Are we really eating Jesus in the Eucharist, or is it only symbolic?


Full Question

Do we really "eat Jesus"? Don't the words of consecration call only for a symbolic interpretation of eating and drinking of Christ's body and blood instead of a literal one?

Answer

Not according to the understanding of the Catholic or Orthodox Churches, and not according to the practice of Christianity for 1,500 years.

The New Testament Greek in Mark 14:22, Matthew 26:26, and Luke 22:19 reads this way—transliterated, of course, into English characters: " Touto estin to soma mou. " (The very earliest account of the words of consecration in 1 Corinthians 11:24 is slightly different. Paul has it as: " Touto mou estin to soma. " In either case, the translation (as opposed to transliteration) is "This is my body."

Philologists tell us that the verb estin can mean "is really" or "is figuratively." But Paul’s discussion of the Last Supper clearly reflects his belief that the Presence is real, not figurative. Paul’s discourse may antedate the earliest Gospels by as much as eight years. It is hardly likely, in view of that, that Matthew or Mark meant estin to be taken figuratively.

Furthermore, the Greek word for body used in John 6:52-58 is sarx, which means quite specifically and only "physical flesh." The Aramaic scholars I have spoken to tell me that sarx is as close as you can get in Greek to the Aramaic bisra, which Jesus himself used.

Even more evidence from the very earliest Church comes from Ignatius of Antioch. I had to go back to my Greek version of him—somewhat more tattered than it was in 1953 when I first got it. Ignatius wrote about A.D. 110, 10 years or so after the death of John. He’s speaking here about "certain people" who were beginning to hold to "heterodox opinions" that he deemed "contrary to the mind of God"—strong language for the personal disciple of the last apostle. As nearly as I can come to it, Ignatius says: "These people abstain from the Eucharist as well as from prayer because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in his goodness, raised up again from the dead" (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 6:2).

Ignatius was taught by John himself, and the apostolic succession in this case extends to more than the laying on of hands. I find it unlikely to the point of impossibility to believe that Ignatius would hold to a doctrine antithetical to what he had been taught by the Beloved Disciple.


Fr. Hal Stockert