The Church has taught the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist since the beginning of the Christian movement. Catholics, as well as other Apostolic churches such as the Eastern Orthodox, Coptics, etc. believe that Christ is present body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Eucharistic bread and wine. The Churches teaching on the Eucharist is considered one of the hardest doctrine for Non-Catholics and Catholics alike to accept. Followers of Christ, have not just recently had a hard time with this teaching. In fact, it has been like that since the beginning. Even coming from the mouth of Jesus himself his very own disciples had a hard time understanding and believing this mystical doctrine. A large portion of whom even stopped following him after he proclaimed the mysteries of the Eucharist to them (John 6:66).
The Eucharist being the most difficult doctrine to understand and accept leads at times to misunderstandings about what the Church has always taught on the subject. Most of our Protestant brothers and sisters get around this difficulty by suggesting that the Eucharist (or Communion as it is more commonly referred to in Protestant Churches) is merely a symbol of Christ’s body and blood and not ACTUALLY the body and blood of Christ as the Church proclaims. If this is what Jesus meant in his bread of life discourse (John Chapter 6) then why did so many of his disciples decide to no longer follow him? Why did they turn away suddenly despite all the miracles they had just witnessed? These unanswered questions suggest that there is more to the story than merely a symbolic representation. In this blog post, I intend to explore what the Church has always taught in light of the Bread of Life Discourse (John Chapter 6) and thus uncover Jesus true teaching on the Eucharist and what exactly he meant and why it was so hard for the followers of Christ to accept this doctrine from the very beginning all the way down to our present day. Enjoy!
Why Did The Disciples Find This Teaching So Hard to Accept?
To answers this question as simply as possible, how would you feel if someone told you, that you had to consume there flesh and blood to have everlasting life? One may even say it was the reasonable response for these followers of Christ to decide “OK this is where I am getting off this train”. These people had witnessed all sorts of miracles brought on by Christ, in fact, they JUST had witnessed Jesus feed 5,000 people with 2 fish and 5 loaves of bread. They literally watched him turn 2 fish and 5 loaves into enough food, to feed 5,000 people; one of the greatest miracles of the entire New Testament. With that being said, it would follow that if Jesus was speaking symbolically in the bread of life discourse that these disciples who had just witnessed such a great miracle would have easily accepted what Jesus was teaching them. The only logical conclusion for why the disciples suddenly broke off there relationship with Jesus is because they without a doubt thought he was speaking about literally consuming his body and blood; which understandably in most circumstances would be enough to turn the stomach of most any population. If they had any inkling that Jesus was speaking symbolically you have to think that they would have stuck around, if not just to see if it would eventually clarify his statement.
If Jesus was Speaking Symbolically, Why didn’t He clarify when everyone left?
To reiterate a point I made answering the last question, Jesus disciples at this point probably would have accepted just about anything he told them and had up until then. It stands to reason that if they had misunderstood Jesus in such a big way Jesus would have called them back to clarify he was only speaking symbolically and his followers would have likely grown rather than shrunk by such a huge number. So why didn’t he? It was something that he commonly did during his teachings, to clarify a point that his followers did not fully grasp. The simple answer is because he meant what he said. He knew it would be hard to accept and was TRYING to drive home the point that they must literally consume his body and blood. We know this because John in his gospel starts out the bread of life discourse by using the Greek word “phago” which basically means “to eat” when describing that his followers must consume his body and blood. Once everyone starts to question what Jesus is teaching and start to ask “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52) Jesus turns things up a notch and John starts using the word “Trogo”, in reference to consuming Jesus flesh and blood, which means “to gnaw on” which is clearly a more graphic term as Tim Staples point’s out in his article on the same subject. So instead of walking back what he has just taught and clarifying that he was only speaking symbolically Jesus doubles down on there disgust and takes it up to a higher notch to emphasize that he means literally what he has just said.
What Does the Church Fathers have to say about it?
The church fathers, are as far as I know unanimous on the literal translation of John 6 and the bread of life discourse but a couple of early church father’s come to mind as carrying particular weight on this particular subject. These men were St Ignatius of Antioch and St. Irenaeus of Lyons, the former of which was a disciple of St. John the Evanglist, who himself put pen to paper on the bread of life discourse and was a witness himself to the event and the latter was a disciple of St Polycarp, who was a disciple of Saint John. Surely these men would have had a powerful grasp on exactly what Saint John was trying to convey in his record of Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse.
Saint Ignatius on the Eucharist:
“I have no delight in corruptible food, nor in the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, the heavenly bread, the bread of life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became afterwards of the seed of David and Abraham; and I desire the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life.” (Letter to the Romans Chapter 7.)
“They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans Chapter 7)
Saint Irenaeus on the Eucharist:
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 Corinthians 10:16 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. Colossians 1:14 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 Matthew 5:45). 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.
And just to drive home the belief here is a quote from a contemporary of these two men, which shows that not just disciples of St. John believed this but all Christians.
St. Justin Martyr on the Eucharist:
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, 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. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, This do in remembrance of Me, Luke 22:19 this is My body; and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, This is My blood; and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.
I could quote many countless Christians from the time of Christ all the way down to present day confessing there belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, but for the sake of this blog post I will leave it at just these three.
What is the argument in favor of a symbolic representation and how does it stack up?
The most common argument against a literal meaning to the Bread of Life discourse and thus in favor of a symbolic view of the Eucharist can be found in John 6:63. “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Proponents of the of a symbolic Eucharist almost universally use this verse as the go to verse as “proof” of there position. They will say, Jesus here clarifies that the “flesh is of no avail” and the words he speaks are “spirit and life” meaning he was talking symbolically. The problem with this approach is the disciples that were following Christ still leave even after he makes this supposed clarification. There reaction is proof that they still considered what Jesus had said was literally true. That we must literally consume his flesh and drink his blood.
You might be asking, “Well, what did Jesus mean in this verse?” Jesus in the preceding verse said, “Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” Which, to the non-spiritual mind would also be an impossible thing for him to accomplish. Jesus, is making a point that the Holy Spirit has the power to return him to Heaven with God and the Holy Spirit also has the power to accomplish what he has just taught them. Nothing is impossible for God.
Does this mean that those who believe in the real presence are cannibals?
The Bible expressly forbids the consuming of blood and human flesh. That is why the followers of Jesus were so upset with what he had just told them. They knew that it was against God’s word to literally consume someone. So how do we square that position with the belief of the Real Presence and what Jesus has said in the bread of life discourse? When Jesus instituted the Eucharist later on in the Gospels he instituted it under the substance of Bread and Wine. So, while Christ’s body and blood are literally present in the Eucharist they are in the substance of Bread and Wine which are totally fine to consume under Jewish law. The mysteries of the Eucharist are hard for us to grasp how bread and wine become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ, but as I stated earlier nothing is impossible for God.
That about wraps up this post. Hopefully, you learned something and enjoyed my diving into the Bread of Life discourse and the real presence doctrine. I could go into much greater detail on this subject, but for the purposes of a blog post I wanted to keep it as short as possible. Maybe, if enough interest is generated from this post I can make a part two from some of the questions or counter points I receive. If you have any questions please feel free to leave a comment.