The Catholic Church holds that the bread and wine consecrated by the priest at Mass are no longer bread and wine, but the literal body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. This doctrine is shocking, but it was the teaching of Christ Himself, as is attested to by scripture and the first Christians.
In chapter six of John’s Gospel, Christ laid the foundation for understanding the sacrament of the Eucharist. “The Eucharistic Discourse” as it is known, was delivered on the Jewish feast of the Passover. In it, Christ makes clear that we must really eat His flesh and blood, as true food. Christ would institute the sacrament of the Eucharist on the Passover of the next year.
In John 6:30 the Jews ask Christ what work He would perform so that they might believe. In His response He first calls Himself the “Bread of Life”, and at this the Jews murmured (John 6:41). Later Christ explains exactly what He meant:
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world. The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, abideth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father; so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead. He that eateth this bread, shall live for ever. These things he said, teaching in the synagogue, in Capharnaum. ” John 6:51-60
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” they asked, showing that they understood Him literally. Christ then emphasizes a literal understanding of His words, “For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed.” In fact Christ not only emphasized the point, but He raised the stakes by then saying we must also drink His blood.
Frequently in scripture, when people wrongly take Christ literally, He corrects them. This can be seen in John 3:3-5, John 8:21-23, John 11:11-14, and Matthew 19:24-26 to name a few examples.
On the contrary when people rightly take Christ literally on some shocking point, like His divinity, He confirms their understanding. This can be seen in Matthew 9:2-6 or John 8:56-59. Christ does the same thing in John chapter six. He confirms that He was speaking literally, so much so that many of His disciples could not bear this teaching, and because they understood rightly and Had not faith, Christ let them walk away.
“And he said: Therefore did I say to you, that no man can come to me, unless it be given him by my Father. After this many of his disciples went back; and walked no more with him. Then Jesus said to the twelve: Will you also go away? And Simon Peter answered him: Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have known, that thou art the Christ, the Son of God.” John 6:66-70
Some would object and claim that in John 6:61-65 Christ explains that He was only speaking symbolically, but this is incorrect.
“Many therefore of his disciples, hearing it, said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it? But Jesus, knowing in himself, that his disciples murmured at this, said to them: Doth this scandalize you? If then you shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I have spoken to you, are spirit and life. But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning, who they were that did not believe, and who he was, that would betray him.” – John 6:61-65
At this point the discourse had already ended, as we know from the words, “These things he said, teaching in the synagogue, in Capharnaum. In verses 61-65 Christ is speaking to His hearers of faith, That is why He challenges them with the question, “If then you shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?”
When Christ says, “It is the spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing.” he is not using “spirit” to any way mean symbolic, for spiritual things are just as real as physical things. Also, Christ very clearly states “the flesh”, not “my flesh.” The flesh of Christ alone profited our salvation on the cross. In biblical language, “the flesh” refers to the understanding of carnal men vs spiritual men. This language is used throughout scripture, for instance Romans 8:5-10.
“For they that are according to the flesh, mind the things that are of the flesh; but they that are according to the spirit, mind the things that are of the spirit. For the wisdom of the flesh is death; but the wisdom of the spirit is life and peace. Because the wisdom of the flesh is an enemy to God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither can it be. And they who are in the flesh, cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh, but in the spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body indeed is dead, because of sin; but the spirit liveth, because of justification.” – Romans 8:5-10
When all was said and done, the people still understood Christ to be speaking literally, and He let them walk away. Six times Christ repeated His claim that we must literally eat His flesh and drink His blood. His meaning was perfectly clear, His hearers understood it, and that is why they left. Christ could have called them back and said “It was a misunderstanding. I was referring to a symbol, not to real flesh”, but Christ lets them leave. Why? Christ could have kept them there by correcting their misunderstanding, however, there was no misunderstanding. The disciples understood Christ perfectly well, were unable to accept His teaching, and He let them leave.
St. Paul asks;
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” – 1 Corinthians 10:16
How can the reception of a symbol in any way be a true participation in the body and blood of Christ? The only way to truly participate in His body and blood is if Christ is truly present in the Eucharist.
This reality becomes even clearer in context:
“For I would not have you ignorant, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. And all in Moses were baptized, in the cloud, and in the sea: And did all eat the same spiritual food, And all drank the same spiritual drink; (and they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.) But with most of them God was not well pleased: for they were overthrown in the desert. Now these things were done in a figure of us, that we should not covet evil things as they also coveted.” I Corinthians 10:1-6
Paul warned the Corinthians that the Jews all ate and drank the same spiritual food and drink, but with most of them God was not pleased. Note that Paul says, “and the rock was Christ,” but not literally as, “these things were done in a figure of us, that we should not covet evil things as they also coveted.”
Then Paul goes on to list sins to avoid, so as not to fall like the Jews of old. Further he writes;
“Now all these things happened to them in figure: and they are written for our correction, upon whom the ends of the world are come. Wherefore he that thinketh himself to stand, let him take heed lest he fall. Let no temptation take hold on you, but such as is human. And God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able: but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it. Wherefore, my dearly beloved, fly from the service of idols. I speak as to wise men: judge ye yourselves what I say.” I Corinthians 10:11-15
Paul is stressing that the miraculous events witnessed by the Jews were prefigurements, and that their falls were a warning to us. They were prefiguring the realities that we now posses in Christ. It is in this context that Paul goes onto say;
“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” – 1 Corinthians 10:16
Paul is stressing that we Christians have to walk uprightly, because we are not dealing with shadows of things to come, but of the Heavenly realities themselves. Christ did not replace Old Testament miracles with New Testament symbols! He replaced them with a greater miracle!
St. Paul again warned the Corinthians not to receive the Eucharist unworthily:
“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 11:27
In St. Paul’s time to be guilty of someone’s body and blood meant to be guilty of murder. St. Paul is saying that to receive the Eucharist unworthily is a sacrilege, or profanation equivalent to the shedding of Christ’s blood. How can this be if it is only a symbol?
Saint Paul later on exhorts:
“Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.” – 1 Corinthians 11:28-29
St. Paul clearly says we must recognize the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. If it is only a symbol how could eating and drinking be a judgment on oneself?
Early Christian History
“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible.”
-Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans, 110 AD
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.”
-Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 110 AD
“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, 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.”
-St. Justin Martyr, First Apology, 151 AD
“If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?”
-Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 189 AD
“He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?”
-Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 189 AD
“There is not a soul that can at all procure salvation, except it believe whilst it is in the flesh, so true is it that the flesh is the very condition on which salvation hinges. And since the soul is, in consequence of its salvation, chosen to the service of God, it is the flesh which actually renders it capable of such service. The flesh, indeed, is washed [in baptism], in order that the soul may be cleansed . . . the flesh is shadowed with the imposition of hands [in confirmation], that the soul also may be illuminated by the Spirit; the flesh feeds [in the Eucharist] on the body and blood of Christ, that the soul likewise may be filled with God.”
-Tertullian, The Resurrection of the Dead, 210 AD
“And she [Wisdom] has furnished her table’ [Prov. 9:2] . . . refers to his [Christ’s] honored and undefiled body and blood, which day by day are administered and offered sacrificially at the spiritual divine table, as a memorial of that first and ever-memorable table of the spiritual divine supper [i.e., the Last Supper.]”
-Saint Hyppolytus, Fragment from Commentary on Proverbs, 217 AD
“Formerly there was baptism in an obscure way . . . now, however, in full view, there is regeneration in water and in the Holy Spirit. Formerly, in an obscure way, there was manna for food; now, however, in full view, there is the true food, the flesh of the Word of God, as he himself says: ‘My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.’ [John 6:55]”
-Origen, Homilies on Numbers, 248 AD
“He [Paul] threatens, moreover, the stubborn and forward, and denounces them, saying, ‘Whosoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily, is guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ [1 Cor. 11:27]. All these warnings being scorned and contemned—[lapsed Christians will often take Communion] before their sin is expiated, before confession has been made of their crime, before their conscience has been purged by sacrifice and by the hand of the priest, before the offense of an angry and threatening Lord has been appeased, [and so] violence is done to his body and blood; and they sin now against their Lord more with their hand and mouth than when they denied their Lord.”
-Saint Cyprian of Carthage, The Lapsed, 251 AD
“It has come to the knowledge of the holy and great synod that, in some districts and cities, the deacons administer the Eucharist to the presbyters [i.e., priests], whereas neither canon nor custom permits that they who have no right to offer [the Eucharistic sacrifice] should give the Body of Christ to them that do offer [it.]”
-Council of Nicea, Canon 18, 325 AD
“After having spoken thus [at the Last Supper], the Lord rose up from the place where he had made the Passover and had given his body as food and his blood as drink, and he went with his disciples to the place where he was to be arrested. But he ate of his own body and drank of his own blood, while he was pondering on the dead. With his own hands the Lord presented his own body to be eaten, and before he was crucified he gave his blood as drink.”
-Saint Aphraahat the Persian Sage, Treatises, 340 AD
“The bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the holy invocation of the adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ.”
-Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 350 AD
“Do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by the faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the body and blood of Christ. . . . [Since you are] fully convinced that the apparent bread is not bread, even though it is sensible to the taste, but the body of Christ, and that the apparent wine is not wine, even though the taste would have it so, . . . partake of that bread as something spiritual, and put a cheerful face on your soul.”
-Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 350 AD
“Perhaps you may be saying, ‘I see something else; how can you assure me that I am receiving the body of Christ?’ It but remains for us to prove it. And how many are the examples we might use! . . . Christ is in that sacrament, because it is the body of Christ.”
-Saint Ambrose of Milan, The Mysteries, 390 AD
“When [Christ] gave the bread he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my body,’ but, ‘This is my body.’ In the same way, when he gave the cup of his blood he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my blood,’ but, ‘This is my blood’; for he wanted us to look upon the [Eucharistic elements] after their reception of grace and the coming of the Holy Spirit not according to their nature, but receive them as they are, the body and blood of our Lord. We ought . . . not regard [the elements] merely as bread and cup, but as the body and blood of the Lord, into which they were transformed by the descent of the Holy Spirit.”
-Theodore of Mopsuestia, Catechetical Homilies, 405 AD
“Christ was carried in his own hands when, referring to his own body, he said, ‘This is my body’ [Matt. 26:26]. For he carried that body in his hands.”
-Saint Augustine, Explanations of the Psalms, 405 AD
“I promised you [new Christians], who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord’s Table. . . . That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ.”
-Saint Augustine, Sermons, 411 AD
“We will necessarily add this also. Proclaiming the death, according to the flesh, of the only-begotten Son of God, that is Jesus Christ, confessing his resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven, we offer the unbloody sacrifice in the churches, and so go on to the mystical thanksgivings, and are sanctified, having received his holy flesh and the precious blood of Christ the Savior of us all. And not as common flesh do we receive it; God forbid: nor as of a man sanctified and associated with the Word according to the unity of worth, or as having a divine indwelling, but as truly the life-giving and very flesh of the Word himself. For he is the life according to his nature as God, and when he became united to his flesh, he made it also to be life-giving.”
-Council of Ephesus, Letter of Cyril to Nestorius, 431 AD