One of the oldest slurs against Catholics, dating to Roman times, is that the Eucharist was “cannibalism”. On the other end of the spectrum, modern critics think the Eucharist is merely symbolic…
Watch Brian Holdsworth’s video commentary on the competing claims regarding the presence of Jesus in communion or the Eucharist.
One of the biggest challenges the Church faces in communicating its identity and beliefs clearly is that, in a post-Christian society, everyone thinks they’ve heard it. We all think we know the story and the teachings and we render our judgment accordingly.
We’ve all seen renditions of the Last supper, we’ve all heard some narrative of that event, and we all know that Christians have some ritual with bread and wine and that this somehow ties back to Jesus’ body and blood… whatever that means.
But how often are we able to encounter that story with a fresh lens and hear it again for the first time, like those who were listening to Jesus, himself, did?
On this topic of communion and what Christians believe, it really starts in John’s Gospel in Chapter 6 and I want you to imagine that you’re hearing Jesus introduce this topic for the first time.
It starts off with this beautiful and almost poetic language about how there is a bread of God that comes down from Heaven and gives life to the world. And so, as a someone who is just being introduced to this concept, you’re thinking, oh OK, he’s warming up for one of those parables or allegories that he likes to tell. “Go on then, Jesus….”
And so he does. He says, “I am this bread of life. If you come to me, you will never go hungry or thirsty.”
And then he talks about how he came down from heaven and you need to believe in him to have eternal life.
Ok, so there’s the allegory. Bread brings us life and Jesus is like bread that brings us eternal life. But the people that were listening were also like, “He didn’t come down from heaven. He’s from Nazareth. We know who his parents are. He got here just like the rest of us.”
So Jesus keeps pushing this idea that they have to have faith in him and that he’s the bread of life that has come down from heaven… and then things get a bit weirder. He says that whoever eats this bread will live forever and that this bread is his flesh.
And at this point, you’re probably thinking, OK, well, we’re still blending a lot of allegorical language here so maybe I’m just confusing the metaphor or something.
But if you’re hoping to hold on to that, Jesus suddenly turns a corner, and just blurts it out. It’s like the tone completely changes at this point and he says, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. My flesh is REAL food and my blood is REAL drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”
If you’re like most people there, you’re probably thinking, “Well, that’s it for me. You had a good run Jesus. The miracles were cool and I was with you on that whole love your neighbor thing, but this is a bridge too far. Good luck with the whole feeding yourself to people.”
What’s clear about this passage in the Bible is that Jesus’ language goes from somewhat metaphorical to straight up literal and his audience understood it like that. They got super offended and left because of it and Jesus never stops them to clarify that this wasn’t supposed to be taken like that. He just turns to the few remaining and says, are you gonna go too? Almost as if to say, “‘cause I meant what I said there.”
Then we fast forward to the last supper where Jesus reveals what this actually looks like as he uses bread and wine to communicate his body and blood. He blesses them and says, “This is my body and this is my blood.” He doesn’t say, “think of this as my body and this as my blood,” or, “This is a symbol of my body and this is a symbol of my blood.” He says, “This IS my body and blood.”
And this is one of those topics that is one of the most contentious among Christian denominations and factions. Some, like Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, believe Jesus meant what he said and that when the bread and wine are blessed, they are substantially changed into his body and blood under the appearance of bread and wine.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are groups that say Jesus was just giving us a ritual to re-enact as a memorial for his sacrifice and that it only symbolically represents his body and blood. Also, wine is evil so we’ll be using grape juice, thank you very much!
And in the early phase of my conversion to Christianity, this was one of those controversies I felt I needed to resolve to figure out where I fit in Christ’s Church and in considering that, I tried to weigh the reasons that support both positions and everything in between.
And in considering that, the questions that I felt were most relevant were: Is there any good reason to think that it’s a symbol? What did the people listening to Jesus himself think it meant? What did the early Church believe? What fits the progressing narrative of salvation in the bible best?
So looking at that first question, the support for the idea that it’s only a symbol seems to be based on the moral objection that cannibalism is clearly wrong and yucky and therefore, it must just be a symbol.
For example, Archbishop John Tillotson, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in 17 th century, “And what can any man do more unworthily towards a Friend? How can he possibly use him more barbarously, than to feast upon his living flesh and blood?”
I can sympathize with this a bit, but where I get lost is in the idea that symbolic cannibalism is an acceptable substitute for actual cannibalism. If the idea of literally feeding on God incarnate to sustain your life bothers you, then so should the symbol. It’s the idea itself that is problematic and whether it’s literal or metaphorical, the idea still remains.
Also, it’s not cannibalism because we are being fed by God who is the eternal source of life. It doesn’t take from his life the way it would if I killed someone I knew and made a feast out of it.
So on the question of what Jesus’ own audience believed, there’s no question. They were clearly offended by his very graphic and literal language and left because of it. So, that just seems like an easy point for team literal presence.
Regarding the early Church, sometimes people object to this kind of appeal because they say that early church writings aren’t scriptural or the writer wasn’t infallible so it shouldn’t bear much weight, but the reason for looking at those sources is only to bring some understanding to the question of what the early Church believed and since they were closest to the original source, that has some credibility to it.
So, when we do look at the writings of the Church fathers, we find an understanding that tends to line up with a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox understanding. In one of the earliest Christian writings, Justin Martyr, writing to the Roman emperor in about 150 AD, says this:
“Not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”
But it’s also possible to find passages from Church Fathers where they say that it’s a symbol. So how do we resolve that? Well, the fact is, it is a symbol in the way that it is a sign of something deeper. It’s just not merely a symbol. The thing is, somebody who believes that the bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood could describe it in symbolic and literal language (as Jesus did) and not contradict themselves.
A person who ONLY believes that it’s a mere symbol would never describe it in both ways. So when Augustine says that Jesus is present in the form of a symbol but in other places says that the bread that is sanctified IS THE BODY OF CHRIST… there’s no contradiction.
Lastly, on the question of the what fits the biblical narrative of salvation I think we should look into how this evolved out of a tradition of sacrificing animals, in the Old Testament, for the forgiveness of sins.
Obviously, this wasn’t done in a symbolic way. An actual sacrificial death had to pay for life and in the context of the Passover, which is what Jesus and the disciples were celebrating together at the last supper, you had to sacrifice an unblemished lamb and eat it.
If Jesus is the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world, as John the Baptist described him, then it would make a lot of sense that his sacrifice would involve eating him as well.
So as I focused my attention on this topic as I was trying to resolve the competing claims of different denominations, it seemed to me that the ancient Catholic and Eastern Orthodox beliefs about this were much stronger and that is what inched me closer to eventually becoming Catholic.