This is My Body...This is My Blood
Question: Though the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation cannot be proved by the Bible alone, neither can you show that the bread and wine are merely signs of the body and blood of Christ. A literal understanding of Jesus’ words, “This is my body…this is my blood” agrees well with the Catholic doctrine of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.
[Another reader asked] Jesus' words are plain and clear: This is my body. He does not say, This is a symbol of my body. Why is it that you do not take Christ's words literally like Catholics do?
Answer: Like Evangelicals, Catholics do not take Jesus' words, “This is my body...this is my blood” in a strictly literal sense, for they do not really believe that the bread is Jesus’ body or that the wine is Jesus’ blood. The literal meaning – “This bread is my body; this wine is my blood” -- is a contradiction in terms. Bread is bread, not a human body; wine is wine, not blood. To explain away the obvious empirical facts, clever Catholic theologians have come up with this idea of transubstantiation: What appears to be bread is not bread at all, and though it has all the characteristics of bread, it is in reality (or in substance) the body of Christ! Although this is usually considered a literal interpretation, it is strictly speaking not so.
It is a great misconception that the words of Christ, “This is my body...this is my blood,” prove the doctrine of transubstantiation, for these words are more naturally understood “This bread represents my body...this wine represents my blood,” rather than “This apparent bread is my substantial body...this apparent wine is my substantial blood.”
The verb “is” is often used with a plain literal meaning. I can point to my car and say, “This is my car.” Nothing could be simpler than that. Yet the same verb is also used in a figurative sense. Pointing to the small dot on the map in the middle of the Mediterranean, I can tell you, “This is Malta, my country.” By that I mean, “This represents my country” -- for Malta is not a little dot on a piece of paper. Or, at the dinner table, to explain how I hit an old lady while driving to work, I may take a glass in one hand and the saltshaker in the other, and tell you, “This is my car, and this is the old woman.” That kind of speech is sensible only when we understand “This is” as “This represents.”
Take a biblical example of the symbolic meaning of the verb “to be.” Jesus taught: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels” (Matthew 13:37-39). Notice how Jesus repeatedly uses “is” and “are” to mean “represents” or “symbolizes” or “corresponds to.” The sower is the Son of man, meaning of course, that the sower represents the Son of man. The field is the world, that is, the field symbolizes the world, and so on.
Take another biblical example. In a narrative in the book of Samuel, three brave men put their lives at risk to bring fresh water for their master, David, from a well on the side of the Philistines. But when David found out about this, he would not drink it. He said, “Far be it from me, O LORD, that I should do this! Is this not the blood of the men who went in jeopardy of their lives?” (2 Samuel 23:17). Is not this the blood of the men? He called the water in the vessel “blood,” not because it was transubstantiated, but simply because it represented the danger to the lives of those three men who brought it.
So, we should agree that (in the right context) “this is” could mean “this represents.” Now, I would like to show that there is ample contextual evidence that the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus’ body and blood.
1. The purpose of the Eucharist is a remembrance, a memorial, of Christ. After His bodily ascension into heaven, Christ is physically absent from His disciples on earth for many centuries until His second coming. So at the last supper with His disciples, He gave us a memorial that is both simple and profound in its significance:
Just as the Passover meal was a reminder of God's deliverance of His people from the slavery in Egypt, even so in the Lord's Supper shows the story of our redemption from the slavery of sin by the sacrifice of Christ. Bread and wine are appropriate symbols to remind us of His crucified body and the blood shed on Calvary.
2. When Jesus said, “This is my body,” He was physically present with the disciples. They could see, hear and touch him. John was actually leaning on His bosom. So when Jesus took bread and said, “This is my body,” it was only natural for the apostles to understand that the bread was the symbol rather than His actual body. The tangible proof that the bread did not become Jesus’ body, is the bodily, physical, substantial and material presence of the man Jesus Christ standing with the apostles.
Similarly, when He said, “This is my blood,” Jesus added, “…which is shed for you.” Which blood shed for us? The wine in the cup or the blood in Jesus' veins? Since the wine was never shed, it must represent the blood that was actually shed on the cross.
3. It is impossible to consistently interpret Jesus words literally. We have four slightly different accounts of Jesus' words relating to the cup and blood:
The meanings of the four accounts correspond to each other. Matthew, Mark, Luke and Paul are essentially saying the same thing using different words. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that it is possible to take “This is my blood” in Matthew and Mark either literally or figuratively. But could we say the same for Luke and Paul? Definitely not! “This cup is the new covenant.” The literal interpretation is absurd and meaningless -- certainly the cup is not literally the new testament! The wine is not transubstantiated into the new testament. The Holy Spirit who inspired these words employed a phraseology that simply cannot be understood literally. We are forced to acknowledge that the cup is the sign of the new testament in Christ's blood and not literally the testament or the blood.
Now, comparing Luke and Paul with Matthew and Mark, we can easily determine whether the latter two should be understood literally or figuratively. To be consistent, we must opt for the symbolic meaning. The wine represents the shed blood of Jesus. Moreover, since “This is my body” is parallel to “This is my blood,” this statement too must also be understood figuratively. This bread represents Jesus’ body.
We have seen that the phrase “this is” could mean “this represents.” So at least one should acknowledge that “This is my body...this is my blood” could mean “This represents my body and blood.” Given Jesus' bodily presence with the apostles when He uttered those words, and His explanation that the eating and drinking is a memorial of Him, it is highly likely that He intended the bread and wine as symbols of His body and blood. Finally, we have seen that Jesus' words about the cup cannot be understood literally in the writings of Luke and Paul, and it would be contradictory to give them a literal meaning in the writings of the other two evangelists.
Maybe up to now you have never tried to understand Jesus' words symbolically. Please do. Pray, asking God to give you understanding, and while you read carefully the relevant passages in the synoptic gospels and 1st Corinthians, ask yourself, “Must I understand this to mean transubstantiation? Could it mean instead that the bread and wine are sacred signs of the body and blood of Christ?”
© Dr Joseph Mizzi