Most Protestants and even some Catholics (arguably, 20 percent, maybe more) deny the predominately Catholic teaching that Jesus Christ is really present in the Eucharist. And many of those who accept the teaching betray little dis-ease receiving the sacrament in a manner that would have been unthinkable in a generation when the confessional lines were long on Saturday afternoon. I write this as a former Catholic on an inquirer’s journey back to the faith of his childhood.
In the days prior to Vatican II, I was a 7-year-old convert to Catholicism, being catechized for First Communion along with the rest of my second grade classmates.
For weeks, Sister Mariella had been schooling us about the sacrament and how we were to receive it. Most of her instruction was in making certain her little catechumens knew that the communion wafer, upon consecration by the priest, was turned into Jesus incarnate, and that to receive it faithfully we had to be clean, spiritually, by Confession—preferably on Saturday evening, so we would have less opportunity to become re-soiled by Sunday morning—and physically, by fasting from midnight the night before.
Sister was very specific that under no circumstances were we to touch it. Rather, when the priest placed the host on our tongue, we were to let it moisten there for just a moment, then swallow it immediately so as not to let it come in contact with our plaque-covered teeth.
So you can imagine my horror when, after receiving Communion in my white suit and white buckskin shoes, I returned to the pew, hands folded, with my other classmates, knelt, and caught, from the corner of my eye, the classmate next to me, looking in wonder at the host he had just plucked out of his mouth. I was certain that the earth would open up and swallow us all down into the deepest reaches of hell.
Obviously, it didn’t. But, as I think back, I don’t recall seeing that little fella again.
Well, that was a long time ago. In the years since, I learned that there are widely varying views about the Lord’s Supper and what Jesus meant when he broke bread and gave it to his disciples, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
The differences center on whether the Lord’s Supper is a symbolic ritual for our remembrance, a sacramental ordinance for our spiritual nourishment, both, or something else, and whether the communion elements of bread and wine are symbols of his body and blood, material substances physically transmuted into his body and blood, hosts for his actual presence, hosts for his spiritual presence, or something else.
To better understand Jesus’s intention, we need to travel back a ways.
Manna and New Manna
Rising from their tents on a brisk desert morning, a hungry people saw the ground covered with a flakey, frosty substance, suggestive of a certain modern-day breakfast cereal. In a state of collective bewilderment, they wondered aloud, “What is it?” Having been briefed the day before, Moses answered that it was bread from heaven.
“Manna,” as it was called, was food from God to stop their stomachs from rumbling, but would soon set their tongues to grumbling.
Millennia later, their descendants were equally bewildered about the manna Jesus offered. Hearing him say that he was the bread from heaven, they, too, grumbled, failing to grasp his meaning. Considering their religious and cultural heritage, and their historical setting, the metaphor should have given them no problem. They were Jews in synagogue at Passover who already had seen Jesus do things that hadn’t been done since the prophetic voice went silent 400 years earlier: heal the sick, raise the dead, and exorcise demons.
On top of that, they were in the 5,000-plus crowd Jesus fed the day before with a scant helping of bread and fish. It was a grandiose miracle that brought to their minds the ministry of Moses and his prophesy about a future prophet—one, like him (Deu. 18:15-16).
Ever since the Babylonian exile, the Jewish hope was for a leader who would lead them out of Gentile subjugation and into a restored Davidic kingdom—or, as some have expressed it, the Jews were looking for a new Moses who would lead them on a new Exodus to a new Jerusalem.
This manna-like provision they enjoyed on a Galilean hillside, prompted many to suppose that Jesus was the Moses-like figure they had been awaiting. Seeking confirmation, they pressed for a follow-up miracle, but got an earful instead. Paraphrasing St. John’s account,
“Don’t work for material bread, but for spiritual bread. If you want it, you must believe in the one God has sent.”
“We want it.”
“Very well, then, hear this: I am the bread of life. If you come to me you will never go hungry, and if you believe in me you will never be thirsty. Problem is, you don’t believe.” (John 6:29-36)
The discourse was similar to the one Jesus had earlier with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus offered her living water, which she accepted, but her serial monogamy required repentance.
For the Jews, unbelief was a problem Jesus knew wouldn’t be solved with another miracle; it hadn’t been for their ancestors. Their “seeing is believing” attitude had it exactly backwards: they didn’t need to see to believe; they needed to believe to see; and what they needed to believe was what Jesus was trying to tell them about himself, beginning with the first of his seven “I am” statements.
When Jesus told them, “I am the bread of life,” he associated himself with the manna provided their forefathers in the desert and with the One (I AM) who provided it.
Building on that image, Jesus went on to state that his body and blood are food, adding a bracing warning, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (John 6:53-56).
To the modern ear, it sounds as if Jesus was promoting a practice that was, at best, a transgression of the ceremonial law. But Jesus used several common literary devices that should have made his meaning clear to any first-century Jew at Passover.
The Matter of Eating and Drinking
The first is repetition.
In the span of two dozen verses in John chapter 6, Jesus says: five times, “I came down from heaven”; four times, “I am the bread of life”; five times, those who “eat/drink” will have eternal life; and four times, “I will raise him up on the last day.” And, in what is far and away the most redundant passage of his teaching—indeed, of all Scripture—Jesus divulges that, like manna, his origin is heavenly and his purpose is to impart life and, like YHWH, he has the power and authority to bestow eternal life and resurrect the dead.
The second is metaphor.
By saying, “this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world,” Jesus pointed forward to the Passover a year removed when his spilt blood would fulfill the sacrifices made to: cover Adam and Eve’s nakedness, soak the doorframes of the Hebrews, sprinkle the Mercy Seat of the Ark, conduct the sacrifices in the temple, and provide for the Seder meal his hearers would be eating that week.
Then there’s chiasm, which communicates the meaning of a text through its structure or pattern.
In a chiasm, the first and last parts of the passage convey the same thought, with the middle part conveying a related thought that is the key to understanding.
The chiasm in John chapter 6 begins with verse 35: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” It ends on the same note with verse 51: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
The middle of the chiasm begins with verse 40: “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” It ends with verse 45: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me.”
According to the chiasm, those who “eat this bread” and have eternal life are those who believe in the Son from what they hear and learn from the Father through his Word.
Recall that John 6 is not an account of the Lord’s instruction during a Passover meal, but of his discourse in a synagogue a year before the Last Supper. In that context it would seem that “eating and drinking” are not about consuming Jesus physically, symbolically, or ceremonially, but about experiencing intimate union with him by feeding on his Word and doing his will. As Jesus rebuffed Satan, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,” and as he told his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34).
Despite these well-known literary devices, many in the crowd grumbled as did their forebears, failing to see beyond the literal sense of Jesus’s words. Thus, Jesus went on to explain, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.” He had been speaking spiritual truths in spiritual words, yet, some still did not believe (John 6:63-64).
So how does this apply to the Lord’s Supper and how we observe it today?
The Lord’s Supper
Although Jesus used the same word-pictures at the Last Supper, his meaning was quite different from the year before, and so was the reaction of his disciples. Instead of grumbling and leaving, the disciples ate and drank, sang hymns, and followed their Lord to Gethsemane.
It suggests that while they may not have fully understood his meaning, they believed without “seeing” that there was existential truth in his words. As to what they understood weeks later, after being filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostle Paul offers some teasing clues.
In a letter to the church in Corinth, Paul warns readers (then and now) that those who come to the Table “in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.” He adds, more chillingly, “Those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves” (1 Cor. 11:23-32).
Paul’s warning implies two things: one, Communion is something uncommon, something holy and sacred; two, Jesus, in body and blood, is really present in the Sacrament. The early Church fathers agreed.
To a man, those who shaped Christian thought in the generations immediately following the Apostles, believed in the Real Presence. Ignatius, who is thought to have personally known St. John, criticized the Gnostics because they did “not believe the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.” Justin Martyr stated likewise, “We do not receive these as common bread and common drink, [but as] the flesh and blood of that Jesus,” by which our flesh and blood are nourished.
As to how, and in what sense, the sacramental elements become the body and blood of Christ, neither Jesus nor the Church fathers say. Nor do they explain how participants are nourished through the Sacrament. St. Paul, on the other hand, while not explanatory either, casts a helpful light.
Paul also tells the Corinthians that when they take Communion, they “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” and all that it implies about him, us, and the great metaphysical questions of life. By participating in the Sacrament, believers give witness to him whose final gasp, “It is finished,” announced to the world, visible and invisible, that the powers of darkness have been defeated, the kingdom is on the march, and everlasting communion with God is possible. And the audience in witness is one of staggering dimensions, as Paul indicates in another letter.
To the “saints in Ephesus,” Paul reveals several mysteries that had been long-hidden, none more head-swelling than this: “His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph. 3:10).
This passage evokes an image of Christians as players on a cosmic stage surrounded by throngs of unseen onlookers absorbed in the developing drama—one that Peter reveals, “Even angels long to look into” (1 Pet. 1:12).
On display at Communion is an exercise of faith that unites communicants cruciform—vertically with God, and horizontally with each other and all who make up the mystical Body of Christ, past and present. In a thin slice of space-time, their outward act of faith makes an invisible reality visible for all who would see, and confers upon the faithful its own blessing, not the least of which is greater faith. For every act of faith leads to more faith.
Holy Communion also nourishes us through the cognitive act of remembrance.
A Love that Compels
The practice of remembrance is an important, but often neglected, spiritual discipline. For when we bring to mind the things that God has done, we gain confidence (faith) in the things he will do and is doing.
Throughout biblical history, God’s spokesmen were continually reminding the Israelites of God’s benefaction. Numerous times in the Old and New Testaments, a writer recounts the litany of divine works done to liberate the people from Egypt and provide for them during their desert wanderings. Psalm 78 is typical, running down the usual list of God’s mighty deeds: the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the sea, the manna from heaven, the water from the rock, and such.
Like the prophets of Israel, Jesus had the spiritual welfare of his disciples in mind when he instructed them to “do this in remembrance of me.” With those words, he instituted an ordinance not for him, but of him, for them and for us.
As such, the Lord’s Supper, as instituted by Jesus, is not a mere symbol, nor an ongoing ritual in which Christ is re-sacrificed daily across the globe, as some imagine it. Rather, it is a sacrament that, in the context of the Liturgy, brings the past into the present, so that the God who offered himself 2,000 years ago for us, comes to us, now—metaphysically, existentially, and ontologically.
A popular hymn sung during Holy Week asks, “Were you there?” The unspoken response is, yes. And every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we are there:
We are in the upper room, breaking bread with the Savior.
We are in the garden as he is carried away by the palace guard.
We are at the Praetorium as he is mocked, beaten, and scourged.
We are at Golgotha as his body is broken and blood is spilled for us.
We are there. And if we create space to linger, really linger, we will find ourselves undone in the Presence that is real and here, compelling us and empowering us “to no longer live for ourselves, but for him who died for us and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:14-15).
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “La Adoración de la Sagrada Forma por Carlos II de España” painted by Vicente López y Portaña in 1791-2.