On The Eucharist: This Is My Body… No, Seriously, It Is…

The starting point for all doctrine is Holy Scripture, and as the articles tell us, nothing can be required of a person to be believed if it is not grounded in Scripture. It would seem then that the place to start for understanding Anglican teaching on the Eucharist is with the most explicit passages on the subject, namely the institution narratives found in 1 Corinthians 11:20-34, Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, and Luke 22:19-20.

All of the accounts have similar words. They each involve Jesus taking bread and wine, blessing or giving thanks, breaking the bread, and then saying “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood.” He then shares the Supper with His apostles and commands them to “Do this in remembrance of me.” Virtually all Christian bodies would acknowledge that last part, the need to follow the Lord’s command to repeat the ritual, although with varying degrees of frequency, and almost all would also agree with Paul’s assessment that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). Where the divisions that came out of the sixteenth century lie is in just what Jesus meant when He said that the bread is His Body and the wine is His blood. Is this a metaphor or a metaphysical reality?

More Than a Metaphor

Those who argue that Jesus was merely speaking metaphorically here point to the many seemingly metaphoric statements of Jesus in John’s Gospel. The argument goes that since Jesus says He is the door to the sheepfold (John 10:1-9) and that He is a vine with us as the branches (John 15:1-8), both of which must be metaphors because obviously Jesus is not a real door or a real vine, then He must also be speaking metaphorically when He says that bread and wine are His body and blood. The problem with this line of reasoning is two-fold. First of all, the metaphors that Jesus is employing in John’s Gospel cannot simply be dismissed as wordplay. Jesus really is a vine and He really is a door. He may not be a wooden door like you have on your house or a vine like you might have growing in your garden, but He is absolutely serious when He says that we can only enter the Kingdom through Him and that we can only be one with the Father if we are rooted in Him. More to the point, though, the words that Jesus uses in the context of John 10 and John 15, when He is talking about something completely different, do not help us to determine whether or not He is speaking metaphorically in His institution of the Holy Eucharist.

Within the context of the institution narratives themselves, there is nothing that would indicate that Jesus is speaking metaphorically. The only reason that anyone can or would come to such a conclusion is if they hold an a priori belief that it is impossible for such a thing to be true, the same kind of a priori belief that has led liberal Biblical scholars since the late nineteenth century to believe that the Resurrection must be a metaphor since we obviously know that people do not come back from the dead. In fact, the contextual indicators only reinforce the understanding that Jesus is speaking plainly here. In the 1 Corinthians passage, for instance, after Paul has quoted the words of institution, he says this:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Corinthians 11:27-30)

Paul indicates not just that it is disrespectful to take the Supper this way but that it is downright dangerous, that not understanding that Christ’s Body is present and thereby treating the Supper as just another meal will literally destroy you.

Likewise, in John 6, Jesus provides an extended discourse about the Supper and the need to truly eat and drink of His flesh and blood. At the end of this discourse, we are told that many of His disciples grumbled and said “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” (vs. 60). Many of them chose to walk away after that day (vs. 66). If what Jesus is teaching here is all purely metaphoric, it is hard to understand why people would find the teaching difficult to accept. Difficult to understand, perhaps. But the text here indicates that the people who left Jesus that day abandoned their discipleship not merely because they did not understand what they were hearing but because they were scandalized by it.

The Teaching of the Fathers

Nevertheless, Jesus did not anticipate sixteenth century concerns and so did not append His statements, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood,” with the words, “And by the way, I really mean it, this is totally not a metaphor, so don’t ever let anyone tell you that.” And so we might plausibly continue to deny the straight-forwardness of His words, were it not for the fact that the Fathers of the early Church universally confirm them. Examples abound. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, writing to the Smyrnaeans at the end of the first century, said “Note well those who hold heretical opinions about the grace of Jesus Christ that came to us; note how contrary they are to the mind of God… They abstain from Eucharist and prayer because they refuse to acknowledge the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins and which the Father by his goodness raised up.” Likewise, Saint Justin Martyr, in his “First Apology,” written in the middle of the second century, said this:

This food we call the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.

Similar accounts can be found in Saint Irenaeus, Saint Clement, the Didache, Saint Cyprian, Saint Athanasius, and a host of others throughout the early centuries of the Church. Only those who denied the reality of the incarnation also denied that Christ’s Body and Blood were truly present in the Eucharist. For fifteen centuries, the basic notion of the Real Presence was simply assumed by orthodox Christians. It was a fundamental teaching of the early Church that when Jesus said “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood,” that is exactly what He meant.

This Is My Body, But It Is Also Bread

Real Presence is a given, but the manner of that Presence is something else entirely. In the same passage cited above from Paul, where he explicitly reinforces the teaching of the reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, he also continues to refer to the consecrated elements as bread and wine. References in Luke 24:13-35 and Acts 2:42 follow the same pattern.

The Fathers speak similarly at times. Ignatius says, for instance, in his letter to the Ephesians, “Come together in common, one and all without exception in charity, in one faith and in one Jesus Christ, who is of the race of David according to the flesh, the son of man, and the Son of God, so that with undivided mind you may obey the bishop and the priests, and break one Bread which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ.” It would seem, then, that while we must acknowledge that what we receive in the Eucharist is really Christ’s Body and Blood, we also must acknowledge that it really is bread and wine, unless of course Paul, Luke, and Ignatius are also speaking “metaphorically.”

The Spiritual Nature of the Body

This mystery of the presence of Christ in the midst of the presence of bread and wine is a profound one, no less easy to parse than the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. Still, this quote from Saint Ambrose helps us to begin to see how Scripture teaches us to think of the mystery:

Christ is in that Sacrament, because it is the Body of Christ; yet, it is not on that account corporeal food, but spiritual. Whence also His Apostle says of the type: `For our fathers ate spiritual food and drink spiritual drink.’ For the body of God is a spiritual body.

This is from Ambrose’s “On the Mysteries,” written in 391. His quote from Paul is from 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, in which Paul speaks of the people of Israel having received a kind of Baptism and a kind of Eucharist in the time of the Exodus, even though they would not have understood it as such. Paul says that they “ate the same spiritual food” and “drank the same spiritual drink” which came directly from Christ. And later in 1 Corinthians 15, when Paul is describing the resurrection of the dead, he says that our bodies themselves go from being “natural”–fallen, earthly, possessed of unclean desires, perishable–to being “spiritual” and “heavenly,” just like the body of the Resurrected Jesus.

So the question, which becomes the point of special departure for classical Anglican Eucharistic theology, is the question of what exactly it means to say that the Body of Christ which we receive is a spiritual body and that we receive it in spirit. We have to come to some understanding of the meaning of the Resurrection if we are to come to realize just what it is we feed upon in the Holy Mystery of the Lord’s Supper. The answer to this question established the teaching in the Formularies. It is taken for granted by the great Anglican Divines when they write about the Supper. Yet, in our own day this teaching is mostly obscure or misunderstood because we have been formed in a western Christian culture that bases its metaphysics largely on Greco-Roman philosophy and the Enlightenment rather than on the worldview of the Bible and the Fathers. As we shall see going forward, classical Anglicanism provides us with an alternative way of seeing the world, one in which the spiritual and the physical are not so diametrically opposed as we tend to assume.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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15 Responses to On The Eucharist: This Is My Body… No, Seriously, It Is…

  1. Matt Marino says:

    Terrific clarity. Very well said!

  2. Javier says:

    Father Jonathan:

    Very wise teaching! It was very touchy for me since I saw the icon!!! Being a former orthodox it makes me enjoy a lot my new life as an anglican. The explanation was superb Father. I did not know how patristics could be inserted into Anglicanism. Now I know: in dealing with the Holy Eucharist!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Javier, Anglicanism hasn’t always embraced icons, but these days many of us are open to them. But Anglicanism has always embraced the Fathers. What Fr. Thorpus says down below is helpful. “The Fathers ARE Anglicanism.”

  3. Robert F says:

    Fr. Jonathan,
    This may seem like a silly question, but was the Last Supper itself the first Holy Eucharist? I’ve been under the impression that the the presence of Christ in, and the gifts he offers through, Holy Communion are rooted in his sacrifice on the cross, but at the Last Supper he had not made that sacrifice yet. Despite that, he uses the words that we know as the Words of Institution and seems to apply them to that very meal he is sharing with the disciples, and offers his Body and Blood to them before he has gone to the cross. So the Holy Eucharist preceded the Crucifixion? Do you see my confusion? Could you speak to this and help me understand?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Robert,

      Great question and one that theologians have debated for a long time. You’re right that the grace of Holy Communion is rooted in the sacrifice of the cross. This has lead some theologians to suggest that the Last Supper, rather than being an actual Eucharist, is simply a foreshadowing of it, much like the other foreshadowings found in Scripture (the manna in the dessert, the feeding of the five thousand, etc). I would say that this view creates an unnatural break between Christ’s actions and His words. After all, He says at the Last Supper both “This is my Body” and “Do this in remembrance of me.” If this were simply a foreshadowing, we might expect Him to say something like “This will be my Body when you do this later” or even “When you do this in remembrance of me, it is my Body.” To make the Last Supper into a non-Eucharistic event is to make Jesus confusing at best and a liar at worst.

      So how then can the Last Supper be a true Eucharist, drawing as it does upon the cross for the gift of grace, when Jesus has not yet gone to the cross? In the same way that the Transfiguration reveals the glorified Body of Christ even though He has not yet been raised. God is not bound by time in the same way that we are. Time is itself a creation. In the Holy Eucharist, we are brought into the midst of an event that happened two thousand years ago to receive grace. I see no reason why in the Last Supper, the apostles could not be brought forward one day to receive that same grace.

      • Robert F says:

        Father Jonathan,
        Thanks for your reply. In addition to what you say, I wonder if when we separate the crucifixion from the rest of Jesus’ life and ministry, we don’t do violence to what the Passion encompasses in its totality. Isn’t there a very real sense in which the Incarnation, Jesus entire life, was coextensive with the Passion, that from the moment he was conceived and born in this fallen world he was suffering for our sake, giving his Body and Blood for our sake. In that case, the cross of Golgotha was the completion and ending of a lifelong gift that Jesus made for our sins and the sins of the whole world. Throughout his ministry, Jesus forgave people out of this self-giving, sacrificial life, and throughout his life he encountered and overcame sin and evil in many forms. In this view, the crucifixion is not a departure from the path of the Incarnation, but it’s inevitable culmination; the Incarnation and Passion are seen as two facets of a single precious reality. Does this make sense? Have I strayed into heterodox territory with these speculations? Or is this something that has already been explored by theology? I would appreciate any illumination you could provide here.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Nope, you’re right on the money. Check out “On the Incarnation” by Saint Athanasius. There’s a nice little edition of it available from Saint Vladimir’s Press with an intro by C.S. Lewis. It’s a great book, very accessible considering that it was written almost two milennia ago, and it makes a point that is very similar to the one you’re articulating.

  4. Father Thorpus says:

    Javier, the Fathers ARE Anglicanism! The whole point of the Anglican reformation was to go back to that Patristic Christianity and avoid the errors Rome had accrued.

    Fr. Jonathan, well taught. As an historian, however, I must note that the doctrine of the Real presence was unquestioned for eight centuries, not fifteen – still a pretty good record. In the ninth century some Carolingian theologians asked precisely the question with which you have ended this piece: what does it mean that Christ’s body is spiritually present in the Eucharist, but physically present in Heaven? Both sides of that debate were considered orthodox, but in the eleventh century the Real Presence again became controversial because of a monk named Berengar, who built on the argumentd of the ninth century and taught something very like Luther’s consubstantiation and was condemned over and over again by councils as an heretic. The online Catholic encyclopedia’s article on Real Presence gives a good summary of these controversies in the eighth and eleventh centuries, and lists them in a series with the sixteenth century Reformation as the three great Eucharistic controversies.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Fr. Thorpus,

      “The Fathers ARE Anglicanism!” I love it! Any way we can get that on a t-shirt?

      I wasn’t aware of those ninth and tenth century controversies, so thank you for bringing them to light. All in all, from what New Advent says, they don’t seem to have been major movements. Still, there is some presence of a crack forming there, one which will open much wider in certain segments of the Reformation. It is somewhat surprising that such heresy did not emerge much earlier, given how difficult the teaching was even at the beginning. Of course, if something like Arianism had prevailed, a devolving of Eucharistic doctrine would have had to follow. The Incarnation and the Real Presence are intrinsically linked. Get rid of the one and the other goes right along with it.

  5. Chris says:

    Reblogged this on The Pilgrim.

  6. John Thorpe says:

    Regarding the efficacy of the atonement across time, Fr. Jonathan is, of course, quite correct. The Lamb of God was ‘slain from the foundation of the world’ and we know even from secular modern cosmological physics that time is not a constant, but a variable. God lives through time and space in a way that humans cannot, being merely carried along on its current. Jesus also forgave sins during his earthly ministry, even though the atonement had not yet been fully wrought. It is a fully orthodox doctrine to apply the redemptive work of Christ across boundaries in time, and this easily applies to the Last Supper.

  7. Eugene says:

    Thanks, Fr. Jonathan. It was actually my point in your article on the priesthood: that if Real Presence is not found in Scripture, but can be spoken of; then probably the Priesthood of All Believers, though not found in Scripture, can be spoken of in the same way. But actually, this was just my sneaky way to insert a reply to this post about the Eucharist, which is: you were going along quite nicely defending the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, and claiming to articulate the Church Fathers’ view of the subject; then all of a sudden, you started using language the the Church Fathers never used at all. It was jarring. It would be nice to be in a church that didn’t have to explain the Mystery all the time, either by Transubstantiation or Real Presence; but I guess that’s the scholastic curse or something.

    Where is the “Real Presence” to be found? In the Gifts? On the Gifts? Around the Gifts? “Presence” could imply any of those. I think the whole term Real Presence is unhelpful, to say the least. It insinuates a whole inner/outer paradigm that shows up in so many unhelpful ways. If the “inner” reality is what’s really important, why, nothing “outer” will ever be as important — not the Liturgy (this is even indicated in prefaces to the BCP, that as long as the sense remains the same, you can change the forms), not our work (it’s just what we do on the outside), not even our visible, personal orientations. Although in a sense the Sacraments have “meaning,” to say that what they “mean” is the most important thing, is to miss the mark; it’s this mark the term Real Presence misses. The meaning and the Sacrament itself is one and the same thing, just as a person and his/her will is one and the same thing (which is why the Church Fathers did away with the heresy of monothelitism; you cannot have the same inner in two separate outers, so to speak). You can speak of what a person means as distinct from the person himself by way of convenience, as you can perhaps speak of the Sacrament, and what it means; but ultimately, that language is unhelpful, and probably should not be employed. The Mysteries mean what they are, are what they are, are what Christ says they are.

    I become wrapped up in discussions like this, because I’m perpetually trying to convert to Episcopalianism, but the language always gets in the way, so at this point, I stay where I am.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Eugene,

      I want to respond appropriately to your concerns, and I think I sort of get what you’re trying to say, but I’m not sure I totally get it, so if I miss the mark here, my apologies. Please tell me if I’m not reading you correctly.

      You wrote:
      …You were going along quite nicely defending the Eucharist as the Body and Blood of Christ, and claiming to articulate the Church Fathers’ view of the subject; then all of a sudden, you started using language the Church Fathers never used at all. It was jarring. It would be nice to be in a church that didn’t have to explain the Mystery all the time, either by Transubstantiation or Real Presence; but I guess that’s the scholastic curse or something…

      Which part of this article are you responding to? I’m not sure what you see here that is not grounded in Scripture and the Fathers. As I said elsewhere, and as you have also affirmed, the fact that a particular term is not used by the Fathers or the Scripture does not negate its usage by us, so long as what is being expressed is what the Scripture and the Fathers mean. I don’t actually know where the phrase “Real Presence” comes from. The Anglican Reformers don’t use it either. But all that is meant by it is that Christ is truly present in the Holy Eucharist, that it is not merely a symbol. And I believe that you would agree with that. So what am I not getting here? (Incidentally, there are plenty of Orthodox theologians who use both the terms “Real Presence” and even the term “Transubstantiation” to articulate what the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches on the subject.)

      Where is the “Real Presence” to be found? In the Gifts? On the Gifts? Around the Gifts? “Presence” could imply any of those.

      This actually strikes right at the heart of what is different about the Anglican (and the patristic) teaching on the Eucharist. Most other theories of Eucharistic presence go out of their way to “locate” the presence of Christ. Anglicanism does not. Anglican Eucharistic theology says that Jesus really is present, that we really do receive His Body and Blood, that the bread and wine really are the Body and Blood of Christ, that they also really are bread and wine, and that we really don’t need to know how or why or where. We just need to trust God’s Word and accept it, even if we can’t fully wrap our minds around it.

      I think the whole term Real Presence is unhelpful, to say the least. It insinuates a whole inner/outer paradigm that shows up in so many unhelpful ways.

      I can’t honestly see how this is so. Nothing about the words “Real Presence” says anything about an inner, spiritual dynamic being played off of an outer, physical one. In fact, Anglican teaching on the matter stresses just the opposite, that both the physical and the spiritual are of one whole, that they cannot be meaningfully separated even though there is a difference between them.

      If the “inner” reality is what’s really important, why, nothing “outer” will ever be as important — not the Liturgy (this is even indicated in prefaces to the BCP, that as long as the sense remains the same, you can change the forms), not our work (it’s just what we do on the outside), not even our visible, personal orientations.

      I’m not sure what a “visible, personal orientation is,” but I think you’re misunderstanding the 1662 preface. It states that, “the particular Forms of Divine worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein, being things in their own nature indifferent, and alterable, and so acknowledged,” thus making the point that it is possible to review and revise the liturgy, that every facet of it is not written in stone, that it is alive and adaptable to be used in different ways in different places and times. But that does not mean that the liturgy is just an empty, outer ritual than can be changed any which way. This same preface says that “the main Body and Essentials of [the liturgy] (as well in the chiefest materials, as in the frame and order thereof) have still continued the same unto this day, and do yet stand firm and unshaken.” Not just the words, but the very form of the service, are of great importance, because what we do in worship matters a great deal. It shapes our faith. It shapes how we receive the grace of God.

      Although in a sense the Sacraments have “meaning,” to say that what they “mean” is the most important thing, is to miss the mark; it’s this mark the term Real Presence misses. The meaning and the Sacrament itself is one and the same thing, just as a person and his/her will is one and the same thing… The Mysteries mean what they are, are what they are, are what Christ says they are.
      Yes, exactly! What you’ve expressed here is a very Anglican way of understanding the sacraments. Each sacrament has a physical, outward sign and a spiritual, inward grace that it signifies, but the two cannot be separated because in the sacrament we actually receive the thing signified. They are joined as to be inseparable through a mystery of God’s own doing that is not our to figure out, only ours to receive and enjoy. That is Anglican sacramental theology in a nutshell. Perhaps you’re more Anglican than you thought!

  8. Brian says:

    Quoting Fr. Jonathan: “Perhaps you’re more Anglican than you thought!”

    Exactly my experience. Before I found my way to an Anglican (TEC) church, I was reading the 39 Articles one Sunday morning, having sadly moved on from our former church over sacramental observance, and I turned to my wife and exclaimed, “I am Anglican!”.

    Hang in there Eugene.

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