How could I have had an insufficient understanding of the Holy Eucharist: the central focus of Christian worship?

Photography by Robert Nease
I HELD aloft a golden chalice, gazing upwards at it, performing one of the central liturgical rituals of the Mass, in which the consecration of the wine takes place. But my attitude was not one of reverence or solemnity. I possessed neither the eyes of faith, nor the traditional Christian understanding of the Blessed Eucharist. I was not standing at an altar, let alone in a church. Nearby, my friend and frequent evangelistic partner was neither kneeling, nor bowing his head, nor making the sign of the cross. He was chuckling.

I wore a mocking, sarcastic scowl, just as I wore a mockingly makeshift priestly robe. I looked as ridiculous as the cowardly lion wearing his "king's robe" in "The Wizard of Oz," for I was not a priest, or an ordained clergyman of any sort. I was a non-denominational, Evangelical Protestant, lay missionary. My friend (a former Catholic) and I were making light of the gestures and rituals of a priest saying the Mass. This was in the late 1980s, several years before my surprise 1990 conversion to Catholicism.

My friend took a photograph of this mock liturgy. I still have it. It remains a shameful testament to my former dim comprehension of liturgy and sacramentalism, and to a certain attitude of adolescent silliness when it came to "things Catholic." It's an attitude we often see in many of today's anti-Catholic "ministries" and individuals.

How could I a serious Christian, with considerable knowledge and appreciation of Church history  have had such an insufficient understanding of the Holy Eucharist: the central focus of Christian worship for fifteen hundred years before the birth of Protestantism? How did I manage to regard liturgy itself as a stale, boring, non-essential "extra" which was by no means necessary to Christian communal fellowship?

Those questions are especially puzzling, because I had a fairly high respect for the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion, or Holy Eucharist. My belief was somewhat akin to John Calvin's "mystical presence," which was a step higher than the purely symbolic view which many Protestants hold today. I also didn't believe that what was taking place at the Last Supper was merely empty ritual, or that its re-creation was a bare "remembrance." Furthermore, I wasn't "anti-Catholic" in the sense that I would ever have denied that the Catholic Church was Christian.

To understand how such an odd state of affairs could occur requires a look into Church history, especially the historical course of Protestant doctrine. My friend and I  as is characteristic of so many non-Catholics  thought, in the final analysis, that the Eucharist was an add-on, an optional part of the church service.

This IS your Father's Eucharist

Most Protestant denominations have elevated the sermon to the primary position and climax of the Sunday service. Everything builds up to it. The sermon is the thing to look forward to, the drawing card, especially if the pastor is especially skilled at oratory and homiletics. It is the means by which one gets "fired up," exhorted, and charged to go out and make a difference in the world, as a Christian disciple.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying those things are bad. I still appreciate a good sermon  even many non-Catholic ones. But much of Protestantism has transformed church almost exclusively into a prolonged liturgy of the Word: only one-half of the Catholic Mass. The Protestant version usually features far less actual Bible reading than Mass, and a sermon many times longer than the average Catholic homily.

Groups like the Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans retain the weekly Eucharist as the central aspect of their worship service; but other denominations  such as Presbyterians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and the many non-denominational groups  tend to have Communion only once a month. Most Mennonites observe Holy Communion only twice a year. Quakers and the Salvation Army, not at all. The latter two groups don't practice any sacraments, or "ordinances," or "rites"  not even baptism.

Behind this sort of thinking, lies an antipathy toward sacramentalism, the belief in the ability of matter to convey grace. Accordingly, Protestants who place less emphasis on the Eucharist tend to also regard baptism as basically a symbolic ritual, with none of the regenerating power Catholics believe it possesses.

How can vast portions of Christianity, today, deny what was accepted without question by virtually all Christians right up to the time of Martin Luther? Indeed, even Luther retained the doctrines of the Real Presence (in the slightly-diluted form of consubstantiation) and baptismal regeneration.

The first Christian leader  of any lasting importance and influence  to deny the Real Presence, was the Swiss Protestant "Reformer," Huldreich Zwingli (1484-1531). He dissented from not only received Catholic doctrine, but also from the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation, which earned him Luther's wrath.

Let's examine some of the rationale Zwingli gave for adopting this novel, radical position, which set the tone for all subsequent Protestant views of the Eucharist as only a symbol.

"A sacrament is the sign of a holy thing. When I say: The sacrament of the Lord's body, I am simply referring to that bread which is the symbol of the body of Christ who was put to death for our sakes. The papists all know perfectly well that the word sacrament means a sign and nothing more, for this is the sense in which it has always been used by Christian doctors . . . the sign and the thing signified cannot be one and the same. Therefore the sacrament of the body of Christ cannot be the body itself" (Huldreich Zwingli, "On the Lord's Supper," from Zwingli and Bullinger, edited and translated by G.W. Bromiley; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953, p. 188).

First of all, it's simply untrue that Christian doctors "always" denied the reality aspect of the sacraments, particularly concerning the Eucharist. Hundreds of counter-examples could be brought forth. This matter is so well-documented as to seriously bring into question Zwingli's knowledge of Christian doctrinal history.

The evidence for the Real Presence in the Eucharist, among the Church Fathers, is among the most compelling of any historic Christian doctrine or dogma which Protestants now dispute.

As proof of this, I shall cite just one standard Protestant reference work, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press, 1983).

Its "Eucharist" entry says, "That the Eucharist conveyed to the believer the Body and Blood of Christ was universally accepted from the first, and language was very commonly used which referred to the Eucharistic elements as themselves the Body and Blood. ... From the fourth century, the language about the transformation of the elements began to become general. ... The first controversies on the nature of the Eucharistic Presence date from the earlier Middle Ages."

Secondly, sign and reality need not be opposed to each other. Later in the Zwingli essay, the author attempts to enlist St. Augustine as espousing his views, by exploiting that false dichotomy. Augustine, however, accepted the Real Presence, and a conception of the Eucharist in which it is also a sign (just as the Catholic Church does today).

The Bible itself confirms this. For example, Jesus refers to the "sign of Jonah," comparing Jonah's time in the belly of the fish to His own burial (Matt. 12:38-40). In other words, both events, although described as "signs," were literally real events. Jesus also uses the same terminology in connection with His Second Coming (Matt. 24:30-31), which is, of course, believed by all Christians to be a literal occurrence.

J.N.D. Kelly, a highly-respected Protestant scholar of early Church doctrine and development, writing about Church Fathers' views in the fourth and fifth centuries, concurs: "It must not be supposed, of course, that this 'symbolical' language implied that the bread and wine were regarded as mere pointers to, or tokens of, absent realities. Rather were they accepted as signs of realities which were somehow actually present though apprehended by faith alone" (Early Christian Doctrines, revised edition, 1978; San Francisco: Harper Collins).

About St. Augustine in particular, Kelly concludes: "There are certainly passages in his writings which give a superficial justification to all these interpretations, but a balanced verdict must agree that he accepted the current realism . . . One could multiply texts . . . which show Augustine taking for granted the traditional identification of the elements with the sacred body and blood. There can be no doubt that he shared the realism held by almost all his contemporaries and predecessors."

Likewise, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church makes the same point about allusions to "symbolism" with regard to the general teaching of the Church Fathers: "Even where the elements were spoken of as 'symbols' or 'antitypes' there was no intention of denying the reality of the Presence in the gifts."

A different kind of miracle

Zwingli gets down to brass tacks in the following blast against Catholic eucharistic doctrine. It is here where we begin to clearly see the philosophical and skeptical roots of his false belief: "The manna which came down from heaven was of the same size and shape as coriander seed, but its taste was quite different. Here the case is otherwise, for what we see and what we taste are exactly the same, bread and wine. And how can we say that it is flesh when we do not perceive it to be such? If the body were there miraculously, the bread would not be bread, but we should perceive it to be flesh. Since, however, we see and perceive bread, it is evident that we are ascribing to God a miracle which he himself neither wills nor approves: for he does not work miracles which cannot be perceived."

Here's my answer to Zwingli:

God intended the Eucharist to be a different kind of miracle from the outset. He intended it to require more profound faith than is required by tangible, provable, or easily seen miracles.

But, in requiring such faith, it is certainly not unique among Christian doctrines and traditional beliefs  many of which are fully shared by our Protestant brethren.

The Virgin Birth, for example, cannot be observed or proven, yet it is indeed a miracle of the most extraordinary sort.

Likewise, in the Atonement of Jesus, the world sees a wretched, beaten, tortured man who is put to death on a cross. The Christian, on the other hand, sees in Him the great miracle of redemption and the means of the salvation of mankind: an unspeakably sublime miracle that can only be seen through the eyes of faith.

Baptism, according to most Christians, imparts real grace of some sort to those who receive it. But this is rarely evident or tangible, especially in infants.

Lastly, the Incarnation  which might be considered the most incredible miracle ever couldn't be perceived as an outward miracle. Yes, Jesus appeared as a man like any other man  eating, drinking, sleeping, needing to wash, experiencing emotion and suffering. Yes, He proved Himself more than that by performing demonstrable miracles, foretelling the future, rising from the dead, and ascending to heaven in full view of His disciples. The Incarnation however  the moment of God becoming man, strictly viewed in and of itself  was not visible or manifest in the tangible, concrete way to which Zwingli seems to think God would or must restrict Himself.

To summarize: Jesus looked, felt and sounded like a man; no one without faith would know, just from observing Him, that He was also God. If we allow that Zwingli's argument abolishes the Eucharist, then the Incarnation  and by implication, the Trinity  must be discarded along with it.

Besides, didn't Jesus habitually call us to a more sublime faith? In John 6, when people ask Jesus for a sign to prove what He is saying about "the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you," He encourages them to forsake signs and reach for the more profound faith required by the eucharistic miracle He is talking about.

We also have the example of "Doubting Thomas" (John 20:24-29). Jesus appeared to Thomas, after the Resurrection, apparently for the express purpose of demonstrating graphically to him that He was raised from the dead. But, after doing so, Jesus says, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Jesus called on us to increase our faith on more than just those two occasions. But, even if He had done so with every other word, there would still be people denying the obvious.

That's why it's called "faith"

"If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (Luke 16:31).

"For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles . . . For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength" (1 Cor. 1:22-23,25).

The Zwingli model for miracles also ignores the fact that there are times when outwardly apparent signs, wonders and miracles do not suffice. People had seen Jesus do many wondrous things, prior to the day He taught about the Eucharist. He didn't give a sign that day, but His credibility was already well established. In fact, the day before, He had fed five thousand with just a few loaves and fish. Still, there were those who simply refused to be reached, and remained willfully resistant to what He was saying. Noticing that, Jesus said, "Does this offend you?" and "among you there are some who do not believe" (John 6:61,64).

Notice that Jesus didn't begin explaining Himself in a different way, or reveal some hidden meaning that His references to "flesh" and "blood" were meant to symbolize. Knowing that the only way to truly comprehend the Eucharist is through faith, Jesus merely reiterated His teaching in ever more forceful terms. He repeated it, because He knew that the problem was not lack of comprehension, but flat-out unbelief.

The Eucharist is no less "foolish" than the redemptive truth of Christ crucified. But people will disbelieve both, because they are difficult to grasp with the natural mind; whereas the mind of faith can see and believe them.

Romano Guardini, a great Catholic writer, stated about John 6, "Should they have understood? Hardly. It is inconceivable that at any time anyone could have grasped intellectually the meaning of these words. But they should have believed. They should have clung to Christ blindly, wherever he led them . . . and simply said: we do not understand; show us what you mean. Instead they judge, and everything closes to them" (The Lord; Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1954, p. 206).

Jesus could walk through walls after the Resurrection (John 20:26); and even a mere man, Philip, could be "caught away" and transported to another place by God (Acts 8:39-40).

Because of such things, Zwingli thinks God couldn't have, or wouldn't have, performed the miracle of the Real Presence and transubstantiation (which means, literally, "change of substance").

I don't find this line of thought convincing in the least. No one should rashly attempt to tie God's hands with such arguments. The fact remains that God clearly can perform any miracle He so chooses.

Many Christian beliefs require a great deal of faith, even relatively "blind" faith. Protestants manage to believe in a number of such doctrines (e.g., the Trinity, God's eternal existence, omnipotence, angels, the power of prayer, instantaneous justification, the Second Coming). Why should the Real Presence be singled out for excessive skepticism and unchecked rationalizing? I contend that it's due to a preconceived bias against sacramentalism, and matter as a conveyor of grace, which hearkens back to the heresies of Docetism and even Gnosticism, which looked down upon matter, and regarded spirit as inherently superior to matter.

The ancient heresy of Docetism held that the sufferings of Christ were apparent rather than real; that His human body was an illusion of sorts, that what died on the cross wasn't what it seemed.

It is thought by many that St. John wrote his Gospel with a Gnostic/Docetic opponent in mind, thus accounting for his strong emphasis on Jesus' "flesh" and "blood" (John 6).

Similarly, many Protestants believe that the Eucharist is apparent, and not real; that "This is my body" doesn't mean what it appears to mean.

But the Eucharist is not merely apparent, it is an extension of the Incarnation of Christ, just like the Church (which St. Paul calls the "Body of Christ"). A denial of the Real Presence might, therefore, also be regarded as a denial of the Incarnation.

This pervasive bias against the Real Presence, reminds of the Jewish and Muslim view of the Incarnation as an unthinkable task for God to undertake. For them, God wouldn't or couldn't or shouldn't become a man. In much the same way, Evangelicals hold that God wouldn't or couldn't or shouldn't become substantially, sacramentally present under the outward forms of bread and wine.

To my mind, the dynamic is the same. But "could've, would've, should've" theology is not biblical theology. Every Christian exercises faith in things which are very difficult to grasp with the natural mind, because they are revealed to be true by God in the Bible.

The Catholic belief in the ability of matter to convey grace (sacramentalism), as exemplified by the doctrine of the Real Presence, has a sound biblical basis. The Incarnation, which made the Atonement possible, raised matter to previously unknown heights. God took on human flesh!

All created matter was "good," in God's opinion, from the start (Gen. 1:25). Most non-sacramental Protestants wouldn't deny the goodness of matter per se; that being the case, their beliefs regarding sacraments are all the more puzzling. Even from the "Scripture alone" perspective, the evidence for sacramentalism is more than evident (see box, p. 40).

No a priori biblical or logical case can be made against a literal Eucharist, on the grounds that matter is inferior to spirit and/or that belief in a literal Eucharist indicates a stunted, primitive, "pagan" spirituality or some such similar negative judgment. If Christ could become Man, He can surely will to become truly present in what continues to appear as bread and wine, once consecrated.

No poetic license required

The classic biblical texts which Catholics use to support their position are John 6:47-66, Luke 22:19-20 (cf. Matt. 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24), 1 Corinthians 10:16, and 1 Corinthians 11:23-30. Zwingli attacks each of these in turn, but with invalid and insubstantial reasoning such as that seen above, spawned from the same false premises and unbiblical philosophical assumptions.

As for John 6, and Jesus repeatedly commanding the hearers to "eat my flesh and drink my blood," it is known that, in the Jewish mind at that time, such metaphors were synonymous with doing someone grievous injury (see, Job 19:22, Ps. 27:2, Eccles. 4:5, Isa. 9:20, 49:26, Mic. 3:1-3, Rev. 16:6).

Therefore, it isn't plausible to assert that Jesus was speaking metaphorically, according to the standard Protestant method of interpreting Scripture in light of contemporary usage, customs and idioms.

When His hearers didn't understand something He was saying, the Lord always explained more fully (e.g., Matt. 19:24-26, John 11:11-14, 8:32-34; cf. 4:31-34, 8:21-23). But when they refused to accept a teaching, He merely repeated it with more emphasis (e.g., Matt. 9:2-7, John 8:56-58).

By analogy, then, we conclude that John 6 was an instance of willful rejection (see John 6:63-65; cf. Matt. 13:10-23). Only here in the New Testament do we see followers of Christ abandoning Him for theological reasons (John 6:66). Surely, if their departure was due to a simple misunderstanding, Jesus would have cleared things up.

But He did no such thing. He continually repeated the same teaching, using even stronger terms. All of this squares with the Catholic interpretation, and is inconsistent with the idea of the Eucharist as a mere symbol or metaphor.

Likewise, in the Last Supper passages (Luke 22:19-20; cf. Matt. 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24), nothing in the actual text supports a metaphorical interpretation. Where the New Testament intends the word "is" to be figurative, the intent is readily apparent (Matt. 13:38, John 10:7, 15:1, 1 Cor. 10:4). In the Last Supper passages, that intent is not there.

The Last Supper  Jesus and the Twelve celebrating the Jewish feast of Passover  involved a sacrificial lamb. The Apostles could hardly have missed the significance of what Jesus was saying, when He told them, "This is my body" and "This is my blood." Before and after those statements, He spoke of His imminent suffering (Luke 22:15-16,18,21-22). And John the Baptist had already referred to Him as the "Lamb of God" (John 1:29).

St. Paul's eucharistic passages (1 Cor.10:16; 11:23-30) are also intended to be taken at face value. How can one be guilty of profaning the "body and blood of the Lord" by engaging in a merely symbolic act (1 Cor. 11:27)?

Paul also says, "Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?" (1 Cor. 10:18). He had just stated two verses earlier, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" Just as the Jewish sacrifices were literal and not symbolic, so is the Christian sacrifice of the Mass!

Furthermore, the whole thrust of the contextual passage of 1 Corinthians 10: 14-22 is to contrast Christian eucharistic sacrifice with pagan sacrifice (1 Cor. 10:19-20), and the pagan "table of demons" to the "table [altar] of the Lord" (1 Cor. 10:21). It's inescapable. The Catholic literal interpretation requires no twisting of the text.

In conclusion, let's take a look at the actual nature of what occurs in the miracle of transubstantiation.

Accidental change occurs when non-essential outward properties (accidents) are changed in some fashion. For example, water can take on the properties of solidity as ice, and of vapor as steam, all the while remaining chemically the same.

Substantial change, on the other hand, produces something entirely different. In our everyday, natural experience, a change of substance is always accompanied by a corresponding change of accidents, or outward properties. One example would be the metabolizing of food, which literally changes to become part of our bodies as a result of digestion.

But the Eucharist is a supernatural transformation, in which substantial change occurs without accidental change. Thus, the outward properties of bread and wine continue after consecration, but their essence and substance are replaced by the substance of the true and actual Body and Blood of Christ.

This is what requires faith, and what causes many to stumble, because it is a miracle of a very sophisticated nature, one that doesn't lend itself to empirical or scientific "proof."

But, in a sense, it is no more difficult to believe than the changing of water to ice, in which the outward properties change, while the substance (molecular structure) doesn't. The Eucharist merely involves the opposite scenario: the substance changes while the outward properties don't. Can anyone reasonably contend that one process is any more intrinsically implausible than the other, where an omnipotent God  particularly One Who took on human flesh and became Man  is concerned?

Jesus, after the Resurrection, could walk through walls while remaining in His physical (glorified) body (John 20:26-27). How, then, can the Real Presence be regarded as impossible or implausible by many Protestants  people who accept the same walking through walls, and numerous other supernatural and mysterious events in Christian theology?

We have seen the strong biblical indications of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and also the equally compelling historical record of the Church for fifteen hundred years, prior to Protestantism. We have even delved into some philosophical background and influences, and related theological ones, such as the Incarnation and sacramentalism. All of these point to the Catholic belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman, a truly towering intellect, whom few would accuse of being unreasonable, gullible, or philosophically naive, put it this way:

"People say that the doctrine of Transubstantiation is difficult to believe...It is difficult, impossible to imagine, I grant but how is it difficult to believe?...For myself, I cannot, indeed prove it, I cannot tell how it is; but I say, 'Why should it not be? What's to hinder it? What do I know of substance or matter? Just as much as the greatest philosophers, and that is nothing at all.'"

"Is This God?" was published by Envoy Magazine in its January/February 2000 issue.