On The Eucharist: Spiritual Food Is Real Food

One of the more remarkable features of the classic Anglican Eucharistic rite, often omitted from modern prayer books, is the Exhortation that the priest gives to encourage people to receive the sacrament in a worthy manner. The Exhortation comes just before the call to Confession and in its various forms (there are three options) it includes clearly articulated language about both the great benefits and dangers of receiving Holy Communion:

DEARLY beloved in the Lord, ye that mind to come to the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, must consider how Saint Paul exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves, before they presume to eat of that Bread, and drink of that Cup. For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily. For then we are guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour; we eat and drink our own damnation, not considering the Lord’s Body; we kindle God’s wrath against us…

The benefit of the sacrament is that we “spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink His blood” which makes us one with Christ. There is a hint here of what the Eastern Orthodox call the doctrine of theosis, the idea that our sanctification is brought about by our being united with Christ and made one with Him so that Christ shines through us and we take on His characteristics, much the same way that a blade that has been placed in a fire will glow with warmth even after it is pulled out. This is echoed in the prayer of humble access in which we pray that God will allow us “so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” There is a cleansing that takes place in the Eucharist, just as there is in Baptism, but the effect of that cleansing is amplified. Through the Eucharist, we are made to dwell with God, not just in His presence, but as a part of Him, just as He is in us. When God came to rescue us from sin and death, He made Himself like us by taking on our flesh. In the Eucharist, this action is reversed. We are lifted up into Him, being made one with Him in our spirit.

Objections to Spiritual Eating

The Exhortation describes the act of partaking in the sacrament as a “spiritual” eating of Christ’s flesh. This language is repeated in the post-communion prayer which includes a thanksgiving to God for giving us “the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.” Critics sometimes assert that this means that Anglicanism holds a purely memorialist understanding of the sacrament since that which is spiritual must clearly be at odds with that which is material. This assumption is further bolstered by the fact that the rite emphasizes over and over again the need to receive the sacrament in faith because it is only by faith that we actually receive the benefits promised in the sacrament. Therefore, critics conclude, we are not talking about a real, objective presence of Christ in the sacrament. The presence of Christ is dependent on the mind-set of the believer. All that the individual communicant receives in his or her mouth is bread and wine, since the physical elements undergo no change. If the communicant has faith, the communicant will also be given Christ’s Body and Blood to feed on in his or her heart. But if the communicant does not have faith, he or she will receive only bread and wine and not Christ. The grace of the sacrament, therefore, is dependent on us rather than on God.

Response to Objections

The problem with this line of criticism is that it ignores some fairly significant parts of the rite that indicate that Christ’s presence is not dependent on us at all. First, as we see above in the Exhortation, there is an acknowledgement that by receiving the sacrament without faith we “eat and drink our own damnation.” As we discussed in the previous article, this admonition comes from 1 Corinthians 11. If there is no real and objective presence of Christ in the sacrament, it is difficult to understand how or why reception of it by a non-believer would injure that person so drastically.

More to the point, however, is the sentence of administration. In Cranmer’s first prayer book in 1549, the priest administered the bread with the words, “The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” In the 1552 revision, under the influence of a much more Zwinglian spirit, the words were changed to reflect a purely memorialist understanding of the sacrament. The priest placed the bread in the communicant’s hands saying, “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and be thankful.” But in 1559 and ever after, the 1549 language was restored so that both sentences are said together. The memorialist language of the second sentence remains true no matter how one conceives of the presence of Christ in the sacrament. However, the language of the first sentence definitively asserts the real and objective presence of Christ, not just in the heart and mind of the believer but also in the bread and wine. If the bread is not really the Body of Christ and the wine is not really the Blood of Christ, the priest is rendered a liar and the rite becomes internally incoherent.

So then, “spiritual food” and “spiritual feeding” cannot be interpreted to mean that there is no local presence of Christ in the sacrament at all. The spiritual reality of how we receive is not in contradiction with the objective and even the material reality of how Christ gives Himself to us in the sacrament. Rather, it is precisely the coming together of the spiritual and the material that results in our ability, as creatures who are both spiritual and physical, to feed on Christ and receive the benefits of His passion.

Resurrected Bodies are Spiritual Bodies

The problem for many of us in grasping this is that we have been formed in a secular culture and sometimes even in a church culture that embraces the Gnostic idea that the spirit and the flesh are two radically different things that are necessarily opposed to one another. And since our era is dominated by materialism which brashly asserts that only the things we can quantify with our senses are real, we come to believe that the spiritual is somehow less real than the physical. But if that were the case, God would be less real than rocks since rocks are pure matter and, as John 4:24 tells us, God is pure spirit. Rather, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, that which is spiritual is that which is beyond the power of sin and death:

Someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body… So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven…

Christ Himself as a resurrected man is now “life-giving spirit,” and yet He has not ceased to also be human. On the contrary, the spiritual nature of His Body makes Him more human. While Adam is just dust, Christ is much more because His body has become spiritual. In the resurrection, the very material that makes us up will have the transcendent qualities that now are only the property of the spirit. The material will no longer be separable from the spiritual. All will be fully integrated. All will be made whole.

Nevertheless, while Christ has already gone through this change, we who have been baptized into Christ remain stuck between two worlds. We have been regenerated and given the Holy Spirit, which means that our souls have been cleansed of sin and brought back to life, and yet we remain in the fallen world in which we continue to have to face the reality of decay and death. And that reality has a hold on us, dragging us into sin over and over again, leaving its mark upon our flesh. It is only if our souls have been washed clean by the washing of Baptism and faith has been kindled in our hearts that we have a hope of feeding upon the Resurrected Body of Our Lord which is now fully glorified and no longer subject to death’s influence. That does not mean that Christ is not objectively, fully, even materially present when the bread and wine are placed in our mouths. But it does mean that if we are to actually receive in any way the benefit of such a gift, we must have spirits that have been reborn and cleansed of sin. It is not enough simply to receive with the mouth if the heart remains unmoved.

You Are What You Are Able to Eat

A crude example will perhaps serve to draw the distinction more clearly. I have a medical condition which prevents me from digesting certain foods properly, including pineapples. Now, this is a shame because I really like pineapples. If a piece of pineapple was placed in my hands right this second, it would certainly be objectively a pineapple. I could chew it up and swallow it and I would have taken pineapple into myself. Nevertheless, because my body is flawed in such a way that I cannot digest the pineapple properly, I will not actually be able to feed on it. I will not be able to gather from it nutrition. In fact, I may very well have a negative reaction, which in my case would cause me to wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. I am not equipped in my person to feed on pineapple, even if I were to receive it.

The Body and Blood of Christ that comes to us in and through the consecrated bread and wine is a glorified body, a spiritual body. It requires a glorified spirit to be able to properly receive it and feed on it. But that does not mean that Christ is not really, truly present, in an objective way, by His own free gift of Himself. The spiritual nature of the Body does not make the Body any less of a real Body. Nor does our need to feed spiritually, through faith, make any difference in the reality of the gift that is given in the sacrament.

Spiritual food is real food. There is only one way to eat it and only one chef who prepares it. Blessed are we to be called to keep the feast.

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16 Responses to On The Eucharist: Spiritual Food Is Real Food

  1. Yeshua told the disciples “I have food that you know nothing about” John 4

  2. kiwianglo says:

    Father Jonathan, I am totally in agreement with your remarks here about the ‘Real Presence’ of Christ’s Body and Blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. I have comer to the opinion – after much soul-searching – that the term ‘trans-substantiation’ is not an Anglican view of what happens at the Eucharist – rather, is might be called ‘con-substantiation, wherein, after the prayer of consecration, the bread and the wine are coexistent with the Body and Blood of Christ.

    Agape, Fr. Ron

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Thanks for the comment, Fr. Ron. I will actually be taking up the topic of transubstantiation, along with other things, when I address the teaching of the Articles on the Eucharist. I’ve got about two more posts on the prayer book first, however. I made a similar journey in terms of coming to a deeper understanding of the sacrament. Peace be with you.

  3. Joshua Bovis says:


    Here is something for you.

    1. God has created us to obtain knowledge through the avenues of the senses of sight, hearing (and possibly touch as well). The Word therefore, is adapted to the ear, the sacrament to the eye and the other senses.
    2. The sacraments have no significance apart from the Word of God and are in fact merely a visible demonstration of the Word. However, while the Word can exist and is complete without the Sacraments, the sacraments are never complete without the Word. For it is the truth which is addressed to the ear which interprets the sign and so makes it intelligible. To put it simply, the Word must explain the sign in order to give understanding of the promise it confirms.
    3. The relationship between the sign and the thing signified is not physical or local but spiritual. In other words, when the sacrament is received in faith, the grace of God accompanies it.Thus Christ is present in the sacrament insofar as he is present in the hearts of the believer by faith. In other words, Christ dwells in the hearts of the worshippers by faith. He is present to their personalities by his Spirit, and this is the only manner of his presence in the Supper. (Article XXVIII– “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith. ”)
    4. Christ’s spiritual presence in the hearts of the recipient at the Lord’s Supper is the same as in every other aspect of the Christian life. The Lord’s Supper, with the signs of his death integrated within it, is a very vivid reminder of Christ and his Word and so becomes a deep fellowship with Christ.
    5. It is not however any different sort of fellowship from that which the Christian enjoys with the Lord Jesus in his/her daily life outside the congregation. But the Eucharist has the added dimension of being enjoyed in the company and fellowship of others who are enjoying the same fellowship with Christ at the same time.
    6. The 39 Articles make it abundantly clear that if the sacraments are received without faith on the part of the recipient, they are as ineffective as is the Word heard and not believed. (Article XXIX).
    7. The Eucharist is a sign of Christ crucified for us. Jesus presence is not indicated by way of a sign, but is experienced through the Spirit.
    8. Christ is present sacramentally, (only by a sign). We eat and drink the signs of his atoning death. They remain nothing but signs.
    9. To say that the Eucharist serves as a reminder is not inconsistent with the above. Jesus himself said “Do this in remembrance of me.”The basis of fellowship of the Lord’s supper is his death for the sins of the elect. He designated the food of the meal as a sign of his body given for us and his blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins. As we share in this fellowship, we remember his death for us, we remember his sacrifice of himself which made for our sake, and we remember Jesus our redeemer, our Lord and our coming King. All remembrance of Jesus by a regenerate, Spirit-filled soul is full of precious fellowship. Thus the remembrance is not a bare remembrance. It is not bare, as we are remembering Jesus and his Spirit is present to our spirit whenever we relate ourselves to him our thoughts.It is a heartfelt remembrance of Christ, a remembrance which the Lord’s Supper especially and vividly evokes as we eat and drink together in obedience to our Lord’s command, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hi Joshua,

      I believe that you mentioned in a previous post that this list comes not from you but from a relatively modern professor at a seminary in Sydney. Is that correct? If so, this would seem to gel with what I’ve read of the approach to theology in the Diocese of Sydney. Rather than comment on every item in the list, I’ll simply say that I believe the professor is correct when he says that the sacraments are “a visual demonstration of the Word,” but that he is incorrect in saying that this somehow means that the sacraments have no power other than as signs.

      It is, of course, true that the power of the sacraments is grounded in the Word and that there is no sacrament without the Word. It is poor exegesis indeed, however, to claim that this makes the elements in the Eucharist “nothing but signs.” After all, we understand them as signs primarily because that is a rational way of looking at them. But Jesus Himself says, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood,” not “This is a sign of my Body and a sign of my blood.” So by all means, let’s make use of our reason, but not if in doing so we contradict what Jesus actually says. In so doing, we overturn both the Sacrament and the Word.

      Moreover, I am generally troubled by the implied Calvinist soteriology the professor employs by saying that “The basis of fellowship of the Lord’s supper is his death for the sins of the elect.” Interesting as it may be to see Calvinist soteriology married to Zwinglian sacramental theology, neither one is Anglican. I would point you to my series “Sweet, Pleasant, and Unspeakable Comfort” to see more on that subject. Jesus Christ did not just die for the sins of the elect. He died for the sins of the whole world.

  4. Joshua Bovis says:

    It is a collection of points that I think a lot of Reformed Evangelical Priests (such as myself) would agree with, the reason I sourced them, is that I felt that the late Knox, expresses things in a ways better than I could.

    I think Knox’s point about the Sacraments having no power other than as signs. He does make the point that they are still powerful signs. In point, the Eucharist is not a bare memorial.

    Point 3, is the point that I think matters the most:
    3. The relationship between the sign and the thing signified is not physical or local but spiritual. In other words, when the sacrament is received in faith, the grace of God accompanies it.Thus Christ is present in the sacrament insofar as he is present in the hearts of the believer by faith. In other words, Christ dwells in the hearts of the worshippers by faith. He is present to their personalities by his Spirit, and this is the only manner of his presence in the Supper. (Article XXVIII– “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith. ”)”

    Which I think is expressed in the words we say after the Prayer of consecration – “The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life: Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and (this is the part I am referring to)…feed on him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving.

    Personally I find the Eucharist extremely moving, being a very physical tangible sort of person, I am amazed that God would use something so fundamentally basic as eating and drinking to convey so powerfully what the Lord Jesus achieved by his death on the cross. But is Christ more present at the Table? No, is his presence more tangible? For me – Yes.

    Please don’t get me wrong – It seems that practice of many of my Reformed Evangelical Anglican contemporaries see Holy Communion as something that is perfunctory or even embarrassing.

    I think I will leave the topic of definite atonement for now.

    in Christ
    p.s So you are Philadelphian?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Thank you, Joshua. I know that the view you’re expressing is one that is shared by a number of Evangelicals, particularly in the Diocese of Sydney. I just don’t think it’s an accurate reflection of what the formularies express, particularly the prayer book. I would agree that the second sentence of administration could be construed in a purely memorialist way were it not for the sentence that precedes it which you quote above.

      In terms of how this works with the Articles, I plan to examine that in a future post, though not before taking a look at a couple more aspects of the rich Eucharistic theology found in the prayer book.

      I am indeed in Philadelphia, though I am not native to this area.

  5. Joshua Bovis says:

    Please don’t get me wrong – It seems that practice of many of my Reformed Evangelical Anglican contemporaries see Holy Communion as something that is perfunctory or even embarrassing.

    For me this is certainly not the case!!!!

  6. Robbie says:

    Wonderful post, Fr. Jonathan!

    In the section entitled, “Objections to Spiritual Eating,” you note that the memorialist/Zwinglian language makes “the presence of Christ..dependent on the mind-set of the believer” and that “the grace of the sacrament, therefore, is dependent on us rather than on God.” Indeed, it’s hard for me to express how much I agree with you here and why I’ve come to embrace the Anglican understanding of the Eucharist as you outline above (!). What I’m wondering is how did this non-sacramental understanding of the Eucharist find it’s way into Anglican thought. No doubt it had to do with 16th century political controversies and 1552 prayer book revisions (and answering this question may be a whole other post in itself). But why did Anglicanism “tarry” with Zwinglian immanentism at all – especially when it seems so much at odds with liturgy itself?

    Thank you!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      That’s a good question, Robbie, and not one that is easy to answer, but I think the Readers’ Digest version would be that there were some Zwinglian elements introduced in 1552 that modern memorialists hang their hat on, though there are fewer of those than one might think. There were certainly Zwinglians among the Reformers who had an influence upon the Anglican Reformation, and for most of them 1552 did not go nearly far enough. At the end of his life, I think that Cranmer himself was closer to a Calvinist than a Zwinglian view, though what would later emerge from the Elizabethan Settlement combined Calvinist thought about the spiritual nature of reception with Lutheran and patristic notions of the Real Presence, resulting in a eucharistic theology that is unique.

  7. Joshua Bovis says:

    Thankyou for replying to my post so graciously. Though I am not convinced that Article XXVIII– “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the means whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith,” can be interpreted another way.

    Though ,a small caveat – I am convinced that the Lord’s Supper is not about having everyone “having juice and crackers and thinking about Jesus”. This would make the sign wooden and perfunctory.

    I am working on it!

    in Christ
    p.s I am not from the Sydney diocese. Newcastle Diocese (next door). :)

    p.p.s Even though I don’t agree with some of what you write, I do appreciate your work.

  8. kiwianglo says:

    A big surprise to find that Joshua is not from the Sydney Diocese. His understanding of the Eucharist would seem to be synonymous with what is known throughout the Anglican Communion as Sydney’s preference for Preaching rather than Making Eucharist. My understanding of the Newcastle Diocese, is that was a one-time upholder of the Anglo-Catholic view of the Eucharist.
    Perhaps this attitude has suffered change.

  9. runnymeadeuk says:

    Thank you for this article. I recently saw former Arch-Bishop George Carey in Nashville, Tennessee and, unfortunately, he omitted this part of the liturgy from the service of Holy Communion. In his defence, I believe he was using an order of service provided to him (in a bulletin/folder) by St. George’s Church (affiliated with “The Episcopal Church, Inc.”). Also left out was the thanksgiving prayer after Communion. An aside: I hope you’ll consider doing an article on “Whatever happened to Morning Prayer?”. In the US it seems to have gone out sometime in the 80s with liturgical revision and the “new” Book of Alternative Services (called ’79 Prayer Book). Only a few Parishes in T.E.C. (such as http://www.stjohnssav.org ) still use the proper Prayer Book based on Bp. Cranmer’s original edition. Morning and Evening Prayer services used to be said every day in all Anglican Churches. Some of the “Continuing” Anglican Church bodies still do so, but most seem to emphasise HC, and neglect MP and EP.

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