“Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood…”

It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament.

(from the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

I’m pondering the Catholic belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist−something I know nothing about. I begin with a couple of passages, one from the Gospel of John and the other from Pope John Paul II.

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 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; 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” (John 6:48-56).

The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church. In a variety of ways she joyfully experiences the constant fulfilment of the promise: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20), but in the Holy Eucharist, through the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, she rejoices in this presence with unique intensity. Ever since Pentecost, when the Church, the People of the New Covenant, began her pilgrim journey towards her heavenly homeland, the Divine Sacrament has continued to mark the passing of her days, filling them with confident hope.

Pope John Paul II, from the intro to his encyclical: Ecclesia de Eucharistia

Last Communion of St. Jerome (frag.) by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1494-1495)

So… is Christ really present in the Eucharist? The Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence is the belief that Jesus Christ is literally, not merely symbolically, present in the Holy Eucharist—body, blood, soul and divinity. But many Protestants believe the Eucharist is merely symbolic, that the real presence of Christ is not in the bread and wine. What makes the most sense−real presence or merely symbolic? Did Jesus mean us to understand his words as pointing to a symbolic rather than a literal interpretation?

Consider these verses

  • (John 6:53-56 RSV) 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; {54} he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. {55} For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. {56} He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.
    • In the Aramaic language that Our Lord spoke, to symbolically “eat the flesh” or “drink the blood” of someone meant to persecute or assault them. See the following… (Psa 27:2 KJV) When the wicked, even mine enemies and my foes, came upon me to eat up my flesh, they stumbled and fell.
  • (Isa 9:18-20 RSV) For wickedness burns like a fire, it consumes briers and thorns; it kindles the thickets of the forest, and they roll upward in a column of smoke. {19} Through the wrath of the LORD of hosts the land is burned, and the people are like fuel for the fire; no man spares his brother. {20} They snatch on the right, but are still hungry, and they devour on the left, but are not satisfied; each devours his neighbor’s flesh,
  • (Isa 49:26 RSV) I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine. Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
  • (Micah 3:3 RSV) who eat the flesh of my people, and flay their skin from off them, and break their bones in pieces, and chop them up like meat in a kettle, like flesh in a caldron.
  • (2 Sam 23:17 RSV) “Far be it from me, O LORD, that I should do this. Shall I drink the blood of the men who went at the risk of their lives?” Therefore he would not drink it. These things did the three mighty men.
  • (Rev 17:6 RSV) And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus. When I saw her I marveled greatly.
  • (Rev 17:16 NIV) The beast and the ten horns you saw will hate the prostitute. They will bring her to ruin and leave her naked; they will eat her flesh and burn her with fire.

Thus, if Jesus were only speaking symbolically about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, as the Protestants say, then what He really meant was “whoever persecutes and assaults me will have eternal life” − which, of course, makes nonsense of the passage!

Bread and wine are not normal or natural symbols of flesh and blood. To call a man a “fox” is an understandable symbol for cleverness. To call a man “bread” is not an understandable symbol, without some explanation. Either the symbols would have been clearly explained (which is not the case) or Jesus spoke literally (which is the case!).

I found the text above here. Although I think it possible that Christ was creating a new metaphor to understand a new symbolic act, the argument above makes enough sense that a quick dismissal of a literal understanding seems foolhardy. Minimally the doctrine deserves a close look rather than the wave-of-the-hand dismissal I was taught to give as a Baptist and semi-Reformed Christian.

Still, while I wonder if the Protestant position suffers from certain anemia, I also wonder if the Catholic position is too much of a forced overlay on the text. Sometimes it feels that way (I say this with little understanding). I do not yet have an answer.

Last Supper (1446) by Fra Angelico

Although I am not sure where I stand, my leanings are toward a more Catholic view. My Baptist training taught me to understand communion (God forbid we call it the Eucharist) as a merely symbolic act−something we did only 4 times a year with tiny crackers and tiny plastic cups of grape juice. Some Protestants might chafe at saying communion is “merely symbolic” by arguing that it is a symbolic act loaded with meaning, but once we turn our remembering of the incredible sacrifice of Christ into a liturgical activity without anything deeper than an act of outward piety and an inward emotional moment, then it is only “merely symbolic.” It cannot be anything more, except on a personal, emotional level, which is what so much of Christianity has become in the past 150 years. But should we see the Eucharist (or communion) as nothing more than a Christian version of saluting the flag or shooting off fireworks? Is it more than merely a memorial (not to denigrate memorials)? Sometimes I think the Catholic Eucharist, that is, the real presence, is calling to me. In fact I’m rather sure it is.

My more recent quasi-Reformed non-denominational non-liturgical almost-not-a-church experiences were fundamentally, and I should say radically, non-sacramental. Thus communion was extremely rare and only symbolic. Sadly, on the few occasions that we did have communion in a formal sense it felt strange. On the one hand it seemed like it didn’t belong (what a strange thing for us to be doing). On the other hand I, and I think many others in the group, had strong positive emotions to the act such that I wondered why we didn’t do it more often. The more I look back the more I realize a kind of hollowness of culture in that communion experience (and in the more general experience with that group of “doing” church), though the friendships are real and good. If I am right about that hollowness, then it follows the teaching (which was the primary reason for that “church’s” meeting on Sundays), however excellent in many ways, must also be skewed toward some level of falsehood. I can’t put my finger on it exactly. I was blessed frequently by the teaching, but just like bad Christian art evidences bad theology, I wonder about an anemic church culture−what does it declare? Is it an essential kind of purity and clarity of understanding, or a malnourished and truncated offspring of the Reformation? Personally I have felt malnourished for years.

My most recent experience is in a church that celebrates the Eucharist every Sunday. I love this. Where has this practice been all my life? And even though some emphasis is placed on preaching, the whole liturgy points to, and culminates in, the Lord’s table. There is something right about this that words don’t fully convey. But it is still not Catholic, which may or many not be an issue, but it has me curious. Do we have the real presence at our Lord’s table?

I have been trained to think there is no real presence, except for Jesus in my heart (which is a very vague doctrine if we pause to think about it). The problem is that if one has been trained to think a certain way, then one is predisposed to presume some doctrines are more likely true and some must obviously be false. I was trained to presume that all things Catholic must obviously be false. So the difficulty of accepting the real presence as true may come more from a deeply ingrained refusal to accept it because it is a Catholic doctrine rather than from good arguments and evidence. But isn’t that the typical response of Protestants confronting Catholicism? Maybe it is a typical defense mechanism of anyone comfortable in their social group. I have been feeling less and less comfortable in the Protestant Christianity in which I live, thus my defenses are lowering.

Why is it the more I study Church history, Christian classical education, theology, and the lives of notable Christians, I keep finding more and more heroes that are Catholic? Why is it that again and again comparisons show me the poverty of Protestant culture (not entirely) and the richness of Catholic culture? This has me very curious.


“That in this sacrament are the true Body of Christ and his true Blood is something that ‘cannot be apprehended by the senses,’ says St. Thomas, ‘but only by faith, which relies on divine authority.’ For this reason, in a commentary on Luke 22:19 (‘This is my body which is given for you.’), St. Cyril says: ‘Do not doubt whether this is true, but rather receive the words of the Savior in faith, for since he is the truth, he cannot lie.'”

(from the Catechism of the Catholic Church)

So which is true, real presence or merely symbolic?

One thought on ““Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood…””

  1. It’s very clear that the belief in the Real Presence was an apostolic belief. It’s evident in a close reading of Paul, and spelled out clearly in the very earliest extrabiblical Christian literature, and in every Church Father who addressed it from then on. That in itself was enough to convince me that it was worthy of my faith. See this post of mine for some quotations.

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