This article is part of an ongoing series. Read Part I.
The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist
The Catholic Church, as well as the Orthodox Churches, have believed and professed from the beginning of their existence that Jesus Christ is truly present Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. Unfortunately, some recent surveys have shown that only some 33 percent of Catholics believe this is true. Most Protestants also do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. To understand the reality and significance of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, I went to the sources of revelation for Orthodox Jews and Catholics — namely, Scripture and Tradition.
In chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, we see clearly the scriptural foundation for our Lord’s Real Presence in the Eucharist. The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, when the Lord says the blessing, breaks and distributes the loaves through His disciples to feed the multitude, prefigures the superabundance of this unique bread of His Eucharist (John 6:1-15). This miracle, which takes place just before the Passover feast, serves as an introduction to chapter 6. After the miracle, the Jews go out to seek Jesus. It should be noted that, when John uses the term “Jews,” he is referring to the Jewish leaders, those Pharisees or scribes who were in opposition to Him, and not to the ordinary Jewish person. Now when they find Jesus, He tells them:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” (John 6:27-34)
Jesus responds to this request,
“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. 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 6:48-51)
The Jews then argued among themselves saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52)
Surely the Jews understood, better than many Christians do today, that what Christ said was to be taken literally. They didn’t interpret Jesus’ words symbolically, as most Protestants and many Catholics do today. Instead of responding that He was only speaking symbolically, Jesus says,
“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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:53-56)
John tells us that Jesus taught this doctrine in the synagogue at Capernaum. And his followers had a tough time accepting it.
Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” … After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. (John 6:60, 66)
Would the disciples have left Him if they thought Jesus was only speaking symbolically? I cannot help but wonder whether present day Catholics and Protestants, who do not believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, also would have walked away from Jesus along with those disciples. To this day I cannot understand why so many Christians believe that God created the world in six literal days but look at Jesus’ words above symbolically. During my conversion process I had no doubt as a Jew that Jesus was speaking literally. If a first-century Jew believed that the old manna was supernatural bread from heaven, then could the new manna be just a symbol? If the old manna was the miraculous “food of the angels,” could the new manna be just ordinary bread and wine? If that were so, then that would make the old manna greater than the new! But Old Testament pre-figurations (known as “types”) are never greater than their New Testament fulfillments. If the old manna of the first exodus was supernatural bread from heaven, then the new manna of the Messiah must also be supernatural bread from heaven. This is exactly what Jesus said in the synagogue at Capernaum. After identifying the new manna as his own “flesh” (John 6:51), he ended by declaring,
“This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).
If Jesus had wanted His Jewish disciples to regard the Eucharist as ordinary food and drink, he would certainly never have identified it as the new manna from heaven. But I was curious as to how Jesus was going to implement the manner in which bread and wine would become His Body and Blood. Ultimately it would require faith based on Scripture, Tradition and some use of reason to see that it was at the Last Supper that Jesus chose the time to fulfill what he had announced at Capernaum by giving His disciples — and us — His Body and Blood, the Eucharist.
About a year after I entered the Church, I got into a discussion with a Protestant friend on the interpretation of the Bible. How does one know the revealed truth? He told me he was taught by his church that he could know the truth by reading the Bible and praying to the Holy Spirit for inspiration. I asked him, since I was a baptized Christian who believes that the Bible is the inspired word of God, if I could do the same in order to know the truth. He answered affirmatively. I then asked him about certain Scripture passages dealing with the Last Supper (Luke 22:19-20) and the Bread of Life (John 6). I asked him whether he believed that when Jesus said, “This is My body; This is My blood” and “if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you will not have life in you,” whether Jesus was speaking symbolically or literally. He replied symbolically. I asked him, “How come the Holy Spirit is telling you one thing and me another, because I believe that Jesus was speaking literally?” I believe that the Eucharist is the same Jesus who walked the earth 2,000 years ago and who now sits at the right hand of the Father. Since the Holy Spirit is incapable of misleading anyone, it seems only reasonable to believe that the gift to interpret the Bible does not reside in every Christian, no matter how holy and prayerful that person might be. If my Orthodox Jewish faith taught me anything, it taught me that there is no such thing as private interpretation of scripture.
Paragraphs 1373 and 1374 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church state:
“Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us,” is present in many ways to his Church: in his word, in his Church’s prayer, “where two or three are gathered in my name,” in the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned, in the sacraments of which he is the author, in the sacrifice of the Mass, and in the person of the minister. But “he is present … most especially in the Eucharistic species.” (1373)
The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (1374)
That this has always been the conviction of the Church of God can readily be seen from writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, as well as from the documents of many Church Councils.
In the 2nd century, St. Justin Martyr wrote the following regarding the Eucharist:
“No one,” says he, “is allowed to partake of this food but he that believes our doctrines to be true, and who has been baptized in the laver of regeneration for remission of sins, and lives up to what Christ has taught. For we take not these as common bread and common drink; but like as Jesus Christ our Savior, being incarnate by the word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation; so are we taught that this food, by which our flesh and blood are nourished, over which thanks have been given by the prayers in his own words, is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus.”
The Council of Trent (Session 13, Chapter 4, AD 1551) summarizes the Catholic faith concerning the Eucharist by declaring:
Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly His body that He was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.
In paragraphs 1375 and 1381 of the Catechism, we read:
It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament. The Church Fathers strongly affirmed the faith of the Church in the efficacy of the Word of Christ and of the action of the Holy Spirit to bring about this conversion. Thus St. John Chrysostom declares:
“It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s. This is my body, he says. This word transforms the things offered.”
And St. Ambrose says about this conversion:
Be convinced that this is not what nature has formed, but what the blessing has consecrated. The power of the blessing prevails over that of nature, because by the blessing nature itself is changed.… Could not Christ’s word, which can make from nothing what did not exist, change existing things into what they were not before? It is no less a feat to give things their original nature than to change their nature. (1375)
“That in this sacrament are the true Body of Christ and his true Blood is something that ‘cannot be apprehended by the senses,’ says St. Thomas, ‘but only by faith, which relies on divine authority.’ For this reason, in a commentary on Luke 22:19 (‘This is my body which is given for you.’), St. Cyril says: ‘Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since he is the truth, he cannot lie.’” (1381)
Saints Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Cyril are from the 4th and 5th centuries, while St. Thomas is from the 13th century. It should be noted that these Fathers and Doctors lived many years before the Reformation. If one claims to be a Catholic, he must believe that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It is a dogma of the Catholic Church. There is no choice regarding this belief.