The Eucharist: Why it’s More than a Symbol

Before I became Catholic, I was attending a Protestant church, and on a particular Sunday, the pastor preached about Communion. Sadly, when I left that building… I had no idea what we, as a Protestant, believed about the Eucharist. Each of his statements seemed to contradict the next, but he made sure to repeat this point frequently, “It’s not Catholic.” What is it then? Is it a symbol, consubstantiation (a.k.a. real presence), or transubstantiation? The focus of this article will be to appeal only to Scripture as evidence for a literal understanding of Jesus’ words, “This is my body… This is my blood.” Please allow me to define my terms:

Symbol – Miriam Webster defines a symbol as, “something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance; especially: a visible sign of something invisible.”1

Consubstantiation[2][3] – This is the teaching that the bread and wine are spiritually the body and blood of Christ, but not literally.

Transubstantiation4 – This is the teaching that the bread and wine literally become the physical body and blood of Christ.

Why is the Eucharist more than a symbol, and where do we see it in Scripture?

First, let’s look at the main five covenants in the Old Testament, which will establish for us a precedence on how God establishes a covenant. Specifically, let’s look at the terms of the covenants. Those covenants are the Adamic/Edenic Covenant, Noahic Covenant, Abrahamic Covenant, Mosaic Covenant, and the Davidic Covenant.

Adamic/Edenic Covenant:

The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”

To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”

And to Adam he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”

Genesis 3:14-19 (ESV)

Noahic Covenant:

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Genesis 9:8-17 (ESV)

Abrahamic Covenant:

And God said to Abraham, “As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

Genesis 17: 9-14 (ESV)

Mosaic Covenant:

And the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.

Exodus 31: 12-18 (ESV)

Davidic Covenant:

And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’” In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.

2 Samuel 7: 10-17 (c.f. 1 Chronicles 17:11-14 and 2 Chronicles 6:16) (ESV)

As we see in these five covenants, God establishes each covenant with a literal sign.

  • Adamic/Edenic:
    • Woman:
      • Pain in childbirth
      • Desire contrary to husband
      • Entrusted to the care of husband
    • Man:
      • Labor in providing
  • Noahic: God places His bow in the sky (a.k.a. Rainbow)
  • Abrahamic: Sign of circumcision
  • Mosaic: The command to Sabbath
  • Davidic: Offspring who will sit on the throne forever

Now, let’s look at the establishment of the New Covenant, and see if the New Covenant is established in the same way that the Old Covenants are. First, the Synoptic Gospels:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “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. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Matthew 26:26-29

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

Mark 14 22-24

And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. But behold, the hand of him who betrays me is with me on the table. For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!” And they began to question one another, which of them it could be who was going to do this.

Luke 22:14-23

John doesn’t record the Last Supper discourse… interesting! He tells the story of the washing of feet, which is actually the institution of the Priesthood… but that is a topic for another blog. Stay tuned! Therefore, let’s look at the Bread of Life discourse in John:

So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 

… [The Jews grumble, and Jesus repeats Himself]

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.

John 6:30-35; 52-59

Now, in every other account of Jesus speaking parabolically5 (figuratively or symbolically), what does He do when the disciples ask Him to explain the meaning of the parable? He explains the true meaning behind the parable, right? Scripture has demonstrated a pattern: Jesus tells a parable, the disciples don’t understand and ask for the true meaning, and Jesus reveals the meaning behind the parabolic story. Now, what does he do here? Let’s find out:

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.

John 6:60-71

So, what did he do? He explained that He was speaking parabolically, and that the Bread of Life discourse was about a figurative reception of His body and blood. Wait… no, He didn’t! He said, “‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’” Then, Scripture records that, “may of His disciples turned back and no [emphasis added] longer walked with him.” Now, think with me for a moment. If Jesus is our Good Shepherd, would it make sense for Him to cause the faithful to leave Him based on a literal understanding of something that He intended to be interpreted as figurative? Finally, as Jesus sees the people abandoning Him, he turns to the twelve disciples and asks, “‘Do you want to go away as well?'” What!? The disciples just told Jesus that, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”, and instead of explaining Himself, He asks if they are going to leave Him, too. Obviously, there isn’t a parabolic meaning to the Bread of Life discourse, and by extension the Last Supper.

In addition to the Gospels, what does Paul say concerning the Eucharist?

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

1 Corinthians 11:23-29

If the Eucharist was just a symbol, why would Paul warn us against unworthily receiving the Eucharist, and being, “guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.”?

In summation, Scripture clearly demonstrates that God has a pattern for establishing a covenant, and the New Covenant is no exception. Furthermore, the theology of Transubstantiation, later philosiphized by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), was the only accepted understanding of Jesus’ words and was reaffirmed at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). Therefore, I’ll leave you with Saint Thomas Aquinas’ words,

The Church’s sacraments are ordained for helping man in the spiritual life. But the spiritual life is analogous to the corporeal, since corporeal things bear a resemblance to spiritual. Now it is clear that just as generation is required for corporeal life, since thereby man receives life; and growth, whereby man is brought to maturity: so likewise food is required for the preservation of life. Consequently, just as for the spiritual life there had to be Baptism, which is spiritual generation; and Confirmation, which is spiritual growth: so there needed to be the sacrament of the Eucharist, which is spiritual food.

Hoc est enim Corpus meum. (For this is My Body.)

Hic set enim Calix Sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni Testamenti: Mysterium fidei: qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionen peccatorum. (For this is the Chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal Testament, the Mystery of Faith; which shall be shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins.)

Ubi Caritas Est Vera, Deus Ibi Est                                                                                                        (Where true charity is, God is there.)

 

Here’s a response from my Eastern Orthodox friend, Chad: Eucharist: A View from Apostolic Succession

 

1 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/symbol

2 http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Lollardy

Consubstantiation, or real presence, was a teaching developed within Lollardism in the mid-14th century and has been condemned by the Catholic Church as a heresy. For a brief history of Consubstantiation: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04322a.htm

4 Here is a link to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which explains this theology in detail: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a3.htm

Parables of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels:

Parable Matthew Mark Luke
The Purpose of the Parables 13:10–17 4:10–12 8:9–10
The Sower 13:1–9, 18–23 4:1–9, 13–20 8:4–8, 11–15
The Weeds 13:24–30, 36–43 4:26–29
The Mustard Seed 13:31–32 4:30–32 13:18–19
The Leaven 13:33 13:20–21
The Hidden Treasure 13:44
The Pearl of Great Value 13:45–46
The Net 13:47–50
The Lost Sheep 18:10–14 15:3–7
The Unforgiving Servant 18:23–35
The Two Sons 21:28–32
The Tenants 21:33–44 12:1–11 20:9–18
The Wedding Feast 22:1–14 14:16–24
The Ten Virgins 25:1–13
The Talents 25:14–30 19:11–27
The Good Samaritan 10:29–37
The Rich Fool 12:16–21
The Barren Fig Tree 13:6–9
The Wedding Feast 14:7–11
The Lost Coin 15:8–10
The Prodigal Son 15:11–32
The Dishonest Manager 16:1–9
The Rich Man and Lazarus 16:19–31
The Persistent Widow 18:1–8
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector 18:9–14

 

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