Holy Communion: Real or Symbolic?
One of the greatest tragedies of the Reformation is the loss of authentic holy orders in Protestant communities, and as a subsequent result of that, the loss of the real presence in Holy Communion. Of course this is not a problem for many Protestants who no longer believe in the real presence of Christ in Holy Communion anyway.
Transubstantiation is the belief that the bread and wine elements in communion, really and truly, become the actual body (flesh) and blood of Jesus Christ once they are consecrated by an authentic priest in the Divine Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist (or “Holy Mass”). The appearance of bread and wine remain, but this is just an appearance. What really exists is the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. This belief was held by the ancient Church (see below) and is maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Eastern Orthodox churches.
This chart explains the major divisions of Protestant denominations that occurred during and after the 16th century. Only two Protestant denominations retained some belief in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. The first is Anglicanism and the second is Lutheranism. Not all Anglicans and Lutherans hold to this view, but it is still a widely held belief in their denominations. Beyond that, however, the remainder of Protestant denominations no longer believe in the “real presence” of Jesus Christ in Holy Communion. Rather, they believe the act of Holy Communion is totally symbolic, and the elements of bread and wine do not change into anything. They simply remain bread and wine.
From an Orthodox and Catholic perspective, the belief of most Protestants is true — that is, for most Protestants — because you see the sacrament of holy orders (legitimate ordination) was lost for nearly all Protestants after the Reformation period. Therefore, it is impossible for them to properly consecrate the elements, and therefore the transubstantiation cannot be completed. So when they say their communion elements remain simply bread and wine, they are right. THEIR communion elements really do remain bread and wine — nothing more.
The real question is not what happens during Protestant communion, for we know they are right, nothing happens. The real question: is what happens during Catholic and Orthodox communion? For Catholic and Orthodox, the presence of Christ is real and literal — body and blood, soul and divinity. To be clear, the Orthodox do not usually use the word “transubstantiation” but prefer instead to reflect on the “mystery” of the sacrament. However, while the wording is often different, it is sometimes the same, as is the essential belief, in that something happens, there is a change…
He is not present typically, nor figuratively, nor by superabundant grace, as in the other Mysteries, nor by a bare presence, as some Fathers have said concerning Baptism, or by impanation, so that the Divinity of the Word is united to the set forth bread of the Eucharist hypostatically, as the followers of Luther most ignorantly and wretchedly suppose.
But truly and really, so that after the consecration of the bread and of the wine, the bread is transmuted, transubstantiated, converted and transformed into the true Body itself of the Lord, Which was born in Bethlehem of the ever-Virgin, was baptised in the Jordan, suffered, was buried, rose again, was received up, sits at the right hand of the God and Father, and is to come again in the clouds of Heaven; and the wine is converted and transubstantiated into the true Blood itself of the Lord, Which as He hung upon the Cross, was poured out for the life of the world.
— Orthodox Confession of Dositheus, Patriarch of Jerusalem (1672)
I cite this only to point out similarities in beliefs between Catholic and Orthodox, not to make an apologetic case for one tradition over another. My comparison between Catholic and Orthodox teaching on Holy Communion ends here, and from this point I will simply discuss matters in terms of the Catholic tradition, which is as follows from the new Catechism of the Catholic Church…
1373 “Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us,” is present in many ways to his Church: in his word, in his Church’s prayer, “where two or three are gathered in my name,” in the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned, in the sacraments of which he is the author, in the sacrifice of the Mass, and in the person of the minister. But “he is present . . . most especially in the Eucharistic species.”
1374 The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” “This presence is called ‘real’ – by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.”
1375 It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament. The Church Fathers strongly affirmed the faith of the Church in the efficacy of the Word of Christ and of the action of the Holy Spirit to bring about this conversion. Thus, St. John Chrysostom declares:
It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s. This is my body, he says. This word transforms the things offered.
And St. Ambrose says about this conversion:
Be convinced that this is not what nature has formed, but what the blessing has consecrated. The power of the blessing prevails over that of nature, because by the blessing nature itself is changed. . . . Could not Christ’s word, which can make from nothing what did not exist, change existing things into what they were not before? It is no less a feat to give things their original nature than to change their nature.
The new Catechism goes on to say…
1376 The Council of Trent summarises the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”
1377 The Eucharistic presence of Christ begins at the moment of the consecration and endures as long as the Eucharistic species subsist. Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts, in such a way that the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ.
Again, to clarify, this is both the sacrificed and risen Lord Jesus Christ who is made present in the Eucharist (Greek: thanksgiving) of Holy Communion. Thus, it is an error, and a blasphemy, to say that Christ is “re-sacrificed” over and over again in the Eucharistic liturgy. For Christ was sacrificed once and for all time at Calvary. Rather, it is more accurate to say that the one-time sacrifice of Calvary is made present, in Christ’s risen and living form, during the Eucharistic liturgy, over and over again. I’m afraid it is important to stress this, because a few Protestants have gone out and, in their attempt to disprove the transubstantiation, accused the Catholic Church of attempting to “re-sacrifice” Jesus Christ in the liturgy of the mass. That is to say; “kill him over and over again.” Such accusations are absurd but sadly need to be addressed for clarity’s sake.
Some Catholics prefer to use the illustration of a “time machine” in an attempt to explain the transubstantiation, in that the body and blood of Christ are brought to us (as through a time machine) from Calvary to the present day. Personally, I see a lot of problems with this illustration, and prefer instead to use the example of the Jewish Passover sacrifice as an illustration.
In ancient Judaism, every sacrifice had two parts: (1) the slaying, and (2) the consumption.
The slaying was when the sacrifice was brought to the priest and slain. Before slaying the sacrifice, the priest would lay his hands on the sacrificial lamb, symbolically transferring the sins of sinner onto the sacrificial lamb. Then the lamb was slain. Once slain, the blood was taken to be sprinkled on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant., then the entrails were burned and the lamb was roasted. The meat was given back to the sinner where it was to be taken home and consumed.
The consumption of the sacrifice is most clearly illustrated in the ancient Jewish passover Seder, wherein the entire meat of the lamb was to be consumed in one night by the entire family. Thus, members of the family would have a first helping, then go back for a second, then a third, and so on, until the meat of the lamb was completely consumed. (This is different from the modern passover Seder which does not use lamb meat, but rather the shank bone of a chicken to symbolise the ancient practise.)
Now the slaying of an ancient Jewish sacrifice was a one time event. A lamb can only be slain once. However, the consumption of the sacrifice was an ongoing event that didn’t stop until all the meat of the lamb was gone.
So it is this illustration I prefer to use in explaining Holy Communion. Jesus Christ is God’s passover lamb. He was slain one time on the cross, just as the Jewish passover lambs were slain one time. Then the consumption of Jesus, who is God’s Passover Lamb, is ongoing in the Eucharist, as the whole of humanity is fed by this miraculous transubstantiation. Just as the ancient Jews returned for second and third helpings of their Passover lambs, so all humanity is fed with the Lamb of God through the Eucharist. The first part of the sacrifice, the slaying of Christ, was a one time event. The second part of the sacrifice, the consumption of Christ, is ongoing forever.
Now it is extremely common for many Protestants to deny the doctrine of the transubstantiation altogether, saying the communion elements are only symbolic of the body and blood of Christ. Again, I want to remind the reader, that in the case of their own celebration of communion this is true, because they do not have valid holy orders and therefore cannot have a valid consecration of the Eucharist. However, they go beyond this in saying that Catholic communion is just symbolic as well, and that Catholics engage in idolatry by believing the bread and wine literally become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ. This is where we must make a vigorous defence.
First and foremost, it is important to point out that the New Testament nowhere says the Eucharist is only symbolic. Indeed, many Protestants reinterpret the Bible to suggest that it is, but such reinterpretations are wrong. Let’s take a look at what the Scriptures actually say…
Saint Paul said to the Corinthians…
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. Consider the practise of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar?
— 1st Corinthians 10:16-18
Here Saint Paul plainly stated the bread IS the body of Christ, and the cup of wine IS the blood of Christ. He didn’t say it was symbolic or merely representative, but rather “IS.” We cannot impose a meaning on Scripture that is not plainly written therein. Yet there is more — much more. Saint Paul continued…
For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, 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.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgement against themselves.
— 1st Corinthians 11:23-29
If what Saint Paul declared wasn’t clear enough in the first citation, it certainly should be in the second. Again, quoting Jesus Christ, he said “this IS my body,” and “this IS my blood.” It should be plain to see here that “is” means “is.” It does not mean “represents.” Imposing that meaning on this quotation does violence to the text. Yet if that were not clear enough, Jesus Christ himself forcefully proclaims the doctrine of the transubstantiation in Saint John’s gospel…
Then Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learnt from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live for ever.’ He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, ‘For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.’
Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.’ He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him.
— John 6:32-71
The text is clear. Jesus told his disciples they must literally eat his flesh and drink his blood. There is no mistaking his meaning here, for his own disciples (those who were with him) interpreted what he said as cannibalism, so they left him. Now, did Jesus run after them and say: “No wait, I was only speaking symbolically, you misunderstood.” It would be cruel to suggest that Jesus deliberately allowed his disciples to be deceived into a false interpretation of his teaching on this matter. Furthermore, he didn’t confide in his closest disciples later, telling them the secret meaning of his “flesh and blood” teaching. The Gospel is clear. Jesus told his disciples that they must literally consume his flesh and blood, and then he moved on, making no further explanation.
Some will zero-in on this passage: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe.” (John 6:63-64) They use this as some kind of “proof text” to disprove the entire sixth chapter of John, saying that when Jesus said his words were “spirit” he intended that to mean “symbolic.” Thus, they contend, Jesus never intended his words in this chapter to be taken literally. However, in saying this, they’ve made a critical error. The word “spirit” does not mean “symbolic.” Is the Holy Spirit just symbolic? Are spiritual beings, like angels and demons, merely symbolic? They’re spiritual. If spiritual means symbolic then we have some very serious theological problems. Obviously, “spiritual” does not mean symbolic. Rather, it means the exact opposite. It means “real,” but it is a “higher reality” (more real than the natural world) which cannot be easily perceived with the natural senses. We believe the Holy Spirit is real, even though we cannot usually perceive Him with our natural senses — because He is Spirit (higher reality). We believe angels and demons are real, even though we cannot usually perceive them with our natural senses — because they are spirit (higher reality). We believe we ourselves have immortal souls, even though we cannot perceive or measure them, because they are spirit (higher reality). So Jesus Christ told his disciples the same thing. The words he spoke were spirit (higher reality) and he was explaining to them the mystery and miracle of the transubstantiation in Holy Communion. What he said was real, not at all symbolic, but rather the exact opposite of symbolic (spirit) which is a higher reality than what we can usually perceive through our natural senses. To use this passage as some kind of “proof text” that Jesus didn’t really mean what he said, is to do two things. First, it imposes on the text a meaning for the word “spirit” that is not accurate, which creates all sorts of theological problems. Second, it uses a single verse to effectively negate an entire chapter. It’s as if to say, Jesus created an allegory that didn’t work, and then he said “just kidding” at the end. If we interpret the word “spirit” as symbolic, we have some serious problems as Christians. However, if we interpret the word “spirit” as higher reality, which is what it really means (indeed what it has always meant), then we fall back to a literal interpretation of what Jesus said. Again, this appears to be exactly what Jesus intended, because many of his disciples interpreted it literally, leaving him because of it, and he let them go.
Still, there are those who persist, saying that Jesus also called himself “the gate” in John 10:9. So does that mean that Jesus is a literal gate with hinges and a latch? Such tactics are an act of desperation and reveal an unwillingness to take in the full context and sense of the Scriptures. For example; in John 10:6 Saint John clearly explained the whole thing was a “figure of speech.” As the chapter progresses, Jesus opened up a multifaceted illustration — an allegory — using many representations to illustrate a point. First, he likened himself to a “gate” which Saint John just said above was a “figure of speech.” Then he compared himself to a shepherd. We know Jesus was not really a shepherd, rather he was a carpenter by trade, so we can clearly see this is an allegory, for the implication is that the “sheep” who enter through the gate and are called by the shepherd, are none other than his followers. Again, Saint John plainly said that all of this was a “figure of speech,” or an allegory. When allegories are used, they are explained by Christ later. He gives his disciples the proverbial “keys” they need to “unlock” them. These are plainly spelt out in the New Testament. Yet in John 6, in regard to Jesus’ teaching on consuming his literal flesh and blood, no allegorical “keys” were given. He did not explain any hidden meanings, nor did he make comparisons to other things. He simply asked his closest disciples: “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:67) To which they responded through Peter: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6:68-69) That’s it. No further explanations are given. The reader is left to simply take Jesus’ word as is. We must literally eat his flesh and drink his blood. Most Protestants cannot handle this. They simply ignore it. They insist the text in John 6 is merely symbolic, in spite of no proof to that effect, and then just move on. In fact, most of the time, they would rather change the subject, and talk about some other Catholic teaching they find less difficult to argue. Yet it’s important to keep them on topic, because this is a vital teaching of the Christian faith, that should effect every single aspect of their Christian worship. For we learn from the Scriptures that the early Christians received Holy Communion often, in their regular weekly worship (Acts 2:46 & Acts 20:7), not just once a month or on special occasions.
Furthermore, we learn from the Gospel of John, that refusal to believe in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist (transubstantiation) is in fact a refusal to follow Christ:
“Because of this [Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist] many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6:66)
It’s a very serious matter. Certainly, the early Christians took it seriously, as we will see in these citations from their writings. Ignatius of Antioch was a bishop in the early Church. He was ordained by the Apostle John and made a bishop by the Apostle Peter. This is what he had to say regarding this matter…
“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible.” — Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110]
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes.” — Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110]
Then we have these quotes from other early Church fathers…
“We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Saviour was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” — Justin Martyr, First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]
“He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him?” — Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:2 [A.D. 189]
There is nothing in Christian antiquity that suggests the early Christians believed Holy Communion (the Eucharistic “body” and “blood”) was merely symbolic. Indeed, the burden of proof falls on the Protestants when they say otherwise. A “symbolic meaning” is a new doctrine to Christianity, less than 500 years old, which was held by nobody prior to the 16th century Reformation other than those the early Christians considered heterodox (heretics). So again, I say the burden of proof is on the Protestants to demonstrate why Holy Communion is supposed to be merely symbolic. We have nothing in Scripture that tells us that. Likewise, we have nothing in the writings of Christian antiquity that tell us that. So how do the Protestants derive at that conclusion? This is the real question that must be asked. It seems to me however, that when interpreting Scripture on matters such as this, the meaning should be plain and simple. One shouldn’t have to go into elaborate explanations to explain why something is meant to be understood as symbolic when there is nothing in the text to suggest that.
More answers to questions such as these can be found in the book “Are Catholics Christian?: A Guide to Evangelical Questions about the Catholic Church,” available both in digital and paperback. Learn more here. Priests and catechists, throughout the United States and Canada, have already used portions of this book in their regular RCIA material, and some simply read portions of the book to their class. It’s highly recommended by priests and catechists alike.