A major point of contention between Catholics and Protestants is the nature of the Holy Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper. This is another issue where there is no unified “Protestant position.” On one end of the spectrum is the belief that the Lord’s Supper is merely symbolic, with the bread being a representation of the body of the Lord, and the wine (or in some communities, grape juice) being a representation of His blood. On the other end of the Protestant spectrum is that the substance of the body and blood of the Lord are present in the sacrament, but the substance of the bread and wine remain, but only as long as the celebration continues. The substance departs once the celebration comes to an end. Though the latter is in some ways similar to Catholic doctrine, there are some significant differences. To examine the nature of the Eucharist, we will start with the Scriptures, but we will also be looking at other sources to aid in interpretation.
The first thing that I want to look at is frequency. In the most Catholic parishes, the Eucharist is celebrated every day. In many parishes, multiple daily opportunities to receive the Eucharist are available. If one is in the proper disposition, it is expected that they receive the Eucharist every Sunday and on Holy Days of Obligation. It is required, by Canon Law, for Catholics to receive the Eucharist at least once a year. By comparison, virtually all Protestant denominations celebrate the Sacrament much less frequently. At my parents’ church, it is celebrated the first Sunday of the month. At the Baptist church I used to attend, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper quarterly. One community I know of, a Fundamentalist church in Steubenville, Ohio, celebrates it only annually at Passover time. With this disparity of modern practice, I wonder if there is an indication of frequency in the Scriptures.
For starters, Jesus did not indicate how often it was to be done, but it is implied that the Eucharist is to be celebrated periodically:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
I will concede that there is no indication whatsoever in the institution of the Eucharist that indicate the frequency of the celebration. Thankfully, there is more in the Scriptures about this Sacrament. The first celebration of the Sacrament was on the morning of the resurrection, as recounted in Luke 24:13-31. Since the Eucharist was celebrated by Jesus on the day of His resurrection, it would seem to imply that the Eucharist is to be celebrated frequently. This is a tenuous conclusion, so I will again return to the Scriptures to provide more evidence of frequent reception of the Eucharist. The strongest evidence is in Acts:
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:46-47)
Though not explicit, it does seem to indicate that the Eucharist was celebrated “day by day.” At any rate, the Sacrament was celebrated more frequently than once per year. This much is certain.
The next issue to be addressed is the one that causes the greatest amount of consternation between Catholics and Protestants: the nature of the Sacrament itself, i.e., is the Eucharist the actual body and blood of the Lord, or is it merely a symbol? To properly address this requires a short foray into some basic theology regarding Sacraments. For Catholics, the Sacraments are signs that are efficacious, that is, that they do something. So they are symbols, but not only symbols. There is a deeper reality. To fully explain the signs and graces connected with the Eucharist would take a book (literally, I am actually working on one.) Suffice it to say that the Old Testament is full of Eucharistic imagery. Here are but a few examples:
· Melchizadek’s offering of bread and wine.
· Moses turning the Nile to blood.
· Feeding the Israelites on manna in the wilderness.
· Various offerings in Leviticus.
Before the Passion, there are many events in the Gospels that point to the centrality of the Eucharist to the Gospel message:
· Jesus was born in Bethlehem (“House of Bread”) and laid in a manger (feeding trough).
· Of the imagery in the Gospel of John, two of the most prominent are references to bread and wine.
· The miraculous feedings, the incident on the Road to Emmaus, and the accounts of the institution of the Eucharist all follow the same pattern (Jesus gave thanks, broke the bread, and gave)
Of these, the most germane to the discussion is John 6. Remember in the previous chapter, an account of a miraculous feeding in the form of multiplication of fishes and loaves takes place. This is significant because of the bread imagery used here. Jesus refers to himself as “the Bread of Life” (vv. 35, 48). He calls himself “the bread that came down from heaven” (v. 41, 50-51). Furthermore in v. 51, Jesus says that the bread he offers is his own flesh. This becomes a bone of contention between Protestants and Catholics. Is Jesus speaking literally or figuratively? Could it be possible that he was speaking in the form of a parable, or just using a shocking metaphor? The only answer borne out in the text is “No.” According to this narrative Jesus gives some teaching wherein he tells those gathered that they need to eat his flesh. This results in questioning by the Jews, after which he not only repeats himself, but provides an even more visceral image. This causes an increase in the murmuring against Him, and many disciples leave. This next part is absolutely critical. Jesus turns to Peter and the Twelve with a question: “Will you also leave?” He did not say, “Since the others have left, I am now going to explain to you what I really meant.” He did not approach those leaving and explain the metaphor. This can only be taken to mean that Jesus was speaking in a literal fashion, and it speaks to the faith of the twelve when Peter answers, “Who else has the words of life?”
There is a problem with this interpretation. I am not an authoritative interpreter. You could say as much, and I would have no choice but to agree. But I can also appeal to the Apostolic Fathers. St. Ignatius of Antioch died in AD 127. He was a disciple of St. Polycarp, who was himself a direct disciple of St. John the Apostle. We are talking about the testimony of one who was very close indeed to the Apostles. St. Ignatius was martyred in Rome, and on the way, he wrote letters to various Churches. One such letter was to the Church at Smyrna, where he describes the Eucharist:
But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.
Keep in mind that this letter was written in AD 110, less than 20 years after the death of St. John. Is it possible that St. Ignatius, the Bishop of the Church in Antioch could have departed from the true teaching of the Church so quickly? If so, is it then likely that the “true” teaching was completely forgotten, only to rediscovered nearly 1500 years later? Which scenario is more likely, using simple reason? St. Ignatius teaching error almost immediately after the death of the last Apostle, with true teaching discovered more than a millennium later, or St. Ignatius, who likely knew John personally, was teaching rightly all along, and the Reformation got it wrong? I end with this question. The answer is up to you.