Fr. Abbot Denis

The topic of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a classical example of the way a theological topic can be too narrowly centered on a few isolated texts and lead to dead end. This sort of “confessional exegesis” that had been developed after the Reformation resulted in more harm than help on either side of the dividing line, and created further subdivisions mostly among Protestants but also, to a lesser degree, among Catholics.

In this paper, I do not intend to reproduce either the history or a survey of the multiplicity of the positions about the Eucharistic presence of Christ in today’s ecclesial scene.1 Rather, I will investigate in what sense the question of Christ’s Eucharistic presence can be regarded as a biblical question at all. For this purpose I will first describe the larger context of the question in the Bible, namely that of the divine presence and the continued presence of Christ, and I will then try to define how biblical exegesis leads us in our effort to obtain an answer to the question of the Eucharistic presence.

I. The Biblical Language of Presence

1) Language of Divine Presence in the Old Testament

Independently of the Eucharist, we can assemble rich material about the meaning of divine presence in both Testaments.

a) The Name YHWH

Linguistic analysis of the name YHWH favors the view that the one God of the Israelites is first and foremost “the One who is present” (the One who acts or makes things come about) — i.e., the name’s meaning refers to a dynamic and creative presence, not a merely transcendent or otherworldly one, but a presence in the world and in history by both causing history and participating in history.

b) Revelatory and Salvific Presence

Most surprising is the language of presence found in the story of Elijah’s encounter with God in the cave after his battle with the prophets of Baal:
[The LORD] said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)

We find a number of similar passages in the Bible, speaking of the divine absence or presence in a dynamic sense: the voice of the Lord in the storm, the Lord guiding the Israelites in a column of fire or a cloud, God’s presence with the Israelites in battle, in travel, in acts of worship, God’s presence while addressing them, or stating his laws, etc. These passages, like the one quoted from First Kings, may formally result in an affirmation that “God is (or was) in” some created reality, by the preposition “in” (be) modifying a noun.

“The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night” (Ex 13:21).

This is, of course, the language of theophany, God appearing in storm, cloud, fire (lightning) and thunder (cf. Ps 18 or 29), but remarkable is the way it is applied to express an ongoing divine presence amidst God’s people.

c) Presence in the Temple

The texts above usually speak of God’s revelatory and salvific or protective presence and as such, they usually do not mean a static presence but rather a transient and dynamic one. However, there is in the Old Testament another frequently used concept of divine presence which conveys the impression of a permanent “dwelling” of God in the midst of his people. I refer to the texts about Yahweh’s presence in the Ark of the Covenant and then, maybe even more explicitly, in the Temple. The texts are numerous. Some are in a revelatory context like Isaiah’s vision of the LORD’s majestic appearance in the Temple (6:1-6). Others speak more explicitly about the Temple as “the house in which you dwell, and the place where your glory abides” (Ps 26:8), a presence that guarantees forever the well-being of Zion as a city of God in which he is present (Ps 48:2, 65:1). With the Temple as an institution and the center of worship in Israel, the static and stable aspect of this notion becomes quite clear, especially from the way in which it becomes eventually abused and therefore becomes the target of criticism by the prophets, most notably Jeremiah.
“Do not trust in these deceptive words: “This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.” (Jer 7:4)

The concept of the “temple of the Lord” is said to be deceptive because it resulted in obscuring the notion of the Lord’s transcendence and holiness and has been transformed in a way analogous to the pagan concept common in the cult of polytheistic religions. The divinity is conceived of as dwelling enshrined in the cultic place, as if held hostage, providing some sort of guaranteed security for the people, protected even if they engage in immoral practices.

2) Divine Presence in Christ and Christ’s Continued Presence

a) Divine Presence in Christ

In neither of the two Testaments is God said to dwell in any human being other than Jesus Christ. The Pauline verse makes this statement quite explicit: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19). Or: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” (Col 2:9).   That this means not a mere dynamic and functional presence of God in Christ, but a static, stable and ontological one is affirmed by the church’s Christological teaching. In the light of other Pauline texts (esp. Phil 2:9-11), we can see that this was rather explicit in Paul’s mind.

Similarly, the whole of New Testament Christology speaks of a permanent presence of the Divine in Christ, a filiation that is not merely adoptive but one that defines his being not only in its post-resurrectional glory but from the moment of his conception. He is “Son of God” “constituted” not only at his glorification according to the Spirit of the resurrection, but already that at his birth “according to the flesh” (cf. Rom 1:3-4), as in fact the narrative about his conception declares (Lk 1:35). He is called the Word dwelling eternally with the Father, and becoming flesh in order to inhabit a world of temporal and finite dimensions (Jn 1: 14).

b) The Continued Presence of the Risen Lord in the World

The New Testament writings express and explain in a variety of ways the continued presence of the glorified Lord among his disciples.

The last passage of Matthew’s gospel seems to constitute such a statement. At the final point of the narrative, where we expect the evangelist to describe Jesus’ permanent transfer to the heavenly realms, Jesus appears on the top of the mountain. It seems that this is not a mountain, but the very mountain on which the Kingdom of God was proclaimed at the beginning of Jesus ministry (cf. Mt 5:1). So the text of the universal commission taking place on the mountain harks back to the beginning of the book. In a special way, the last words uttered by Jesus “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:20) refer back to the beginning (Mt 1:23) where the prophecy of Emmanuel by Isaiah (Is 7:24) was quoted. In this way, the first so-called fulfillment text and the last sentence by Jesus constitute the backbone or the axis of the Gospel of Matthew. The word Immanu-El is interpreted as a promise to be given in the Messiah and divinely fulfilled at his glorification with an intent of permanence reaching beyond all temporal and geographic limitations. Clearly, the divine presence is here expanded and eternalized in the world through a promised presence of the Risen Lord. Jesus’ phrase “I will be with you” is pronounced to fulfill the meaning of the messianic name “God-with-us.”

Similar observations can be made of John’s gospel. Beginning with the Prologue, the Gospel systematically expands on the enfleshment of the Divine Logos, his descent or katabasis into the realm of flesh. To this there corresponds his anabasis, an ascent “to where he was before” (Jn 6:62; cf. 3:13), accomplished in his glorification (20:17), which takes place when he is “lifted up” (8:28; 12:32.34). This ascent, although a return to the Father,2 does not cancel his entering into the realm of the flesh. Rather, it constitutes a further ascent as it leads beyond the point from where he departed: it takes up his fleshly existence into the realm of the Spirit. Therefore, the resurrection brings about a new — heightened and more intimate — presence of “the incarnate Logos” in the world. By his ultimate descent into the flesh — into the realm of death — the incarnate Son went away, but only for “a little while.” Then, “after a little while” he returned, for “a new man was being born into the world,” causing “joy that no one can take away” (Jn 16:16-22). Thus the Johannine vision of incarnation, passion and glory is, ultimately, about a continuous “coming” of the Logos into the world. In both the Johannine Gospel and the Book of Revelation Jesus Christ is, par excellence “the one who comes into the world.”3

The permanent presence of the risen Jesus is, therefore, not due to the cessation of his incarnate life by which he would return to a disincarnate mode of being. Rather it derives from the glorification of his flesh-and-blood humanity. As the mortal, “corruptible” or “perishable” mode of existence of Jesus’ body ceases, it gives place to a mode of existence that is divine, immortal and spiritual.
II. Jesus’ Presence in the Eucharist

In John’s Gospel Jesus tells: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (6:51) and conversely he states, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55). That these statements of the Fourth Gospel refer to the Eucharistic meal, of which Paul speaks in chapter 11 of First Corinthians (11:23-25), recalling the narrative of Jesus’ Last Supper in the Synoptic Gospels is hard to contest. Thus in Jn 6:50 and 55, we find the identification of Jesus’ body and blood with the Eucharistic food and meal in a reflexive and emphatic way. This impression is further conferred as the evangelist states that the audience takes offence at Jesus’ words so that Jesus must reply to them and explain the mode in which his flesh and blood can be food and drink. So Jesus goes on and states.

“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.” (Jn 6:61-63)

This reply stands in line with what we said about the Johannine gospel’s thesis of Jesus’ descent and ascent, i.e., his incarnation, death and glorification as a process of an ongoing “coming into the world.” Jesus’ reply explains that, only when transferred into the realm of the spirit, can his flesh reach us, “come to us” and become, in the way Paul stated, the last Adam who is “life-giving spirit” (cf. 1 Cor 15:45) and who transmits divine life.

This vision of “flesh and spirit” and the transformation of the fleshly mode of existence into a spiritual one at the resurrection is not a Johannine idiosyncrasy. In various ways we find such a concept of the risen human body as spiritualized both in reference to the risen body of Jesus and the eschatological resurrection of the body, in many texts of the New Testament, specifically in the Synoptic Gospels and the Pauline (and deutero-Pauline) writings. What may be said to be uniquely Johannine is the integration of three aspects, Christology, sacraments and eschatology, into a single comprehensive scheme.

That in this synthesis, a sacramental realism is essential, has been clearly seen by the anti-Docetic and anti-Gnostic church fathers, who, by taking such a stance with regard to the Eucharist, have determined that position which church tradition followed for a millenium. I refer to the teaching of Irenaeus’ who is our earliest witness of a Eucharistic realism motivated by anti-Gnostic arguments. He is aware that in the same way that the Word became truly flesh, the Eucharistic elements truly extend the presence of the risen body, and conversely, the denial of the true presence of flesh and blood in the Eucharistic would eliminate either the truth or the lasting and definitive effect of the Incarnation. This reasoning about the Eucharist is also present in Ignatius of Antioch and Justin Martyr except that these earlier church fathers do not name or quote the Fourth Gospel  as Irenaeus does.

In modern confessional controversy on the Eucharist, the false impression is sometimes made that Eucharistic realism is solely based on an interpretation of the words of the institution and depends on a mere grammatical interpretation of the words “this is my body – this is my blood.” But in that way one cannot resolve the question of the real presence. For the issue is a theological one, involving two questions:

1) Does the risen body retain its role of mediating and transmitting the Logos?

2) Does the risen body of the Incarnate Son remain approachable for our not-yet-risen body in this perishable, mortal, fleshly existence so that, through the Eucharist, the presence of the risen

Lord in the world continues touching, sanctifying and effectively transforming by faith and sacraments the whole man who has been redeemed?
An anti-Gnostic answer to both questions in the affirmative has been retained throughout the centuries and persisted in quasi-unanimity through about a millennium. Consequently, in the West until Berengarius, there was no significant controversy about the Eucharistic presence. More significantly, Catholics and Orthodox remained in agreement thoughout the centuries even if they staged a few controversies about the efficacy of the words of the Institution.

The thesis which I submit in this paper can be summarized in the following way. A realistic interpretation of the Eucharistic presence by the Church Fathers beginning with Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr and Irenaeus of Lyons is not only a possible meaning of certain chosen texts but correctly exposes biblical theology, especially that of the Fourth Gospel, and is, in fact, the divinely intended sense of the inspired scriptures with regard to Jesus’ Eucharistic teaching and actions.

1 For a survey see Dale Stoffer (ed.), The Lord’s Supper, Believers, Church Perspectives (Waterloo: Herald, 1994).

2 “I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” (John 16:28)The Johannine language is in terms of “coming” and “going” in which “going to the Father” means a new “coming” to the disciples and “coming into the world” does not mean leaving the Father.

3 o` evrco,menoj eivj to.n ko,smon Jn 6:14, repeated by Martha’s profession of faith in Jn 11:4. In John 3:31 equivalently o` evrco,menoj a;nwqen and o` evk tou/ ouvranou/ evrco,menoj. Cf Rev 1:4, 1:8 and 4:8.