Bread or body, wine or blood?
This is reason No. 3 in the series. Please read my introduction and explanation here.
When I was in second grade, I made my First Communion, just like all Catholic kids do. It was a big deal. We prepared for weeks for the day when we would get to receive the body of Christ for the first time. When the big day came I processed slowly up to the altar with my hands folded, closed my eyes, and stuck out my tongue, where I felt the placement by the priest of the paper-thin wafer. This is Jesus, huh?…I’m sure I must have wondered. But I didn’t really question it, and anyway it meant a fancy white dress and veil and a party for moi, with lots of congratulatory presents.
A child’s First Communion is a cause for celebration in the Catholic Church because the Eucharist, or Communion, is the locus of the Mass, and “To receive communion is to receive Christ himself.” (1382) In my recent post here, I addressed the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, specifically as Jesus’ Bread of Life discourse in John 6 has been used to defend it. Today I want to examine further what they teach about it and offer my reasons why I reject it as false.
On the night before Jesus was crucified, he gathered with his disciples to celebrate the Jewish Passover, during which he “took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”1 He did the same with wine, saying, “This is my blood.” Did he literally mean that then, as now, they were actually consuming his body and blood? When he taught in Matthew 7 not to “cast your pearls before swine” was he really talking about jewelry and pigs? When he said to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” was he warning about yeast?2 And in John 4 when he offered the Samaritan woman “living water,” was he referencing H2O? Clearly not. As I demonstrated in my previous post, Jesus speech was creative and colorful, making liberal use of metaphor and other figurative forms.
So here too at the Last Supper, Jesus was using a familiar, tactile, physical reality to exemplify a unique, abstract, spiritual truth. “Do this in remembrance of me,” he commanded. The bread and wine symbolize what we are to remember…Christ’s broken body and his shed blood, given for the eternal, spiritual life of those who believe in him. It’s to be a memorial practice to regularly refocus his followers on the monumental event that demonstrated his great love for us and secured our salvation. Because we are so prone to forgetfulness and carnality.
In support of the non-literal interpretation of “this is my body,” consider a few other examples from Jesus’ ministry. Again in John 4, when his disciples return from a food run, they urge him to eat and Jesus says, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” They, understandably, think someone else has gotten there ahead of them with some goodies, but Jesus tells them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”3 They were thinking too literally. And hear how Jesus upbraids his disciples for not understanding his figurative language about the leaven, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?”4
Then, of course, we understand that Jesus is not literally photons or particles or waves of light.5 He is not made of wood or iron, swinging on a hinge.6 He does not literally lead smelly sheep to pasture7, and you’ll never find him wrapped around a wire fence sprouting grapes and leaves8. As earthbound, sensory humans, our understanding of spiritual truths is greatly aided by word pictures that help us to “see” what is being taught.
The apostle Paul addressed the solemnity of the observation of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11, which the Catholic Church sees as affirming their interpretation of communion. Paul is chastising the Corinthians for the cavalier, selfish, and gluttonous way they were using food and drink to observe it. He repeatedly identifies the elements as “bread” and “the cup” in his reprimand, reminding them that, “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord.”9 I believe it makes much more sense that Paul was calling attention to the divinely sacrificial and eternally significant event that the ceremony represents and how their apparent disregard of that was denigrating Christ, rather than that he was teaching transubstantiation.
The Catholic Church’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ metaphorical use of bread and wine has led to the false doctrine claiming that partaking of communion has the effect of cleansing us from sins and preserving us from future sins. (1393) But it was Christ’s blood shed that secured our forgiveness when we repent and believe in him.10 No ritual is required. It has also resulted in a “cult of adoration” (1378) as the faithful are taught to bow before a piece of bread.
I acknowledge and affirm that many Catholics take communion with a genuine desire to be more intimately united with Christ. To them I would say, you have redemption and the forgiveness of your sins through faith in him. What’s more, when in repentance you submit to his Lordship, he comes to reside in you by his spirit.11 And he doesn’t leave. You are united with him and the Father by his spirit which dwells in you.12 Take communion as a reminder of his sacrifice of love for you, but know that you do not need to and cannot ingest his body. But his spirit can fill you and seal you for eternity.
All numbered references in parentheses are source paragraph numbers from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
1 Matthew 26:26 2 Matthew 16:6 3 John 4:31-34 4 Matthew 16:8 5 John 8:12 6 John 10:7 7 John 10:11 8 John 15:5 9 1 Corinthians 11:26-27 10 Acts 2:38, 10:43, 26:18, Ephesians 1:7, Hebrews 10:18 11 Ephesians 1:13 John 14:23 12 Romans 8:9