The semester that I transferred to ASU, I needed to fill an upper-division humanities credit. So after looking through various possibilities, I selected a history course focusing on the Roman Empire from the time of Christ to the early medieval period. I never suspected that the studies that I was about to embark on for this class were going to rock the foundation of the assumptions that I had accepted as fact for many years, as I dug into original source material written by the fathers of the Church in ways that I would never have foreseen as God revealed to me the history and reality of the Church that He founded.
The first assignment was a research paper on the causes of the early Christian persecutions, which was a topic that I was very excited to get—that is, until I began researching it. I had been taught that the early Christians were persecuted simply for being Christian, but then I started digging into primary sources for my research paper, the historical reality painted a different picture. Seemingly out of left field, the early Christian belief in the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Christ began exploding in my face, since the primary grievance of the Roman persecutors of the Church was their perception that the Church practiced cannibalism. To make things even worse for me, the writings by fathers of the Early Church such as Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Cyprian, Irenaeus, Clement, Aphraates, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Serapion, Athanasius, Cyril, Hilary, Basil, Epiphanius, Gregory, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Clemens, Jerome, Augustine, and even little-known fathers who contributed little all clearly and unanimously went to great lengths to defend the Church’s belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and were willing to not only risk martyrdom for their belief in Christ’s literal physical presence. To top it off, they were also willing to leave behind clear articulations of their teachings that left absolutely no room for doubt that they truly and unanimously believed in Christ’s physical presence—even when doing so would place their lives at great risk for martyrdom. The best that I could find to support any other position were two isolated misquotes of Tertullian and Augustine on their beliefs, but that went nowhere. I was forced to concede that the Early Church not only unanimously believed in and taught the Real Presence of Christ but was also willing to lay down their lives for that belief.
Realizing that I was looking at the writings and the teachings of individuals who in many cases were only a generation or two removed from Christ himself prompted me to reevaluate my position. After all, if my belief that communion was merely symbolic was correct, logic would dictate that I would have to reject the testimonies of all of the early Christian martyrs for accepting an invalid Christology by adoring a Christ that did not exist. So I dug into Scripture to study if the Bible supported the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist—and once again, I was stunned to discover that Scripture teaches it.
First, I investigated the accounts of the Last Supper. I could not help but note that the verb used by Christ when Christ stated “this is my body” and “this is my blood” in Matthew 26:26-29, Mark 14:22-25, and Luke 24:14-23 was plain old “is”—thereby equating the bread and wine to his body and blood. Symbolic language such as “is like” in “…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls…” in Matthew 13:45 is not used here, and therefore a symbolic interpretation is not supported. Then, as I began investigating 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 where Paul affirms the words of Christ but takes things one step further by issuing a strong warning against partaking unworthily, I began to recognize that it was much more difficult to interpret the bread and the wine in the Lord’s Supper as symbolic than as literal since strong penalties followed from profaning it:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.
So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another—if any one is hungry, let him eat at home—lest you come together to be condemned. About the other things I will give directions when I come.
That begged the question—if the Lord’s Supper was a symbolic event where the Communion bread and wine were essentially no different from ordinary bread and wine, why were such strong warnings given for inappropriate consumption? It began to dawn on me that the strong warning was explainable only if the Lord’s Supper was more than a symbolic event.
In the end though, the Scripture passage that ultimately settled this issue was a close look at John 6, where Jesus reveals that “I AM the Bread of Life.” As the passage continues, Jesus focuses more and more on eating His flesh and drinking His blood:
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. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
I realized that the language used by Christ himself in this passage became more and more literal as the passage unfolds, and that any possible trace of symbolism disappears. Jesus’s followers understood it and many turned away, understanding him to mean literal eating. In the Greek, this is undeniable since the Greek word used for “eat” is trogon, which is an extremely graphic verb meaning “chew” or “gnaw”. There is simply no room for symbolic language, which continues:
Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that should betray him. And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “Will you also go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
Realizing that many of his disciples had turned away from Christ’s true teaching on that point while others were later willing to specifically die for it shocked me. God had brought me to the point where I had no choice but to recognize that the teaching in Christ’s Real Presence was the Biblical and the historical teaching, and therefore the correct teaching. And not only that, Christ was administering a sharp rebuke to those who chose to turn away and reject Christ’s teaching that He was the Bread of Life who literally feeds us with his body and blood.
All this study, however, did little to trigger me to seriously consider the claims of the Catholic Church at the time; rather, from then on as I sat in Communion I would receive the small fragment of bread and cup of juice with reverence as the real body and blood of Christ. And as time progressed, I began growing more and more uncomfortable with the flippant, unbiblical manner by which the pastor repeatedly treated communion: “Folks, we don’t believe that there is anything mystical going on here…Christ said at the Last Supper, these crumbly little wafers represent my body…this grape juice is just a symbol of my blood…we only do this because we remember God and He commanded it, but it doesn’t have any special hidden meanings…”
We Catholics are not mystics searching for hidden meanings, as that Baptist pastor seemed to insinuate. We simply believe that Christ meant every word that He taught and that His teachings are best understood precisely the way that He presented them. Tragically, our Protestant brothers and sisters have lost the true meaning of the Eucharist, and as Catholics we must pray that they will come to a realization of what they are doing by partaking in these perfunctory ceremonies while denying the presence of Christ as taught in Scripture, and will seek His full and Real Presence in the Eucharist.
About Joshua Baldwin
Joshua Baldwin is a full-time aerospace software engineer and a convert to the Catholic Church, joining from a Baptist background at Easter 2015. A Phoenix native, Joshua holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Arizona State University and is passionate about studying Scripture and mastering apologetics to further the Church in its New Evangelization mission. Joshua is a parishioner at the All Saints Catholic Newman Center in Tempe, Arizona, where he serves in many capacities to shine for the New Evangelization!