The Eucharist: Corpus Christi?

The Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of transubstantiation, namely, that in the Eucharist, the communion wafer and the altar wine are transformed and really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  Have you ever met anyone who has found this Catholic doctrine to be a bit hard to take?

If so, you shouldn’t be surprised.  When Jesus spoke about eating his flesh and drinking his blood in John 6, his words met with less than an enthusiastic reception.  How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (V 52).  This is a hard saying who can listen to it? (V60).  In fact so many of his disciples abandoned him over this that Jesus had to ask the twelve if they also planned to quit.  It is interesting that Jesus did not run after his disciples saying, Don’t go, I was just speaking metaphorically!

How did the early Church interpret these challenging words of Jesus?  Interesting fact.  One charge the pagan Romans lodged against the Christians was cannibalism.  Why?  You guessed it.  They heard that this sect regularly met to eat and drink human blood.  Did the early Christians say: wait a minute, it’s only a symbol!?  Not at all.  When trying to explain the Eucharist to the Roman Emperor around 155 AD, St. Justin did not mince his words: “For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Sav­ior being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him . . . is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.

Not many Christians questioned the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist till the Middle Ages.  In trying to explain how bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, several theologians went astray and needed to be corrected by Church authority.  Then St. Thomas Aquinas came along and offered an explanation that became classic.  In all change that we observe in this life, he teaches, appearances change, but deep down, the essence of a thing stays the same.  Example: if, in a fit of mid-life crisis, I traded my mini-van for a Ferrari, abandoned my wife and 5 kids to be beach bum, got tanned, bleached my hair blonde, spiked it, buffed up at the gym, and took a trip to the plastic surgeon, I’d look a lot different on the surface. But for all my trouble, deep down I’d still substantially be the same old baby boomer.

St. Thomas said the Eucharist is the one instance of change we encounter in this world that is exactly the opposite.  The appearances of bread and wine stay the same, but the very essence or substance of these realities, which can’t be detected by a microscope, is totally transformed.  What was once bread and wine are now Christ’s body and blood.   A handy word was coined to describe this unique change.  Transformation of the sub-stance, what stands-under the surface, came to be called transubstantiation.

What makes this happen?  The power of God’s Spirit and Word.  After praying for the Spirit to come (epiklesis), the priest, who stands in the place of Christ, repeats the words of the God-man: This is my Body, This is my Blood.  Sounds to me like Genesis 1: the mighty wind (read Spirit) whips over the surface of the water and God’s Word resounds. Let there be light and there was light.  It is no harder to believe in transubstantiation than to believe in Creation.

But why did Jesus arrange for this transformation of bread and wine?  Because he intended another kind of transformation.  The bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ which are, in turn, meant to transform us.  Ever hear the phrase: you are what you eat? The Lord desires us to be transformed from a motley crew of imperfect individuals into the Body of Christ, come to full stature.

Our evangelical brethren often speak of an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus.  But I ask you, how much more personal and intimate can you get?  We receive the Lord’s body into our physical bodies that we may become him whom we receive!

Such an awesome gift deserves its own feast.  And that’s why, back in the days of Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope decided to institute the Feast of Corpus Christi.

image credit: shutterstock.com

Marcellino D'Ambrosio, Ph.D.

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Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio writes from Texas. For info on his resources and pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, visit www.crossroadsinitiative.com or call 800.803.0118.

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  • JMC

    That charge of “ritual cannibalism” is still around today. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard it. And the minute you try to explain the transubstantiation as a mystery that is above human understanding, then you hear the “Babylonian mystery religion” charge. (I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean, or even where they got it from, but I hear it all the time. How does one answer what the Southern Baptists and Evangelicals can’t explain themselves?)

  • kpm

    What saddens me is people believing in SOLA SCRIPTURA miss the essence of the NEW TESTAMENT which is the New Covenant Jesus Christ made with US,The Eucharist!
    The Body & Blood Soul & Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ! Meanwhile ignoring the Tradition of the early Church, the Early Church fathers wrote about the REAL Presence from the 1st century. The Apostles shared it in the Didache their 1st attempt at a catechism.

    If they accepted our Tradition or studied how the 4 centuries of discussion and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit helped formulate the Bible. If The Evangelicals realized every book selected for the new testament had to contribute to the liturgy of the EUCHARIST.
    The Liturgy of the Eucharist utilized in the Catholic Church Today was formalized by St Justin Martyr in the 2nd Century.

    If they wanted an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ would be the ultimate in the form of THE EUCHARIST.

  • http://renewthechurch.wordpress.com/ Thomas R

    The best response to the charge of cannibalism that I know of, especially for Christians who believe Scripture and in the Resurrection is this: we do not consume the mortal body and blood of Jesus – if we did, that would be cannibalism. Instead, we consume (substantially, sacramentally) the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus as He IS in glory. That is, we consume the resurrected and glorified Lord. St. Paul writes in 1 Cor 15 of the “spiritual body” in resurrection. It is spiritual, AND it is a body.

    1Co 15:42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable.
    1Co 15:43 It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.
    1Co 15:44 It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.

    The Catechism discusses some of the mystery of this risen body:

    645 By means of touch and the sharing of a meal, the risen Jesus establishes direct contact with his disciples. He invites them in this way to recognize that he is not a ghost and above all to verify that the risen body in which he appears to them is the same body that had been tortured and crucified, for it still bears the traces of his Passion.[Cf. Lk 24:30,39-40, 41-43; Jn 20:20, 27; 21:9,13-15] Yet at the same time this authentic, real body possesses the new properties of a glorious body: not limited by space and time but able to be present how and when he wills; for Christ’s humanity can no longer be confined to earth, and belongs henceforth only to the Father’s divine realm.[Cf. Mt 28:9, 16-17; Lk 24:15, 36; Jn 20:14, 17, 19, 26; 21:4] For this reason too the risen Jesus enjoys the sovereign freedom of appearing as he wishes: in the guise of a gardener or in other forms familiar to his disciples, precisely to awaken their faith.[Cf. Mk 16:12; Jn 20:14-16; 21:4, 7]

    The supernatural freedom for His body now glorified can help explain the radical difference between this communion, and cannibalism, I think. This emphasis also helps explain how the Eucharist is food for our resurrection, as well:

    Jn 6:53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;
    Jn 6:54 he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
    Jn 6:55 For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

  • Jane

    it is embarrassing to me that as I was brought up in a baptist church it has taken me untill the age of 44 to actually take the time to read about catholic explanations of their eucharist. Some of the reason for this is the negative teaching that comes from some protestant teachers. now I have read and understood it, it is no longer ‘scary’ and makes me realise that what we call ‘communion’ in the protestant churches has other valid interpretations within the wider church. Understanding these interpretations, having respect for them, can definitely make ‘breaking of the bread’ a more meaningful activity for protestants, as it too often becomes a routine, symbolic activity without real emotional connection.

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