The night before He died, Jesus held up unleavened bread to the twelve disciples and said, “This is my body”. Here, undoubtedly, the disciples experienced another dose of “Jesus-Shock” (a term coined by Dr. Peter Kreeft) as they had so many other times during their three preceding years of ministry with the Messiah. Thus, in the face of Jesus’ puzzling statement the disciples stood face-to-face with a new question of critical importance: Did Jesus’ “is” really mean is?
St. Matthew portrays this mystifying event in the following way:
“Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” (Matt 26:26)
And if that wasn’t enough to capture the full attention of the apostles, Jesus held up a cup of wine and called it His blood—and then invited the disciples to drink it:
“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood…” (Matt 26:27)
Was Jesus speaking literally? Had the bread He had taken from the table mysteriously become Him? And the wine? Or was he speaking figuratively?
I think we have good reasons to interpret these words of Jesus literally (as we do as Catholics). Here are a few things to consider:
1. Is usually means “is”. Jesus didn’t hold up the bread and say, “This represents my body. He said, “This is my body”, using the Greek word esti. Although esti could be used in the figurative sense, there is nothing further in Jesus’ phraseology that suggests He was intending to be understood in a non-literal, symbolic sense; nor is there anything in the entirety of the Last Supper account that suggests mere symbolism behind Christ’s words. As Karl Keating points out:
“Esti is nothing else than the word is. Its usual meaning is the literal, although it can be used figuratively, just as in English. If this crucial term is supposed to be read as “represents”, why was not clearly put so in the Greek?” (Catholicism And Fundamentalism, p. 235)
Keating cites Rev. John A. O’Brien, who points out an interesting problem that would have arisen from a figurative understanding of Jesus’ words:
“The phrase ‘to eat the flesh and drink the blood’, when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury… To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating Him… Christ would be saying, ‘He that reviles me has eternal life.” (Faith, p.215)
The only way for Jesus to escape this troublesome cultural interpretation would be to use the phrase literally.
2. Jesus’ previous teaching had set the stage for a literal interpretation. Admittedly, the mysterious words of Christ during the Last Supper would be more difficult to interpret if it wasn’t for St. John’s Gospel—particularly the sixth chapter.
This numinous chapter written by the Beloved Apostle is all about bread. It begins with Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand (Jn 6:1-14). The next day, the masses pursue Jesus across the sea to Capernaum, moved by their fleshly desire for more “bread that perishes” (Jn 6:22-25). In response to their worldly concerns, Jesus controversially reveals Himself to be the heavenly “bread of life” and begins to teach (Jn 6:27-40). This triggers a cold rush of murmurs from scandalized Jews who, overcome by skepticism, mutter amongst themselves, “How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (Jn 6: 41-42).
In the face of such criticism, Jesus does the unthinkable. The young wonderworker from Nazareth, in reaction to the rising blood pressure of the crowd, responds with the following phrases:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat [esthio] the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…” (Jn 6:53) “He who eats [trogo] my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…” (Jn 6:54) “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” (Jn 6: 55) “He who eats [trogo] my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (Jn 6:56)
People are already scandalized by his “bread of life” teachings prior to these phrases being spoken; but Jesus makes no attempt to back off. Instead, he turns his word usage up a notch, using the word trogo (gnaw, munch) instead of his former word choice, esthio (eat). Jesus speaks literally in this discourse—unapologetically literally—and for that reason many of “his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (Jn 6:66).
Note that Jesus does not scandalize His followers when He calls Himself a “door” or a “vine” (at other places in the Gospels) because they know he is speaking symbolically. The discontent of His disciples in this scene is unprecedented. Indeed, this is the only time in the Gospels that Jesus loses disciples because of doctrine.
Thus, until the Last Supper, Jesus had not told the apostles exactly how they were to consume His flesh and blood. They only knew they had received, while at Capernaum, an awestriking invitation to do so—the means, however, was still a mystery; that is, until the Passover meal when Jesus, bread broken in His hands, said to them “take, eat; this is my body”.
3. The Gospel writers parallel the Eucharist with miraculous bread. It seems clear that the Gospel writers understood the breaking of the bread at the Last Supper to be more than a symbolic act; and, within their accounts of the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, they have embedded a subtle but significant sign that points towards a mystical understanding of the Eucharist. Let’s begin with St. Mark’s Gospel. In his description of Jesus’ multiplication of the loaves, notice the evangelist’s choice of wording:
“And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people.” (Mark 6:41)
Now compare this with his later account of the Last Supper:
“And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.'” (Mark 14:22)
This same pattern of taking, blessing, breaking and giving is embedded also in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke. This strongly suggests that the Gospel writers had intentions of drawing a parallel between the miraculous bread of the “Great Multiplication” with the miraculous bread of the “Great Institution” of the Eucharist.
4. Jesus’ words were indisputably understood to be literal in the early Church. The Eucharist is a divine mystery—the Divine Mystery—that exceeds our finite natural understanding (see John 6:63). We cannot know everything about this sacrament in this life; but we can know some things.
Obviously, the early Church thinkers did not have the understanding of the Blessed Sacrament that today’s theologians have (and continue to unfold, examine and discern). Development of doctrine is an ongoing process of unravelling and fine-tuning the Church’s understanding of the apostolic teachings; and thus, the Sacrament of the Eucharist—like every other Catholic article of faith—has been unravelled by the Church since its institution the night before Christ died. As Fr. James O’Connor notes in his indispensible theological treatment of the Eucharist, The Hidden Manna:
“There was indeed a “plurality of theologies” in the Patristic approach to the Eucharist…Indeed it is so today.”
This suggests that the discernment and definition of the fine details of the Eucharist has been a “work in progress” since the Last Supper to today; but in regards to the early Church Fathers there is one thing that appears certain: they were in unanimous agreement that Jesus meant “this is my body” literally. St. Paul is rather explicit in his affirmation of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. After recalling Christ’s words (“This is my body…”) at the Last Supper, he writes:
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord… For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” (1 Cor 11:27-29)
Sharing the same reverence for the Eucharist as St. Paul, Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of St. John) wrote around A.D. 110:
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us… 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)
These are not the words of a solo theological opinion. These are the sobering words of a authoritative Church leader, a bishop, demanding orthodoxy—or “right belief” at the local church level. St. Justin Martyr, a great defender of Christianity in the 2nd century, wrote:
“For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these… 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])
Here St. Justin, in his defense or apologia, also labours at the service of Christ for the sake of Eucharistic orthodoxy. He, along with the early Church writers who came after him, like Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origin, Cyprian of Carthage, Cyril of Jerusalem and Augustine, affirmed in unison throughout the early centuries that Christ’s “is” was literal at the Last Supper.
A poem by Christopher Derrick titled, “The Resurrection of the Body”, stimulates the mind into contemplation of the mysterious power of the Blessed Sacrament:
“He’s a terror that one: Turns water into wine, wine into blood— I wonder what He turns blood into?”
With God nothing is impossible. He is mysteriously omnipotent, and can appear in any “form” He desires (Mark 16:12); including the form of simple bread and wine. Indeed He does dwell under the species of bread and wine, resting now in a thousand tabernacles (probably within a few blocks of where you are right now). Truly this reality is no small matter, for this reality transcends the universe.
C.S. Lewis once wrote: “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Tweaking Lewis’ words, I think one might also say: “The Eucharist, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.” Indeed, I think Lewis—who had a sincere devotion to the Blessed Sacrament—would concur.
Clearly, if the Real Presence is false, Catholics are worshipping a piece of bread. But if it is true—if Jesus really meant what He said—then that little “piece of bread” is really the body, blood, soul and divinity of the omnipotent God of the universe. We are compelled to make a decision.
Piggybacking on the commonsensical genius of G.K. Chesterton, Catholic convert and writer, Mark Shea, sums up the gravity of the “Real Presence or no presence” dilemma by stating with an almost comical simplicity:
“Jesus is present in various ways: in his people, in his word, in the poor and needy and suffering, and in many other ways. But he is fully present in the Eucharist. It is, says Chesterton, the difference between saying “The spirit of God pervades the universe” and saying “Jesus Christ just walked into the room.”