Common Misunderstanding: Is the Eucharist only a symbol or is it really the body & blood of Christ? Many Baptists believe that there are no "sacraments," only ordinances which are external signs of an invisible reality but which do not communicate grace themselves. This belief questions the devotional practices of reserving the Eucharist, benediction, and continued respect for Christ's presence in the consecrated species.
Response: Scripturally it is clear that Jesus taught that the Eucharist is his body and blood, not just symbols. Scripture demonstrates that sacraments really transmit grace (See 1 Pet 3:21 -"Baptism... now saves you...", Acts 8:18 - "Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands..."
Sources: Keating, Fundamentalism and Catholicism; Cornelius Hagerty, C.S.C. The Holy Eucharist: Scott Hahns talk, "The Holy Eucharist: The Holy Meal"; Jurgens, Faith of the Early Fathers
Foundations from Scripture and Tradition:
1. Matt 26:26-29 - Jesus said, "This is my body... this is my blood of the new covenant..." This is what the Synoptic Gospels say about the Eucharist. Does he mean this literally?
2. John 6:51 - "The bread that I give is my flesh..." Vv 53,54, "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 on the last day." Vv 60ff the murmuring of the disciples. Jesus does not back off from but intensifies his saying. Compare this response of Jesus in John 11:11-14.
3. I Cor 11:23ff. This is the first record of the institution of the Lord's supper in the early Church. Note that the communicant must rightly prepare himself or there will be serious consequences because he is receiving the body and the blood of the Lord. Note that there is the power of God residing within the species of bread and wine. If it were only a symbolic presense, there would not be consequences coming from misuse, only the benefits that would come from a rightly ordered subjective self.
4. The witness of Tradition. The early Church universally and clearly understood this not to be metaphor but reality. For example:
St. Justin (167 A.D.): "For we receive these not as common bread or common drink but as Jesus Christ our Savior made flesh by the Word of GOd possessed both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we were taught that the food over which thanksgiving has been made by the utterance in prayer of the word derived from him is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus."
St. Iranaeus (202 A.D.): "Wine and bread are by the word of God changed into the Eucharist which is the body and blood of Christ."
Tertullian (ca.200): "Christ is really present, body and blood, soul and divinity, the whole Christ; therefore this sacrament which places the Son of God in our hands, in our homes, should be treated with the utmost reverence; for it is nothing less than the body and blood of Christ our Savior."
Origin (244 A.D.) demonstrated that reverence is given to the smallest particle from the host. "I wish to admonish you with examples from your religion. You are accustomed to take part in the divine mysteries, so you know how, when you have received the Body of the Lord, you reverently exercise every care lest a particles of it fall and lest anything of the consecrated gift perish."
St. Cyprian (258 A.D.) complains of priests who give those who have lapsed the holy body of the Lord before they have done adequate penance.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-386 A.D.) "Do not, therefore, regard the Bread and Wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Masters'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 faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ."
Clearly the Apostles and the Early Church were able to distinguish between the literal and the figurative sayings of Jesus. They never understood that Jesus as "the way, the truth and the life" meant that Christians meeded a consecrated section of highway to pray on, or that a door literally swinging on its hinges is the body and blood of Jesus. See the "senses of Scripture" (CCC 115-119).
This doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was held with remarkable consistency. The first heretic who formally denied the change of the bread into Christ's body was Berengarius (1088 A.D.). He said that it was just a figure of speech. He retracted this statement in the presence of Pope Gregory VII in 1079. After Berengarius, transubstantiantion developed as an explanation of the sacramental presence of Jesus.
Most of the Reformers recognized some form of real presence of Jesus in the Lord's supper.
- Luther held that Jesus was there along with the bread. This is called consubstantiation.
- Calvin advocated a dynamic presence of Christ. At the moment the blessed bread and wine are received in the mouth of the Christian, God exerts supernatural influence to sanctify the recipient.
- Osiander & other followers of Luther held the doctrine of impanation. This means that Christ, the incarnate Son of God, unites himself to bread and wine hypostatically.
- Zwingli defended a purely symbolic understanding.
All of these are inadequate and incorrect explanations. None of these explanations are consistent with the real shock of the crowd and disciples in hearing Jesus' words at the end of John 6.
The Doctrine of Transubstantiation is the official explanation of the Church to express this mystery. By this doctrine we mean that the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the substance of the body and blood of Jesus, while the appearances (accidents) of bread and wine remain (CCC 1373 ff).
The Council of Trent teaches: "Because Christ our Redeemer said it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church, and this holy council now again declares that , by the consecration of the bread and wine, a change takes place in which the whole substance of bread ischanged into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This cahne the holy Catholic Church fittingly and properly names transubstantiation."
A summary of and a response to some objections:
1. Keith Green, in the Catholic Chronicles, say that in John 6:55,56 "to come to Him" is to eat and "to believe on Him" is to drink. Some believe that these verses actually disprove the dogma of transubstantiation. They say that some who took Jesus' words literally were offended so Jesus had to clarify by teaching them that what he said was to be understood spiritually (see v 63)... Looking back to v.47, they say that it is obvious that "eating" is equivalent to "believing." They assert that it is certain that what is meant by eating this flesh and drinking this blood is neither more nor less than "believing" in Christ, making Jesus' words metaphorical. The problem is that to use this language metaphorically in Jesus' culture would have meant to inflict some personal injury on the person (see Keating, pp. 241-243).
2. That vv 63,64, "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." Does this mean that Jesus' words are only symbolic? Is he contradicting himself? No, rather, John is speaking of the attitude of the listeners which is very carnal, not spiritual. But Jesus does not waver from what he says.
3. Jimmy Swaggert says that Catholics miss the point that at the Last Supper, when Jesus said, "This is my Body...my Blood," that he should have disappeared. Swaggert and others commit the ratioinalist error. Jesus being God can be present in two ways at once, physically and sacramentally. Are we to deny God's omnipresence because we can't conceive how he pulls it off (Keating, p 243)?