The Eucharist: Symbolic or Reality?

I saved the subject of the Eucharist for last because I’ve spent most of this month trying to wrap my mind around the concept (thanks Mentor Jason for being patient with me!). Honestly, it’s nearly as frustrating, amazing, and poetic as the nature of the Trinity. Indeed, when St. Augustine tried to understand the Trinity (the concept of God existing in three persons: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), he likened the effort to filling a small, hand-dug hole on the beach with the ocean. The same goes with the Eucharist: the idea that the bread and wine of Communion are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.


Lately, my seven-year-old daughter has hounded me about the meaning of the Trinity. I realized that, while I think I understand it in my mind, I sound like a blathering idiot when I try putting it in words. Her eyes eventually glaze over and I tell her not to worry about it because most adults don’t get it either.

But here’s the interesting part. One of the dividing points between Catholics and Protestants is the Eucharist. Catholics take Jesus for his word in passages such as John 6: 48-58 while most Protestants consider Communion as symbolic.

I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them,Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

The verses continue describing how many of his disciples were all like, “WTF, Jesus. This is hardcore,” and then left him. Jesus then asked the twelve apostles if they would leave him too and Peter said no.

Jesus continues this bread business during the “Last Supper” (during Passover, which is pregnant with significance) when he calls the bread his body and the wine his blood. He goes on and on without ever implying a metaphor. Jesus never backs down from his insistence that these materials–this food–is what he said they are.

"The Last Supper" by Simon Dewey

During the Eucharistic prayer of the Mass, the priest will say:

You are indeed Holy, O Lord, the fount of all holiness. Make holy, therefore, these gifts (bread and wine), we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dew fall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I’ve enjoyed this part of the liturgy since my first Mass this month, but what’s being said never really clicked until now. You can imagine a misty spring morning when low clouds of dew soak the ground. The Holy Spirit is often described as a cloud in the Bible. We also recall how the Spirit “descended” upon Jesus after his baptism. And what about Mary? Did not the Spirit descend upon her, thus bringing Christ to her womb? The Spirit also descended upon the apostles in the Upper Room and many others during Pentecost.

In every case, the Spirit transformed something.

The Holy Spirit. More than meets the eye...

If a Protestant can accept that God is a Trinity of three “persons” in one, if he can believe that God can become fully man and divine in one body, if he can believe that God can die on a cross, if he can believe that Jesus literally raised from the dead, then why does his belief in God’s transformative power and grace stop cold with the Eucharist?

Why does it all of a sudden become symbolic…and yet the other aspects of faith are literal?

Consider this. All matter, all the physical stuff you see around you that you think is solid, is actually 99% empty space on the subatomic level. We and everything around us is empty. As a Protestant, I heard a lot of talk regarding being “filled with the Holy Spirit.”

If we are really empty space, then that means the bread and wine are also empty. If we can be “filled with the Spirit,” if Mary’s womb can be filled with Christ, if the cross can be filled with God, then why can’t the Spirit fill the majority space of the bread and wine, and like everything else the Spirit touches, utterly transform it into the very thing Jesus said it was? Are we not said to be transformed when Christ enters our lives?

But this has greater implications. If our universe is literally 99% empty space, then we are designed to be literal vessels. Vessels for what?

Given today’s topic, you fill in the blank. Unless of course it’s all just symbolic.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Helen/Hawk

    You say “If our universe is literally 99% empty space, then we are designed to be literal vessels. Vessels for what?”

    99% and 1%…….hmm, I’ve heard those words before lately

    • abowen


      Indeed, and I think the poetry of the reversal is lovely. In the case of this post we are all the 1% : )

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lowell

    It’s interesting to put the question, “if you can believe that a cloud can make a woman pregnant, why not believe that talking can turn bread into meat (flesh)?” I also wonder why a person who believes such things would be incredulous about anything at all.

    It does confuse me when we take a concept like the trinity and transubstantiation and say that it is very difficult to grasp, instead of simply saying it’s nonsense. There are plenty of mind-bending things in the real world: the wave/particle duality of light, the vast empitness of the physical world (as you mentioned, Schrodinger’s Cat, why bother contemplating how Santa can give toys to all of those kids in one night?

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jamicam

    Reminds me of this interaction between a Muslim and a Catholic about the Eucharist:

    My friend John, a very intelligent and faithful Catholic, told me the following story when he was one of my students at Boston College.

    John’s friend, Isa — a very intelligent and faithful Muslim — expressed an interest in understanding the Catholic faith (not out of any doubt of his own) and asked John to take him to Mass. After Mass, John asked Isa what he had thought of it. Isa said, very slowly and thoughtfully, “Do Catholics really believe that thing, that piece of bread, is not bread at all but Jesus Christ (peace be upon him)?”

    “We do”, said John.

    “Your Church teaches that he is really present there, yes? That what’s there is the man who was God?”

    “Yes. The formula is ‘Body and blood, soul and divinity.’”

    “And you believe that?”


    Isa made as if to say something, but stifled it. John assured him he would not be offended. Finally, reluctantly, Isa said, “I don’t understand.”

    “I understand how you feel. It sounds very shocking.”

    “No, you don’t understand. That’s not what I mean. You will take it as an insult, but I don’t mean it to be.”

    “I promise I won’t take it as an insult. But I really want to know what’s on your mind.”

    “Well then… I don’t think you really do believe that. I don’t mean to say you’re dishonest, but…”

    “I think I know what you mean. You can’t empathize with anyone who believes something so shocking. You don’t see how you could ever get down on your knees before that altar.”

    “No, I don’t see how I could ever get up. If I believed that thing that looks like a little round piece of bread was really Allah Himself, I think I would just faint. I would fall at His feet like a dead man.”

    John looked carefully at my reaction as he reported Isa’s words. My eyes opened, and he smiled. “What did you say to him?” I asked.

    “Nothing. Then, after a while, just ‘Yes.”‘ John is a wise man.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Art Sherwood

    I guess my simple response to this issue is: why does it matter?

    Whether the bread and wine literally turn into the flesh and blood of Christ when we consume them or whether it is symbolic seems irrelevant. The end result is the same either way.

    Now, from the LDS perspecive, we believe that it is a symbolic thing. Not that we don’t believe that it could be transformed, but that we believe it doesn’t need to be. The purpose of the sacrament, as we call it, is to help us remember Christ and his sacrifice and to renew the convenant we made at baptism and recommit ourselves to it.

    The Book of Mormon contains the account of Christ’s appearance to the ancient inhabitants of the American continent shortly after His resurrection. During this visit, Christ introduced the sacrament to those people much like He did at the last supper. Here is the account as recorded in 3 Nephi, chapter 18:

    1 And it came to pass that Jesus commanded his disciples that they should bring forth some bread and wine unto him.

    2 And while they were gone for bread and wine, he commanded the multitude that they should sit themselves down upon the earth.

    3 And when the disciples had come with bread and wine, he took of the bread and brake and blessed it; and he gave unto the disciples and commanded that they should eat.

    4 And when they had eaten and were filled, he commanded that they should give unto the multitude.

    5 And when the multitude had eaten and were filled, he said unto the disciples: Behold there shall one be ordained among you, and to him will I give power that he shall break bread and bless it and give it unto the people of my church, unto all those who shall believe and be baptized in my name.

    6 And this shall ye always observe to do, even as I have done, even as I have broken bread and blessed it and given it unto you.

    7 And this shall ye do in remembrance of my body, which I have shown unto you. And it shall be a testimony unto the Father that ye do always remember me. And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you.

    8 And it came to pass that when he said these words, he commanded his disciples that they should take of the wine of the cup and drink of it, and that they should also give unto the multitude that they might drink of it.

    9 And it came to pass that they did so, and did drink of it and were filled; and they gave unto the multitude, and they did drink, and they were filled.

    10 And when the disciples had done this, Jesus said unto them: Blessed are ye for this thing which ye have done, for this is fulfilling my commandments, and this doth witness unto the Father that ye are willing to do that which I have commanded you.

    11 And this shall ye always do to those who repent and are baptized in my name; and ye shall do it in remembrance of my blood, which I have shed for you, that ye may witness unto the Father that ye do always remember me. And if ye do always remember me ye shall have my Spirit to be with you.

    • abowen


      To answer your question, it doesn’t matter…until you ask a Catholic or Protestant. In my humble opinion, it would be like asking you why it matters that we should even consider the Book of Mormon. We have the gospels, why do we need your book? The reversal reveals the significance. Thanks, as always, for your contributions and scholarship. The comment section would be barren without them, my friend.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Nick

    In this post you quote the primary passages (John 6:48-58) that lead many Catholics to insist on a literal bread to flesh transubstantiation. Then you give a paraphrasing of verse 60 where many disciples respond saying “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Let’s round things out a little by adding passages that seem to point to a different interpretation. Just 3 verses later (verse 63) Jesus gives the following response: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.”

    Here is another incident where Jesus makes a statement related to bread (yeast in this case), the disciples discuss it thinking He is talking about actual bread, then Jesus scolds them for taking His statement literally:

    “When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread.
    ‘Be careful,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’
    They discussed this among themselves and said, ‘It is because we didn’t bring any bread.’
    Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? … How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’
    Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
    Matthew 16:5-12

    I sometimes get the impression that many of my Christian friends think that symbolic or spiritual interpretations (of the Eucharist, of the story of Adam and Eve, of Resurrection, and so on) are less real, or just a dismissal of the issue. On the other hand, perhaps there is deeper truth to the spiritual interpretation, a richness that could be lost when the symbolic is taken as the literal. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate the way you immerse yourself completely in the particular religion of the month, and have found the Catholic apologetics very interesting.

    By the way, for anyone interested in the Baha’i take on this topic, here is a link to a chapter in the book “Some Answered Questions” where Abdu’l-Baha explains the symbolism beautifully:

    • abowen


      Thank you for your input here. I always enjoy the Baha’i perspective.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment kelley

    I know this is really late,but I just got a chance to catch up on your entries.

    In regards to the trinity, one of my old religion teachers explained it this way, which is something that always stuck with me:
    She had a bowl of water, a tea pot that was heating up, and a bowl of ice. She explained that the steam, liquid water, and ice were all the same substance, just in different forms. This is how the trinity is, God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit, all the same substance in different forms.