Having been raised in the Catholic church prior to disavowing all things church-related, I had always been taught certain things about communion, or the “Lord’s Supper.” In Roman Catholicism, as well as in Lutheran tradition, communion is thought of quite differently than much of the reformed Church.
The word used for this distinction is “transubstantiation.” That’s a big mouthful of letters that, put together, relay the idea that the bread and wine served at communion, once blessed, is transformed into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.
In my younger days in the Catholic church, I may have heard this teaching in passing but I don’t recall it being a very prominent teaching. Certainly I don’t recall ever having believed it. But I also have no recollection of it ever being taught in such a way as to make me think I was somehow deviating from the norm. Perhaps this was because, as a part of the Roman Catholic church, it may have just been assumed that we all just believed that.
Later, when looking back at Roman Catholicism, I can’t help but notice the amount of argument and debate between Catholics and Protestants on this issue. The problems seems to come down to an issue of whether or not Jesus was speaking literally or figuratively when He was addressing His disciples at the Last Supper.
Although many people try to keep theology and science separate from one another, I’m not a big fan of that sort of thing. And so, to me, it makes sense to employ Ockham’s Razor to try to understand whether or not Jesus was being literal or metaphorical when referring to the bread and wine as His body and blood, respectively.
One popular way of citing Ockham’s Razor is: “All things being equal, the simplest answer tends to be the correct one.” Technically, that’s not exactly what Ockham’s Razor is, but it at least gets the point across enough to make the point.
Thinking about this issue in some simple terms, my first though is to wonder how the bread and wine could be Jesus’ body and blood when He was sitting, bodily, with His disciples. He was not taking parts of Himself and passing them around. That would have just been creepy.
Another thought that crossed my mind was the fact that the bread and wine still had all the properties of bread and wine rather than human flesh and blood. If the bread and wine “becomes” the body and blood of Jesus, how is it that the nature of the substances do not seem to change. I have never done this, but I’d be willing to bet that if you were to take two samples of the bread and wine (one pre-blessing and one post-blessing) and take them to a laboratory, you would likely find that there is no molecular difference between the two.
My point is simply this…if the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Christ, then why are they still bread and wine?
I won’t even get into the Old Testament prohibition of the ritual drinking of blood (which this would necessarily be if transubstantiation were true). Even without that, it would seem to me that the physical evidence alone is enough to make a pretty good case for the fact that Jesus was speaking figuratively about the bread and wine rather than literally.
As for how the disciples took it, well I suppose if one were to put themselves in their sandals and imagine sitting there at the table with Jesus in the upper room, when Jesus says “this is my body” and “this is my blood” I just can’t imagine that the disciples would have ever taken that literally. After all, I think that most people today, if they were sitting with someone who said something like that, would just automatically interpret that statement as being metaphorical. I mean, they could see with their own eyes that Jesus took a loaf of bread and that He talked about the loaf of bread and not part of His physical body.
If we were to take this literally, then should we also take literally that “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4) If we take that literally, then whenever we get hungry should we sit at the table and open up our Bibles and study God’s Word rather than eating? I’m going to speculate that anyone who did that would probably not live a very long and happy life. Nor would that person have much energy to ever follow Jesus’ command to go out into the world and make disciples.
For those and other reasons, I believe that this idea is figurative and that the bread and wine are still just bread and wine. I believe that the “elements” represent Christ’s sacrifice for us as a way for us to continually remember His sacrifice and the price He paid on our behalf. Peter even writes that the disciples do not write about new truths, but to remind us of existing truths. Therefore, this tradition seems to be a way of reminding us, lest we forget and despise the gift of salvation.
Grace, love and peace.