Drink Blood, Eat Body – On The Presence of Christ in The Eucharist
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
– Matthew 26:26-28
The presence of Christ in the bread and wine we eat and drink during the Eucharist/Mass/Holy Supper has been debated over the centuries. To what degree? In what way? How? These are some questions that theologians and saints have tried to answer. I will not here give a historic account of these thoughts, but rather their form as they were established around the time of the Reformation. The main question is:
Do we actually eat the body and drink the blood of Christ during the Eucharist?
Catholics would answer yes. The idea of transubstantiation was established by the Council of Trent in 1551. It means that the substance of bread and wine is transformed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ during the consecration. The receiver eats the body and drinks the blood of Christ factually, but sees and tastes bread and wine. It was also a sacrificing of the broken body Christ to God for the forgiveness of sins. To put it bluntly, Jesus was crucified at every mass. But this is now changed to an actualisation instead of a repetition. During the 1960s transignification and transfinalization, two ways of trying to adapt to metaphysical scepticism, were accepted by the Catholic church as valid developments within transubstantiation. The former holds that the meaning of the bread and wine is altered, they now signify Christ, the latter holds that the final purpose of the bread and wine is changed, they are not to fill our bellies.
Lutherans would answer yes. But Luther thought that the notion of transubstantiation was trying to rationalize a mystery, and was thus absurd. He was satisfied to say that Christ was really present during the Lord’s Supper. To question how just leads to theories. Citing an analogy from Origen of red-hot iron that is both fire and iron, Luther holds that the bread and wine remain the same, but the body and blood of Christ is really present within/under them by the power of His will and Word. The receiver thus partakes of both bread and body, wine and blood. Luther also declared that Christ has already offered Himself once and for all. Christ did not inaugurate His Supper as an offering for sins but as a testament. And so it is today, following His will and style, a thanksgiving and a praise for what He has already done, not a repetition, for no such is ever needed.
Calvin would say yes, spiritually. During the Eucharist, the believer is, on a spiritual plane, taken up to heaven and is in union with Christ there. This is because the infinite cannot fit in the finite. The believer does partake of the body and blood of Christ, but not in the form of bread and wine on earth, but in a heavenly dimension. Thus both the bread and wine is consumed, and the body and blood.
Zwingli answers no. Calling the Eucharist “the Remembrance”, Zwingli held it as a memorial of Christ. He argued that the word translated “is” in “this is my blood/body” often refers to “signifies”. Thus, bread not being the body but actually bread, the word “is” must be taken figuratively. It is a kind of transignification, for the believer the bread and wine signify something else after the consecration than before.
I answer yes. But I am not concerned how exactly. Christ is present in the Word and because we follow His will and testament. We partake of His body and blood because He says so. When I attend the Lord’s Supper at church, my primary feeling is that of thanks. However, I refuse to believe that the Eucharist is a sin-offering, a re-crucification of Christ. Rather, I thank God, Christ and the Holy Spirit for Their merciful presence among us, for their gift of faith and redemption. Their presence is the important thing, and I believe I partake of it in a more physical way when I eat the bread and drink the wine. My prayer when I put the bread and wine in my mouth is that Christ may fill my whole body and spirit and thus claim it for His own. Because we all share the same bread and wine and have the same Lord, we also become one whole. Those who are present, together with all Christians from the time of that Thursday more than 2000 years ago and those who in the future will join in, we are all one in purpose and family. Time shrinks as we are all brought to sit at the table in the Upper Room and hear His words:
“Take, eat… Drink…”
Sources: Althaus, Paul. The Theology of Martin Luther, Philadelphia: Fortress Press 1966, Pages 375-403. Henriksen, Jan-Olav. Guds virkelighet: Kristen dogmatikk (God’s Reality: Christian Dogmatics), Oslo: Luther Forlag 1994, Pages 235-237. McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology – An Introduction, Oxford: Blackwell 2011, Pages 414-420. Svenska kyrkans bekännelseskrifter (The Book of Concord), Stockholm: Verbum 1997, Pages 186, 250, 281.