A local cable-channel preacher was adamant that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is strictly symbolic. His argument did give the viewer pause.
The Jews of Jesus’ day were resolutely against any contact with blood, let alone consuming human blood. Some commentators even think that the reason the priest and the Levite passed by the man beaten by the side of the Jericho road was that touching his bloodied body would have made them ritually impure. The Old Testament abounds in cautions against blood. So no self-respecting Jew, especially Jesus Christ, would violate his own people’s consciences by offering them a taste of his blood at the Last Supper or down through the ages at the table of the Lord. The television preacher insisted that he did not want to insult any particular religion (what religion do you suppose he had in mind?), but the evidence was clear: to understand Holy Communion as being anything other than symbolic flies in the face of Scripture and violates Jewish sensibilities.
In one sense the preacher is correct. The Jews of Jesus’ era would be disgusted at the thought of drinking blood. But, according to St. John, their loathing did not deter Jesus from making the offer. In the Fourth Evangelist’s celebrated sixth chapter, the beloved disciple makes a powerful presentation for the sacramental body and blood of Christ being genuinely Christ’s body and blood. The Jews are predictably shocked that Jesus is offering them his actual body and blood.
“How can this fellow give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus’ Jewish audience asks in unbelief.
When Jesus insists that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink, his listeners raise the level of discontent. “This is a hard saying,” they argue.
“Who can endure it?” they complain. And then St. John adds poignantly, “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”
These dispirited disciples clearly knew that Jesus was not challenging them with a mere symbol. He was asking them to pour the wine of their faith into new wineskins. He was asking them to forego the shadows of the Old Covenant for the demands of the New Covenant. Ritual impurity was a thing of the past. Full Eucharistic presence was the wave of the future.
Happily, not everyone rejected Jesus Christ’s challenging words on the reality of the Eucharist. A dejected Jesus turns to St. Peter and the other apostles and inquires, “Do you also want to leave?”
St. Peter characteristically responds for the Twelve: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”
With unsurprising prophetic insight, St. John places belief in the reality of the Eucharist as the test of authentic Christianity. Those who can accept that Jesus is truly present “body, blood, soul, and divinity” under the outward appearance of bread and wine are to be ranked among the authentic followers of Jesus Christ. Those who find this too much of a “hard saying” are in danger of no longer being part of his company.
It is oddly ironic that some otherwise-dedicated Christian communities reject the sacramental reality of the Eucharistic precious blood. After all, as a recent Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury proudly noted, the extension of the cup to the laity was one of the hard-fought issues of the Reformation. The Communion service as a meal, as opposed to a sacrifice, defines Protestant worship. To demean this meal by making it simply symbolic defies the lengthy lessons of St. John’s chapter six, St. Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians and the writings of the ancient fathers. Yet, some latter day disciples are perhaps just following the example of the few diffident disciples mentioned by St. John. It was Christ’s hard saying on the Eucharist that divided the initial followers of the Master. Apparently it is full appreciation of the significance of the Eucharist that continues to divide those who profess faith in Jesus Christ. Roman Catholics happily have the example of St. Peter in making a clear act of faith in Christ’s Eucharistic teachings a foundation stone of authentic Christianity. “Hard saying” notwithstanding, Christ’s blood is real drink and his body real food.