There are times when it seems as though there is nothing sacred, that is in the sense that nothing is exempt from the tendency of Christians to argue among themselves, and the subject of the fifth and final Mystery of Light, the Institution of the Holy Eucharist is one of those.
It seems simple enough on the page:
26 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, [a]blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.”
27 Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 For this is My blood of the [b]new covenant, which is shed for many for the [c]remission of sins. 29 But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.
St Mark’s version, upon which St Matthew’s was most probably based is typically straightforward:
22 And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them and said, “Take, [a]eat; this is My body.”
23 Then He took the cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank from it. 24 And He said to them, “This is My blood of the [b]new covenant, which is shed for many. 25 Assuredly, I say to you, I will no longer drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”
We can see from this why one of the rumours spread about the early Christians in Roman society was that they were cannibals and ate the body and drank the blood of their god.
There is no Institution narrative in St John, but what he does have to say about Jesus as the Bread of Life drives hom the sense of the words we get from SS Mark and Matthew. When teaching in Capernum, Jesus told His listeners He was the Bread of Life, they queried His words and their meaning, and Jesus was clear in His response:
52 The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?”
53 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For My flesh is [a]food indeed, and My blood is [b]drink indeed. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. 58 This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.”
The result is worth noting: “ From that time many of His disciples went [f]back and walked with Him no more”.
The conventional Protestant explanation (this one from my NKJV Study Bible) is “Jesus was speaking figuratively, but the Jewish leaders took him literally.” But will this really do? We are told that many of His disciples turned away. If they had misunderstood, it would have been easy enough for Jesus to have stated that He was talking figuratively. Instead, He lets them go and even asks “the twelve” whether they, too, will leave Him. It seems a little feeble to explain all of this in terms of figurative speech.
It is St Luke’s versionof the words which seems to have given an excuse for the “figurative” explanation, as there the words of Institution are:
9 And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
Hence the explanation that the Eucharist is a “memorial” of His saving passion, as though we are presented with a binary choice. But is it a binary choice? Have we fully understood what Jesus is saying if we assume so.
As usual, the Church Fathers have been here before us and are an invaluable source of wisdom here.
St John Chysostom explained it thus in Homily 47:2:
When we converse of spiritual things, let there be nothing secular in our souls, nothing earthy, let all such thoughts retire, and be banished, and let us be entirely given up to the hearing the divine oracles only.
The argument here is that we understand Christ’s words spiritually and not carnally. It is in the same vein as St Hilary of Poitier’s statement in On the Trinity:
For as to what we say concerning the reality of Christ’s nature within us, unless we have been taught by Him, our words are foolish and impious. For He says Himself, My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. John 6:55-56 As to the verity of the flesh and blood there is no room left for doubt. For now both from the declaration of the Lord Himself and our own faith, it is verily flesh and verily blood. And these when eaten and drunk, bring it to pass that both we are in Christ and Christ in us.
Orthodox theology, untouched by the scholastic method, argues that in the Eucharist we partake not simply of the physical/material, but of the deified and glorifies Body and Blood of Christ which give resurrection life. Catholic theology expresses the same thought thus:
We believe that at every Mass, bread and wine become Jesus — his body, blood, soul and divinity — even though we can’t fully understand how it happens. The miracle of the Eucharist is a mystery, something that human reason and intelligence can never fully grasp.
The Institution of the Eucharist invites us into the heart of the mystery of God’s love for us. Like the woman at the well, we discover that Jesus is the Living Water, but oh, with what blessing we reflect that in the Eucharistic Feast we receive His Body and His Blood. In the words of the Catechism:
The Word became flesh to make us “partakers of the divine nature”: “For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God.” “For the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods” (CCC 460)
In His Body and Blood we are saved, redeemed and will be glorified.