One of the striking things about the earliest Christians is that they didn’t just believe in the Eucharist, but they also regularly connected it to the idea of bodily resurrection. We see this from the very beginning. Around the year A.D. 107, St. Ignatius of Antioch famously wrote to the church in Smyrna, warning them about Docetist heretics (perhaps the Gnostics), and cautioning:
They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior 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. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 7).
Catholic apologists often cite to this passage to highlight that Ignatius believed not only that the Eucharist is “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ” but that he knew his readers did as well. And since the Docetists (who denied the Incarnation) didn’t believe that the Eucharist is Jesus, Ignatius tells them “that you should keep aloof from such persons, and not to speak of them either in private or in public.”
But there’s another dimension to what Ignatius is saying that’s easy to overlook: the almost casual way in which he suggests that proper respect for the Eucharist is necessary “that they also might rise again.” That is, Ignatius seems to almost take it for granted that there’s a close link between the Eucharist and the bodily resurrection both of Jesus Christ and of us.
And Ignatius is not alone in making this connection. Midway through the second century, we find St. Justin Martyr writing to the Roman Emperor to explain Christianity. After outlining the order of the Mass and explaining the Eucharist, he writes “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” (First Apology 66).
So there’s a radical change, a “transmutation,” that happens in the Eucharist. But Justin isn’t speaking here of the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ (although it’s clear he believes in that as well). He’s speaking rather of how the body and blood of Christ transforms our bodies.
St. Irenaeus of Lyons, writing c. 180, asks of the Gnostics’ denial of the bodily resurrection, “How can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with his blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life?” (Against Heresies, IV, 18). Irenaeus compares our bodies to the grains of wheat used in the eucharistic bread. Jesus spoke of how “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Likewise, Irenaeus says, “our bodies, being nourished by [the Eucharist], and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God” (Against Heresies, V, 2).
No Protestant position in antiquity
What should we make of this connection between the Eucharist and the bodily resurrection? On one level, it’s more evidence that there were broadly two “sides” in the earliest days of Christianity. On the one side were the Docetists, whose name derived from the Greek word “to seem.” According to their theology, Jesus didn’t really become incarnate, or die on the cross, or rise bodily from the dead: he only seemed to do so.
This strand of thought is connected particularly with Gnosticism, the first major heterodox system that Christianity faced. Although “Gnosticism was a medley of heterodox Christian beliefs,” G.R.S. Mead (1863-1933) explains that “certain Gnostics denied the incarnation: if Christ was a divine, eternal and perfect being, he could not have become flesh, as matter was evil and impure” (G.R.S. Mead and the Gnostic Quest, 143).
The apostle John seemed to have such people in mind when he warned against “deceivers” who “will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh,” cautioning that “such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist” (2 John 1:7). Against these “antichrists” are the Catholics, who believe that Jesus Christ really “became flesh and dwelt among us” in the Incarnation (John 1:14), really did die on the cross (19:30), and really did rise from the dead (20:11-12, 26-28).
The same lines of demarcation that separate Docetists from Catholics on the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection also separate them on the Eucharist. It’s for this reason that the Docetists must “abstain from the Eucharist” (Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 7), while the Catholics can say that their view of the bodily resurrection “is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, IV, 18).
What’s striking in this conflict is that no one in the second century (either Docetist or Catholic) took up the Protestant standard. That is, there was apparently no party of believers who agreed with Catholics about the bodily reality of the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection but agreed with the “antichrists” in denying the bodily reality of the Eucharist.
This is no coincidence. “God is spirit,” as St. John reminded us (John 4:24). But as the Old Testament shows us, the worship of a purely spiritual God was difficult for his people, who repeatedly fell into idolatry. The lure of having a God that they could see was too powerful for too many. And so, argues St. Athanasius (296-373), the Incarnation is intended in part as an antidote to idolatry: “the loving and general Savior of all, the Word of God, takes to himself a body, and as man walks among men and meets the senses of all men half-way” (On the Incarnation of the Word 15).
By meeting us halfway, “they who think that God is corporeal may from what the Lord effects by his body perceive the truth, and through him recognize the Father.” This understanding of the Incarnation is sacramental: that is, the humanity of Christ is the outward side of an invisible reality, his divinity, that he makes present. We see “through” the humanity of Christ to his divinity, just as we see “through” the visible signs of the seven sacraments to the invisible realities that they make present.
To deny the bodily reality of the Eucharist is to leave Christianity “deincarnated”—that Christians after the Ascension are in much the same place as the Israelites before the Incarnation, worshiping a God who is invisible, without the aid of any visible and sacramental realities.
Food and drink that last forever
But the early Christians weren’t simply connecting the Eucharist to Jesus’ bodily resurrection. They connected the Eucharist to our bodily resurrection on the last day. This connection is anticipated in Sacred Scripture. St. Paul says that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). And Jesus makes this connection explicit when he promises,
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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed (John 6:53-55).
It’s not a coincidence that St. John presents Jesus’ teaching as happening when “the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand” (v. 4) and involving Jesus asserting the Eucharist’s superiority over the Old Testament manna (vv. 49-51).
Understood in this way, the Eucharist is the spiritual food that carries us to eternal life. When the forty-year exodus of the Israelites was finally over, and they crossed the Jordan into Gilgal, they celebrated the Passover, and this marked the last day that they received the manna. The next morning, “the people of Israel had manna no more, but ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year” (Joshua 5:12 ). They no longer needed the manna because they were finally in the Promised Land.
But we can go beyond this. St. John Paul II says
those who feed on Christ in the Eucharist need not wait until the hereafter to receive eternal life: they already possess it on earth, as the first-fruits of a future fullness which will embrace man in his totality, [since] “in the Eucharist we also receive the pledge of our bodily resurrection at the end of the world” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia 18).
This “pledge of the future resurrection comes from the fact that the flesh of the Son of Man, given as food, is his body in its glorious state after the resurrection” (ibid.)
Ultimately, the eschatological orientation of Christianity is toward “the marriage supper of the Lamb,” the consummation of the union between Christ the Bridegroom and the Church his Bride (Rev. 19:9). That is the true “Last” Supper, in the sense of being the culmination of all things.
But our participation in the Lord’s Supper now is both an anticipation of this marriage supper and a true (albeit limited) participation in it now. This is due to the “already but not yet” nature of eternal life. That is, there’s one sense in which eternal life is something that happens “in the age to come” (Luke 18:30). But there’s another sense in which eternal life is something we already have (1 John 5:13).
To illustrate this idea with a seemingly trivial example, consider a bottomless cup of coffee. When does it “become” bottomless? In one sense, when it’s refilled. In another sense, from the moment you receive it. In yet another sense, the question is meaningless, like asking when a numeric series “reaches” infinity (it doesn’t).
But that bottomless cup of coffee isn’t quite as trivial as it might appear because the nature of the Eucharist is precisely as food and drink that last forever. Jesus says not to “labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you” (John 6:27), before clarifying that “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day,” and that “he who eats this bread will live for ever” (vv. 54, 58).
Unsurprisingly, Jesus neatly captures that “already but not yet” that can be so hard for us to put into words: the one living in the eucharistic life of Jesus both “has eternal life” now and “will live for ever” into the future.
Finally, all of this cannot be properly understood without remembering that the Eucharist is, at its core, communion in the body and blood, soul and divinity of the risen Christ. In describing the general resurrection, St. Paul says that our “perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality” (1 Cor. 15:53).
By ourselves, of course, we lack the power to rise again from the dead. But “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (v. 20). In other words, our only hope of rising again is through our communion with Christ: “for as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (vv. 22-23).
It’s hard to miss the eucharistic imagery when Christ says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Mutual abiding—we in Christ, and Christ in us—is what it’s all about. This is what we mean, in the fullest sense, by “Communion.” Understood in this way, the Eucharist is not simply one doctrine amongst many. It’s truly “the source and summit” (in other translations, “the fount and apex”) of “the whole Christian life” (Lumen Gentium 11).
This mutual abiding explains what’s happening in the Eucharist, as well as how we can “bear fruit” for the Kingdom, as well as how it is that our mortal flesh can take on immortality. And without this abiding, we are lost, for “if a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6).