The Eucharist: A Brief Apologetical Discursus on John 6
This piece is less of a precise exposition, and more of a contribution to several ongoing conversations on this subject with those I love; particularly my father, who along with my mother first demonstrated to me the priestly, prophetic, and kingly role of Christians.
Our Eucharistic Lord
This Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King. It puts me in mind of His words to St. Faustina Kowalska, explaining to us what kind of king He is:
My child, do not fear the God of mercy. My holiness does not prevent Me from being merciful. Behold, for you I have established a throne of mercy on earth–the tabernacle–and from this throne I desire to enter into your heart. I am not surrounded by a retinue or guards. You can come to me at any moment, at any time; I want to speak to you and desire to grant you graces. My mercy is greater than your sins and those of the entire world. Who can measure the extent of my goodness?
(St. Faustina Kowalska, Divine Mercy in My Soul)
As I read this, it strikes me that although this description of Jesus is explicitly Eucharistic, there is nevertheless very little in it that should arouse criticism from those Christians who do not accept Catholic teaching. It refers to the tabernacle, located above the altar in every Catholic church, where the Eucharist is kept between Masses, as Christ’s “throne of mercy on earth”; and as such it is necessarily rooted in the Catholic dogma of the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist. Yet while Christians of other confessions may object to this (and to the idea that Jesus said these words to St. Faustina) I doubt they would argue with the description of His tenderness, openness, and love.
I would suggest that these descriptions are in fact Eucharistic descriptions–that the image of Jesus descending mercifully to us in this life, condescending to our weakness in His love, appearing to us in the form of care and mercy rather than judgment, is nothing other than the image of Jesus in the Eucharist.
The early Christian understanding of Jesus Christ as the love of God made incarnate was, in fact, drawn from the Church’s faith in the Eucharist. The writings of the Fathers are replete with awestruck descriptions of the immensity of love they saw displayed in the Eucharistic offering. It was in the liturgical sacrifice of God on the Christian altar that the Church came to comprehend the immensity of His loving condescension toward us. Not only did they better comprehend His love through the celebration of this sacrament, but they were also acutely conscious of experiencing and being made one with the love of God through Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
That He made Himself helpless, a servant, a sacrifice, an object of ridicule and contempt, was not merely a historical proposition for the first Christians. It was an event they witnessed anew at every celebration of the Mass, as Christ descended in a form more helpless than that of His birth: bread and wine. In this sacrament He again subjects Himself and all His followers to the ridicule of those who do not accept His teaching. A more recent saint says it well:
It would have been mad enough to have chosen to become a helpless Child. But even then, many wicked men might have been softened, and would not have dared to harm Him. So this was not enough for Him. He wanted to make Himself even less, to give Himself even more lavishly. He made Himself food, He became Bread.
Divine Madman! How do men treat you? How do I treat you?
(St. Josemaria Escriva, The Forge, 824)
The Apostles and their followers did not doubt that Christ taught the doctrine of His Presence in the Eucharist, nor was it ever regarded as a secondary teaching. Jesus Himself laid it down as the dividing line of His Gospel: “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” (John 6:53). Let’s look more closely at this chapter of St. John’s Gospel.
“Eat My Flesh and Drink My Blood”
God does not lie, and He does not mislead. But when the Jews were scandalized by the literal sound of His statement that they must eat His flesh, did He explain that this statement was a metaphor, or did He at least cryptically suggest a less apparent meaning with a comment like “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear”? No. In fact, He furthers the difficulty.
To understand this, imagine the initial repulsion of Jewish listeners who have just heard a famous rabbi urge them to break the dietary laws of their religion. Add to this the horror of cannibalism. Then finish it off with the sobering shock that not only has the rabbi said this, not only was he serious when he said it, but he has claimed the divine authority of God in drawing a connection between this command and the question of eternal life. And that’s only the first thing He says to the crowd.
Let’s continue: “The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ (John 6:52). The word translated here as “dispute” is used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to the combat of war. In other words, this isn’t just a disagreement: a brawl broke out over this.
Jesus responds with a whirlwind. To properly understand His words, we must remember the enormous offensiveness of His prior statement, and take note every time He repeats it and furthers it.
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; 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. He who eats 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 he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Caper′na-um.
Here, Jesus is extremely severe. In His first statement, which so forcefully offended the Jewish crowd, the word “eat” is translated from the Greek term φάγω, phago. This is a fairly benign word that means “to eat,” in the sense of an ordinary, polite meal. Even so it was more than His listeners could swallow.
In response to their outrage, He does absolutely nothing to reassure their sensibilities. Not only do they have to eat (phago) His flesh, but now He adds that they must drink His blood. The blood of all animals was forbidden for the Jews to consume, so this must have contributed immensely to their confusion and disgust.
Not only that, but after using the word phago again in this first (and worse) repetition, He switches words. Throughout the rest of this address Christ used the word τρώγω, trogo. This is not a polite word. It does not mean “eat,” it means “gnaw, crunch.” He says this four times, probably arousing a furious roar from the crowd each time: “he who gnaws My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life…He who gnaws My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him….he who gnaws Me will live because of Me….he who gnaws this bread will live forever.”
Not content with the impact of this obscene language, Christ declares, “For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed,” using the word ἀληθῶς, alethos, which the centurion uttered upon witnessing the death of Jesus: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” This is the language of a solemn declaration.
Even before this, however, Christ has demonstrated that He is not lying or joking. The very first thing Christ says in response to the crowd’s denial, the term with which He introduces everything else He goes on to say, is “Truly, truly.” This is a translation of the Hebrew “Amen, amen.” The Catholic Encyclopedia notes,
When Amen is thus used by Our Lord to introduce a statement He seems especially to make a demand upon the faith of His hearers in His word or in His power; e.g. John 8:58, “Amen, Amen, I say unto you, before Abraham was made, I am.”
To contest the Real Presence, some hold up the statement of Jesus from later in this discourse, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63). This seems to indicate that the Catholic teaching is wrong to lay so much emphasis on the literality of Jesus’ physical presence in the Eucharist. It is the power of His teaching, His words, that are spirit and life–not the presence of His literal body and blood.
These challengers seem to have missed something in the passage they cite: for what words does Jesus say “are spirit and life”? The very words He has just spoken, proclaiming the necessity of eating His literal flesh and blood: “My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. He who eats Me will live because of Me.”
A similar error is made in reference to His words at the First Mass, better known as the Last Supper: “Do this in remembrance of Me.” These words are often taken to mean that in Holy Communion, we recall the Lord mentally, aided by visible signs; but certainly not that He dwells physically present among us in bread and wine transformed into Himself.
The error here is of the same kind. Look at what Jesus is referring to when He says “Do this”–do what? Do what He has just done: celebrating the Passover liturgy, He took bread and wine, blessed it, and distributed it with the statements “This is My Body. This is My Blood.” So too, He orders the apostles to celebrate this liturgy as He has done, and to distribute these blessed elements with the solemn proclamation that they are, indeed, the Body and Blood of Jesus.
The Faith of the Fathers
Any of the claims I have made so far are easily verifiable for anyone with a few minutes of time and access to the New Testament, Strong’s Concordance, and an encyclopedia of the Church Fathers–or, barring that, a search engine. There are many sources online that provide selections from the Fathers and the earliest liturgies of the Church, demonstrating with primary sources the Christian faith in the Real Presence.
That this faith was theirs from the very start of Christianity–in fact, from the night of the Last Supper onward–is a point often lost on those who would prefer to decry this doctrine as a medieval invention. These challengers refer to the development in the Middle Ages, particularly by St. Thomas Aquinas, of the theology of transubstantiation–the philosophical explanation of how it is that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine could be transformed into human flesh and blood and yet retain their former characteristics. In other words: if the Eucharist is no longer bread, no longer wine, then why does it look like, feel like, smell like, taste like bread and wine?
The Thomistic answer to this, which was wholly accepted by the Church, is that while the accidents, the empirical effects on our senses, of the bread and wine remain, their substance–their metaphysical existence as bread and wine–is entirely eradicated, and replaced with the substance of Jesus Christ in His incarnate body. So the Church speaks of Christ as being not merely symbolically or even spiritually present, but “substantially” present in the Eucharist: really, truly present in the most complete and literal way.
What must be understood about this teaching is that it is an explanation, not a proof. The Thomistic doctrine of transubstantiation proves nothing with regard to the Eucharist. It merely explains how we are to understand the fact, already accepted, that what we see and feel and smell and taste as bread and wine is truly not bread and wine at all, but the flesh of God Incarnate.
The only proof for this fact, the only proof the Church has ever accepted or proposed, is the authority of Jesus Christ: when He Who brought all Creation into being by the power of His Word, takes bread in His hands and declares “This is,” no longer bread, but “My Body”; and when He similarly takes wine and says “This,” though it may appear to be wine, in fact “is My Blood”–who are we to argue with Him?
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in the middle of the fourth century, typifies this faith in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:23.
Even of itself the teaching of the blessed Paul is sufficient to give you a full assurance concerning those Divine Mysteries, of which having been deemed worthy, you are become of the same body and blood with Christ. For you have just heard him say distinctly, That Our Lord Jesus Christ in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks He broke it, and gave to His disciples, saying, “Take, eat, this is My Body”; and having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, “Take, drink, this is My Blood.” Since then He Himself declared and said of the Bread, This is My Body, who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since He has Himself affirmed and said, This is My Blood, who shall ever hesitate, saying, that it is not His Blood?
Until the End of the Age
This is the faith, not only of the early Church, with its various expressions of belief in the Real Presence; but it is the explicit faith of the Church at all times, including the medieval Church, and St. Thomas in particular. In the hymn Adoro te Devote, he says of Christ hidden in the Eucharist:
Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.
It is only this total confidence in the word of Jesus that enables the Church to stand unwaveringly upon the truth He has declared to us. By this doctrine, we accept Christ’s gift of Himself in the Eucharist, and we gain the confidence to trust His love, His mercy, His meekness. We are given courage to approach the King of Kings.
The sovereigns of the earth do not always grant audience readily; on the contrary, the King of Heaven, hidden under the Eucharistic veils, is ready to receive anyone…Let us know pleasure in the company of our best Friend, a Friend who can do everything for us, a Friend who loves us beyond measure.
(St. Alphonsus de Liguori)