The Catholic Church teaches that when a priest repeats the words of Christ at the Last Supper over bread and wine that these become truly the Body and Blood of the Lord, even though the appearance of the bread and wine remain. In addition, the Catholic Church teaches that the celebration of the Eucharist renews in an unbloody manner the Sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary, forming a unity with it. How can Catholics, who in every other way appear sane, hold these outrageous beliefs that utterly defy ordinary human sense? Moreover, how can Catholics maintain, in the light of Sacred Scripture, that these beliefs are the genuine teaching of Jesus as transmitted through the Apostles and held by Christians since the earliest days?
This article explores the scriptural basis of the Catholic claim that Jesus himself taught these things, as seen in the pages of Sacred Scripture. Further, this article examines the writings of early Christians to see what they believed and praticed.
cf. Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23
This is the first written account of the Last Supper, being recorded in the year 57. Note particularly verses 27, 29; they indicate that the body of the Lord is truly present. Also note that verse 25 records our Lord's commandment to perpetuate the Eucharist, hence the need for the sacramental priesthood.
In verse 27, St. Paul points out that one commits a serious sin when he receives our Lord in the Eucharist while in a state of serious sin. This is why the Church teaches that we should confess any serious sins before receiving the Eucharist.
About this account of the Last Supper, the St. Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catecheses (c. 350 A.D.) says
Since Christ himself has declared the bread to be his body, who can have any further doubt? Since he himself has said quite categorically, This is my blood, who would dare to question and say that it is not his blood?
Therefore, is is with complete assurance that we receive the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. His body is given to us under the symbol of bread, and his blood is given to us under the symbol of wine, in order to make us by receiving them one body and one blood with him. Having his body and blood in our members, we become bearers of Christ and sharers, as Saint Peter says, in the divine nature.
Some Christians take umbrage at the Catholic Church's use of transubstantiation to describe the mystery of the Real Presence. They claim that this fancy word along with, what is to them, the fancy (descriptive) explanation, needlessly complicate the teaching of the Gospel with philosophy. What they are missing is that philosophy just helps us to refine our common-sense notions, and so to improve our understanding and expression of the Truth.
The truth is that this big word transubstantiation is a high fence to protect what has always been the Church's teaching on the Eucharist: that when Christ said 'This is my body,' he meant is in the usual way that we mean is, and that just because our senses tell us that this is still bread, doesn't detract from the words of Christ who is God, but rather from the evidence of our senses.
For comparison, when we say that a tree is a tree, we mean that the substance of this object is tree. If I chop down the tree and build a chair. I now say, 'This is a chair'-- the substance of the tree has become chair. The chair is a chair no matter what my eyes or sense of touch tell me: the chair is still a chair when in the dark when we can't see it or when it is covered by a stiff, opaque cloth.
The importance of the clarity of the Church's teaching on the Real Presence as expressed by the term transubstantiation became evident in the sixteenth century when the Reformers rejected it. Luther, who, unlike Calvin and his disciples, was not utterly blind to the clear meaning of the words of Sacred Scripture (cf. John 6 below), tried to preserve belief in the Real Presence while distancing himself from the Roman Catholic Church's teaching of transubstantiation. So he taught what we call consubstantiation: that the body and blood of Christ are present along with the bread and the wine.
The problem with this explanation is that it postulates an entirely new manner of being and says that Christ had to be using is in a way much different from the way we normally use the word, so that when he said, 'This is my body,' he really meant, 'This is my body (along with the bread which is still here too).' The real obscenity of this explanation is that Luther then has the temerity to complain about Catholics complicating the Gospel!
And if Luther twisted words in knots to avoid transubstantiation, much more did the other Reformers in entirely rejecting the Real Presence as clearly taught by Christ in the following passage of Sacred Scripture.
Verses 26 and 63 frame the whole discourse with the crowd. The reason they do not believe the great teaching he is about to reveal is that their vision is too earthly: ``Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.'' (Philippians 3:18,19). In the words of St. Paul:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. (Romans 8:5)
The crowd cannot see the divinity of Jesus because they are impure and seek their own gratification: ``Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.'' (Matthew 5:8). In verse 40, he tells us that we must see the Son of man and have faith in him in order to gain eternal life. How is it that we modern-day disciples can see Jesus? Only through a pure act of faith: 'Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe' (Jn 20:29).
In verses 45-46, he as much as says that his authority is divine, as if to remind the crowd that though the teaching is difficult, the authority of the one who reveals it admits of no doubt. In verse 47 he says solemnly ``he who believes has eternal life''. But believes what? What is the content of this belief? It can only be the teaching that follows in verses 48-51: ``I am the bread of life.... if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.''
Notice that the crowds clearly understand him to say that to live they must eat his flesh (v. 52), and, although they understand him in a carnal way (not seeing that his flesh will be veiled under the appearance of bread and wine), they grasp the basic truth of his words. The proof is that he does not try to correct them as if they had misunderstood, but rather reiterates and amplifies what they have understood from his saying in verse 51. Notice with what solemnity (``Truly, truly...'') and how many times he reaffirms this teaching (vv. 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, and 58). Each of these verses is a categorical affirmation of the crowd's understanding of his words. There is no indication that Jesus is speaking figuratively here; we must humbly accept the words of our Lord, even though if it require a great leap of faith. We must not allow our predispositions or traditions or even the purely empirical knowledge of our own senses to restrict our full recognition of the truth given from the mouth of God made Man: ``Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.'' (John 20:29) We must humbly ask God for the faith to believe in this truth beyond all expectation, tradition and sense. ``Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.'' (Mark 10:16)
Some interpret verse 63 to mean that the flesh about which Jesus has just been speaking does not contribute to salvation. The problem with this interpretation is that it denies the role of the Incarnation in our salvation: if Jesus' flesh is not beneficial to our salvation, why did he become a man and sacrifice himself? The correct interpretation is, as we have already noted, that `flesh' refers to the senses and the mind enslaved to the senses. Jesus is saying, `Don't judge by your senses; judge by the Spirit: have faith in me!' Besides, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, Jesus gives us in the Holy Eucharist not just his body, but also his blood, soul, and divinity; Jesus died only once and these can never be separated from his body again.
Significantly, St. John has told us that the events of the previous episode take place just under a year before Jesus institutes the Sacrament of his Love at the Last Supper: "Now, the Passover, the Feast of the Jews, was at hand." (verse 4, not shown above). The present episode occurs on the Passover, a year before Jesus' sacrifice on the cross.
Verse 66 tells us that many of Jesus' disciples (not just an stray crowd, but his disciples) withdrew from following him because they understood his words literally and took offense. If Jesus had intended his words symbolically, he would have been morally obliged to clarify them for his misunderstanding disciples. But he does not do so.
Finally, notice that this is the first time St. John mentions that Judas is going to betray Jesus (v. 71), that it immediately follows many of Jesus's disciples falling away from him due to the apparent enormity of the idea of eating his flesh and drinking his blood (v. 60). In verse 64, St. John makes the connection between betrayal of Jesus and unbelief in what he has just taught. Here we learn that it was Judas' failure to believe the Lord in preference to sense evidence that started him on the road to perdition.
Notice how St. Paul draws a parallel pagan sacrifices and the Eucharist; the former is offered to demons, the latter to God: ``By eating the meat of animals offered to Yahweh, Jews participated in the sacrifice and worship in his honour; and by receiving the body and blood of the Lord, Christians unite themselves to Christ; similarly, those who take part in idolatrous banquets are associating themselves not with false gods--which have no existence-- but with demons.'' (Navarre Bible, commentary on vv. 14-22) Thus, the Eucharist is a sacrifice to God.
This teaching of St. Paul also brings out the full meaning of chapter seven of the Letter to the Hebrews, in which Christ is called ``a priest forever in the line of Melchizedek'' (cf. Psalm 110:4). Melchizedek offered bread and wine as his sacrifice to God (Genesis 14:17-20), a sacrifice which foreshadowed Jesus' own sacrifice. For Christians, the Holy Eucharist is the unbloody renewal of the sacrifice of Calvary. It is not a new sacrifice, but a continuation of our Lord's self-immolation, which transcends all time and place. In communion, a Christian receives our Lord and also offers himself to the Lord: it is an exchange of persons. To the early Christians this exchange must have been painfully obvious, since their participation in the Eucharistic feast implied their willingness to confess Christ even to death.
Why should we care what Christians in earlier ages believed? For one, the unity of the Christ's Church extends not only throughout the world, but throughout time. These truths have been handed down to us in Scripture, but also in the other writings of the first Christians, some of whom knew the Apostles personally. If these first Christians had incorrect doctrine, then they must have learned it wrong from the Apostles. Since our faith comes to us from the Apostles, Sacred Scripture can only be as correct as they are.
Let us examine what the earliest Christians writers have said about the real presence.
I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the Bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible.
Do not err, my brethren,: if anyone follow a schismatic he will not inherit the kingdom of God. If any man walk about with strange doctrine, he cannot lie down with the passion. Take care then to use one Eucharist, so that whatever you do, you do according to God: for there is one Flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons.
From Eucharist and prayer they hold aloof, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His loving-kindness raised from the dead. And so, those who question the gift of God perish in their contentiousness. It would be better for them to have love, so as to share in the resurrection. It is proper, therefore, to avoid associating with such people and not to speak about them either in private or in public, but to study the Prophets attentively and, especially, the Gospel, in which the Passion is revealed to us and the Resurrection shown in its fulfillment. Shun division as the beginning of evil.
circa 150 A.D.: St. Justin Martyr,
St. Justin is talking about the Mass, and he has described the consecration and communion. Then he says
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 annd for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor as 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 flesh and blood is nourished, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus.
"And the offering of fine flour, sirs," I said, "which was prescribed to be presented on behalf of those purified from leprosy, was a type of the bread of the Eucharist, the celebration of which our Lord Jesus Christ prescribed, in remembrance of the suffering which He endured on behalf of those who are purified in soul from all iniquity, in order that we may at the same time thank God for having created the world, with all things therein, for the sake of man, and for delivering us from the evil in which we were, and for utterly overthrowing(4) principalities and powers by Him who suffered according to His will. Hence God speaks by the mouth of Malachi, one of the twelve [prophets], as I said before,(5) about the sacrifices at that time presented by you: 'I have no pleasure in you, saith the Lord; and I will not accept your sacrifices at your hands: for, from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, My name has been glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure offering: for My name is great among the Gentiles, saith the Lord: but ye profane it.'(6) [So] He then speaks of those Gentiles, namely us, who in every place offer sacrifices to Him, i.e., the bread of the Eucharist, and also the cup of the Eucharist, affirming both that we glorify His name, and that you profane [it]. The command of circumcision, again, bidding [them] always circumcise the children on the eighth day, was a type of the true circumcision, by which we are circumcised from deceit and iniquity through Him who rose from the dead on the first day after the Sabbath, [namely through] our Lord Jesus Christ. For the first day after the Sabbath, remaining the first(7) of all the days, is called, however, the eighth, according to the number of all the days of the cycle, and [yet] remains the first.
Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned.(4) But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit.(5) For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread,(6) but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.
2. But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body.(1) For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, "In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins."(2) And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills(3)). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies.(4)
3. When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made,(5) from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?--even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that "we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones."(6) He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh;(7) but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones,--that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a corn of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption,(8) because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness,(9) in order that we may never become puffed up, as if we had life from ourselves, and exalted against God, our minds becoming ungrateful; but learning by experience that we possess eternal duration from the excelling power of this Being, not from our own nature, we may neither undervalue that glory which surrounds God as He is, nor be ignorant of our own nature, but that we may know what God can effect, and what benefits man receives, and thus never wander from the true comprehension of things as they are, that is, both with regard to God and with regard to man. And might it not be the case, perhaps, as I have already observed, that for this purpose God permitted our resolution into the common dust of mortality,(10) that we, being instructed by every mode, may be accurate in all things for the future, being ignorant neither of God nor of ourselves?
On the night he was betrayed out Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said: ``Take, eat: this is my body.'' He took the cup, gave thanks and said: ``Take, drink: this is my blood.'' Since Christ himself has declared the bread to be his body, who can have any further doubt? Since he himself has said quite categorically, This is my blood, who would dare to question and say that it is not his blood?
Therefore, is is with complete assurance that we receive the bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ. His body is given to us under the symbol of bread, and his blood is given to us udner the symbol of wine, in order to make us by receiving them one body and one blood with him. Having his body and blood in our members, we become bearers of Christ and sharers, as Saint Peter says, in the divine nature.
Once, when speaking to the Jews, Christ said: Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you shall have no life in you. This horrified them and they left him. Not understandoing his words ina spiritual way, they thought the Savior wished them to practice cannibalism.
Under the old dispensation there was showbread, but it came to an end with the old dispensation to which it belonged. Under the new covenant there is bread from heaven and the cup of salvation. These sanctify both soul and body, the bread being adapted to the sanctification of the body, the Word, to the sanctification of the soul.
Do not, then, regard the eucharistic elements as ordinary bread and wine: they are in fact the body and blood of the Lord, as he himself has declared. Whatever your senses may tell you, be strong in faith.
You have been taught and you are firmly convinced that what looks and tastes like bread and wine is not bread and wine but the body and blood of Christ. You know also how David referred to this long ago when he sang: Bread gives strength to man's heart and makes his face shine with the oil of gladness. Strengthen your heart, then, by receiving this bread as spriritual bread, and bring joy to the face of your soul.
May purity of conscience remove the veil from the face of your soul so that by contemplating the glory of the Lord, as in a mirror, you may be transformed from glory to glory in Christ Jesus our Lord. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Therefore, in order that we may become of His Body, not in desire only, but also in very fact, let us become commingled with that Body. This, in truth, takes place by means of the food which He has given us as a gift, because He desire to prove the love which He has for us. It is for this reason that He shared Himself with us and has brought His Body down to our level, namely, that we might be one with Him as the body is joined with the head. This, in truth is characteristic of those who greatly love. Job, indeed, was implying this when he said of his servants--by whom he was loved with such an excess of love--that they desired to cleave to his flesh. In giving expression to the great love which they possessed, they said: `Who will give us of his flesh that we may be filled?' Moreover, Christ has done even this to spur us on to even greater love. And to show the love He has for us He has made it possible for those who desire, not merely to look upon Him, but even to touch Him and to consume Him and to fix their teeth in His Flesh and to be commingled with Him; in short, to fulfill all their love. Let us, then, come back from that table like lions breathing out fire, thus becoming terrifying to the Devil, and remaining mindful of our Head and of the love which He has shown for us.