The teaching of the Eucharist in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is taught to be the true Body and Blood of Christ Jesus. The Eucharist is taught to be by other Christians as a symbol to be revisited to signify Jesus’ sacrifice for humanity. The Eucharist is the true body and blood of Jesus, but how can we accept this? And why is it so?
John 6:57-66 “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me…Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever…The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.
This reveals to us that the teaching of the Eucharist is a hard one, and that many disciples fell away from Our Lord because of this teaching. If we examine why these disciples left Jesus, it is because they interpreted Jesus to be speaking literally about eating his flesh and blood, and we know that in the Jewish teaching to consume even unclean food would defile oneself, never mind the flesh of a man. The concept of eating human flesh really challenged his followers and explains why many left Jesus all because of this one radical teaching.
So was Jesus speaking literally when he says:
John 6:51 “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Well herein lies the problem: some say yes, some say no. To clarify, when Jesus speaks figuratively he speaks in parables, and when those of his followers struggle to come to terms with and understand Christ’s speech He always clarifies, and explains. Here is an example of this:
John 8:54-59 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham! “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
Here we have Jesus been taken literally and Jesus reaffirms that he is indeed speaking literally. In the following passage Jesus clarifies the literal meaning behind His Parable of the Good Sheppard:
John 10: 7-14 Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them. Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved… I am the good shepherd.
In this example John makes it clear that Jesus is speaking figuratively, “Jesus used this figure of speech”, and by effect we are not to take Jesus as a literal Sheppard, and literal gate- however the meaning of these figures of speech are indeed literal.
John 8 and 10 (also 6 and 15 for further examples) illustrates that when Jesus is challenged he clarifies what he is saying. In John 8 when Jesus speaks literally and those struggle to accept this literal teaching, he repeats to clarify what he is saying as literal: “and you have seen Abraham!” “Very truly I tell you…before Abraham was born, I am!” In John 10 the same principle applies but Jesus is speaking figuratively and is taken to be speaking literal. After speaking of the parable of the Good Sheppard John clearly outlines that “Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.”. Jesus goes on to explain the parable, and the literal meaning behind his figure of speech.
When it comes to John 6, where Jesus says:
John 6:48-55 I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
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. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”
Jesus is shown to repeat what he has said, just as he repeated what he said concerning Himself and Abraham. This is the pattern followed by Jesus when he is speaking literally. It may seem logical to say that here just like the parable of the Good Sheppard Jesus is explaining a literal meaning (Eucharist as a symbol) and not a literal fact (Eucharist is the true body and blood of Jesus). However neither Jesus nor John follow the pattern when Jesus speaks figuratively, for neither of them make it clear that this teaching of the Eucharist is figurative. To say that Jesus or John forgot to clarify this teaching as figurative is absurd and to attest that “of course Jesus is speaking figuratively and not literally because a teaching of cannibalism is an outright absurdity” is misconstrued also; because the teaching of Christ that his “flesh is real food and …blood is real drink” is indeed an ‘absurd teaching’, but a literal fact, and because of this literal teaching many of His disciples fall away from him (John 6:66).
In every use of figurative language within the Gospel of John, either Jesus or John make it clear that it is indeed figurative. No such explanation required for figurative language is used for the teaching of the Eucharist because this teaching is literal. Even when this teaching of the Eucharist is challenged, Jesus affirms his teaching by repeating what he has said. This is unlike the parable of the Good Sheppard where the teaching is challenged and so Jesus defines the meanings of figures of speech, rather than repeating what has already been said. Each time Jesus says “Very truly I tell you” we can be assured that Jesus is speaking the fullness of truth in a manner which is plain and direct. Such examples can be found in:
- “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” John 8:59
- “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” John 3:5
- “Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” John 5:25
- “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. John 8:34
- “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. John 13:16
So when Jesus says “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. John 6:53 we can be assured that this is the truth, for even when some of His disciples struggled with this teaching saying “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60), Jesus did not correct them saying that to “eat” my flesh is to believe in me, or to absorb me into your life, he simply restated what had caused them to question Him. It begs the question would our Lord not clarify a teaching as literal or figurative if the difference meant losing many of his precious sheep? Surely the Lord would (as he has done in every parable he taught) if the Eucharistic teaching were figurative. However the Lord makes it clear that “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.”