Is Jesus Literally Present in the Eucharist?

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, bread“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

These are the words of Jesus as found in Luke 22:19.  He spoke them in the Upper Room just prior to His arrest and crucifixion. They seem pretty straightforward; easy to read.  In the midst of the Passover meal, Jesus had taken the “bread of affliction,” showed it to His disciples, and gave it a completely new meaning.  He said that it was His body.  In the same way, He took the wine and announced that it was His blood.  Those two very basic elements of the ancient Passover meal suddenly took on a whole new meaning for Christians from that day forward.

The problem, however, is that not all Christians agree on the exact meaning of Jesus’ words. Some Christian groups, like Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and highly-liturgical Protestants believe that Jesus’ words should be taken literally.  When Jesus said “this is my body,” they hold that Jesus intended for His followers to understand that the bread was (or becomes) His literal body.  With some variation, they believe that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Jesus, usually when a prayer of blessing is offered.  This transformation is generally known as transubstantiation.

On the other side of the spectrum are Christians (like me) who believe that the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Jesus.  Taking a middle position are those Christians who sometimes see it as a mixture of the two.

So, what did Jesus mean?  Did He intend for His followers to see the elements of Communion as a mere symbol of his body and blood?  Or, did He expect that His followers would understand that they were literally eating His flesh and literally drinking His blood as they partake in this holy meal?

I have heard Roman Catholics and those holding similar views point out that Jesus’ words couldn’t have been more clear.  He held up the bread and said, “This IS my body” (emphasis mine).  They insist that the word “is” means is!  If I lifted up my hand and said, “this is my hand,” it should be abundantly clear that I do not intend for my words to be taken figuratively.  Most would insist that I want I meant is, “this is literally my hand!”

That seems to make sense.  Why not take Jesus at His word?  In fact, most who hold to the literalness of the Eucharist proudly proclaim that they are literally following Jesus’ teaching.  How could that be wrong?

To answer my own question, it could be wrong to literally follow Jesus’ commands if He never intended for them to be taken literally!  But, what if His language is so straightforward?  Well, are there any examples of Jesus using straightforward language when He did not intend to be taken literally?   Absolutely.  The New Testament is replete with these kinds of statements.  For example, Jesus said we are to cut off our hands if they cause us to sin (Matt 5:30).  He said that rivers will flow out of the bellies of believers (John 7:38).  He once revealed his belief that the Judean King was an animal belonging to the Vulpes genus (a fox) (Luke 13:32). No informed reader would take any of these expressions literally. We would immediately recognize that Jesus didn’t intend for us to see them that way, even though the language seems to suggest otherwise.

But, someone might say, when Jesus spoke about the bread and cup He used the word “is.”  Doesn’t that mean that he intended for us to take His words literally? Perhaps.  But not always.  For example, when Jesus’ literal brothers and mother came to see Him, He responded by saying that anyone who, ” does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (emphasis mine).  He did not pause then to make sure everyone knew what He meant.  He didn’t clear the air.  He didn’t stop to make sure everyone didn’t suddenly suspect that they were the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.  He used the word “is” but not in a literal sense.

I believe it is wrong to assume a hermenutical principle which insists that if Jesus uses the word “is” and does not clarify his statement, then we must always take His words literally.

We cannot assume that Jesus’ words are to be taken literally if He did not explain otherwise. You see, the word “is” does not always mean “is literally.”  If I showed you a picture of my wife and said, “this is my wife,” you would not assume that I am married to a 3″ x 5″, two-dimensional object.  You would immediately assume that the word “is” means “represents.”  That’s how language and context works.

So, the obvious question becomes: when Jesus held up the bread and said ‘this is my body’ did He mean “this is literally my body” or did He mean, “this represents my body.”  The open-minded reader will recognize that the language of the passage could be taken either way.  Therefore, we must look to other indicators to help us understand.

Put yourself at the table when Jesus uttered these words.  You are a Jew, celebrating the most important Jewish festival, Passover.  You have done this since you were young.  You have watched the ritual, and probably know it by heart.  Every year you’ve witnessed the male host rise from his chair, hold up the matzah bread and say something like, “this is the bread of affliction, which our fathers ate in Egypt.”

As a Jew, would you have assumed that the bread before you was literally the same bread eaten in Egypt? After all, the host said, ‘this is the bread…”  Or, would you have assumed that the host meant, ‘this represents’ the bread from Egypt?  I suppose that there might have been some Jews who thought the bread was leftovers, or that it mysteriously transformed into ancient bread.  But, it’s my guess that the vast number of Jews recognized that the bread had been freshly baked from their own ovens and was meant to represent the bread eaten by their forefathers.

Although I think the above argument might be a good indicator of what Jesus meant, I will admit that we can’t decide what a passage means based upon how it might have been understood by His hearers.  The Jews of Jesus’ day were notorious for misunderstanding Him.

So, is there anything in the passage itself that would help us to know if Jesus were intending His words literally or figuratively?  I believe that there is.

When Jesus offered the cup of wine, He said that it was His blood “which is shed for you” (Luke 22:20).  For this to be literally true, Jesus would have had to be shedding blood at the moment, since He was speaking in the present tense. However, I am unaware of any Bible scholar who reads the passage that way.  Jesus’ blood was not being shed at that moment as His word’s seemed to suggest.  Rather, it would not have been shed for a few more hours.  Therefore, Jesus was not using literal language, He was speaking proleptically, or figuratively.

Recognizing the figurative language that Jesus employed in that passage may help reveal His intentions of the entire discourse.  I believe that this helps tip the balance in favor of a figurative understanding of His words and of Communion.

One of the objections some have raised to a figurative understanding of Communion is that seeing the elements as a symbol devalues them.  They believe that a symbol will be taken less seriously.  To illustrate how nearsighted this objection is, the next time you attend a 4th of July parade, pull out an American flag and burn it.  After all, it’s just a symbol.  It has no real value, yes?  Who would object to the burning of some colored cloth?

Or, when you are going out with your friends for the night, tell your spouse you are leaving your wedding band behind. It’s just a symbol of the marriage.  Who could possibly be offended by not taking along a simple piece of jewelry?  Obviously, we greatly value symbols and emblems.  A Christian who sees Communion as symbolic is not necessarily viewing the elements with any less reverence than someone who is not.

So, what’s at stake?  Why write this blog?  In my opinion there really isn’t much at stake.  Taking Communion believing you are literally eating Jesus’ body and drinking His blood or seeing the elements as symbols  does not make you a better or worse follower of Jesus.  In my opinion, your view of Communion becomes meaningless if you fail to love your brother (and enemy) (1 Cor. 13:1-3).  So, go participate, and above all, love one another.

peace,

dane

PS: For the sake of brevity, I did not deal with John chapter 6.  If you have specific questions about that chapter in relation to this topic, please contact me.  I will be happy to address it!

Dane Cramer is a backpacker, Christian blogger, jail chaplain, and author of two books: Romancing the Trail and The Nephilim: A Monster Among Us.

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