If you’re thinking about becoming Catholic, the emphasis the Church places on the Eucharist means you have to come to terms with this whole it-may-look-like-bread-but-believe-me-it-isn’t-bread thing. What the Church calls transubstantiation. How can a modern, educated person with at least some understanding of science and evidence possibly buy into Middle Ages Catholic voodoo about eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood? For what it’s worth, I’ll tell you how I came to terms with it.
The central question
The central question is whether Jesus meant for me to understand the Eucharist as really and truly his body. Was this his intention? If Jesus wants me to believe when I go to Mass I really do eat his body and drink his blood, then that is what I will believe.
Here’s some context.
I’m a Christian – with all my heart I believe Jesus was raised from the dead, literally got up out of a grave after being dead for days. I believe it based on historical evidence, evidence that seems undeniable to me. If a fellow can do that, then I have no particular problem with other things that he says, even if those things seem improbable.
Here are some examples:
- Jesus says that a person who is baptized and who surrenders his life to Jesus is a person whose sins are forgiven. That doesn’t make much sense. When I was baptized (I was an adult), I didn’t have physical evidence my sins were forgiven. What I had was Jesus saying so (it’s in Mark 16:16 and Matthew 28:20) and that was all I needed. Something Jesus says can be completely without corroborating evidence, yet still be true and still be believed.
- Jesus says my prayers make a difference. That’s one I cannot demonstrate with scientific rigor. Nor does it make all that much sense when you think about it. About all I can tell is this — sometimes my prayers get a “yes” and sometimes it’s a “no”. Sometimes I seem to get an answer right away, other times it seems to takes weeks and months. Sometimes I pray and the sense I have is that God is absent and my prayers are unheard. But none of that keeps me from believing Jesus when he says my prayers make a difference. Remember, he’s the one who got up out of a grave. If he says a thing, I trust him and believe. Something Jesus says can relate to the physical world (like answering prayers) in a complicated way, but that doesn’t keep me from believing him.
- Jesus says if I love him and obey him, then both he and the Father will come to me and make their home with me. It’s in John 14:23. I’ll be honest… I’m not even sure what that means. But I don’t have to understand it for it to be true. What in the world makes me think I have to understand a thing for it to be true? That would be a crazy thing to believe! Something Jesus says may involve an interaction between the realm of God and this world I live in and I may not understand it. More likely, there’s about zero chance I’m going to understand it.
So, the summary of all this is that Jesus can say something without corroborating evidence, something complicated, something that relates this world to the “other” in a way I cannot understand. Yet, I will believe simply because he says it. He is powerful and reliable.
So did Jesus mean for me to take his words literally when he spoke of his body and blood?
Yes, he did. The Bible says Jesus made the statement at the Last Supper “This is my body” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood”. The earliest recording is here starting in verse 23 from St. Paul. The same words are also in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark and Luke.
Here are the reasons I find most persuasive for taking Jesus literally when he talks about his body and blood.
A literal belief is ancient.
I figure the folks nearest the apostles in time would know what it is that Jesus means by his words.
For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, we have been taught, the food that has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic Prayer set down by him and by the change of which our flesh and blood is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus. St. Justin Martyr Apologia 148-155 AD
But what consistency is there in those who hold that the bread over which thanks been given is the Body of their Lord, and the cup his Blood, if they do not acknowledge that he is the Son of the Creator of the world, that is, his Word, through whom the wood bears fruit, and the fountains gush forth, and the earth gives first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain on the ear? How can they say that the flesh which has been nourished by the Body of the Lord and by his Blood gives way to corruption and does not partake of life? Let them either change their opinion, or else stop offering the things mentioned. St. Irenaeus Adversus haereses circa 180 and 199 AD
Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Cyprian also left writings expressing the faith of the Church in a literal understanding of Jesus’ words. If the 2nd Century Church is dead wrong about something as fundamental as the Eucharist, then Jesus’ promise to the apostles that he would guide the Church into all the truth seems to have no meaning. To conclude the leaders nearest in time to the apostles made an error of this magnitude calls into question the entire role of the Holy Spirit and the Church in the world.
By no means was the 1st and 2nd Century church biased toward what we call “fundamentalism”.
The early Church Fathers were not what we would call today “fundamentalists” or literalists. They often viewed the Scriptures as allegory and analogy given by God for our instruction.
What this means is that I cannot just reject out of hand the early Church Fathers as being naively literalistic with Scripture. They were more likely not to view things simply as literal statements. So when they take a statement that is as difficult as “This is my body” and they interpret Jesus as meaning exactly and literally those words, I really must pay attention to that.
A literal interpretation is the only way I can make sense out of John 6.
In John 6 is the so-called Bread of Life discourse of Jesus. It’s one of the longest discourses we have and it is definitely one of the strangest. Without analyzing the chapter verse-by-verse, I’ll just make two observations, then draw a conclusion.
As the chapter progresses, Jesus becomes more and more insistent on the necessity of eating his body and drinking his blood. These are strange, even repulsive, words and yet Jesus would not let go. Instead, he bore down harder and harder. He begins by saying the people must eat his flesh. He ends by saying they must grind his flesh between their teeth. And he says this is the only way they will have life in them. The words are so repellant and shocking that most of his disciples leave him. Jesus is even concerned that the Twelve may leave him, but good old St. Peter saves the day.
The other thing is that if these words are simply analogy, if the words speak of the body and blood only in a symbolic way, then why in the world does Jesus not say so? What possible motive would he have in driving away his disciples with language straight out of a horror movie, if that language is simply a symbol? That would be the behavior of a crazy man, and Jesus is definitely not crazy.
My conclusion is that Jesus considers the teaching regarding his body and blood as so important, so central to his entire mission, that even if these words drive people away he will not teach them less than the full truth.
For a very, very long time a literal understanding is the only thing anybody believed.
Look at the quote above from Iranaeus. It is remarkable that his argument is based on even the heretics believing in a literal presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist. Even the heretics!
The first big controversy over whether the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus is in the late 11th Century, precipitated by a fellow named Berengar of Tours. My point is it took a 1,000 years for there to be a major challenge to the Church’s faith that bread and wine are wonderfully changed in the Eucharist. That’s a long time to go without a challenge from within the Church.
This is not because there were no challenges to the faith of the Church. This same 1,000 years saw tons of controversy over doctrine, but not over the bread and wine.
Then it is another 440 years before the Reformation challenges the accepted faith regarding the Eucharist.
So here’s my question. Am I supposed to believe that the 16th century reformers and protestors, who could charitably be said to have operated in a complicated time and with complicated motives, understood the teaching of Jesus and his apostles better than did the Early Fathers and 1,400 years of uninterrupted history? I guess it’s not impossible, but it is so unlikely I can’t believe it. Instead, I must suspect the philosophical and cultural and intellectual milieu of the times.
I come to the conclusion the alternative to a literal interpretation of Jesus’ words is unacceptable
I understand my alternative to Transubstantiation to be this: in order to reject Catholic teaching I must conclude Jesus purposely drove away disciples based on a misunderstanding of his choice of words. I must conclude the 16th Century understood the apostles better than the 2nd Century. I must conclude the Catholic and Orthodox understanding of the Eucharist species, an understanding that has been crucial in holding these groups together for 2,000 years, is wrong – and instead conclude that somewhere within the almost bewildering division of Protestantism on this subject lies some group who has the right understanding.
I can’t do that.
Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. John 6:53