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How to Defend Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist

1. During the Last Supper, Jesus was speaking metaphorically when he said, “This is my body.” 

Objections to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist can usually be divided into three categories: scriptural, philosophical, and historical. Whenever discussing the scriptural objections, keep in mind how many different interpretations are out there. William Whalen’s book Separated Brethren was published in the 1950s, and it recorded that there were over three hundred different interpretations of the phrase, “This is my body.”

Two Christians with differing views could debate the matter for hours and not make any progress. That being the case, the issue of authority should always be brought up first. If there are at least three hundred interpretations of those four words, how is a sincere Christian to know what Christ meant by them? Whose authority should be trusted when it comes to interpreting the Bible?

If your friend is not favorable to the idea of accepting the Catholic Church as that authority, perhaps he is willing to concede that the first two or three centuries of Christian writings are worth examining. After all, if anyone knew what Christ meant at the Last Supper it would be the apostles and their disciples. Here is an ideal place to find the first Christian exegesis of the words “This is my body.”

In addition to the historical evidence, it is useful to examine the language that Christ would have used at the Last Supper. In Aramaic, there are over three dozen words that mean represent or symbolize, but Jesus used none of them in his statement, “This is my body.” In fact, a literal translation in the Aramaic is simply, “This my body.”

If this phrase were metaphorical, a serious difficulty arises in 1 Corinthians 11:27, where Paul says that if one eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner he will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. In a Semitic culture, to be guilty of another’s body and blood is to be guilty of murder. Yet how could one be guilty of murder if the bread is merely a symbol of Christ? Paul goes on to say that some are dying because of this.

2. But the bread of life discourse in John 6 shouldn’t be taken literally. Elsewhere, Jesus said that he was the door, the gate, the vine, et cetera. Here he is saying that he is the bread, since he gives us spiritual nourishment. 

When questions of biblical interpretation are raised, it is beneficial to read in context the entire passage that is in dispute. The bread of life discourse begins in John 6:22, and the first point to address is the discussion of the heavenly bread. Jesus makes the point that as the Father sent manna from heaven for the physical nourishment of the Israelites, he has sent Jesus for the spiritual nourishment of the world. When Jesus announced this (6:41), the Jews murmured because he said that he had come down from heaven, not because he said that he was like bread. They understood his symbolic statement regarding the origin of the manna, and were scandalized by what it implied: “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’” (6:42).

Beginning in verse 43, Jesus replies to these objections. At the completion of his answer (6:51), he speaks of a bread that he is yet to give. The Jews’ understand that he is now speaking in a literal sense, and so they object, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So the Jews first objected because of what Jesus’ initial words meant symbolically, and now they object to what his second statement means literally. Had Jesus been speaking in a metaphorical sense here, this would be the perfect point to clarify his intentions.

Matthew 16:5–12 is one such example where Jesus’ listeners thought that he was speaking in a literal sense, and he had to correct them. In this passage, Christ was warning the disciples of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The disciples concluded that he was speaking of the bread they had forgotten to bring for their journey. In seeing their confusion, Jesus had to reiterate that he was not speaking literally of bread.

Keeping this in mind, look how Jesus answers the Jews’ objections in John 6:53–58: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. . . . For my flesh is food indeed, and my flesh is drink indeed.” These words would hardly quell the Jew’s fear that Jesus spoke literally. Following this, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”(6:60). At this point, we witness the only place in Scripture where anyone leaves Jesus for a doctrinal reason. Had Jesus been speaking metaphorically, what would have been so hard for the disciples to accept?

One last passage worth considering is John 10:9, where Jesus says, “I am the door.” Some say that this is the sense in which Jesus’ words in John 6 should be taken. However, no one understood Jesus to be speaking literally when he said that he was a door. The narrative does not continue, “And his disciples murmured about this, saying, ‘How can he be a door? Where are his hinges? We do not see a doorknob.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Amen, Amen, I say to you, I am a door, and my chest is real wood, and my hips are real hinges.’” This is absurd, but it illustrates how shocking Jesus’ words were when he said that his flesh was real food and his blood real drink.

3. If Jesus was speaking literally, then why did he say, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail,” and “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63)? 

The fundamental misunderstanding here springs from the implication that the word spirit is symbolic. Never in Scripture is this the case. We are told that God is spirit and that the devil is spirit, but no one would conclude from this that they are merely symbolic beings. What Jesus is driving at is that the carnal understanding of fallen human flesh is incapable of g.asping spiritual realities—such as the Eucharist.

If one concludes from the above verses that Jesus was speaking metaphorically of his flesh and blood, a major difficulty arises. The Bible teaches that blood is essentially the seat of life within living things, and thus it is sacred. Every time the Bible speaks of symbolically eating another’s flesh and drinking their blood, this is the idiomatic phrase that meant to persecute, betray, and murder (see Micah 3:3; Psalm 27:2; Isaiah 9:20, 49:26). Now read John 6 in light of those that understood Jesus to speak symbolically. “I solemnly assure you that unless you persecute and betray me, you have no life within you. He who does violence to me has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” This is senseless, but it is what his words would have meant if they were symbolic.

4. If a miracle occurs when the priest says, “This is my body,” then why doesn’t the bread change? 

This objection is more of a philosophical one, and so you need to shift apologetic gears a bit to address it. What we perceive with our senses is not always a good indicator of spiritual realities.

In the Old Testament, there are several occasions where angels take on human appearances in order to carry out the work of God. Now, is the angel an angelic being or a human being? It would not look angelic. Through touch, smell, sight, et cetera it would appear to be fully human. But it is an angel. If an angel can take on human form, God is infinitely able to humble himself under the appearance of bread in order that we might receive him. In the words the Eucharistic hymn Tantum Ergo, “What our senses fail to fathom let us g.asp through faith’s consent.”

5. If we took Jesus’ words literally, wouldn’t that imply cannibalism? 

Cannibalism is when one individual physically eats the human flesh off of another’s body. Catholic or not, the words in John 6 do sound cannibalistic. Even a Fundamentalist would have to say that he eats the flesh of Christ and drinks his blood in a symbolic manner so as to concur with the passage. By the same allowance, Catholics eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood in a sacramental way. Neither the Protestant nor the Catholic appears to be doing anything cannibalistic, though.

It would have been cannibalism is if a disciple two thousand years ago had tried literally to eat Jesus by sinking his teeth into his arm. Now that our Lord is in heaven with a glorified body and made present under the appearance of bread in the Eucharist, cannibalism is not possible.

6. Besides, the doctrine of transubstantiation wasn’t invented until the thirteenth century. 

Fundamentalists often use this argument in the same way that a Jehovah’s Witness would say that the Trinity was invented in the fourth century at the Council of Nicea. Neither argument is sound because the truth of a particular term should be established by what it means, not by when it was first used.

Transubstantiation was taught by the Church Fathers long before anyone had ever heard of the term (see “The Fathers Know Best,” page 34). See, for example, the citation from Justin Martyr’s First Apology (A.D. 151): “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.”

The evidence in favor of the Real Presence in the writings of the Church Fathers is compelling and unanimous. In fact, it was not until Berengarius of Tours in the eleventh century that the teaching was denied.

Before, during, and after your discussions on the Eucharist, make sure to pray for the person you are speaking to. While Catholics realize that the Eucharist is of great importance, they often overlook how belief in it leads to the fullness of faith. If a person believes in the Real Presence, then he must accept the priesthood, apostolic succession, and in turn the divine institution of the Catholic Church. These truths are inseparably linked to the Holy Eucharist.

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