Real Presence: My Road to Rome, Part 3

Communion was important to me even as a Protestant … but I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that it wasn’t important enough.

Antonio Vázquez, “The Mass of Saint Gregory the Great,” c. 1540
Antonio Vázquez, “The Mass of Saint Gregory the Great,” c. 1540 (photo: Public Domain)

My Road to Rome: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

In August a much-discussed Pew Research poll found that a majority of Catholics — 7 out of 10 — consider the Eucharistic elements to be symbolic representations of Jesus’ body and blood, as opposed to the Catholic teaching that the bread and the wine in communion really become the body and blood of Jesus, truly present in his full humanity and divinity under the appearances of bread and wine.

That hit a nerve for me as a Catholic convert, because this “symbolic Eucharist” theory is the belief I grew up with as a Protestant — and growing misgivings about this belief were among the many convergent signposts that guided me on my “Road to Rome,” as I’ve been (very slowly!) writing about in this series of posts.

Starting With Symbolism

I mentioned in Part 2 that my earliest years were in the Reformed tradition and, later, the Episcopal church. I can remember as a child wanting to receive communion in the Reformed church and being told that I had to be older, since it was thought that most children my age wouldn’t understand what communion meant. (I thought I did understand, and my dad, the pastor, said he did too, but rules were rules.)

Liturgical worship in the Episcopal church was very different from the Reformed church, but I was aware only of a change in style; as far as I could tell, the theology was the same.

Still, there was something powerful about receiving communion kneeling at the altar rail, and as an acolyte I was deeply impressed with the solemnity of the moment of consecration as Father G went down on one knee three times, intoning with utmost gravity “My Lord and my God.”

After communion, the ministers together consumed the remaining consecrated wine (sometimes the acolytes helped). Even though I thought of it as a symbol, it still seemed to me appropriate that a symbol of something so important be treated with reverence.

I loved weekly communion in the Episcopal church. Years later, while involved in a small church in the Jesus Movement tradition, one of the toughest things for me was that they never celebrated communion. They weren’t against it; it just wasn’t a priority.

At my encouragement, they bought an earthenware cup and plate and started celebrating the Lord’s Supper once a month with matzoh and grape juice.

Long after leaving that church, I returned for a visit, and was horrified to come upon that earthenware cup in a forgotten corner with large chunks of mold growing in the dregs of the last Lord’s Supper from who knows when.

Of course I didn’t believe that the grape juice had ever been anything but grape juice, but it still struck me as a kind of sacrilege. I would never treat my wedding ring with such disregard. How could Christians care so little for the symbol of the Lord’s blood?

Breaking Bread

And yet I had long been uncomfortably aware of a similar gap between my own growing reverence for the Eucharist and what I was discovering in the New Testament, the early Fathers, and in attractive contemporary Catholics like Flannery O’Connor, whose celebrated retort “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it” I found convicting, if not quite convincing.

The first place my search for Christ’s authentic church led me was to the book of Acts, and the first thing that struck me in Acts was the programmatic description of the life of the newborn apostolic church immediately following Pentecost, St. Peter’s great sermon, and the baptism of the first 3,000 believers:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)

While I was aware that “breaking bread” could refer to ordinary table fellowship, it seemed to me impossible to exclude Eucharistic significance from this “breaking of the bread.”

After all, the story of Jesus “breaking bread” with the disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:30–35 wasn’t a Eucharistic recapitulation of the Last Supper, but no reader of Luke’s Gospel could fail to connect that story of Jesus being “known to them in the breaking of the bread” to the Eucharist.

After that, I reasoned, any time Luke refers to disciples “breaking bread,” one can hardly help thinking of the Eucharist — especially when we read later that “On the first day of the week … we were gathered together to break bread” (Acts 20:7).

If I had still been wholly in a sola scriptura mindset, I might have been able to stop there. But I wasn’t (see Parts 1 and 2) — and by then I had begun to discover the earliest of the Early Fathers, and I was aware how Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century, explained how Christians gathered each Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist.

Quest for Communion

At first, more than any actual Eucharistic doctrine I found in the early Fathers, it was the importance they laid upon the Eucharist that convicted me. Whatever the Eucharist actually was, I became convinced that the early Christians regarding it as a much bigger deal than my Protestant background had given me to understand.

I wanted to discover the source of that importance. Flannery O’Connor, with her “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it,” seemed to me closer in spirit to Justin Martyr, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus and the rest than I or my Protestant brethren.

Working through 1 Corinthians 10–11, I puzzled over that double use of koinonia (variously translated “participation,” “sharing,” or “communion”) in 10:16, which, whatever it meant, didn’t sound like mere symbolism to me:

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? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:16–17)

I was also struck by Paul’s three-way analogy of the Eucharist, the Temple sacrifices, and sacrifices to demons:

Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:18–21)

Three communities; three ritual meals, each making those who eat “partners” with some spiritual reality — in two cases because the meal was a meal made of a sacrifice. The “table of demons” and the “cup of demons” represented food and drink sacrificed to demons, just as the food eaten from the altar was sacrificed to the God of Israel.

So what about “the table of the Lord” and “the cup of the Lord”? The analogy seems to imply that the Eucharist is also in some sense a sacrificial meal.

Christ, the Passover lamb, was sacrificed for us on the cross — but the Passover lamb must then be eaten. Was Christ sacrificed for us in fact, only to be eaten in figure only? Questions like this nagged me.

Above all, there was John 6.

Eucharist? What Eucharist?

The exegetical ground here is very well trodden in Catholic–Protestant debate. My Protestant background had conditioned me to think of John 6 as having no reference to the Eucharist, having no Eucharistic significance of any kind. (If I recall correctly, the notes on John 6 in the Evangelical study Bible I often used at the time made no mention of the Eucharist.)

“I am the bread of life,” Jesus said in John 6:35ff; “he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst … everyone who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day … he who believes has eternal life.”

Thus, the thinking goes, when Jesus used the same language in verses 53ff of “having life in you” and being “raised up on the third day” in connection with eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he was merely repeating figuratively about what he has already declared literally.

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” is simply, on this theory, a metaphorical rephrasing of “He who believes in me should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

In a big-picture way, then, I found that was able for a long time to read John 6 without even thinking about the Last Supper or the Eucharist — until I wasn’t.

A Equals A

At some point the very idea that John 6 was unconnected to the Eucharist started to seem less plausible. Indeed, it became incoherent once I realized that the way we talked about the symbolism and meaning of the Last Supper exactly matched our reading of John 6.

In both cases, Jesus used the same outrageous, provocative imagery — eating his body or flesh and drinking his blood — in a way we said was metaphorical.

Why identify his body and blood symbolically with food and drink, with bread and wine? Because, we said, his body and blood, sacrificed for us on the cross, nourish and give us life. And how do they nourish and give us life? How do we receive those life-giving benefits? By faith.

Thus, in both John 6 and at the Last Supper and the Eucharist, we said, Jesus pointed to the same fundamental reality — life-giving faith in himself — by means of the same outrageous image: eating his flesh and drinking his blood as food and drink. Both the image and the underlying reality are identical.

Whether symbolic or literal, there’s unarguably a connection. At the very least one would have to say that the Last Supper enacts the imagery and essential meaning of John 6 — and thus that the language of John 6 points to the Eucharist. Not to connect John 6 to the Eucharist involved a kind of mental disconnect, and, once the connection was made in my mind, it couldn’t be unmade.

The connection is strengthened by what seem clear literary links to the Last Supper institution accounts in the Synoptic Gospels and 1 Corinthians as well as early liturgical writings. E.g., John reports that Jesus “took the loaves, and when He had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated” (6:11).

Together with the repeated use of the Greek word eucharisteo (giving thanks) — and the mention that “the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand” (6:4), the Passover being the occasion of the Last Supper and the Eucharist being a transfigured Passover meal — the language of John 6 practically hits the reader over the head with its Eucharistic significance.

How Jesus Didn’t Use Figurative Language

Once I saw that, I realized that the idea of Jesus switching from literal language to figurative made less sense than I had once thought.

There are cases in the Gospels where Jesus switches from puzzling figurative language to plain speech in order to clear up a misunderstanding (“Why are you still talking about bread?”; “Lazarus is dead”), and cases where he declines to clarify bewildering figures of speech, leaving hard-hearted hearers to puzzle over his baffling words (“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it”).

Nowhere in the Gospels, though, do we find Jesus first stating his point plainly and then resorting to baffling metaphors.

Whenever Jesus used figurative language, he did so because it was apparently preferable to plain speech — because it offered a more vivid and striking way of making a point (e.g., “I am the vine, you are the branches”) or because he wanted to be less than clear (especially in the parables).

Neither case fits the figurative reading of John 6. It can’t be argued that he wished to avoid being clear about faith in him; he had already stated that clearly. Nor can it be argued that “eat my flesh and drink my blood” makes the point about faith more clearly than plain language!

After all, not only do many disciples, struggling over the literal meaning of his words, depart from him over this, Jesus was even willing to let the Twelve leave as well — and here I was struck by the fact that, according to Mark, while Jesus never spoke to the crowds without parables, “privately to his own disciples he explained everything” (Mark 4:34). Yet even after Peter’s conflicted response (“Lord, to whom would we go?”) no explanation emerges.

That wasn’t all. Right in the middle of the business about eating and drinking his flesh and blood he said, “For my flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink” (or “food indeed” and “drink indeed”; 6:55). He never says, e.g., “I am a real vine, and you are real branches.” (The Greek word alethes is used elsewhere in the New Testament, especially in John, to refer to truthful testimony and for the truthfulness of God; it never applies to parables or figurative language.)

My Days Were Numbered

From there I went on to wrestle over the writings of the early Fathers, from Justin Martyr to Augustine and beyond, regarding the Real Presence and the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Since high school I had been writing fan letters to Peter Kreeft, whom I knew hailed from the same northern NJ Dutch Calvinist enclaves as my family, but whom I didn’t realize at first was a convert to Catholicism!

To philosophical objections to the idea of transubstantiation I wrote to him, Dr. Kreeft replied with careful and patient clarifications that were helpful in my developing understanding. (He also mailed me an unpublished manuscript of Mark Shea’s This Is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence, in which I discovered the point above about Mark 4:34, among other things.)

Eventually I began to realize that my days as a Protestant were numbered.

I owed to Protestantism my knowledge of God and my love of Jesus and the scriptures. The Real Presence held out to me the promise of a greater intimacy with Jesus than I had known before. In the end it wasn’t arguments that drew me away from Protestantism, it was Jesus. 

To continue to follow Jesus, I knew I needed continuity with what I was coming to learn about the New Testament church and the ancient church: worship of God in liturgy and sacrament; the priesthood of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the apostolic succession of bishops; teaching grounded in sacred tradition as well as sacred scripture.

I had been an Episcopalian, and that was not an option for me. (I had been confirmed in the Episcopal church by Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, a provocateur of very ordinary intellectual gifts who made a name for himself by denying basically every article of the Nicene Creed. That wasn’t the beginning and end of my problems with Anglicanism, but it highlights my experience of Anglicanism as a faith that can mean whatever you want it to mean.)

I would have to be either Catholic or Orthodox. But which?

More to come.

My Road to Rome: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3