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Q&A: Concerning the Eucharist

Q: How do you interpret Christ saying eat my flesh and drink my blood. It is a tough passage and when we follow His light unflinchingly— isn’t what Jesus meant literally? Not a symbol only? Thank you. – Mary

A: The difficult word in this question is “literally.” In terms of language, literal typically means “in the ordinary sense” and figurative means something like “in the extraordinary sense.” To follow the light unflinchingly, we need not limit ourselves to reading every passage as a literal statement. With Jesus, the extraordinary sense is almost common place! For example, when Jesus says, “I am the door” (John 10:9), I believe this to be a true statement but not an ordinary statement. I would not assume that Jesus is an adequate substitute for the 36″ wooden front door to my home, or even to the little gate to my sheep pin (if I had such). I do not interpret this saying to mean that I should attribute to Jesus metaphysical knobs and hinges. To use more Thomistic language, I do not imagine that the door to my church has the accident of being a door but on Sunday morning is transubstatiated into my Lord himself.

As a matter of fact, Jesus says “I am” a great many things in John’s Gospel, including “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), and “I am the true vine” (15:1). In each of these cases, I believe we correctly understand Jesus as speaking in figures. He is the light in the sense that he reveals to us reality, not in the sense of electromagnetic radiation. He is the good shepherd in his providential care, not that the carpenter moonlighted as a herdsman. He is the true vine in being the source of life for every branch, not in being vegetative in nature.

Likewise, when Jesus says “I am the bread of life” that must be eaten to live (John 6:51), he is making much the same point he makes when he claims to be the source of living water (John 4:13-14). It is an absolute truth to be followed unflinchingly, but it is still a truth stated as a figure, not literally. I would read the familiar eucharistic passages in the same way (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24). Jesus is holding out bread and wine to his disciples and stating that they are his body and blood to be eaten. The disciples would not have imagined that the elements metaphysically transformed into the flesh and blood of the still living and yet uncrucified Christ who sat before them. They would have considered it a cryptic riddle in the manner Jesus often spoke, and so should we.

Unfortunately, “literally” has come to be equivalent in modern speech to “really” or “truly.” Consequently when I say something is not “literal,” some people hear “not truly” or “not really.” This is not what I mean at all. A figurative statement is really true. A figurative statement can in fact be more real in what is expressed than many literal statements. In the case of our topic, the statement “this is my body” is much more accurate and descriptive than the more literal statement, “this is a loaf of bread.” I lament that my own heritage of faith has been so heavily influenced by Ulrich Zwingli and his reduction of the communion to mere symbolism. I’d prefer a compromise with the language of Luther who thought the real presence of Christ was with us “in, with and under the forms” or even Calvin’s simpler formulation that Jesus was “spiritually” present in the bread and wine. Zwingli’s wording seems to ignore that we truly meet God in our worship and in its elements.