The Eucharist. A Dialogue.
The scene: A busy street downtown in a major American city. A Corpus Christi procession passes by. Two friends, one Catholic, the other Protestant, inspired by the sight, begin a conversation.
Protestant: Why were you kneeling down? You got your pants all dirty.
Catholic: The Eucharist is Jesus Christ Himself, in the flesh. “It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me’” (Romans 14:11). I’m just doing what Jesus commanded.
Protestant: You think that piece of bread is Jesus? It doesn’t look like Jesus to me.
Catholic: Do you believe Jesus is God?
Protestant: You know I do.
Catholic: Did Jesus “look like God” when He walked the streets of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago?
Protestant: No. He came hidden under the appearance of a regular man.
Catholic: People who saw Jesus during His earthly ministry thought He wasn’t God because of the way He chose to appear?
Catholic: Then coming “hidden under the appearance of” a “piece of bread” would seem to follow His modus operandi.
Catholic: And, just as there were people who refused to believe without seeing then, there are still people who refuse to believe without seeing now. I seem to be in the same position as Jesus’ first followers.
Protestant: And I’m the Sanhedrin and the Pharisees?
Catholic: Only on this one point, perhaps.
Protestant: Okay, I admit coming as a surprise, in a hidden manner, is Jesus’ style, but that doesn’t prove He actually does come in the Eucharist, does it? It seems like you’re making quite a leap from “this is possible” to “this is actual,” brother.
Catholic: Fair enough, but might it not suggest that we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility because “it doesn’t look like Jesus”?
Protestant: I can agree with that. But you have another, bigger, problem, I think.
Catholic: And what is that?
Protestant: Science tells us that what you are bowing to is just bread. You like Biblical comparisons, maybe a better one would be comparing my position to the righteous tribe of Levi at Mount Sinai and yours to the other tribes that danced about worshipping the Golden Calf.
Catholic: If I’m wrong, I’m much worse than they were. They fashioned an idol of gold, creating a God from the best they had. If we Catholics are wrong, we worship an idol which is crafted of the commonest of things. They were filled with wonder at a piece of art, we worship a hunk of bread. If we’re wrong, we’re the worst idolaters in history.
Protestant: “Repent and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15), brother!
Catholic: If I’m wrong. We’ve yet to prove that.
Protestant: I did. Science proves it. You’re worshipping bread. Don’t believe me? I challenge you to put your consecrated Host under a microscope and tell me if you see any signs of flesh, even on the molecular level. Bet you won’t.
Catholic: I’m sure I won’t.
Protestant: I bet you couldn’t even tell the difference between a consecrated Host and a plain piece of bread under that microscope.
Catholic: I’m sure I couldn’t.
Protestant: Then you’re ready to leave off your Medieval superstition?
Catholic: I didn’t say you were right…
Protestant: You just admitted that science proves the Eucharist is still bread after consecration.
Catholic: Not exactly. Are you familiar with the doctrine of transubstantiation as taught by the Catholic Church?
Protestant: Yeah, you believe the bread and wine turn into Christ’s Body and Blood. That’s exactly what science disproves!
Catholic: Does the Catholic Church teach that the bread also looks like Christ’s Body after it changes?
Protestant: Obviously not. If I understand your church’s teaching, you think the bread looks like bread, but is really Christ’s Body. That is what I keep saying science disproves.
Catholic: Right. The Catholic Church teaches the bread appears to be bread while actually being Jesus. We say the accidents of bread (and wine) remain while the substance has been utterly transformed. Thus, the bread has been transformed in substance or trans-substan-tiated.
Protestant: What’s the difference between the accidents and the substance? You’re getting all scholastic on me…
Catholic: Simply? Just think of the accidents as the appearances, as what the bread (or wine) looks like to our senses. Think of the substance as what the bread (and wine) really are.
Protestant: Ok. I think I follow. You’re saying basically what I said above. Your church says the bread looks like bread, but really is Jesus, that’s why I challenged you to put your consecrated Host under a microscope…
Catholic: But looking at the Eucharist, even under a microscope or studying it under any other scientific means can only ever get at the appearances. The microscope just gives you a microscopic look at the accidents of the Eucharist which…
Protestant: …still looks like bread. Okay, I see what you’re saying. Science is like enhancing your senses, but your church teaches the senses can only perceive bread or wine, so science can’t be expected to see anything else.
Protestant: Alright, so science can’t disprove your church’s theology of the Eucharist, but can’t it suggest that you’re wrong? You’re basically appealing to a miracle, but aren’t miracles supposed to be big outward signs that demonstrate clearly God’s presence and power? Clearly the Eucharist doesn’t meet that definition and if it can’t be miraculous then we can’t avoid the science.
Catholic: Couldn't the same be said of Jesus Himself? Scientifically, to all appearances, He appeared to be a man, nothing more. He has human DNA and no science experiment could ever reveal that He is Divine. We might appeal to the miraculous, but your objection would apply - aren't miracles supposed to be big displays of God's power? A baby born in a stable who grows up in obscurity then dies on a Cross hardly qualifies. Your argument, then, would seem to prove too much, as it doesn't simply attack the Eucharist but also the Incarnation.
Protestant: God had good reasons for coming in disguise. He wanted men to have Faith in Him and an overly powerful display of His Godhead would have forced everyone to immediately love or hate Him, to be saved or damned, just as will happen at the Last Judgement.
Catholic: And “God has good reasons for coming in disguise” in the Eucharist. In fact, He has the exact same reasons. He wants men to have Faith in Him and too obvious a display wouldn’t allow for that.
Protestant: Alright, I’ll concede that the Eucharist could be a miracle, but that doesn’t mean it is a miracle. Mind you, I love holy communion in my church. I take it very seriously. It’s only a symbol, but one which ought to be treated as if it were Jesus, even though it isn’t.
Catholic: Now you seem more like the Israelites who worshipped the Golden Calf.
Catholic: How can you justify treating a symbol as if it were God? That seems to be the very definition of idolatry.
Protestant: Well… I don’t worship the bread…
Catholic: Do you worship Jesus?
Protestant: You know I do.
Catholic: Then you don’t treat communion like Jesus after all.
Protestant: Maybe not, but I still think we should take it seriously as Jesus intended it to be a reminder of Him and He should be remembered with respect. It is a beautiful symbol…
Catholic: “If it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”
Protestant: What? No need for profanity, brother.
Catholic: Sorry, I was quoting Flannery O’Connor (The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor). She was once confronted with the idea that the Eucharist is merely a “pretty good” symbol and responded thus.
Protestant: What’s wrong with seeing it as a beautiful symbol?
Catholic: O’Connor went on saying the Host “is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” If it is just a memento, it isn’t essential and, well, “to hell with it.”
Protestant: The only thing that should be described as “the center of existence” is Jesus.
Catholic: Which is exactly what we Catholics claim the Eucharist is.
Protestant: Claim. But I think you’re demonstrably wrong. Look to Scripture! Don’t you Catholics claim John 6 as the theological seedbed for your theory of transubstantiation? I have my NIV Bible right here (I always carry one).
Catholic: Yes. that’s one place we find it. Jesus says there that He is “the bread that came down from heaven” (v. 41) and says “my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (v. 55).
Protestant: If you’d read more carefully, right there in John 6, you’ll see that “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (v. 63). See? I’ve even highlighted it. With this line Jesus is explicitly condemning the carnal interpretation you are trying to bestow on his words. Don’t you see? Jesus says that it isn’t flesh that’s important, but the Spirit! John 6 is a metaphor for Faith, which alone saves!
Catholic: You’re saying that when Jesus refers to flesh in verse 63, He is speaking about the same flesh He called “real food” in verse 41?
Catholic: Whose flesh is He referring to in verse 41? Whose flesh is “real food?”
Protestant: His own, of course.
Catholic: Jesus’ flesh?
Catholic: So, in your interpretation of John 6:63, it is Jesus’ flesh that “counts for nothing?”
Catholic: I suppose the Incarnation (the in-flesh-ment of God) counted “for nothing” then?
Catholic: As did His death on the Cross? He did die in the flesh after all?
Protestant: He did.
Catholic: And the Resurrection. That was the Resurrection of Jesus in His flesh, wasn’t it? You’re not a gnostic are you?
Protestant: No, of course you know I’m not.
Catholic: Is your position that Jesus’ Incarnation, Passion and Resurrection - His life in the flesh - counted “for nothing?”
Protestant: Of course not.
Catholic: Then Jesus’ flesh doesn’t “count for nothing?” In fact, it is though His flesh alone that we are saved, isn’t it?
Protestant: Then how do you account for John 6:63?
Catholic: Jesus isn’t speaking about His Flesh. He just spent most of the chapter demonstrating the importance of His Flesh, it wouldn’t make any sense for Him to throw in one line negating everything He just taught. Jesus is saying that “the flesh” of his listeners (i.e. their attempts to use merely natural reason to understand what He is speaking about) are worthless. Any other interpretation leads to a rejection of Christ’s Flesh as salvific, which we both agree is absurd. Jesus here is saying the kind of “scientific argument” you were advancing earlier is bound to fail for our natural knowledge, our flesh, “counts for nothing.”
Protestant: Why would Jesus even want us to “eat His flesh” in the first place? As a Christian, I believe that by confessing Jesus as my Lord and Savior He dwells within me spiritually. Why would I need to add eating His flesh to the mix?
Catholic: For one Jesus says you have to. John 6:53-54 - “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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
Protestant: The Good Thief was saved without eating Jesus’ Flesh.
Catholic: God doesn’t require us to do the impossible. The Good Thief wasn’t physically able to receive the Lord in the Eucharist and thus, in justice, wasn’t required to. But even finding an exception certainly wouldn’t be cause to just dismiss the commands of your professed Lord, would it?
Protestant: No, but you’ve avoided my question. Why would Jesus want us to eat His Flesh. It doesn’t make any sense in context of the Old Testament at all. In the Old Testament eating flesh and blood together was prohibited (cf. Gen 9:4).
Catholic: What does John the Baptist say when he sees Jesus?
Protestant: “Behold the Lamb of God” (John 1:29).
Catholic: That’s an odd way to announce the Savior’s presence, no?
Protestant: Not if you know your Old Testament! You need to read the Word more, brother. In the Old Testament the lamb of God was the Passover Sacrifice. It was the perfect, spotless victim ready to die so that the people of God might live. Sound familiar?
Catholic: The Old Testament Passover lamb prefigures Jesus’ own death?
Protestant: The death of Jesus is the ultimate Passover sacrifice. Just as the Passover lambs were slaughtered in sacrifice, so too Jesus died sacrificially on the Cross.
Catholic: During the first Passover, the lamb wasn’t only slaughtered was it?
Protestant: The blood of the lamb had to be sprinkled on the wooden door frames as a sign for the angel of death to pass over the house.
Catholic: Was Jesus’ blood sprinkled on wood too?
Protestant: Of course, on the Wood of the Cross. In fact, Jesus was offered vinegar on a branch of hyssop, the same plant that God required His people to use to sprinkle the blood on the door frames.
Catholic: What else did the Israelites have to do with the lamb to make sure their house was skipped by the angel of death?
Protestant: They had to eat it.
Catholic: They had to eat the flesh of the lamb of God?
Catholic: And if they didn’t, if they were vegans or preferred beef to lamb, and they slaughtered the lamb and smeared the blood but didn’t consume the sacrifice, they would wake to find…
Protestant: Their first born son would be dead.
Catholic: Jesus is the Lamb of God?
Catholic: And He has been sacrificed and His Blood had been smeared?
Protestant: And now we have to eat His flesh?
Catholic: That would seem to follow.
Protestant: But isn’t He with us spiritually? Why shouldn’t that be enough?
Catholic: Was His Incarnation only a spiritual presence? Did He die on the Cross only spiritually? Did He rise again only in spirit?
Catholic: Perhaps a better question would be why you’d expect Him to do anything less physically. Is God appearing as bread that much crazier than God becoming man?
Protestant: I guess not.
Catholic: The Old Testament has another parallel to the Eucharist. What is Jesus doing at the beginning of John 6?
Protestant: He is miraculously feeding a multitude of people with a few loaves of bread and some fish.
Catholic: The people related that back to what Old Testament precedent?
Protestant: The manna. According to the Old Testament the Messiah would provide a new manna, which would surpass the manna given to the Israelites though Moses. When Jesus multiplied the loaves the people knew He was giving them the new manna and thus that He was the longed for Messiah.
Catholic: Moses fed the Israelites with manna for how long?
Protestant: Exodus 16:35 tells us that “the children of Israel did eat manna forty years.”
Catholic: Any how many Israelites did the manna feed?
Protestant: Probably over a million. Numbers 26 says there were over 600,000 armed men plus women and children.
Catholic: And how many people did Jesus feed in John 6?
Protestant: “A great crowd.” (v. 5).
Catholic: Which is more impressive, feeding over a million men, women, and children as they wander the desert for forty years or feeing “a great crowd” one meal.
Protestant: The manna would seem more impressive.
Catholic: But the prefigurement of the manna was supposed to be surpassed by the fulfillment in Christ.
Catholic: Then you’re saying Jesus failed to surpass the miracle of Moses, but wouldn’t that suggest He wasn’t the Messiah after all?
Protestant: We both believe the same thing about the loaves, so that puts us both in the same tough spot, doesn’t it?
Catholic: Not so fast. I’d say the Eucharist, in the Catholic view, is superior to the manna. Unlike the miracle of Moses, which only lasted forty years, the Eucharist has been ongoing for two thousand years. And while Moses only fed the children of Israel “food that spoils” (Jn 6:27), Jesus gives us Himself for He is “the bread of life” (Jn 6:35). Receiving God is infinitely superior to receiving bread, even miraculous bread. If the Catholic interpretation of John 6 is correct, would you agree Jesus surpassed the miracle of the manna?
Protestant: If it holds true, yes obviously Jesus feeding the people of God His very flesh for two thousand years is a greater miracle than Moses feeding the children of Israel bread for forty.
Catholic: Let’s go back further still in the Old Testament to Adam himself. The early Christians loved to call the Cross the “tree of life.” Just as sin and death entered the world through eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, eternal life and justification come into the world through eating of the fruit of the “tree of life” - the Cross.
Protestant: Which would be Jesus’ Flesh and Blood.
Catholic: And is why Jesus says, “the one who feeds on me will live because of me.” (Jn 6:57).
Protestant: Don’t you know Jesus refers to Himself as all sorts of things figuratively? He says He is the gate (10:9), the good shepherd (10:11), and the light of the world (8:12). Are you saying all these statements are to be taken literally? Is Jesus a literal gate? Does He literally tend sheep? Is He a light bulb?
Catholic: Did Jesus go on at length about how He is the “gate come down from Heaven” or insist that His Body is “gate indeed?”
Catholic: When the crowds baulk at His teaching on the Bread of Life, does Jesus strength His teaching or back away from it?
Protestant: He doubles down, using the Greek trogein a verb better translated as “chew” or “gnaw” in verse 55.
Catholic: Did He do anything similar in any of the other examples you are referring to?
Protestant: He didn’t.
Catholic: Did anyone in His original audience take Him as speaking literally in any other case than this one?
Catholic: Were the other examples you’ve given prefigured by the Old Testament and mentioned throughout the New Testament like the Eucharist is?
Catholic: Seems like John 6 is quite different then, doesn’t it?
Protestant: I suppose so.
Catholic: It’s different in another important way too. What’s happening at the beginning of John 6?
Protestant: Jesus is being followed by “a great crowd of people” (v. 2).
Catholic: And after Jesus lays out His teaching on the Eucharist, on being the Bread come down from Heaven, how many of that “great crowd” are left? Skip down to verse 66 there in your Bible.
Protestant: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him”
Catholic: What happens next?
Protestant: Jesus asks the Twelve if they want to leave Him too.
Catholic: Does Jesus want people to follow Him?
Protestant: Of course He does. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn 14:6)
Catholic: But here He is willing to go from a “great crowd” to losing even His most trusted followers over His Bread of Life teaching. He is that serious about this. Don’t you think He’d have said “hey guys chill out, I’m only speaking figuratively” instead of watching everyone walk away if He hadn’t been speaking literally?
Catholic: In fact, wouldn’t letting all those potential Christians walk away be sinful if they merely misunderstood Jesus’ figure of speech?
Protestant: Jesus is without sin (cf. Heb 4:15).
Catholic: And thus wouldn’t have let all those people leave simply because they misunderstood Him. Let me better understand what you believe here. I say that the Eucharist is, literally, Jesus’ body. And you say…
Protestant: That it isn’t. It is only a symbol of Jesus.
Catholic: Jesus disagrees with you.
Protestant: Show me that and I’ll change my mind! You know I only seek to serve the Lord.
Catholic: It’s right there in your Bible. At the Last Supper Jesus takes the Eucharist and says, “this is my body.” (Matt 26:26).
Protestant: But He meant this is a symbol of my body.
Catholic: When He said “this is my body” He meant “this isn’t my body?”
Protestant: When you put it that way…
Catholic: Should I believe Jesus who said “this is my body” or you who say “this isn’t His body?” Are you more trustworthy than Jesus? Do you know something He doesn’t?
Protestant: Of course not. But I’m talking about understanding what He meant…
Catholic: I think you’re a bit confused.
Protestant: No, I know exactly what I believe.
Catholic: You’re confusing understanding and belief. Understanding has to do with what a person or text is saying. Belief is whether or not you agree with the person or text. Understanding is about the other person. Belief is about you. It isn’t that you don’t understand His words, they are simple enough, rather you seem to not believe Jesus, to disagree with Him as to whether He was correct when He said “this is my Body” or “My flesh is true food.”
Protestant: Not at all. I believe Jesus, I just don’t believe the Catholic Church!
Catholic: Or the earliest Christians?
Protestant: You mean those Christians who worshipped in small Proto-Protestant communities before Constantine founded the Catholic Church?
Catholic: Well, let’s see what these “Proto-Protestants” have to say about the Eucharist. Ignatius of Antioch (circa AD 110) decried those who
“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 the Father, in his goodness, raised up again.” (6:2, 7:1).
And Justin Martyr (circa AD 140) wrote,
“Not as common bread or common drink do we receive these… the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer… is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology, 66:1-20).
Clement of Rome (c. AD 80), Irenaeus of Lyons (c. AD 180), Origen (c. AD 244), Hilary of Poitiers (c. AD 340), Cyril of Jerusalem (c. AD 350), Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan (c. AD 390), and Augustine of Hippo (c. AD 400) are just a few of the early Christians, from all over the Christian world - many of whom lived before Constantine, who wrote about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, of the Eucharist being the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus and not “just a symbol.”
Protestant: Wait a minute, Augustine speaks about the Eucharist being a symbol! In his De Doctrina Christiana he writes about the Eucharist,
“it is symbolic commanding us to communicate in the Passion of the Lord and to remember pleasantly and usefully that his flesh was crucified and wounded for us.”
Catholic: Catholics admit that the Sacraments are symbols, we just hold that they aren’t only symbols. Augustine is talking about the symbolic power of the Eucharist there, but he also believed in, and wrote about, the real transformation that the bread and wine underwent. It isn’t an either / or, it is both symbolic and real. For example, he also wrote,
“That bread that you see on the altar and that has been sanctified by the word of God is the Body of Christ.” (Sermon 227)
“Christ was carried in his own hands when, entrusting to us his own Body he said: “This is my Body.” Indeed he was carrying that Body in his own hands.” (Commentary on Psalm 33).
Obviously, Augustine believed the Eucharist is both symbolically powerful and literally Christ’s Body.
Protestant: Fine, but Augustine isn’t the Bible! He could’ve been wrong.
Catholic: Can you think of even one Christian who wasn’t wrong, one who believed the Eucharist was merely a symbol, from the first centuries of Christianity?
Catholic: I didn’t think so. Were all these Christians wrong? Was the whole Church wrong until Martin Luther came about 15 centuries after the death of Christ? If so it seems the Reformers were a much better teachers the Jesus.
Protestant: That’s absurd.
Catholic: Well, the Reformers managed to successfully teach people that the Eucharist isn’t really Jesus’ Body. Jesus failed to pass that same teaching along, confusing everyone for 15 centuries, having them worship a piece of bread as if it was Him.
Protestant: Maybe the early Christians just didn’t want to argue with each other.
Catholic: The early Church battled over all kinds of things: what books should be in the Bible, is Mary the Mother of God, is Jesus divine, but no one doubted that Jesus was telling the Truth when He said “this is my Body” at the Last Supper. But it wasn’t even just the early Christians. Even the pagan Romans who persecuted the early Christians thought they were cannibals because they literally ate the Flesh of Christ. If your worship isn’t something that can be mistaken for cannibalism, you’re not worshipping the same way the first Christians did. Do you really think the first Christians, people who learned the faith from the Apostles, men and women who were willing to endure brutal deaths for their beliefs, who were willing to battle over doctrine to make sure the faith was expressed just right, were all absolutely wrong when it came to what they regarded as the central act of their worship, but 15 hundred years later, a bunch of people finally figured it all out?
Protestant: I don’t put my faith in people, I put my faith in the Word.
Catholic: In the Word, when God said “let there be light” (Gen 1:3) what happens?
Protestant: There’s light.
Catholic: And when God says to Lazarus come out of the tomb (cf. Jn 11:43) what happens?
Protestant: He comes out.
Catholic: And when God says your sins are forgiven (cf. Luke 7:48), what happens?
Protestant: They are forgiven.
Catholic: And when God says “this is my body” (Matt 26:26) to a piece of bread, what happens?
At this moment, the procession returns, making its way down the opposite side of the street. Our Catholic friend falls silently to his knees once more. Our Protestant friend bows his head slightly, closes his eyes, and begins to pray, “Lord Jesus, you know I love you, lead me into your truth…”