You Eat Jesus?

The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic teaching regarding the Eucharist (communion):

"Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation."

The New Testament gives us four narrative accounts of Jesus' words over the bread and wine at the Last Supper:

  1. "... this is my body ...this is my blood..." (Matt 26:26-28)
  2. "... this is my body ... This is my blood ..." (Mark 14:22-24)
  3. "... This is my body ... do this in memory of me ... This is ... my blood ..." (Luke 22:19-20)
  4. "... This is my body ... do this in remembrance of me ... This cup is ... my blood ... drink it, in remembrance of me ..." (1 Cor 11:24-25)

[In each of the scriptural accounts of Jesus' words over the Eucharistic Bread and Wine, the Bible says that He "gave thanks" (Matt 26:27, Mark 14:23, Luke 22:17, 1 Cor 11:24). The Greek word for "gave thanks" is eucharistėsas, which is where Catholics get the word "Eucharist."]

Notice that Jesus never referred to the Eucharistic Bread and Wine as "symbols" or "representations" of his Body and Blood. How should we interpret the word "is"? St. Paul gives his readers the earliest written account of how the early Church understood Jesus' teaching on the Eucharist:

"The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" (1 Cor 10:16)

Notice that St. Paul refers to the cup of wine as the "blood of Christ" and not as a "symbol" or a "representation." Also notice that Paul refers to the bread as the "body of Christ" and not as a "symbol" or a "representation." What St. Paul was saying in 1 Cor 10:16 is that when the early Christians received Holy "Communion" they were "participating", not in ordinary bread and wine, but in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ Himself. St. Paul further instructs the early Christians:

"Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are ill and infirm, and a considerable number are dying." (1 Cor 11:27-30)

If the bread and wine were merely symbols or representations, why would St. Paul stress the importance of the Christian being spiritually fit to receive them? If it were just bread and wine, it really wouldn't matter what condition the Christian's soul was in. But if it was actually the Body and Blood of Jesus, it would be imperative for a Christian to take a "spiritual inventory" of himself so he doesn't ingest Jesus into a heart and soul full of serious sin.

The Greek word estin is the equivalent of "is" and can mean "is really" or "is figuratively." It usually means "is really," just as in English, the verb "is" is usually taken in the real or literal sense. In John 6, the chapter where the Eucharist is promised, Jesus uses the Greek word sarx for "body," which can only mean physical flesh. The word for "eat" translates as "gnaws" or "chews." This is not the language of metaphor. Aramaic (Jesus' native language) has about three dozen words that can mean "represents," so if he had wanted to, Christ could have easily given an unmistakable equivalent of "this represents my body."

Concerning to correct interpretation of the word "is" spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper, Fr. John O'Brien says:

"... the phrase, 'to eat the flesh and drink the blood,' when used figuratively among the Jews, as among the Arabs of today, meant to inflict upon a person some serious injury, especially by alumny or false accusation. To interpret the phrase figuratively then would be to make our Lord promise life everlasting to the culprit for slandering and hating Him, which would reduce the whole passage to utter nonsense."

The phrase "do this in memory of me" always follow Jesus' words "This is my body" and means that after Jesus is truly present (under the appearance of bread and wine), the Christian community was to remember Him. The words "do this in memory of me" that follow the word "is" certainly do not negate His Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist.

The most convincing evidence for the Catholic teaching comes from John 6. John reports that "The Jewish feast of Passover was near" (John 6:4). This verse puts John Chapter 6 in the context of the Jewish feast of Passover, which would be the later setting of the Last Supper. Jesus had the ear of a large crowd (probably more than 5000 people). Jesus took the time to feed them with a miracle, showing to all of them His power to create something out of the little they had (John 6:1-15). Jesus then performs the miracle of walking on water (John 6:16-21) and follows with His teaching on the Holy Eucharist in John 6:22-68:

  • Beginning in verse 22, Jesus is talking to a large gathering of all his many disciples and goes into a long discourse on the idea of the "Bread of Life." He compares it to the manna that they ate in the desert and points out that they all died. He promises them the "Bread of Life." When they eat of it, they will live forever. The crowd is very excited and someone even shouts "... Sir, give us this bread always" (John 6:34).

  • Jesus proclaims his teachings on the Holy Eucharist to the large crowd of listeners: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world." (John 6:51)

  • Now the crowd is taken back. John tells us in verse 52 that "The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'" It's obvious from this verse that the crowd which before understood Jesus figuratively as the "Bread of Life" has taken what he just said very literally when he refers to giving them his flesh to eat.
  • Now everyone is talking and arguing and Jesus is certainly aware that they have taken what he said literally. At this point, one would expect Jesus to provide reassurance that they have misinterpreted what He said and that He was only speaking figuratively. Every other time there was a misunderstanding of his words, he quickly cleared up the misunderstanding. (Nicodemus in John 3:1-5,22; His disciples in Matt 16:5-12 and John 10:6-16). Instead Jesus says, "Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink" (John 6:54) It's also important to note here that when Jesus says "eats", he uses a different word this time. The word he uses this time is not the classical Greek verb used of human eating, but that of animal eating: "munch," "gnaw."
  • The crowd is still obviously taking Jesus' words literally. Many are quite taken back and even angry. John goes on to tell us in verse 60 that many of His own disciples now are saying "This saying is hard; who can accept it?"
  • Jesus, fully aware that everyone was understanding Him literally, chooses not to seize His second opportunity to make clarifications of His harsh words if they were being interpreted incorrectly. John continues in verse 61-62 "Since Jesus knew that his disciples were murmuring about this, he said to them, 'Does this shock you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" Did Christ "symbolically" ascend into heaven after the Resurrection? No! As we see in Acts 1:9-10, his ascension was literal.
  • John then tells us that "As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him." This is the one and only place in the New Testament where people abandon Christ over one of His teachings.
  • Risking his whole mission, Jesus turns to his most intimate disciples (the Twelve Apostles) and says "Do you also want to leave?" (John 6:67)
  • St. Peter, speaking on behalf of the Twelve Apostles says "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68) He, like the disciples who left, understood that Jesus' words were to be taken literally.

The "Real Presence" of Christ in the Holy Eucharist has been taught by the Church since the time of Christ. The Catholic literal sense was always and only the sense in which the early Christians understood Christ's words in John 6.

  • "I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the Bread of God, which is the Flesh of Jesus Christ, who was the seed of David; and for drink I desire His Blood, which is love incorruptible." -- St. Ignatius, Letter to the Romans (circa 80-110 A.D.)
  • "[Christ] has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own Blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own Body, from which he gives increase to our bodies." -- St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (180 A.D.)

Fr. John O'Brien, in his book The Faith of Millions tells us:

"For 1500 years all Christendom was united in the literal understanding of the Savior's words. In the sixteenth century it became the fashion to give new and arbitrary interpretations to passages in the Scriptures in accordance with one's private whim and fancy. The amount of religious anarchy and confusion which was brought about by this practice is evident from the fact that within seventy-five years [after the Protestant Reformation] over 200 different interpretations were given to the clear, simple words of Christ: 'This is My body.'"

A common objection among Protestants is that they would have to see Jesus' flesh and blood with their own eyes (or by scientific tests of the substances) to believe in the Real Presence. I have never seen God, but I still believe in him. I'm sure that Protestants feel the same way. In the words of St. Paul, "...we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7). As Catholics, our faith in Jesus is not limited to what our human eyes can see and our human minds can comprehend. Although Peter did not fully understand Jesus in John 6, he still exclaimed "We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:69).

It is not unthinkable for God to be fully present in an earthly object. Note how Moses encounters God under the appearance of a burning bush (Exod 3:2-6) and under a the appearance of a column of cloud and fire (Exod 13:21-22). When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the Spirit of God came down with a dove-like appearance (Matt 3:16). Abraham encounters "the Lord" under the appearance of "three men" (Gen 18:1-2). Most importantly, the fullness of God took the form of a mere man: Jesus!

Numerous times in the past 2000 years there have been reports of visible Eucharistic miracles where the bread and wine were transformed into the observable Flesh and Blood. It seems that Jesus sends these extraordinary Eucharistic miracles to help deepen our belief in His Real Eucharistic Presence. The faith of the Catholic Church is not dependant on these miracles. Our faith comes from the faith of the Apostles, the liturgical practice of the early Church, and the witness of Holy Scripture. These miracles simply reinforce the faith and practice of the Apostolic Church. To view pictures, videos, and stories of some of these miracles, please visit the Eucharistic Miracles page.

So, YES, Catholics in fact EAT JESUS on a regular basis! We do it because it is Jesus' command!

For more in-depth study, please visit The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist page.