Is Communion the Real Body and Blood of Christ?

Part 2

In a previous article, I wrote about a friend of mine who questioned why Orthodox Christians couldn’t just get back to the Bible and use it as a means for agreeing over what Christianity truly is. During that conversation, my friend asked another question that is intimately related to the first: he wanted to know why we Orthodox Christians teach that Communion is the actual body and blood of Christ.

Now, I would be naïve to believe that only non-Orthodox Christians question the teaching of the Church concerning the Eucharist. Many of we who have been raised Orthodox doubt that the sacrament of Holy Communion is really Christ’s body and blood.

The witness supporting the Church’s teaching is, however, overwhelming. First we can look to the scriptures. Both the Gospels and Epistles support the position that the Sacrament of Eucharist is indeed the body and blood of Christ. Looking at the Gospel of Mark chapter 14, we read in verses 22 through 24, “And as they were eating, He took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” There is no ambiguity in this passage; Christ clearly identifies the bread that He has blessed as His body, and the cup He has blessed as His blood. In another part of the Gospels, Jesus speaks about Himself in the following way: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall 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, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you; he who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in me, and I in him. Many of His disciples, when they heard it, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?’. . .After this, many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him,” (John 6.51-66). It is clear from this passage that even from the time of Christ, the teaching that Eucharist was the actual body and blood of Jesus was difficult to comprehend. In fact, people who had followed Christ turned away after hearing this teaching of his. Today, the same is true; many are not able to bear this truth.

In the decades following Christ’s death and resurrection, the Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians deals with the incorrect understanding many Christians developed concerning the Eucharist. In his first letter to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul writes, 10.16, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ?” St. Paul corrects those Christians who had forgotten what the true meaning of the Eucharist was: an actual communion with the Lord Jesus Christ. Later in this same epistle, he warns the Corinthians that participation in the Eucharist in an unworthy manner can lead to illness even death (1 Corinthians 11.27-30).
In the first century following Christ’s assumption into heaven, the churches that had been established by the Apostles celebrated the Eucharist on Sunday believing it to be the actual body and blood of Christ. The earliest written documents confirm this point. Around the year 150 AD, St. Justin the Philosopher wrote the following to the Roman Emperor defending the practice of Christians: “We do not receive these Gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink. But as Jesus Christ our Savior was made flesh through the Word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the prayer of the Word which we have from Him – the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation – is, we are taught, the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Who was made flesh, (Apology I).”

Faithfully, the Orthodox Church has maintained this teaching of Christ for over 2000 years. Our liturgy beseeches our Lord to be present in the elements of bread and wine through the descent and operation of the Holy Spirit. This activity is real, and the bread which we break and the cup which we bless are truly the body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Of course, the Church accepts that this teaching is not easy to comprehend, as we have seen even Jesus could not convince some of His disciples. Against this, the Church invites you to draw near, to taste, and to see that the Lord is good. In a sense, an invitation has been extended, and our Lord awaits our response. In the end, the Church knows that it is not with physical eyes that we will be able to see and comprehend the miraculous nature of this sacrament. Rather, it is through the illumination of our spiritual vision that we will be able to behold the Risen Lord. This is the true teaching concerning the Eucharist.

Unfortunately, my friend does not accept the teaching of the Church. Rather his own interpretation of the above mentioned scriptures and tradition is contrary to Orthodoxy’s 2000-year witness. In his mind mere bread and wine could never be the true body and blood of Jesus Christ. Of course, we might as well ask how could a poor little babe in a cave in Bethlehem be the actual Lord of the Universe? Truly a human being could never be found to be God, or could He?