The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist has been believed by Christians since the time of the Apostles. Understanding this metaphysically and describing our belief in human terms has been a development over time, but the teaching that Jesus – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – is present in the bread and wine after the consecration has never changed. There was no widescale rejection of this doctrine among Christians until after the time of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Even then, the first “reformer” – Martin Luther – adamantly defended the belief in the Real Presence against the other Protestants who denied it because he recognized it was both Scriptural and had been held always and everywhere in the Church.
The Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist
If challenged on this doctrine, in our defense, it is important to utilize the words of Scripture where we are taught the the Real Presence, including the Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:28-69), the accounts of the Last Supper (Matthew 26:26-30; Mark 14:22-26; Luke 22:14-20; 1 Cor 11: 23-26), the words of Saint Paul (1 Corinthians 10:1-16; 11:27-30) and the account on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-31). But there are also arguments not solely based on Scripture sometimes raised by non-Catholics, and we should be prepared to answer these. Here are a few questions along this line of questioning that I have been asked.
Is it really possible?
In a conversation with a non-Catholic Christian, after first defining the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, I was asked, “That belief just seems impossible. How could Jesus really be present in the bread and wine?”
God is all-powerful and all things are possible with him. Throughout the Scriptures, God demonstrates his divine omnipotence. In Genesis 1, God created all things out of nothing by simply willing it to happen. In Exodus 14, Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt and, when they came to an impasse, by the power of God, the Red Sea was divided so they could cross into freedom. In Daniel 6, the prophet Daniel is thrown into a den of lions and the hand of an angel, an instrument of God, keeps Daniel unharmed. In the Gospels, Jesus restores the sight to blind men (Matthew 9), heals men with leprosy (Luke 17), raises a widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7), turns large amounts of water into wine (John 2) and raises Lazarus from the dead before many witnesses (John 11).
More shockingly, Jesus, the Second Divine Person of the Trinity, becomes man (Philippians 2:6-11). God the Son unites himself to a human nature, taking on a human body, receiving a human soul, lowering himself to a situation where he had to be dependent on the Virgin Mary to care for him and experiencing the limitations of matter. At the end of his earthly life, Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, demonstrating the truth that he was who he claimed to be – a divine person. The reality of the Incarnation is hard to fathom but it is a central belief of Christianity.
If all these things are possible with God, it is not a leap to believe that God has the ability to transform the substance of the bread and wine into the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. God is the Supreme Creator with power over all creation. God has more power than nature and can cause supernatural events in this world.
Creating a Round Square?
A further challenge related to God’s omnipotence and the Real Presence may be raised, “But is God truly all-powerful? Christians seem to acknowledge that God is not able to make a round square or a stone too heavy for God to lift. So if God has these limitations, it just does not seem reasonable to me to claim God turns the bread into Jesus.”
Our understanding of God’s omnipotence recognizes that God is the divine logos: he is reason and logic without imperfection. Anything that implies a contradiction or is logically incoherent falls outside of the scope of his divine omnipotence. If we say God can create a stone of infinitely heavy mass because he is all-powerful but follow that by saying this stone is too heavy for God to lift (thus not all-powerful), this is a contradiction. God is either all-powerful or he is not, both realities cannot exist. God cannot make a round square because this is a “non-being” – it is not something that can exist since it is contrary to logic and reason. Similarly, God cannot make something that is “blue” and “not blue” at the same time or creates a “four-sided triangle.” [Read more on understanding God’s omnipotence here and here.]
Regarding the Real Presence, this does not involve any contradiction. Consider Jesus’ first miracle at Cana. Large quantities of water were transformed into wine. In this situation, the substance (what the matter was) and the accidents (the external features such as appearance and taste) were changed. The fact this change in substance occurred is not contrary to logic but is a supernatural act.
With the Eucharist, prior to Mass, what exists is bread and wine both in substance (what they are) and in the accidents (what our senses perceive such as the color, smell, taste). After praying the words of consecration, through the instrument of the priest, God transforms the bread and wine into the Real Presence of Jesus Christ. The substance is no longer bread or wine but is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus, and, in God’s plan, Jesus is present to us in a form that retains the accidents of bread and wine. Our senses still perceive the soft, round wafer of bread and the aroma and color of the naturally fermented wine from grapes, but the substance of bread and wine are no longer present at all. Though we cannot fully comprehend this supernatural act, it is not contrary to reason or logic.
Because something may be above our mind’s capacity to understand does not make it unreasonable. The change in substance that occurs in the Eucharist is miraculous and how this happens is beyond our reason yet not contrary to it which is an important distinction. So, unlike the idea of a round square which is logically incoherent, changing the substance of the bread and wine into the Real Presence of Jesus is not only possible but this supernatural event occurs at each and every Mass throughout the world and has occurred since Jesus gave this power to the Apostles and their successors almost 2000 years ago.
But it still looks, tastes and smells like bread and wine…?
Ultimately, at the end of most conversations on the Eucharist, one of the most common reasons to reject the doctrine of the Real Presence is because of our sense experience, “But it still looks, tastes and smells like bread and wine. How can it really be Jesus? How do you know it is him?”
Our senses are very powerful influences in our lives. Through sight we gaze upon a beautiful sunset and, regardless of the turmoil in our life, we can feel momentary peace. Or we may look out from a mountain-top and be overwhelmed by the sense of amazement at the world around us. The sweet pleasant aroma after a rainstorm is nostalgic and energizing. The simple sound of children playing outside laughing can instill in us a sense of joy that can sometimes be difficult to find in this fallen world. So being told Jesus is present in the Eucharist while my taste, touch, smell, and vision are perceiving bread and wine can confound the mind. But the reality is our senses are deceiving us. Through Scripture and his Church, Jesus tells us he is truly present in the Eucharist despite what I may perceive, and he asks us to have faith.
As Christians, there are other examples in our lives where we must trust God rather than our senses. Consider the fact of the Incarnation. When Jesus walked the shores of Galilee, from all outward appearances he was a human person just like us. Jesus ate, slept, donned garments, cried and suffered. By appearances alone, no one would have perceived this Jesus was a divine Person who possessed both a divine nature and a human nature – God the Son who had existed for all eternity!
Also, consider the sacrament of Baptism. If we behold an infant or an adult both before they are baptized and immediately after, the senses will not perceive any change. By all outward appearances, nothing will be different other than the infant may be crying from the shock of being immersed in water or the adult may be overwhelmed by the intellectual awareness of what has occurred. But even though our senses give us no indication of the significance of baptism, Jesus has revealed to us through Scripture and Tradition that through this sacrament God’s own divine life is infused into our soul. We become an adopted child of God and we are interiorly transformed into a new creation. A supernatural event has occurred and the person’s life is now infinitely different.
A final example is from Scripture. There is an account in Genesis when Abraham met three travelers who came to his camp at Mamre (Genesis 18). From all appearances, these were three men. They walked, sat down, ate a meal and spoke with Abraham. But even though the “accidents” (their external features/characteristics) were identical to human beings, the Bible tells us they were spirits. God permitted these beings to temporarily take on the appearance of human men but their “substance” – what they are/their nature – were angelic persons.
Though our senses can often provide reliable information in our natural world, we cannot always rely on them when it comes to the supernatural. From the beginning, we discover throughout the Old Testament that God has been preparing us to receive the truth about the Eucharist. With the coming of Jesus Christ, we received the fullness of truth including the revelations regarding the doctrine of the Real Presence. Despite what I perceive, I trust God and believe all he has revealed to us so I know with certainty the Eucharist really is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
I cannot believe it because I cannot fathom it…
Despite this evidence, I have had conversations with non-Catholics who exclaim one last remark just before they walk away, “I just cannot believe this doctrine of the Real Presence because I do not fully understand it and cannot fathom it.”
But what about other doctrines that are central to Christianity such as the Trinity and the Incarnation (that God became man)? These are mysteries of the faith and we will never fully grasp them with our finite intellects, yet we believe them. And these inscrutable teachings are enormous obstacles for many non-Christians especially the idea that the Supreme Being and Creator would enter time and take on matter. But as a Christian, I know that God has revealed these truths even though unimaginable for many. Similarly, God has revealed the reality of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Though difficult, it is not more unfathomable than the reality that 2000 years ago the infinite, eternal God became man and strolled along the stone streets of Jerusalem and then allowed himself to be crucified in order to redeem the world.