Ah, the Eucharist….So. Much. Awesomeness. We Catholics are really lucky to have this wonderful Sacrament that brings Jesus very literally into our midst.
Unlike most Protestant denominations, Catholicism teaches that in John 6, Jesus was speaking literally. We believe that Jesus commanded us to not merely remember him through a symbolic breaking of bread, but to literally eat His Flesh and drink His Blood. Like, for real. Crazy, right? I know, but it’s the truth. Here’s said section in John 6 from the New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition (complements of https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John+6) :
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” 59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.”
Observe a couple of things here. First, Jesus says we should eat of His Flesh. Okay, I can see how Protestants could be like, “Well, he was being symbolic.” I can totally see that possibility. But here we need to delve a bit deeper and consider some other things.
In verse 57, the Bible manuscript uses the Greek word trogon for “eats.” In Greek, there are many words to express the verb “to eat.” This particular version means to “chew” or “gnaw.” (Thank you http://www.catholic.com/tracts/christ-in-the-eucharist). It seems like St. John used this very visceral verb to show us what Jesus meant. Furthermore, when the Jews “disputed among themselves,” Jesus isn’t like, “Jk guys, I’m just talking symbolically!” Instead He says, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Still not satisfied? Well, kudos. I wasn’t either. I wasn’t sure that the Biblical evidence was 100% sound, although it did SEEM to support the Catholic view. I believed in the Real Presence of the Eucharist based on miracles, Sacred Tradition, and [sorry atheists] a feeling in my gut [which I find to actually be the most compelling of all evidence; it’s hard to understand unless you’ve experienced something like it].
But I do like my intellect to be entirely on board too. Cuz, like, dude, let’s be real here: Catholicism has a really vibrant intellectual history. If there’s a doctrine, there are loads of evidence and lucid reasoning for it.
So, yesterday I was doing some detective work. And I found some cool stuff that I would like to share. I always figured that it would be super cool if I could find evidence of the belief in the Real Presence from the early Church. If people believed in the Real Presence from the start, then that would verify what Jesus says in John 6. This evidence would show that the early Church fathers must have gone around teaching new Christians to bless bread and wine so that the Spirit would convert it to the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Most importantly, this evidence would show that the Real Presence wasn’t something fabricated later on. (That sounds like something Dan Brown might claim.)
The first notable thing I came across was from a website belonging to Christianity Today, an Evangelical Christian magazine. Here’s the link to the article I found: http://www.ctlibrary.com/ch/1998/issue57/57h012.html. Anyway, this article amused me immensely because it was utterly contradictory if you really looked into it (and guys, seriously, look into things….the press can get away with a lot if you don’t scrutinize it).
The first thing that sparked my interest: the article said that the Romans accused Christians of cannibalism. At which point I stroked my chin and metaphorical beard, and said, “Hmmmm…very interesting.” Why would the Romans accuse Christians of cannibalism unless they believed in something like the Real Presence of the Eucharist? Here’s what the article says about this:
The charge of cannibalism could also have arisen from a false understanding of the Christian Scripture and liturgy. The very words of the Eucharist,”Take and eat, this is my body broken for you,” could be misread in a literal, cannibalistic sense by a reader ignorant of the metaphor.
There are a few problems with this statement. “Scripture” didn’t exist in the early days of the Church in the way we understand it today. First of all, the printing press hadn’t been invented yet, so Sacred Scripture was not mainstream—it’s not like the Romans could easily access the books of the Bible. Furthermore, the “Bible” hadn’t been compiled yet. Sure, there were epistles and gospels in circulation (the ones that are now in our Bible, plus others that were determined not to be divinely inspired at various Church councils), but the “Christian Scripture” mentioned in the excerpt is kind of ambiguous given the era we are talking about. Like, what Christian Scripture?
Chances are, the Romans who accused the Christians of cannibalism did not read Christian Scripture to solidify this charge. My guess would be that they heard this word-of-mouth. At this point, I will concede something.
You could make the argument that maybe the Romans heard that the Christians said something about eating flesh and blood in the words of consecration…but oh, those silly Romans, they didn’t understand that the Christians were being symbolic! Oh, the ignorance! Well…..not so fast.
Again, using inductive reasoning, the charge of cannibalism made it seem likely that the Christians of the early Church believed in the Real Presence, but this evidence still was not 100% convincing.
Here’s where the article get contradictory. The basic outline of the article is that it describes the things the early Christian Church was charged for by the Romans, and then it explains how these charges were answered by the early Christians. The article explains that St. Justin Martyr wrote to the Roman authorities in The First Apology debunking the myth of cannibalism and explaining all things Christian. The article uses this excerpt from this work by St. Justin Martyr, who lived from 100 AD to 160 AD (props to Wikipedia for the years he was alive). In it, St. Justin Martyr explains the Eucharist in its earliest days:
When the president has given thanks and the whole congregation has assented, those whom we call deacons give to each of those present a portion of the consecrated bread and wine and water. … We do not, however, receive these things as common bread or common drink; but … we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer … is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus and that washing of baptism was not a magical cleansing but an action symbolizing the cleansing action of God within the believer.
Here we have the perfect storm. St. Justin Martyr lived in the earliest days of Christianity. He recorded the details of the Eucharist, which seem to entirely support the Catholic belief in the Real Presence. Seriously….the guy is trying to explain how Christians aren’t cannibals. Yet, at no point does he back down about the fact that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. (Side note: that doesn’t make us cannibals though!)
Now for that bolded section. Seems a little off topic, am I right? I thought we were talking about the Eucharist and not Baptism. I feel like the author of the article in Christianity Today included this simply to get the “not a magical” and “symbolizing” parts in there. Sly. It seems like that’s there to emphasize the Protestant belief that the Eucharist isn’t magical and is purely symbolic. But don’t be fooled. Those buzz words apply to the discussion of Baptism, not the Eucharist.
But one other problem….when I looked at The First Apology of St. Justin Martyr in a separate source, I couldn’t even find the bolded section! I understand that there could be different translations, but this is pretty major. There isn’t even anything like the bolded section in the chapter on the Eucharist. Here, see for yourself; this is the entire chapter on the Eucharist. (This text is from http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0126.htm.)
Chapter 66. Of the Eucharist
And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said,This do in remembrance of Me, this is My body;and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said,This is My blood;and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.
Upon reading this, several things are clear to me:
1) The author of the Christianity Today article did not support his point that the Eucharist is a mere “metaphor.”
2) St. Justin Martyr wrote about the Eucharist in the second century, which very much qualifies as the time of the “early Church.”
3) St. Justin Martyr, despite trying to debunk the charge that Christians are cannibals, doesn’t say, “Jk guys, it’s all symbolic; don’t worry!” Instead, he asserts the belief in the Real Presence.
Judging by points 2 and 3, it seems safe to says that the early Church believed in the Real Presence. The Real Presence is not some phenomenon fabricated by that heathen Catholic Church in some attempt to appeal to pagans. It’s not some misreading of the Bible–this belief existed long before the Bible was compiled and mainstream.
The Real Presence is an element of real Christianity. It’s as simple as that.
Hope you enjoyed this! Comment below if you know of other early Church documents supporting the Real Presence!