on the Eucharist. The second article is titled “On the Priesthood and the Holy Sacrifice.” You can access it here.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Eucharist as “the source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). For those unfamiliar with the term “Eucharist,” it originates from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning thanksgiving. It is the same word Jesus uses in the New Testament Last Supper account:

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks [eucharistēsas], 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

For centuries, there has been a long-standing debate over the meaning of the words spoken at the Lord’s Supper. When Christ said, “This is my body,” was He conveying a symbolic or literal meaning? And if it was literal, does it indicate a physical presence, or merely a spiritual presence? In this article, I will attempt to answer these questions using Scripture and evidence from the writings of the early Christians. 

The first passage to examine is John 6. This passage is known as the Bread of Life discourse, which takes place directly after Jesus feeds the five thousand. I recommend reading this chapter fully to understand the context. Here, we see Jesus claiming to be the “living bread that came down from heaven” and that the bread He will give for the life of the world is His flesh (John 6:51-52). At first glance this appears jarring, and it provokes a contentious reaction in the crowd that He is preaching to:

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
—John 6:52

Clearly, the crowd understood His words to mean that He was speaking in a literal sense. They must have thought our Lord was a lunatic for saying that if anyone eats of His flesh, they will live forever (John 6:51). If Jesus’s message was supposed to be understood in a symbolic or spiritual sense, one would expect Him to clarify His words to explain their metaphorical meaning, so as not to be scandalous and lead people astray. There are other instances in the Gospels where similar situations arise and Christ clarifies the profound meaning of His words to His followers. Matthew 16:5–12 is one such example; Jesus warns his followers to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.” His followers interpreted this literally with their response: “We brought no bread.” Jesus, seeking to clarify His words, then chides them for failing to understand, and the disciples conclude that He was not discussing leaven literally, but referring to the heretical teaching of the Pharisees. Expecting that Jesus should clarify His words to His listeners when misinterpreted, let us see how He responds to the claims of those who believe He is saying they must literally and physically eat His flesh in order to live forever:

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 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.”
—John 6:53-58

In response to His teaching being questioned, Jesus does not back down from what He says; rather, He emphatically stresses that His flesh is true food and His blood is true drink. He is so bold as to claim that unless you eat you eat His flesh and drink His blood, you have no life in you! This set of verses are very evocative, and yet our Lord is clear: He abides in those who consume His flesh and blood. What is the reaction of His audience?

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? … After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.
—John 6:60-61, 66

After hearing their rabbi double down on a controversial teaching, His disciples admit it is a hard saying. Jesus turns to them and questions if they take offense at His teaching already knowing the answer; He does this so as to probe them. It is extremely important to note that this is the only place in Scripture where the Lord’s followers desert Him over a doctrinal dispute. This is a crucial scene in the Gospel of John, as it shows that many of Christ’s followers would have remained with His teaching had He not preached this. Jesus, however, knew this teaching was essential to the faith He was going to bring; twelve times He claims that He is the bread that came down from heaven; four times He claims they would have to eat His flesh and drink His blood.

Peter’s response to our Lord’s question is very indicative of the gravity of the teaching and what it implies:

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 6:68-69

Peter recognizes that this teaching is a hard saying, that it is difficult to grapple with. However, in spite of these reservations, He approaches the Lord in faith, knowing that He is trustworthy. Were the understanding that the teaching was non-controversial and pointed to a non-literal spiritual or symbolic consumption of Christ’s body and blood, it would seem absurd for Jesus to preach a whole sermon that is intentionally controversial, refuse to elaborate that the doctrine is less severe than what appears on the surface, and allow His own followers to leave Him due to His failure to clarify. Rather, it is more reasonable to assume that our Lord really meant what He said, which is why He goes to great lengths to express the physicality of consuming His flesh:  the Greek word used for “eats” (trogon) in John 6:56 is very blunt and literally means “to chew or gnaw upon.” This is not the language of metaphor, but language that triggers visceral reactions, and rightly so. 

I would now like to shift the exegesis of this article to another Eucharistic passage in 1 Corinthians 11. Let’s take a look:

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.
—1 Corinthians 11:27-30

St. Paul admonishes the church in Corinth in this passage to properly discern the Eucharist before consuming it. For those who partake of it in an unworthy manner (i.e. in a state of grave sin that has not been confessed and repented for), they eat and drink judgment upon themselves. The last line of the citation above is very telling; if one were to adopt a symbolic memorialist view, why would the consumption of the Eucharist in an unworthy manner cause people to be weak, sick, and dying? Rather, this passage points to the Real Presence of the Eucharist, the physical presence which triggers a physical reaction depending on the state of the souls who approach it. 

Having delved into two compelling Eucharistic passages, I would now like to take a look at what the early Christians, the Church Fathers, have to say on the Eucharist. Before I list their thoughts on the matter, I think it is important to ask ourselves why it matters what the Church Fathers believe.

For one, they understood the original language of the New Testament, Koine Greek (also known as Hellenistic Greek, or the Alexandrian dialect). The nuances of this style of Greek could have only been detected by the Church Fathers, who would’ve been familiar with the lingua franca of that time. While it is true that many modern Christian scholars can study ancient Greek and be able to read the New Testament in its original language, they lack the depth of gleaning certain textual details which only the Church Fathers would have been able to understand in their original historical context.

More importantly, the Apostles’ deposit of faith was entrusted to the early Church, and not all of their teachings were contained in the New Testament. For example, we cannot derive the canon of the New Testament from the Bible; nowhere does Jesus instruct his disciples to compile a New Testament. Modern scholarship has not discerned who the author of Hebrews is, and yet Christians trust that it is divinely inspired because the early Church said so. This lends credence to the fact that not all of the Apostles’ teaching was written down, but also orally transmitted (2 Thess. 2:15). Compared to how isolated we are from the events of the Gospels, the Church Fathers were very close to the apostolic deposit of faith, and the oral teaching of the Apostles would’ve been more familiar to them and in circulation during the first couple centuries of Church history; this is what qualifies these writers to be the supreme exegetes of Holy Scripture. We have the testimony of second century Church Fathers who lived within one to three generations of the Apostles themselves; thus, we should take into account their testimony seriously. Let’s look at what they have to say concerning the Eucharist:

Ignatius of Antioch

“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes”

Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]

Justin Martyr

“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 is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus

First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]

Irenaeus of Lyon

“If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood? … He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?”

Against Heresies 4:33, 5:2 [A.D. 189]

According to the patristic tradition, Ignatius was a disciple of John the Apostle. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was also a disciple of John the Apostle. All of these men across the ancient world from modern-day Rome to Turkey (Antioch) to France (Lyons) fall within one to three generations of the Apostles, yet universally confess the Eucharist to be the body and blood of the Lord. And these patristic quotes are barely scratching the surface. What you will find is that the Real Presence of the Eucharist is a virtually uncontested doctrine for the first millennium of Christendom.

After having presented this information, it is up to the Christian reader to do additional research, discern prayerfully, and make an informed judgment. My firm conviction is that Jesus Christ died for me so that I could partake of Him in the Holy Eucharist. The goal of the Christian life is union with God; our Creator made us for a personal relationship. It is why God became man in Jesus Christ, uniting the two natures of humanity and divinity in His Person. In my opinion, there is nothing more intimate than uniting yourself not only spiritually, but physically, to the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. God understands that we are not just souls, but body-soul composites; He desires the redemption and reconciliation of both the spirit and matter that comprises our being. It is through the Eucharist that the deification of human nature occurs—the process of being transformed into Christ, the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).

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