1 I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” 52 Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. 56 He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. (Jn6:51-57)
Humanly speaking (for I believe myself to be spiritually directed in this endeavour), the process I apply when interpreting the New Testament is to take as literal an approach as possible to the original Greek text. There are passages where it is logically obvious that an absolutely literal interpretation is not intended. This passage is such an example, yet neither can it be taken in a purely allegorical sense, particularly in view of the language John uses. When Jesus says “eat” and “drink”, this is precisely what He meant. In verse 57 “He who eats Me…” the word translated “eat” is τρώγων which literally means to gnaw, munch or crunch. It is not a poetic way of encouraging the Christian to read about Jesus in the Bible, meditate upon His life and teaching or devote one’s self entirely to Him. Of course, the Christian should do all of those things. But the idea that such teaching would be expressed in terms of munching flesh and drinking blood is frankly ludicrous. Yet I believed such an interpretation for a quarter of a century as regrettably do many Evangelical Christians today. Truly, in some meaningful albeit mystical sense, Christ must be consumed to experience Life of an eternal nature.
Once again, it is helpful to turn to the witness of the churches of the first four centuries. As with issues concerning natural law (previous posts) there was virtually uniform consensus on the matter. The Early Church’s Eucharistic praxis wasn’t reliant upon a particular interpretation of John chapter six. It was the Faith as it had been received in written and verbal form from the apostles and their immediate successors, so it is quite impossible that it had been uniformly in error. It was that true Faith in which the Eucharist was central, a perpetual sacrifice offered daily, with the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine at its heart. It was not until the second millennium that any known Christian writer denied the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine [Berengarius -11th century) and he later recanted. The Protestant Reformers, of course, turned the matter on its head.
Unlike the issue of natural law which has particular reference to God’s dealings with people outside the Church, this is a matter vital to the spiritual Life and development of those who are being prepared to be united to Christ as His eternal Bride (Jn6:53). It is therefore no surprise that whatever other errors and malpractices were permitted to pollute Christendom, this central doctrine has been faithfully preserved in the Apostolic churches East and West. In view of its importance I will quote briefly from my first book which was more polemical in nature and dealt with the matter in more detail than the Little Book of Providence..
“Given that an understanding of the Eucharist is at the heart of longstanding divisions yet simply cannot be compromised, here is brief testimony from Church Fathers from each of the first four centuries of the Christian era testifying to the nature of the perpetuated sacrifice offered on the altar and the objective reality of Christ’s words concerning His flesh and blood given for the life of the world. The next few paragraphs may be standard Catholic apologetics fare but are important nevertheless.
Moving backwards from the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem understood the Eucharist to be the means by which a Christian may become “concorporeal and consanguineous with Christ”30; Clement (3rd century) declared: “Those who partake (of the Eucharist) are sanctified in body and soul; by the will of the Father, man is mystically united to the Spirit and to the Word”31. From the 2nd century, Justin Martyr speaks of the bread and wine offered at the altar as “that from which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation, which is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh”32. From the end of the first century, St Ignatius having been tutored by the apostle John refers to the heretics of his day: “they abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer becausethey do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ who suffered for our sins. Those who speak against this gift of God incur death”33a the bread of the altar being “the medicine of immortality and the antidote to death33b.
In terms of the Eucharist as sacrifice, Augustine, thoroughly orthodox in this area regarded the Mass as the “highest and true sacrifice…, Christ being at the same time Priest and Victim”34. Even in the oldest post-Biblical authentic writing available (the Didache c. xiv approx. AD96), the “breaking of bread” is referred to as a sacrifice and is explicitly related with the prophecy in Malachi (1:11) to the pure offering with incense being offered by the Gentiles. The Malachi prophecy was understood by the early Fathers to be foretelling the universal and perpetuated daily sacrifice35 to be provided under the New Dispensation. Moving to the present day, the Eastern Orthodox Church whom we have observed was a relatively stable element in the sixteenth century debacle has historically regarded the Divine Liturgy as “the awesome sacrifice entrusted to the Church to be re-enacted and given to the faithful for the nourishment of their faith and forgiveness of their sins”36. These essential matters were never intended to be delineated from Scripture alone but were part of the sacred Tradition passed on from the apostles to their successors
30. Cyril of Jerusalem: Mystagogical Catechesis IV,3
31. Clement: “The instructor of children” – “Faith of the early Fathers” Vol 1:410 (W Jurgens)
[Extract from “Fellowship of the Secret” chapter 1]