One of the most mindboggling Christian doctrines is that of the Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper). This article challenges the blind-faith teaching of Christ’s real presence under the Eucharistic species: it irons out the wrinkles in the various New Testament texts concerning this sacrament, and finally gives the true symbolic meaning Jesus really intended when he instituted it.
I shall use the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as a representative for the various Christian beliefs on the Eucharist in general. For the benefit of the reader who might not be familiar with the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, after the priest pronounces the exact words of consecration at Mass, the bread and wine supposedly turn into the real body and blood, respectively, of Jesus Christ. In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church,
“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as (p. 296 ¶ 1374) ‘the consummation of the spiritual life, and the end of all of the sacraments.’ (Aquinas, Summa Theologica III, 73, 3c) ‘In the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ.’ (Council of Trent, sess. 13, can. 1, http://www.thecounciloftrent.com/ch13.htm, accessed September 10, 2021) ‘This presence is called “real” not to exclude the idea that the others are “real” too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial, and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man.’ (Paul VI, Misterium Fidei, 39)” [emphasis in the Catholic Catechism]
The Church admits, without any hesitation, that nothing changes, physically or chemically, in the bread and wine after the priest’s ‘magical’ words; nonetheless, Jesus becomes wholly present in each of them. This is a classic example of blind faith—against all odds, so to speak.
It is not only Catholics who believe in the ‘real’ presence of Jesus in the Eucharist; several other Christian denominations believe practically the same thing, with minor nuances: including the Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists, but not Calvinists, Baptists, and Pentecostals. In this article, I contest this official teaching of the Catholic Church.
The Naked Emperor
Most famous author Hans Christian Andersen tells a tale of an emperor who was excessively fond of new clothes and cared about nothing else but wearing and displaying them. Two rogues, pretending to be weavers, claimed that they knew how to make the most beautiful clothes from a fabric that was invisible to anyone who was either unfit for one’s office or extraordinarily stupid. The emperor liked the idea of having such knowledge of his subjects, so he hired them. They pocketed the money, and pretended to work earnestly at producing this imaginary fabric. Of course, his ministers could not see the inexistent fabric but pretended to see it for fear of appearing either unfit for their position or extraordinarily stupid; and the emperor acted likewise. Finally the swindlers reported that the emperor’s suit with this special fabric was ready; they mimed dressing him up, and he marched in procession naked before his subjects. The townsfolk played along with the pretense, for the same reason as the ministers and the emperor. Then a little child in the crowd blurted out that the emperor was naked, and the cry was taken up by all the people watching. Naturally, the emperor was vexed, knowing that they were probably right, but he thought the procession must go on, so he kept on pretending. (Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” pp. 58–63)
The story describes a situation where one thinks that everyone else believes something, so one forces oneself to pretend to believe it too: even though one does not believe any of it. I’m sure the reader can see the parallelism of this tale with the Eucharist.
I used to believe very strongly in the Eucharist, so much so, there was a period of several years in which I used to spend fifteen to thirty minutes, daily, ‘talking’ to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament after work; but I started questioning my belief in the last decade or so.
Compare the following scenario to the doctrine of the Eucharist. Suppose someone tells you that, literally, the Eifel Tower moves from Paris, France, to Toronto, Ontario, and vice-versa the Canadian National (CN) Tower moves from Toronto to Paris after a magician utters some ‘magical’ formula. “Not unless I can see it happening,” you would naturally retort, no? “But unfortunately,” the claimer continues, “there would be no evidence of this taking place: the Eifel Tower would still be visible in Paris and the CN Tower would still be visible in Toronto, but, in reality, the Eifel Tower would be physically in Toronto and the CN Tower in Paris: one has to believe it.” Would you believe something crazy like that? I simply cannot imagine God (or Jesus) expecting this kind of utterly-unreasonable, blind faith from us.
Notice also how Andersen’s tale ends: the emperor, rather than coming clean, decides to continue the charade. Unfortunately, this is, very often, the case with the Catholic Church and its dogmas. It gets in waters that are too deep and cannot come back out. I strongly believe the Church should come clean and revise, or even reverse, some of its teachings from time to time: whenever it finds out it was wrong, or there are no longer enough valid reasons for believing something any more—just like science does occasionally. I say this, not because of any animosity against the Church, but because the Church should be on God’s side, and God is definitely on truth’s side.
Interestingly enough, philosopher and theologian Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109) was probably the first who thought that faith should be based on reason: “He defined theology as ‘faith in search of reason’”; (Wright, p. 59) yet, for some strange reason, he never questioned the alleged transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist—termed transubstantiation. It shows the power of conditioning: tie a baby elephant’s leg to a peg in the ground as soon as it is born, and it wouldn’t try to unearth it in adulthood when it is strong enough to do so.
However, some might still insist that in transubstantiation a miracle happens, in which, through the power Christ gives to the Church, which is subsequently transmitted to the priest, the bread and wine are really changed to the body and blood of Jesus. Is there enough evidence for such a stance?
After I came to my senses and jolted out of my lifetime conditioning, I did not just stop believing in the Eucharist: I embarked on a thorough search for the whole truth. In this article, I shall take the reader through my journey contesting the possibility of such a miracle taking place by playing in the Church’s own home court—the Bible—particularly the New Testament.
Because of the centrality assigned to the Eucharist by many Christian denominations (especially Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Methodists), before proceeding further in this article, I would like to state my position regarding the Bible so there is no misunderstanding. In both my books Is the Bible Infallible? and Faith and Reason, I prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, that the Bible is not God’s Word. It fails both ‘litmus’ tests: namely, there are many contradictions in its own texts, and its prophesies never transpired. It simply consists of writings by humans who, admittedly, cared about God and morality. I concede that, at times, people might be inspired to write something by God, but most of the time, like Anselm, one cannot think outside the box of one’s then-current beliefs. (Wright, p. 55) Many times the biblical authors got things right, but often enough they got things totally wrong too. Therefore, I treat the Bible as I treat cultural wisdom: like the sayings or proverbs of a nation, say. One might think I am cherry-picking what I like and leaving out what I don’t like in the Bible; but I believe one should read the Bible with intelligence, using one’s reason and honestly judging for oneself what is good in it and what is not: one should not accept all it says blindly. I believe that there is no other way of reading the Bible because of the numerous textual contradictions and failed prophecies I have listed in the chapters on “Bible Contradictions” and “Bible Prophecies,” respectively; otherwise, one might as well discard the Bible. I suggest the reader keep this in mind during my ensuing discussions.
Transubstantiation, or equivalently Luther’s proposed consubstantiation, is a matter of blind faith alone; however, to me, faith is more of a trust in someone or something one knows well: not a blank check. Naturally, Science can hardly say anything if a Church, of its own accord, claims there is no change in the physical or chemical properties of the bread or wine after transubstantiation or consubstantiation. For this reason, I shall henceforth play strictly on Christianity’s own turf: I shall quote the New Testament without questioning what is written.
Keep in mind that the New Testament so-called ‘books’ were not all written at the same time; certain books were written before others, and the earlier books tend to be more authentic than the later ones: later authors normally tend to mythologize their heroes (like Robin Hood or Zorro), over time, in an effort to make them look better than they really were. Moreover, as time goes by, the number of eyewitnesses who could challenge their writings decreases because they happen to die.
In this article I shall be referring to five New Testament books; so, before I start my discussion, let us have a quick look at the approximate time when they were written—according to biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, as given in his book The Historical Jesus. (1) The undisputedly authentic First Letter of (Saint) Paul to the Corinthians was written in 53 or 54 CE, (2) The Gospel according to Mark was written between 70 and 79 CE, (3) The Gospel according to Matthew was written around 90 CE, (4) The Gospel according to Luke was written between 95 and 99 CE, and (5) The Gospel according to John was written between 100 and 105 CE—some parts in John’s gospel were added between 120 and 125 CE. (pp. 429–32) So, from what I said in the previous paragraph, the most reliable is Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, then Mark’s gospel, and so on.
Bread and Wine Eucharist
Let us therefore first look at what Paul has to say regarding the institution of the Eucharist at Jesus’s Last Supper. I shall use the Berean Literal Bible version for this earliest text to be as close as possible to the original words Paul wrote.
“I received from the Lord [Jesus] that which also I delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and having given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘This is My body, which is for you [apostles/disciples]; do this in remembrance of Me.’ Likewise also the cup after having supped, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you might drink it, in remembrance of Me.’ For as often as you may eat this bread and may drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He should come.” [1 Corinthians 11:23–26 (BLB) emphasis mine].
It is interesting to note that Paul says he had “received” this information directly “from the Lord,” that is, from Jesus himself. It is clear from the above text that Paul wanted to pass on Christianity to his churches just as he had received it: in other words, to do exactly what Jesus had instructed him to do. Recall that Paul was a Pharisee who persecuted Christians prior to his conversion; so, for him to be able to change so drastically, I believe he was sincere and convinced of Christianity. This is also why I believe he is the best source of information about authentic (early) Christianity.
Another obvious observation from this passage is that Jesus clearly wished to be remembered by his disciples after his death: his request “do this in remembrance of Me” occurs twice.
At first blush it does seem that Jesus’s words imply he turned the bread and the wine, miraculously, into his body and blood, respectively; and this is probably why many generations of Christians later believed it to be so: they trusted Jesus’s (or rather the biblical author’s) words.
Presumably, he did turn water into wine early in his ministry in Cana, Galilee, but the transformation was visible and palatable to everyone around (see John 2:1–11). At the Last Supper, however, the bread (visibly and palatably) remained bread and the wine remained wine: evidently, therefore, there was no obvious miracle. Presumably, with his power, Jesus could have changed them to flesh and blood, as he had changed water into wine, no?
Needless to mention, it sounds somewhat repulsive to eat someone’s flesh and drink someone’s blood: it has overtones of cannibalism and vampirism; but that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make before proceeding with my analysis: it’s probably not what Jesus had in mind.
So, if not cannibalism and vampirism, what was Jesus trying to convey by this ‘non-miracle’? It seems Jesus wanted us to remember him by means of an outward sign, which delivered a deeper meaning—termed sacrament. Take baptism, for example—the introduction into Christ’s Church: in the old baptismal rite, the convert’s immersion under water signified the death and burial of the old, wicked self, and the subsequent emergence from the water signified the birth of a new, good person. In the Eucharist, therefore, I contend that Jesus wanted to convey some symbolic meaning as in baptism. The person being baptized does not, in actual fact, die nor is he really born again: it’s all symbolic.
For the longest time, I thought that by the clause “took bread, and … broke it”, Jesus was symbolizing his crucified (or ‘broken’) body, but lately I started to think that Jesus would not want us to remember his suffering. His suffering was a gift to us: he would not want to brag about it, over and over again, every time we met in his name. He would like us to remember him, yes, but not his suffering. So, now I believe the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine was his way of recommending commensality (eating together) among his followers: which is what he did with his apostles/disciples throughout his lifetime. Sharing meals has always been one of the best ways of making new friends and maintaining old relationships.
Incidentally, I am positive that during the Last Supper, some bread crumbs must have fallen on the table, on the recliners, and possibly even on the floor: which I presume nobody picked up. If Jesus truly meant to change the bread to his body, he would probably have asked his apostles/disciples to pick up the crumbs; just as he had asked for the scraps of bread to be picked up after his miracle of the multiplication of bread and fish (see Mark 6:43; Matthew 14:20; Luke 9:17; John 6:12–13). His body is more precious than leftover bread, no? Yet Paul and the Gospels don’t even hint at anything like that during the Last Supper.
Now, we need to read Paul’s text in the context it was written. It was an ancient Greek custom to indulge in drinking a little wine after supper. Greek influence spread throughout the Roman Empire— including Israel—in Jesus’s time. In fact, the entire New Testament was written in Greek. Notice, however, that no wine is mentioned in Paul’s text above; however, a few verses before, in the same letter, he does hint at its being wine by the phrase “gets drunk” in the following verse:
“So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk.” [1 Corinthians 11:20–21 (NIV) emphasis mine]
The ancient Greeks had another custom: namely, making a libation (see 2 Timothy 4:6) prior to certain religious ceremonies. According to Wikipedia, it consisted of
“a ritual pouring of a liquid, or grains such as rice, as an offering to a deity or spirit, or in memory of the dead. … Various substances have been used for libations, most commonly wine or other alcoholic drinks, olive oil, honey, and … ghee. … The libation could be poured onto something of religious significance, such as an altar, or into the earth.” (Wikipedia: “Libation,” emphasis mine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libation, accessed September 12, 2021)
Pouring a portion of the wine onto the ground, “in memory the dead” is probably what Jesus had in mind. Presumably, Jesus knew he was going to die and naturally wished to be remembered by his followers, but more importantly he wanted them to stay united together through commensality. Wikipedia continues,
“After [some] wine was poured [out] … the remainder of the … contents was drunk by the celebrant.” (Wikipedia: “Libation,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libation, accessed September 12, 2021)
Apparently, Jesus did not drink all the remainder of the wine himself but shared it with his apostles/disciples—his mystical body—the Church. So, the celebrant in the Eucharist is the Church, not Jesus. Likewise, during Mass nowadays, the priest (in Jesus’s place) represents the community—not Jesus himself. The priest is only supposed to lead the community in the Mass ritual. Wikipedia then adds,
“The Greek verb spéndō … “pour a libation”, also “conclude a pact”, derives from the Indo-Eurpean root *spend-, “make an offering, perform a rite, engage oneself by a ritual act”. The noun is spondê (plural spondaí), “libation.” In the middle [i.e., both active and passive] voice, the verb means “enter into an agreement”, in the sense that the gods are called to guarantee an action.” (Wikipedia: “Libation,” emphasis mine, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libation, accessed September 12, 2021) Notice the clauses “conclude a pact,” “engage oneself,” and “enter into an agreement.”
Now, with this background in mind, Paul’s rather strange phrase “the new covenant in My blood” makes much more sense. As a Pharisee, Paul must have known the Hebrew Scripture in and out; so, he was probably also alluding to the ancient rite of the old covenant (or agreement) the Hebrews ostensibly made with God, as described in Exodus—what we nowadays call the Old Testament. (Technically, the following account was a ratification, by Moses, of the older covenant with Abraham—which I also quote below under “New Covenant.”)
“Moses wrote all the words of the Lord, and rose up early in the morning, and builded [built] an altar under the hill, and twelve pillars [engraved slabs], according to the twelve tribes of Israel. And he sent young men of the children of Israel, which [who] offered burnt offerings, and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen unto the Lord. And Moses took half of the blood, and put it in basons [bowls (DRC)]; and half of the blood he sprinkled [poured (DRC)] on the altar. And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, ‘All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.’ And Moses took the blood, and sprinkled it on the people, and said, ‘Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord hath made with you concerning all these words.’” [Exodus 24:4–8 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice that Moses poured half of the blood of the sacrificed animals onto the altar (compare with the wine libation) and sprinkled the other half upon the people (compare with sharing the wine). Jesus shared the rest of the wine with his apostles/disciples ostensibly to seal the new covenant of the Church with God through his Son, rather than through the prophet Moses or the patriarch Abraham. Observe the parallelism of the Last Supper with the Exodus covenant account given here. So, to Paul, the blood Jesus shed on the cross constituted a new covenant, which we nowadays call the New Testament, of Jewish-Christians with God. The gentiles (non-Jews—the rest of humanity) were later also invited to join in this new covenant with God and indeed Paul had a prominent part in doing this.
It is also most important to note that, according to Paul’s account, Jesus never said the words, “this is my blood” while handling the wine cup, as he definitely said, “This is my body” while handling the bread. This is very significant, as I’ll soon show more clearly.
Note also Paul’s final sentence: “For as often as you may eat this bread and may drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He should come.” This was (and is supposed to be even now) the whole idea of the ritual. Notice also that Paul does not say: “as often as you may eat this body and may drink the blood” but he says: “as often as you may eat this bread and may drink the cup.” Keep in mind that this text from Paul’s letter is the earliest and most important New Testament record regarding the institution of the Eucharist, but also remember that this was already twenty-odd years after Jesus’s death (refer to the dates when the New Testament books were written, given above).
Moreover, we do not really know what Jesus was alluding to while handling the bread. Was he referring to himself when he said, “This is my body” or to his apostles/disciples? For all we know, he could have been showing the whole congregation when he said it. Paul teaches that the Church is Jesus’s mystical body. In his undisputedly authentic First Corinthians, he writes,
“For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond [slaves] or free; and [we] have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, ‘Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body’; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, ‘Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body’; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were [would be] the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where were [would be] the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were [would be] the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, ‘I have no need of thee’: nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: and those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour [clothe with the greatest care (NLT)]; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness [are treated with special modesty (NIV)]. For our comely parts have no [such] need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked [it]. That there should be no schism [division] in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether [if] one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or [if] one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” [1 Corinthians 12:12–27 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Try to remember the clause “we have been all made to drink into one Spirit”: I shall come back to it later. Recall that “spirit” is synonymous to ‘life,’ and the Holy Spirit is the ‘life’ of the church. But why did Paul use the word “drink”? Why not use “inhale,” “breathe in,” “take in,” or something similar?
Now, where did Paul get the ‘mystical body’ symbolism from? Could it have come from Jesus himself? If so, it is possible that Jesus might have been referring to his apostles/disciples while he was handling the bread. Take a look at this quote, from John, which happened right after Jesus had cast the sellers out of the Jerusalem Temple.
“Then answered the Jews and said unto him [Jesus], ‘What [miraculous (NLT)] sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things?’ Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then said the Jews, ‘Forty and six  years was this temple in building, and wilt thou rear [build] it up in three days?’ But he spake of the temple of his body. When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them; and they believed the scripture, and the word which Jesus had said.” [John 2:18–22 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice the clause, “he spoke of the temple of his body,” which Jesus never explained to his apostles/disciples. Most of us, nowadays, would not have understood what Jesus was talking about had not the evangelist explained it. A temple is made of many stones, like a body is made of many parts. This shows that Jesus was no shallow person by any standard.
I think I’ve said just about enough, for now, to throw serious doubt, at least, on the Catholic Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation. Indeed, several Protestant Churches, like the Calvinists, Baptists, and Pentecostals, got it right: namely, that it is a symbolic ritual. But let us continue our biblical investigation anyway, and try to see exactly what Jesus had in mind when he instituted the Eucharist.
I shall continue by examining the New Testament Eucharistic text that was written next: that is, Mark’s gospel account. Keep in mind that Mark was written about twenty years after Paul’s Eucharistic passage in First Corinthians (just discussed); that is, some forty-odd years after Jesus’s death, and that there was probably no communication between the two authors; he writes,
“As they [the apostles/disciples] did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, ‘Take, eat: this is my body.’ And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, ‘This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’” (Mark 14:22–25 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice the addition of the clause “This is my blood” in Mark’s text; so, one can already see a radical change from Paul’s passage: Paul never quotes Jesus saying, “This is my blood.” This probably happened because a significant amount of time had elapsed—about forty years from Jesus’s death—during which time there was no other gospel written to refer to. Moreover, Mark’s gospel was written in a different location from Paul’s Eucharistic passage in his First Corinthians: according to the New American Bible, Mark was written in Rome, Italy (NAB p. 69), while First Corinthians was written in Ephesus in modern Turkey (NAB p. 243). Mark’s gospel was initially transmitted by word of mouth, so inaccuracies understandably crept in. Furthermore, most eyewitnesses were already dead, by then, so there was hardly anybody who could possibly correct these inaccuracies. So, later Christians, reading Mark’s ‘official’ gospel and trusting the evangelist blindly, misunderstood Jesus’s intention at the Last Supper.
One also notices the concept of “shed” blood crept in; which is a remnant of the ancient Greek custom of libation I described above: that is, the pouring of some of the wine onto the ground before the ceremony. Compare this with Moses’s pouring half of the sacrificed animals’ blood onto the altar during the Hebrews’ covenant with God (see Exodus 24:6).
This is where wine (“the fruit of the vine”) is clearly mentioned for the first time. If we did not know of the ancient Greek custom of drinking wine after supper, technically, we would not even know for sure, from Paul, whether Jesus used wine at the institution of the Eucharist. But this ancient Greek custom, Paul’s hint about participants “getting drunk,” combined with Mark’s (the earliest gospel) text should be enough corroborating evidence.
At this point, I would also like to quote biblical scholar John Crossan’s book The Historical Jesus to show that the above ideas are not simply my own opinion, farfetched interpretations, or mere fantasy. I’m quoting him after my discussion, rather than before, in an effort not to brainwash the reader beforehand. With reference to the above two passages in Paul and Mark, he writes,
“The ritual [in Mark] is, as in Paul, explicitly connected with Jesus’ passion both in its timing as a last supper and in its bread and wine, body and blood symbolism, and especially in the far greater emphasis given to cup/blood than to bread/body. It is now, however, a Passover [Jewish feast] meal as well. And, even though the ritual now seems completely separated from the Greco-Roman formal meal tradition, with, for example, no mention of the wine-cup ‘after supper’ as in Paul, the phrase ‘poured out [shed]’ appropriates the libation moment of the Greco-Roman sequence even more precisely than does Paul.’ (pp. 365–66, emphasis mine)
Let us now have a look at Matthew’s text of the institution of the Eucharist.
“As they [the apostles/disciples] were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’” [Matthew 26:26–29 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Matthew practically copied the text from Mark; consequently, although at least another decade had passed from Mark’s gospel, we hardly read any difference. The gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke are very similar—termed the synoptic Gospels.
Finally, Luke’s version of the institution of the Eucharist, written possibly ten-odd years after Matthew’s text, reads,
“He [Jesus] said unto them [the apostles/disciples], ‘With desire I have desired to eat this passover [meal] with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’ And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves: For I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come.’ And he took bread, and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.’ Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.’” [Luke 22:15–20 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Surprisingly enough, Luke’s version is much closer to Paul’s version than to the other two synoptic evangelists’. Note that, just like Paul’s version, Luke’s version does not portray Jesus saying “this is my blood” while handling to the wine cup. Although Luke is one of the synoptic Gospels, and Luke certainly had access to Mark’s gospel, he still follows Paul’s version. Notice also that Luke mentions the wine twice: reminiscent of a libation before the ceremony as well as the other Greek custom of having wine after supper; likewise, in the Old Testament, Moses poured half of the sacrificed animals’ blood on the altar and half on the people. For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why Luke mentions the wine cup twice.
Even though Luke’s gospel was written after both Mark’s and Matthew’s, apparently Luke also had access to information from Paul; if indeed they were not travelling companions as tradition holds according to the New American Bible (NAB, Acts 16:10–17n). In fact, Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, which deals mainly with Paul’s missions to the gentiles. Given the two versions (Pauline and synoptic), Luke noticeably omits the clause “this is my blood” while Jesus was handling the wine cup, which both Mark and Matthew inserted, and leaves only “this is my body” while Jesus was breaking the bread. Like both Mark and Matthew, Luke mentions wine (“the fruit of the vine”) and also the shedding of blood.
Bread of Life Discourse
Although John’s gospel has an extremely long description of the Last Supper—taking five full chapters—strangely enough, it does not even hint at the institution of the Eucharist as described in the above four New Testament books. However, elsewhere, it has an important passage that needs to be addressed seriously. It is commonly known as the ‘Bread of Life Discourse.’
“Jesus answered them [the crowd/Jews] and said, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat [food] which perisheth, but for that meat [food] which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man [I] shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed [(with) approval (NIV)].’ Then said they unto him, ‘What shall we do, that we might work [do] the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on [in] him whom he hath sent.’ They said therefore unto him, ‘what [miraculous (NLT)] sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? What dost thou work [do]? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’ Then Jesus said unto them, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which [who] cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.’ Then said they unto him, ‘Lord, evermore give us this bread.’ And Jesus said unto them, ‘I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on [in] me shall never thirst. But I said unto you, that ye also have seen me, and [still] believe not. All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which [who] hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which [who] seeth the Son, and believeth on [in] him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.’ The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, ‘I am the [living (DRC)] bread which came down from heaven.’ And they said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that he saith, “I came down from heaven”?’ Jesus therefore answered and said unto them, ‘Murmur not among yourselves. No man can come to me, except the Father which [who] hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall be all taught of [by (NIV)] God.” Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me. Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which [who] is of God, he hath seen the Father. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on [in] me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ Then Jesus said unto them, ‘Verily, verily, I say unto you, except [unless (NIV)] ye eat the flesh of the Son of man [my flesh], and drink his [my] blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth [feeds on (ESV)] my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat [food] indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth [feeds on] my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth [feeds on] me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth [feeds on] of this bread shall live for ever.’ These things said he in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum. Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, ‘This is an [a] hard saying; who can hear [listen to] it?’ When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, ‘Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man [me] ascend up where he [I] was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth [gives life (NIV)]; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you that believe not.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him. And he said, ‘Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of [by] my Father.” From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve [apostles], ‘Will ye also go away?’ Then Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.’ [John 6:26–69 (KJV) emphasis mine]
If one looks only at the clause “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you,” it does indeed look like Jesus is literally asking us to eat his body and drink his blood—presumably, transubstantiated or consubstantiated bread and wine. But those days of quoting one verse out of context are gone.
In the first place, when this incident happened, the Eucharist had not been instituted yet: recall that it was instituted at the Last Supper, that is, at the very last day of Jesus’s life. Therefore, if Jesus were referring to transubstantiated or consubstantiated bread and wine, how were his disciples (not to mention the crowd) supposed to understand what he was talking about? When he heard them asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” and saw them abandoning him, why didn’t he explain to them how he was going to do it, or at least tell them that they would understand later? Again, why did he then turn to the “twelve” apostles and ask them, “Will you also go away?” Why would he not elaborate a little and give them some details as to how he was going to achieve this? It was because he was talking in another sense, nothing to do with the Eucharist, a meaning that they were supposed to understand. Here’s the background needed to understand this passage.
The Bible makes a very close connection between ‘breath,’ ‘life,’ ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘wind.’ Without breathing there is no life; breath is a kind of wind; a spirit is intangible, somewhat like the wind; and the word for ‘soul,’ nephesh in Hebrew, means ‘breather.’ For example, in the Book of Genesis we read,
“The Lord God formed man [Adam] of the dust [slime (DRC)] of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul [nephesh].” [Genesis 2:7 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Moreover, “bread” is a common metaphor used for the physical body’s sustenance of life; but there is also another important requirement in life: namely, spiritual sustenance. In fact, Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus, in the desert after his first temptation to turn stones into loaves of bread, telling this to the devil.
“But he [Jesus] answered and said, ‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”’” [Matthew 4:4 (KJV)] Jesus (or the evangelist Matthew) was here quoting Deuteronomy 8:3.
The New American Bible, commenting on John’s Bread of Life Discourse, opines that in verses 27 through 50, the phrase “bread of life” is a metaphor for the person of Jesus (i.e., God’s revelation to us), and in verses 51 through 58, the phrase refers to the Eucharist. It has,
“Up to v. 50 ‘bread of life’ is a figure for God’s revelation in Jesus; in vv. 51–58, the eucharistic theme comes to the forefront. There may thus be a break between vv. 50–51.” [NAB, John 6:35–59n]
I contend the first meaning holds throughout the passage: in other words, the Eucharist has nothing to do with the entire passage.
God revealed himself to humanity, historically, in the person of Jesus. Through him we got to know how God thinks and how he would like us to behave in our life and toward one another: how to live a ‘spiritual’ (or ‘godlike’) life as opposed to living by the laws of evolution governing all the other animals, namely, survival of the fittest. With this in mind we can easily see that, basically, what Jesus is saying in John’s passage here, is that we can only find God through him; by meditating on him and imitating him in our life. The evangelist John contends that this is the only way we can attain “everlasting” or “eternal” (i.e., ‘godlike’) life coupled with immortality after the final resurrection; otherwise, he believes, we will simply die—like all other animals.
Elsewhere in John’s gospel, we read that Jesus’s character is identical to his Father’s—God’s.
“Jesus saith unto him [Thomas], ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also.’” [John 14:6–7 (KJV)]
With the above explanations in the background, let us now go through some rather strange verses in the above Johannine passage.
(1) “Labour not for the meat [food] which perisheth, but for that meat [food] which endureth unto everlasting life.” (2) “For him [Jesus] hath God the Father sealed [with approval].” Both these statements are now perfectly understandable: “look for spiritual sustenance by modeling your life on mine (Jesus’s).”
(3) “I [Jesus] am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on [in] me shall never thirst.” Obviously, here Jesus is not referring to eating and drinking, in the ordinary sense, transubstantiated bread and wine: because there is no doubt that we do get hungry and thirsty again after we eat and drink them.
There is a parallel verse, in John’s gospel, where Jesus tells the Samaritan woman,
“Whosoever drinketh of the water that I [Jesus] shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.” [John 4:14 (KJV)]
This means that if we focus our attention on the person of Jesus, this contemplation, this studying of the person of Jesus, will enable us to grow spiritually and live a godlike (“everlasting” or “eternal”) life. The metaphor of the spring (a source of water that never fails) explains why we will never thirst again if we keep learning from Jesus, modelling our life on his.
Similarly, the metaphor applies to Jesus, as our spiritual food (typified by bread) in the verse we are considering, “I am the bread of life”: the phrase “of life” means ‘spiritual’; so, “I am the spiritual bread.” Our contemplating and imitating Jesus’s life becomes a source of spiritual food—it becomes a seed that always grows inside us.
(4) “I [Jesus] am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” If we substitute “living” with ‘spiritual’ and “flesh” with ‘person’ this verse becomes easily understandable: “I am the [spiritual] bread which came down from heaven: if any man eats of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my [person], which I will give for the [spiritual growth] of the world.”
(5) “Except [Unless] ye eat the flesh of the Son of man [my flesh], and drink his [my] blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth [feeds on] my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat [food] indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” This is the crucial verse I started my discussion with in this section. Here again the phrase “my flesh” refers to the ‘person’ of Jesus, the phrase “my blood” refers to his ‘life,’ and the word “everlasting” means ‘godly.’
In the Bible, blood was considered the ‘seat’ of life: “the life of the flesh is in the blood,” according to Leviticus 17:11 (KJV). So again, the metaphors of eating and drinking are to be understood as spiritual sustenance.
We can therefore paraphrase this verse as: “Unless you sustain yourself [spiritually by contemplating my person and my life], you shall not [grow spiritually]. He who sustains himself [spiritually contemplating my person and my life] possesses [godly] life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my [person] is [spiritual] food indeed and my [life] is [spiritual] drink indeed.”
(6) “It is the spirit that quickeneth [gives life]; the flesh profiteth nothing.” This makes perfect sense given that “spirit” and “life” are synonymous.
(7) “The words that I [Jesus] speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” This is the clinching verse: the verse that explains the entire discourse. Notice how hard Jesus (or the evangelist) tries to clarify things at the end of his speech! In other words, Jesus is here clearly telling them (and us) that his words are not to be taken literally but metaphorically: that is, in the spiritual sense not in the physical sense.
John’s gospel then adds that as a result of this speech, many of his former disciples abandoned Jesus. Ever since I was very young I heard priests (including a close friend) say that had Jesus not mean this passage literally (that is, actually eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharist), he would have called them back and said something like, “Wait a minute, you misunderstand me, let me explain.” But he did not, so he must have meant them literally. I am not so sure of this explanation; a case in point, the earliest gospel written (Mark’s) gives the following account:
“When he [Jesus] was alone, they [the disciples] that were about him with the twelve [apostles] asked of him [about] the parable. And he said unto them, ‘Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: ‘That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them.’” [Mark 4:10–12 (KJV); see also Matthew 13:10–15; Luke 8:9–10] Jesus (or the evangelist Mark) was here quoting Isaiah 6:9–10.
I don’t think Jesus was that mean-spirited; but that’s how the evangelist Mark perceived Jesus’s behavior when, occasionally, he did not explain things clearly. The synoptic evangelists, Matthew and Luke, then followed suit.
The New American Bible comments on the similar passage in Matthew 13:10–15,
“Since a parable is figurative speech that demands reflection for understanding, only those who are prepared to explore its meaning can come to know it. To understand is a gift of God, granted to the disciples but not to the crowds. In Semitic fashion, both the disciples’ understanding and the crowd’s obtuseness are attributed to God.”
The hypothesis is that humans are themselves responsible for their own obtuseness: very often, they are totally disinterested in spiritual things and do not spend any (or enough) time reflecting on them. So, Jesus leaves the crowd (the majority) in their own blindness. I doubt this was indeed the case: I don’t think God, or Jesus, treats people like morons, but, anyway, that was what the synoptic evangelists and Isaiah probably thought. So, according to this logic, Jesus might have simply let his disciples go after trying to explain what his words meant.
Finally, Jesus turns also to his twelve apostles and asks them if they wanted to abandon him too. But Peter tells him that they had come to believe that Jesus had the words of “eternal” (i.e., godlike) life and to trust him completely, even though, at times, they could not quite understand his words. And the Catholic Church (as well as the Orthodox and most Protestant denominations) still has not understood these words after close to two millennia! This begs the question, why has the Church allowed this to happen?
My guess is that priests like the idea of being able to perform ‘miracles’ like Jesus and his apostles. It gives them a ‘power trip’: it separates them from the rest of the believers, and it buys them the believers’ respect. Similarly, regarding the sacrament of reconciliation (confession), it supposedly gives priests divine powers to forgive sins; while, in fact, God forgives anyone’s sins if truly repented.
When did Jesus ever hint at the concept of priesthood? There were no Christian priests in Jesus’s time; there were only Jewish priests—Levites: they belonged to one of the Hebrew tribes, that of Levi. The religious leaders, the Pharisees and Sadducees, even ostracized Christians from the Jerusalem Temple and their synagogues.
As if the modern concept of the Catholic priesthood were not bad enough, according to Catholic Church historian Garry Wills, it was probably women who served the Eucharist in private homes in early Christianity (Wills, p. 116): and yet, mind-bogglingly enough, they are now completely cut off from this function in Catholicism.
In early Christianity, Holy Communion, as the name implies, was a symbolic meal, more like a ceremony, where bread was shared and wine was served, after some of the wine was poured onto the ground as a libation in memory of Jesus’s death: all this emphasized and sustained Christian unity. There was no cannibalism or vampirism intended in the ceremony: it was a simple getting together over a meal, remembering the founder of what was supposed to become the religion of love.
Some people, especially Catholics, might think that my explanations above are farfetched or even bizarre; but, in my opinion, the concept of eating a man’s flesh and drinking his blood is much more bizarre. What I am trying to explain is that the Johannine passage above should be understood metaphorically not literally, as the text itself suggests: “The words that I [Jesus] speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” In other words, they must be understood in a spiritual sense not in a literal sense.
But what, exactly, was the intended symbolic meaning of the ritual Christ instituted? Some might still insist that even according to authentic Paul, Jesus presumably said, “this is my body”: even if he did not say, “this is my blood.” So Jesus might have intended an actual miracle transforming the bread into his body. And if this be not the case, if he did not perform a miracle; what did Jesus have in mind when he instituted the Eucharist at his Last Supper?
Until very recently, two aspects of the Eucharist always bothered me: the ‘cannibalism-vampirism’ aspect and the apparent ‘bragging’ concerning Jesus’s suffering. I thought there had to be a deeper symbolism (as in baptism) Jesus had in mind that we have lost over time. Imagine eating someone’s body and drinking someone’s blood: it is disgusting by any standard to practically everybody, and I’m sure first-century Christians didn’t feel any different (see John 6:52). The cannibalistic-vampiric aspect of the Eucharist I have practically ruled out in the previous section. So, in this section, I shall discuss the bragging aspect and thereby shed further light on the cannibalistic-vampiric aspect for the benefit of those readers who are still unconvinced.
I always found it rather strange that Jesus would have intended to keep reminding us of his suffering; his suffering was a gift to us: normally, one does not keep reminding one’s wife or one’s family of a great gift one has given them. Jesus had more class than to brag about his sacrifice for us and give us a guilt trip every time we meet in his name. But then what exactly is the symbolism he wished to convey in his institution of the Eucharist?
The answer to this question eluded me for decades. I finally got the answer after reading Paul’s verses from his authentic Romans and First Corinthians for the hundredth-odd time. One is prone to miss the connection because they are, textually, somewhat disconnected from the institution of the Eucharist. In his undisputedly authentic Letter to the Romans, we read,
“So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” [Romans 12:5 (NIV) emphasis mine]
Bread, being made up of many grains of wheat crushed, kneaded together, and baked is a symbol of the mystical body of Jesus Christ— his Church. This is what he explains in his First Corinthians.
“Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf. … For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” [1 Corinthians 10:16–17; 12:13 (NIV) emphasis mine]
Naturally, red wine resembles blood, but what does the blood symbolize? What does it stand for in Christ’s Church? As mentioned in the previous section, blood was thought to be the seat of life in Jesus’s time: that is, what keeps the body alive. “The life of the flesh is in the blood,” says Leviticus 17:11. And what keeps the Church alive? The love between its members is what keeps Christ’s Church alive. So, the blood of Jesus in the Eucharist symbolizes our love for one another.
It also explains Paul’s strange use of the word “drink” in reference to the Holy Spirit, who is the life of the Church: rather than use some other verb like ‘inhale,’ ‘breathe in,’ ‘take in,’ or something similar. So, in the Eucharist, Jesus was not asking us to remember his suffering, but to strengthen our unity in him through love and commensality.
In fact, in his letter to the Trallians, Ignatius (c. 50 CE–c. 110 CE), first–second century bishop of Antioch in modern Turkey, once wrote that we Christians are created again in faith, which is the Lord’s flesh, and love, which is Jesus Christ’s blood; he writes,
“Recapture, then, your gentleness, and by faith (that’s the Lord’s flesh) and by love (that’s Jesus Christ’s blood) make yourselves new creatures.” [Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Trallians,” 8, trans. Cyril Richardson (emphasis mine), https://www.orderofstignatius.org/files/Letters/Ignatius_to_Trallians.pdf, accessed September 14, 2021]
This is the key to the Eucharistic symbolism! And we had the right answer since the turn of the second century. So, according to Ignatius of Antioch, our faith is Jesus’s mystical body, and our love for one another is Jesus’s mystical blood. Christian love is what keeps Christ’s mystical body alive. This is the true symbolism Jesus wanted to convey in his institution of the Eucharist. It is as rich in symbolism as baptism.
Moreover, according to Catholic historian Garry Wills, at the turn of the fifth century CE, theologian Augustine of Hippo still believed that
“the faithful [is] the stuff that is transformed by the Eucharist. He [Augustine] never mentions … the power of the priest to consecrate … it is the faithful recipients who make the body of Christ present by becoming it.” [Wills, p. 141, emphasis in original]
In Augustine’s opinion, what makes the Eucharistic transformation actually take place in someone is the participant’s unity with the Church and God, not the priest’s magical words. He totally rejected the concept that Jesus’s physical, albeit-resurrected body could be in many places at once. Therefore, whenever we say that Jesus is in different locations at the same time, it must be symbolic: we mean his mystical body, the communities gathered together in Christ’s name. In Augustine’s own words,
“If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery [symbol (Wills, p. 141)] that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery [symbol] that you are receiving! You are saying ‘Amen’ to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear ‘The body of Christ’, you reply ‘Amen.’ Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your ‘Amen’ may ring [become] true!” [Early Church Texts, “Augustine on the Nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist,” emphasis mine https://earlychurchtexts.com/public/augustine_sermon_272_eucharist.htm , accessed September 14, 2021]
Indeed, Wills points out, Augustine explicitly rejected the concept of our actually eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ: (Wills, p. 141) commenting on John 6:50, Augustine writes,
“This, then, is the bread that cometh down from heaven, that if any man eat thereof, he shall not die.’ But this is what belongs to the virtue of the sacrament, not to the visible sacrament; he that eateth within, not without; who eateth in his heart, not who presses with his teeth.” [Augustine, In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus, tr. 26 § 12, trans. Gibb & Innes in Schaff, ed., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, p. 279, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf107.ii.html, accessed September 14, 2021]
It makes one wonder why these words of Augustine—one of the most revered Christian theologians—were forgotten. To their credit, however, Calvinists (the Reformed Churches) have adopted Augustine’s doctrine of the Eucharist.
Commensality is undoubtedly one of the best ways to make new friends and nurture old friendships. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Jesus would have liked his Church to continue the legacy he had started with his apostles and disciples. In sharing bread and wine he was asking us to remember that we are a unity and that our unity depends on our love for one another. He was not asking us to keep remembering his sacrifice and suffering for us. For the longest time—decades—I got this wrong. Although his writing was not very clear, authentic Paul had the right concept of the Eucharist, but a couple of the evangelists missed the boat later on. Recall that even the first two gospels written, Mark’s and Matthew’s, went wrong.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that we misunderstood the Eucharist: a couple of the evangelists misled us. Probably, over many years, Protestants have had better biblical scholars than us Catholics; consequently, they seem to have hit on the right concept of the Eucharist: that Jesus’s words at the Last Supper are to be taken allegorically or symbolically rather than literally. I hate disappointing Catholic priests here—I was going to be one of them.
As I pointed out at the beginning of this article, the above discussion on the Eucharist is all academic, of course, since the Bible is not God’s Word: I just wanted to convey the various concepts in the New Testament for the benefit of those Christians who still insist on believing that the Bible is a divine book.
Like Paul, all three synoptic evangelists (especially Matthew who was writing for a Jewish-Christian community) also believed that Jesus was instituting a new covenant between God and all of humanity through his death on the cross, similar to the one God had ostensibly made with the Hebrews through Abraham: that Jesus’s death on the cross substituted the animals cut in half in the following rather strange ritual given in Genesis.
“He [God] said unto him [Abraham], ‘Take me an [a] heifer [cow (DRC)] of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. … And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces. In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram [Abraham], saying, ‘unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.’” [Genesis 15:9–10; 15:17–18 (KJV)]
According to the New American Bible,
“Cutting up animals was a well-attested way of making a treaty in antiquity. Jeremiah 34:17–20 shows the rite is a form of self-imprecation in which violators invoke the fate of the animals upon themselves. [NAB, Genesis 15:9–17n]
Passing between the animals cut in half signified invoking the animals’ fate on any party that breaks the agreement. This is where our concept of the New Testament (agreement or covenant) comes from: of course, it was especially important to the Jewish-Christians like Paul and Matthew.
Bread and Fish Eucharist
Commensality, or eating together, is probably the most intimate human experience, barring sexual intimacy, of course. When a couple starts dating, this is what they do: they go out for dinner or lunch together. In his lifetime, Jesus practiced open commensality with his disciples, where everyone at table, male or female, Jew or gentile, slave or free was treated equally. A common Mediterranean diet at the time of Jesus was, and still is, bread and fish; as attested by the multiplication of loaves and fishes described in all four gospels (see Mark 6:33–44, 8:1–9; Matthew 14:13–21, 15:32–38; Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1-15). Indeed, in his book The Historical Jesus, biblical scholar John Crossan opines that
“It was … open commensality during his [Jesus’s] life rather than Last Supper before his death that was the root of any such (bread and wine identified with his own body and blood) ritualization. This is confirmed by the bread and fish Eucharists in the early tradition. … For me, then, two different traditions, one of bread and fish, another of bread and wine, symbolically ritualized after his death, the open commensality of Jesus’ lifetime. That disjunction possibly represented a Jewish Christian and a Gentile Christian development.” (pp. 398–99)
There are two narratives of bread and fish ‘Eucharists’ in the Gospels, one in Luke and one in John. I shall start with John’s narrative (even though it was written later and therefore less reliable) because it’s more straightforward. According to John’s gospel, this narrative happened after Jesus’s resurrection.
“After these things Jesus shewed himself again to the disciples at the sea of Tiberias; and on [in] this wise [way] shewed he himself. There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples. Simon Peter saith unto them, ‘I go a fishing.’ They say unto him, ‘We also go with thee.’ They went forth, and entered into a ship immediately; and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning was now come, Jesus stood on the shore: but the disciples knew not that it was Jesus. Then Jesus saith unto them, ‘Children, have ye any meat [fish (NIV)]? They answered him, ‘No.’ And he said unto them, ‘Cast the net on the right side of the ship, and ye shall find.’ They cast therefore, and now they were not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes. Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved saith unto Peter, ‘It is the Lord.’ Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he girt his fisher’s coat unto him, (for he was naked,) and did cast himself into the sea. And the other disciples came in a little ship; (for they were not far from land, but as it were two hundred cubits [c. 300 ft.],) dragging the net with fishes. As soon then as they were come to land, they saw a fire of coals there, and fish laid thereon, and bread. Jesus saith unto them, ‘Bring of the fish which ye have now caught.’ Simon Peter went up, and drew the net to land full of great fishes, an [a] hundred and fifty and three : and for all there were so many, yet was not the net broken. Jesus saith unto them, ‘Come and dine.’ And none of the disciples durst ask him, ‘Who art thou?’ knowing that it was the Lord. Jesus then cometh, and taketh bread, and giveth them, and fish likewise.’ [John 21:1–13 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice how the clause in the last sentence, “taketh bread, and giveth them,” resembles the words used by Jesus during the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. The New American Bible is of the same opinion, stating, “This meal may have had eucharistic significance for early Christians.” [NAB, John 21:9, 12–13n]
This narrative portrays Jesus continuing his previous commensality with his disciples, even after his death and resurrection: showing that he was physically present among them. Was it only wishful thinking on the disciples’ part? Possibly! Personally, I do believe this account did really happen for two reasons: firstly, because Paul believed Jesus rose from the dead and appeared to his apostles/disciples alive again (see 1 Corinthians 15:4–8), and secondly, because this narrative does not contradict anything else in the Gospels; so there is no reason for me to disbelieve it.
Thus, Holy Communion (eating together) may have come to signify a real, resurrected presence of Jesus among his followers, even though he had died: because, of course, he had risen from the dead. Naturally, Jesus is not present physically during Mass nowadays, although he is presumably present mystically—in his Church. To have him present physically as well is only wishful thinking: such wishful thinking might have misled the early/later Christians to come to the wrong conclusion concerning the Eucharist.
With this in mind, we now move to the other bread and fish ‘Eucharist’ narrative, in Luke’s gospel, which again happened after Jesus’s resurrection.
“Behold, two of them [the disciples] went that same day [Jesus resurrected] to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore  furlongs [i.e., 7.5 mi.]. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed [discussed] together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden [restrained] that they should not know [recognize] him. And he said unto them, ‘What manner of communications [discussions] are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?’ And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, ‘Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?’ And he said unto them, ‘What things?’ And they said unto him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which [who] was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him. But we trusted that it had been he which [who] should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, to day is the third day since these things were done. Yea, and certain women also of our company made us astonished, which [who] were early at the sepulchre [tomb]; and when they found not his body, they came, saying, that they had also seen a vision of angels, which [who] said that he was alive. And certain of them which [who] were with us went to the sepulchre [tomb], and found it even so as the women had said: but him they saw not.’ Then he said unto them, ‘O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?’ And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, ‘Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.’ And he went in to tarry with them. And it came to pass, as he sat at meat [table] with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them.’ And their eyes were opened, and they knew [recognized] him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?’ And they rose up the same hour, and returned to Jerusalem, and found the eleven [apostles] gathered together, and them that were with them, saying, ‘The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon [Peter].’ And they told what things were done in the way, and how he was known of [recognized by] them in breaking of bread. And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, ‘Peace be unto you.’ But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, ‘Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’ And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, ‘Have ye here any meat [food]?’And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an [a] honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.” [Luke 24:13–43 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice how close the clause “he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them” is to the institution of the Eucharist. Notice also the clause “how he was recognized by them in breaking of bread.” Obviously, they were used to this; they had dined with Jesus many times before. The bread and fish ‘Communion’ is therefore completed when Jesus is given a piece of fish and he eats it with them. He purposely interrupts their Communion at Emmaus, half way, to bring all his disciples together physically; then he continues the other half when they were all together.
Again we have the concept of togetherness and of the resurrected Jesus being physically present with his disciples while they shared a meal: nostalgically, perhaps, the same way they did before his death. Jesus’s followers wanted to keep remembering him the way he was: sharing a meal with them, a meal of bread and fish to the Jewish Christians.
Needless to mention, in a bread and fish Eucharist, there is no wine; consequently, unlike a bread and wine Eucharist, there is hardly a question of a physical conversion of the fish into the blood of Christ.
Moreover, when one really thinks about it, these Eucharistic narratives are a far cry from an actual miracle happening during Mass: that is, miraculously changing the bread and wine to the physical body and blood of Jesus. The early/later Christians seem to have misinterpreted the institution of the Eucharist, possibly because of wishful thinking: wishing Jesus to continue being present with them in their gatherings even after his resurrection.
Theologically, we believe God is omnipresent, that is, he is present everywhere in space as well as outside space in a fourth (timeless) dimension. Now, since Christians believe Jesus is also God, some might argue that he must also be present in the bread and wine, no? But one must appreciate the difference here: Jesus, as God, would be present in the bread (the host) and in the wine the same way he would be present in the pyx (container of hosts), or in the altar, or in one’s shoes for that matter: no miracle is required for that. Anyway, personally, I do not believe Jesus is God; I believe he is the Son of God—I shall stop here because it’s quite a complex subject that I deal with in my article on “The Trinity.”
Now, Matthew’s gospel portrays Jesus telling his disciples,
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” [Matthew 18:20 (KJV)]
However, to me, Christ is present in Church only mystically, as the Church—the mystical body of Christ—whenever we pray to God together: he is not physically present; as Augustine contends, the resurrected Jesus cannot be in more than one place. The most important thing to keep in mind is the communion, the gathering together, of Jesus’s followers to commemorate the Son of God’s historical presence among us humans, being one of us, and sharing meals with us; perhaps also to recall and appreciate, at times, his undeserved death. When a group of people (two or more) meet in God’s or Christ’s name, in a spirit of love (ideally also sharing a meal together) the spirit of Christ is among them. And when a group of people help one another, sharing and giving freely some of their abilities or possessions to whoever might need them badly: that would be the mystical body of Christ alive. We, though many members, become like one organism, working as a whole unit with an aim in mind: a better life here on earth, not just in the afterlife—as we pray in the Our Father: “Thy kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.”
Recall that in his authentic First Corinthians, Paul writes,
“We being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.” [1 Corinthians 10:17 (KJV)]
A loaf of bread is made from many grains, but it becomes one loaf when ground, mixed, and baked: similarly, we Christians, although we are many, should act as one body. I believe this will be Christ’s Second Coming: when all of humanity acts as one body, everyone caring for everyone else. I don’t expect Jesus to come to earth physically a second time around.
A little later in the same letter, Paul writes,
“That there should be no schism [division] in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether [if] one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or [if] one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it.” [1 Corinthians 12:25–26 (KJV)]
This should be the spirit in Holy Communion. Unfortunately, we have reduced Christ’s wonderful idea of commensality and Holy Communion to a bizarre meal and a gossip session.
Finally, as an aside, I must disagree with Crossan’s possible implication at the beginning of this section: that the Eucharist was probably instituted during Jesus’s lifetime through commensality rather than at the Last Supper. Authentic Paul (as well as all three synoptic gospels) describes Christ’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Especially Paul’s opening statement, “I received from the Lord” [1 Corinthians 11:23 (BLB)], I think, clinches the argument, despite the evidence Crossan gives in his book; otherwise we would be belying Paul. But I do agree with Crossan on his main concept, that open commensality was the root of the Eucharist: total equality and serving one another while eating together was an everyday thing with Jesus and his disciples.
Something I never understood is why Catholics, under pain of mortal sin, are obliged to fast for one hour from any food or drink prior to receiving the Eucharist. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (p. 299 ¶ 1387),
“A person who is to receive the Most Holy Eucharist is to abstain for at least one hour before holy communion from any food and drink, except for only water and medicine.” [“Code of Canon Law,” can. 919 §1, https://www.vatican.va/archive/cod-iuris-canonici/eng/documents/cic_lib4-cann879-958_en.html , accessed September 18, 2021]
According to the Society of Saint Pius X website,
“It would be committing the mortal sin of sacrilege to receive communion voluntarily [deliberately] without fasting, unless in danger of death or in the necessity of preventing the profanation of the sacrament.” [https://fsspx.news/en/news-events/news/eucharist-11-eucharistic-fast-47178, accessed September 18, 2021]
Other Christian denominations, like the Orthodox and Anglicans, have even stricter Eucharistic fasting rules—overnight fasting. We are usually told it is out of respect for our Lord who is about to enter our body. But if one were to eat right after receiving Holy Communion, wouldn’t ‘Jesus’ end up in one’s stomach mixed with all the other food anyway? Inconsistencies!
Moreover, if we look closely at our Christian roots this Eucharistic fast did not exist. In his authentic First Corinthians, Paul actually encourages the early Christians to have their regular meal before celebrating the Eucharist with other Christians, especially if they were heavy eaters: this way everyone could have a fair share of the Eucharistic meal; he writes,
“When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord’s supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? what shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.” [1 Corinthians 11:20–22 (KJV) emphasis mine]
Notice Paul’s rhetorical question “have you no houses to eat and to drink in” before you come to participate in the Lord’s Supper? He is indeed encouraging them to eat before celebrating the Eucharist, which back then consisted of an ordinary meal. Given the fact that our founders had no problem eating and drinking prior to the Eucharistic meal, to make fasting prior to receiving Holy Communion mandatory, under pain of mortal sin, deserving eternal punishment in hell fire is puzzling to me.
Why do priests, very much like the Pharisees in the Gospels, try to make life so difficult for us believers—don’t we have enough problems and suffering in our life? Incidentally, the same thing applies for the Sunday obligation to go to church (Catholic Catechism, p. 448, ¶ 2181, p. 450, ¶ 2192) and to abstain from work on Sundays, (p. 449, ¶ 2185, p. 450, ¶ 2193) the Friday obligation to abstain from meat, together with the seasonal fasting (p. 421, ¶ 2043): all under pain of mortal sin.
If God were to go by what the Catholic Church says, it would be doing him more harm than good, because according to Christian theology, no amount of good deeds and self-sacrifice can make up for a single mortal sin a person commits: a mortal sin is supposedly an infinite offence since it is committed against an infinite being—God. Luckily, the Church is not a truth factory. Whatever happened to Jesus’s call in Matthew’s gospel?
“Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11:28, 30 (KJV)]
Naturally, on the other hand, I am not recommending one gets drunk before receiving the Eucharist: that would be disrespectful to the Eucharistic celebration.
I also do not understand why people in mortal sin aren’t allowed to receive the Eucharist? (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 304, ¶ 1415) Christ was always kind and understanding toward sinners, and, to the amazement of the Pharisees, he was also very often seen in their company. He always desired their changing their ways and turning back to God, of course, but he never tried to cut them off completely from the community. And if the Eucharist truly is, as the Church claims, spiritual food, why is a spiritually sick person deprived of the food that can nourish and heal him? Inconsistencies!
Paul’s authentic First Corinthians is often misquoted to justify this inconsiderate, discriminating, and cruel Church law.
“Whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation [judgement (DRC)] to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” [1 Corinthians 11:27–29 (KJV)]
However, if one reads his entire letter, one would see what kind of abuse of the Eucharistic meal Paul found in Corinth: namely, dining separately, eating and drinking excessively, and assuming positions of rank.
As I argued above, Jesus is not inside the bread or the wine; however, if Jesus were truly inside the bread or the wine, no human could ever be worthy of receiving the body or the blood of the Son of God anyway; so why not sinners? Jesus never drove sinners off in his lifetime. Again, I think several of our Protestant friends got this right too, namely, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians.
Holy Communion is a showing of mutual love among Christians, which is the life of the Church—symbolized by the wine (blood was considered to be the ‘seat’ of life)—spiritually united with Jesus in the Church, his mystical body—symbolized by the bread (made of many grains). The ‘real’ presence of Jesus is an illusion stemming from early Christians’ nostalgic wishful thinking and later Christians’ misunderstanding of the New Testament texts.
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