When it comes to defending the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Catholics turn to Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “Take, eat; this is my body” of the bread; and of the cup, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:26-28).
The logic of this passage seems simple: if Jesus had meant for the bread and the wine to merely represent his body and blood, he would have said so: “This represents my body . . . this represents my blood.” But since he says, “This is my body . . . this is my blood,” we can conclude that he meant the bread and wine to be his body and blood.
Protestants aren’t so quick to accept this logic. Let’s look at a two of their main counterarguments against the Real Presence as presented by Protestant apologist James White.
OBJECTION #1: ‘Fruit of the vine’
White argues that Jesus couldn’t have meant for the substance in the chalice to be his real blood, because after he pronounces what Catholics call “the words of consecration” (“This is my body . . . this is my blood”), Jesus says, “I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29; see also Mark 14:22-25).
“One can picture the Lord Jesus, still holding the cup, and referring to it as He speaks,” White writes. “But what does He say? Does He say it is literally blood? No, He says it is the fruit of the vine.” White claims this provides a “basis for the symbolic interpretation of the words of the Lord.”
Let’s consider three ways a Catholic could respond to this objection.
FIRST RESPONSE TO #1: Ambiguous word order
White’s objection fails to consider that another Gospel author, Luke, puts these words before the consecration (22:17-18; verses 19-20 record the words of consecration). Given the ambiguity as to the order in which Jesus spoke the words, White can’t use them to show that the contents of the chalice after the words of consecration was merely wine. It just as well could have referred to the contents of the chalice before the consecration.
We can go further and show that Luke’s version was likely the more accurate one. There is evidence that Luke may have placed the “fruit of the vine” phrase before the words of consecration to clarify the sequence in the accounts of Matthew and Mark.
It was known even in the first century that Mark did not write his Gospel account in chronological order. A second-century Christian bishop named Papias records John the Presbyter, an eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry, saying, “Mark, having become an interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately, though not in order, whatsoever he remembered of the things said or done by Christ.”
Luke tells us in the prologue to his Gospel that he set out “to write an orderly account” (1:3) of the things accomplished among them, even though several before him, including Mark, had already compiled such a narrative. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude that Luke diverts from Mark’s order because he is clarifying Mark’s placement of Jesus’ statement.
If so, White’s challenge loses all its force. But even if not, in Luke the order is reversed, weakening any argument based strictly on the order in Mark and Matthew.
SECOND RESPONSE TO #1: Describing appearances
Let’s concede for argument’s sake that Jesus uses the “fruit of the vine” phrase after he said, “This is my blood.” Even on this supposition, it wouldn’t follow necessarily that he intended to attest that the substance was merely wine. That’s because biblical authors often described things according to their appearance. Scholars call this phenomenological language.
For example, the weatherman says the sun will rise at 6 a.m. and set at 7 p.m. Does this mean the weatherman is a geocentrist who believes the sun moves up and down above the Earth? Surely not—he’s simply describing the sun as it appears.
In the Bible, angels and even God are described according to how they are revealed to the senses. The book of Genesis describes the Lord and his angels as men, since that is the form they took when they conversed with Abraham (Gen. 18:2; cf. 18:10, 19:1). Tobit does the same thing with reference to an angel (Tobit 5:2-4).
These authors were not trying to say that God and angels are men. They simply described phenomena in the way they were observed according to the senses. Similarly, the Bible sometimes refers to death as “sleep”(see Job 3:11-13; John 11:11, 13, 14; 1 Thess. 4:15).
It’s perfectly reasonable, then, for Jesus to use the phenomenological language of “wine” even when referring to his precious blood, since that is how it appears to the senses. The reference to “the fruit of the vine” doesn’t prove that the substance in the chalice is mere wine.
THIRD RESPONSE TO #1: Prior state idiom
It’s common for biblical authors to describe something according to its prior state. Eve is called Adam’s bone (Gen. 1:23). Aaron’s rod is said to have devoured the “rods” of the magicians even though they had become serpents (Exod. 7:12).
This could explain why Jesus describes his blood as wine. He could simply be referring to it according to what it once was. St. Paul does the same thing when he refers to the Eucharist as “bread” (1 Cor. 11:26), even though we know that he believed it to be a literal participation in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16).
OBJECTION #2: ‘Blood of the covenant’
White poses another challenge to our literal reading of the words “This is my body . . . this is my blood.” Notice that when Jesus speaks of the contents of the chalice he says, “this is my blood of the covenant.” This is a direct allusion to the “blood of the covenant” that Moses sprinkled on the people to ratify the Mosaic covenant on Mount Sinai (Exod. 24:8).
White directs our attention to the fact that “the blood of the covenant was blood from a sacrificial victim, not a living person.” Had the blood not been shed, it wouldn’t have been the blood of the covenant.
In light of this, White argues that the contents of the cup couldn’t have been the blood of the New Covenant because that refers to Christ’s blood shed on the cross. White concludes that the contents of the cup “have to be symbols” of Jesus’ blood that would be shed the next day. A couple of responses here.
FIRST RESPONSE TO #2: Real blood vs. ‘of the covenant’
One response is that the issue of whether real blood is present is different than the issue of whether that blood has the status of being “blood of the covenant.” Consider the animal victims on Mount Sinai in Exodus 24:5-8. Before they were slain, their blood didn’t have the status of being the “blood of the covenant.” But that doesn’t mean the blood present in the oxen wasn’t real blood.
Christ’s blood at the Last Supper could still be present in the chalice even if it didn’t yet have the status of being the “blood of the covenant,” since he hadn’t yet been slain. And that’s all the doctrine of transubstantiation requires: the belief that Christ’s real and substantial blood was made present in the cup at the Last Supper.
Whether his real blood is “blood of the covenant” at that moment doesn’t bear on whether the wine became Jesus’ blood. We could suppose, for the sake of argument, Jesus was simply speaking about the substance in the cup as his real blood that symbolizes “blood of the covenant,” or that would soon become “blood of the covenant.” Either way, it would still be real blood.
So the attempt to show that Christ’s blood at the Last Supper doesn’t have the status of “blood of the covenant” doesn’t disprove transubstantiation, which is what the objection sets out to do.
SECOND RESPONSE TO #2: Sacrifice not limited to the moment of death
One can also challenge the assumption that Christ’s blood at the Last Supper was not the “blood of the covenant.” Remember, the objection says this is so because Christ’s sacrifice hadn’t been offered yet on the cross. But if we consider what the Bible teaches about sacrifices, there is good reason to think that Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice wasn’t restricted to his death.
Death was a key moment in Old Testament sacrifices, but they didn’t begin at the moment of death. The sacrificial rituals consisted of many things that preceded death: bringing the animal into the sacred precincts (Exod. 29:42, Lev. 1:2-3), examining the animals for any blemish, placing hands on its head (Lev. 1:4; 4:15), the confession of sins by both the priest (Lev. 16:21) and the penitent (Lev. 5:5), etc. All these things comprised the one sacrifice.
Moreover, the New Testament teaches us that there’s such a thing as a living sacrifice. Paul tells the Romans, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1). Elsewhere, he considers the Gentiles as his “offering” in his “priestly service of the gospel of God” (Rom. 15:16).
This wide range of what’s possible regarding sacrifices in God’s plan of salvation shows that Christ’s redemptive sacrifice may not have been restricted to his death but may have begun while he was alive.
So, did it?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: “Redemption comes to us above all through the blood of his cross, but this mystery is at work throughout Christ’s entire life” (517). Even if an individual doesn’t accept this expansive understanding of Christ’s sacrifice, Protestant theologians universally identify Jesus’ sacrifice with his Passion as a whole.
On this we can agree: his redemptive sacrifice may reasonably include the sufferings that immediately led up to it and were intentionally directed toward the Crucifixion. The obvious example is his agony in the Garden where three times he requests the Father to remove the cup of suffering from him (Matt. 26:39-46).
Was Jesus already suffering at the time of the Last Supper, the relevant time frame for our purposes?
Jesus would have been distressed over Judas’s betrayal. In John’s account, we even get a hint at Jesus’ inner suffering when he tells Judas, “What you are going to do, do quickly” (13:28). This suggests that Jesus wasn’t looking forward to what is to come and—as would most of us—wanted to complete his Passion without prolonging it.
Now, because this suffering at the Last Supper is directed to the cross, we can reasonably say it’s a part of his redemptive sacrifice. And since Christ’s redemptive sacrifice institutes the New Covenant, we can conclude that the New Covenant redemptive sacrifice had already begun at the Last Supper.
Thus, at the time of the Last Supper, Christ’s blood already had the status of “blood of the covenant”: the real and substantial blood of the New Covenant sacrificial victim present in the cup and the New Covenant redemptive sacrifice. Yes, the sacrifice will culminate in his death the next day. But his blood is still blood of the New Covenant sacrifice and thus reasonably can have the status of “blood of the covenant.”
So, because the appeal to the “blood of the covenant” of the slain victim in the Mosaic covenant fails to prove what it sets out to prove, and we have good reason to think that Jesus’ blood at the Last Supper has the status of “blood of the covenant,” this challenge to a literal interpretation of the words of institution also fails.
There are other counterarguments Protestants make to a Catholic interpretation of Jesus’ words of institution, but those will have to wait for another time. As for the ones considered in this article, they don’t disprove the Catholic belief about the Eucharist.
There Is Mystery in Faith
At the Last Supper, Jesus doesn’t point to the chalice and say, “The substance in here is not my blood.” The gist of his statement seems not to be about identifying the contents of the cup but to prophesy that he would not drink of the “fruit of the vine” until the coming of the kingdom. What this means is something of a mystery, especially since his death was less than a day away.
Was he referring to the heavenly banquet (Isa. 25:6-8, Rev. 19:9)? It’s possible, given that Jesus describes heaven as a banquet: “I tell you, many will come from East and West and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11).
Was he referring to the bitter wine he would sip while hanging on the cross (John 19:30)? That’s also possible since it’s the first time he drinks wine after his cryptic statement in the upper room. Or was St. John Chrysostom right in thinking Jesus was referring to his drinking wine with the disciples after his resurrection?
St. Thomas Aquinas thought that Jesus’ talk about drinking wine “new with you in my Father’s kingdom” refers to drinking wine “after a new manner . . . no longer having a passible body, or needing food.”
Despite the mystery, Christ’s words don’t disprove the Catholic belief about the Eucharist.