On the Manner in Which We Eat His Flesh and Drink His Blood

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John 6 and Christ’s Presence in the Eucharist

Reformed Christians teach that for the Christian believer who eats and drinks the Lord’s Supper, Christ is truly spiritually present.  But for the non-elect, however, Christ is not present.

Some of the scriptural reasoning behind this belief can be found in the words of Christ in John 6:55-57.  Jesus, speaking to a crowd of believers and unbelievers says:

For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eats my flesh, and drinks my blood, dwells in me, and I in him.  As the living Father has sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eats me, even he shall live by me.  This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eats of this bread shall live for ever.

Both the Catholic and the Reformed would agree that we need to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ in order to have eternal life.  But what is the manner in which we eat His Flesh and drink His Blood?

The Catholic Church has historically taught that Christ becomes truly present in the Eucharist at the words of consecration.  The Christian, when coming forward to the Eucharistic table, receives the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ.  Christ is present under the species of bread and wine regardless of the state of the man who receives him.  Because of this, the Reformed ask, “When a sinner comes forward to take communion does he participate in Christ in this way? Does he have life in Christ by partaking? Does Christ dwell in him? Is he united to Christ?”

The Catholic answer to this question is No.  The man in sin does not have life, Christ does not dwell in him, he does not dwell in Christ, even though he receives Christ, hidden under the Eucharistic species, into his own body.  How can this be?  It would seem to be that either Christ is present there and all men receive those benefits, or, Christ is only present for the believer.  And because the Catholic Church teaches that not all men who come forward to partake of the Eucharist receive the benefits of dwelling in Christ and eternal life, it would seem to contradict the Catholic teaching that Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity become present under the sacramental species at the words of consecration ex opere operato.  But it doesn’t contradict the Church’s teaching.  

Why?  Because to receive the sacrament is not the same as receiving the virtue of the sacrament; there is a certain mode of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking Christ’s blood in which Christ dwells in the man, and the man in Christ.  When Christ was speaking of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, he was speaking of those who consume his flesh and blood both sacramentally (through the consuming of the Eucharist), and spiritually (through faith).  

The Catholic position is articulated definitively at the Council of Trent.  The Council States:

Now as to the use of this holy sacrament, our Fathers have rightly and wisely distinguished three ways of receiving it. For they have taught that some receive it 1) sacramentally only, to wit sinners: 2) others spiritually only, those to wit who eating in desire that heavenly bread which is set before them, are, by a lively faith which worketh by charity, made sensible of the fruit and usefulness thereof: whereas 3) the third (class) receive it both sacramentally and spiritually, and these are they who so prove and prepare themselves beforehand, as to approach to this divine table clothed with the wedding garment.

So for the sinner who approaches the altar, he receives Christ sacramentally, but not spiritually.  He receives Christ sacramentally into his mouth but not the fruit of the sacrament into his heart, which is union with Christ, and an increase in grace.  The faithful Catholic who approaches the sacrament in faith, receives both the sacrament and the fruit of the sacrament.

This teaching is explained by Aquinas in Question 80 of the Summa:

I answer that, There are two things to be considered in the receiving of this sacrament, namely, the sacrament itself, and its fruits, and we have already spoken of both. The perfect way, then, of receiving this sacrament is when one takes it so as to partake of its effect. Now, as was stated above, it sometimes happens that a man is hindered from receiving the effect of this sacrament; and such receiving of this sacrament is an imperfect one. Therefore, as the perfect is divided against the imperfect, so sacramental eating, whereby the sacrament only is received without its effect, is divided against spiritual eating, by which one receives the effect of this sacrament, whereby a man is spiritually united with Christ through faith and charity. (Summa, 80)

An analogy that will aide in the understanding this mysterious delineation is one from education.  Suppose there are two students who are sitting in a classroom.  They are being taught the same lessons, the same material, with the same teacher.  The first student is paying attention, sincerely focusing, and applying himself to his classwork.  He will receive not only an education, but also the fruit of the education.  The second student is in the same classroom.  Instead of being focused and working diligently, he is distracted.  He doesn’t complete all the assignments.  His attention wanders.  There is not a reasonable man who would suggest that the second student was not given an education.  But the second student will not make an advancement in knowledge, which is the fruit of that education.  In the same way, we can understand how someone can eat Christ’s Flesh and drink His Blood sacramentally, but not spiritually, and so not receive the benefits therein.

But where did this delineation come from?  It came from the venerable St. Augustine.  Curiously, even though St. Augustine and Calvin part ways as to the nature of the Eucharist, St. Augustine had the greatest influence on John Calvin of any of the Early Church Fathers.  Of Augustine, he said, “Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so with all fullness and satisfaction to myself out of his writings.”  Let us see, then, how St. Augustine teaches, contrary to the Reformed, that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist even for the reprobate.

In his commentary on John 6, Augustine states,

“For so far, my brethren, as relates to this visible corporeal death, do not we too die who eat the bread that comes down from heaven? They died just as we shall die, so far, as I said, as relates to the visible and carnal death of this body. But so far as relates to that death, concerning which the Lord warns us by fear, and in which their fathers died: Moses ate manna, Aaron ate manna, Phinehas ate manna, and many ate manna, who were pleasing to the Lord, and they are not dead. Why? Because they understood the visible food spiritually, hungered spiritually, tasted spiritually, that they might be filled spiritually. For even we at this day receive visible food: but the sacrament is one thing, the virtue of the sacrament another. How many do receive at the altar and die, and die indeed by receiving? Whence the apostle says, Eats and drinks judgment to himself. For it was not the mouthful given by the Lord that was the poison to Judas. And yet he took it; and when he took it, the enemy entered into him: not because he received an evil thing, but because he being evil received a good thing in an evil way. See ye then, brethren, that you eat the heavenly bread in a spiritual sense; bring innocence to the altar.”Tractate 26 (emphasis mine)

St. Augustine makes the clear delineation between the sacrament and the virtue of the sacrament.  To eat the sacrament with our mouth and tongue is not necessarily to partake of its spiritual effects.  He does not, however, say that for the unbeliever it is not spiritual bread.  In fact, he exhorts the Christian to make sure that they “eat the heavenly bread in a spiritual sense.”  This indicates that when one approaches the altar, the heavenly bread can be eaten both sacramentally and spiritually.  Such an idea is contrary to the Reformed position, which would suggest that for the unbeliever, it is common bread, and common wine, and not heavenly bread.  

In Augustine’s commentary on John 6 as noted in the Catena Aurea, he states,

As for those, as indeed there are many, who either eat that flesh and drink that blood hypocritically, or, who having eaten, become apostates, do they dwell in Christ, and Christ in them? Nay, but there is a certain mode of eating that flesh, and drinking that blood, in which he that eats and drinks, dwells in Christ, and Christ in him.  (Augustine, Catena Aurea, John 6 Emphasis Mine)

Here Augustine explains that there is a specific mode or manner in which a man must eat the flesh and drink the blood in order for Christ to dwell in him and he in Christ.  This mode is by bringing innocence to the altar (see above).  Also notice that again, Augustine does not presuppose the Reformed position, which is that the apostate does not eat Christ’s flesh and drink Christ’s blood.  His affirmation that the apostate eats The Flesh and drinks The Blood is congruent with the teaching of the Catholic Church that the sacrament is in reality Christ’s body and blood.  If he held to a Reformed understanding, he would not affirm that the many who eat and drink hypocritically are eating the flesh and blood at all!  

Lastly, at the end of Tractate 27 of his commentary on John 6:60-72 he implores his listeners to participate fully in the sacrament by eating and drinking to the participation of the spirit.  He says,

Let all this, then, avail us to this end, most beloved, that we eat not the flesh and blood of Christ merely in the sacrament, as many evil men do, but that we eat and drink to the participation of the Spirit, that we abide as members in the Lord’s body, to be quickened by His Spirit, and that we be not offended, even if many do now with us eat and drink the sacrament in a temporal manner, who shall in the end have eternal torments. (Tractate 27 -emphasis mine)

Augustine’s commentary on John 6 shows that Augustine does not believe as the Reformed do, that to the unbeliever Christ is not present in the sacrament, but rather, he is present to believer and unbeliever alike.  Augustine specifically identifies the sacramental species consumed by the unbeliever as “the flesh and blood of Christ.”  May we too be found amongst those who eat and drink The Body and The Blood to the participation of the spirit!

It is the Catholic Church, then, and not the Reformed Faith, that retains the exegesis of John 6 from the Early Church when it continues to declare that Christ is truly and substantially present in the Eucharistic Meal.

In closing, it is fitting that we turn to the words of the Holy Synod of Trent, which urged the Christian faithful to speak with one voice and have one mind concerning the Bread of Angels:

And finally this holy Synod with true fatherly affection admonishes, exhorts, begs, and beseeches, through the bowels of the mercy of our God, that all and each of those who bear the Christian name would now at length agree and be of one mind in this sign of unity, in this bond of charity, in this symbol of concord; and that mindful of the so great majesty, and the so exceeding love of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave His own beloved soul as the price of our salvation, and gave us His own flesh to eat, they would believe and venerate these sacred mysteries of His body and blood with such constancy and firmness of faith, with such devotion of soul, with such piety and worship as to be able frequently to receive that supersubstantial bread, and that it may be to them truly the life of the soul, and the perpetual health of their mind; that being invigorated by the strength thereof, they may, after the journeying of this miserable pilgrimage, be able to arrive at their heavenly country, there to eat, without any veil, that same bread of angels which they now eat under the sacred veils.

Lord, help us to reject the spirit of the age, which tells us that it is “impossible” that Christ could be truly and substantially present in the mysteries of the sacred altar.  Let us, like children, accept the words of The Master in a simple faith and an abiding love:

Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you”

“Amen”

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