A friendly discussion on the Real Presence and the Eucharist: Steven Nemes’s opening statement

Christ is for everyone! will be hosting a friendly discussion between myself and Andrew Harland-Smith on the topic of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Andrew’s opening statement can be read here. Here is my own opening statement.

Going back to the beginning: The Eucharist

The way a person thinks about him- or herself is extremely important. Just as the later flight of an arrow depends on initial the aim taken by the archer, so also the way a person lives is determined in large part by his or her self-conception. A person who is convinced that he or she is worthless will act in ways that correspond to this, just as a person who is rightly aware of his or her value will exhibit the proper confidence and restraint. And because God is concerned with the way we live in the world, He is therefore very much concerned to make sure that we understand how properly to think about ourselves.

God showed this concern in a clear way in the Passover ritual of the Jews. He wanted the Hebrews to know that He was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that they were His firstborn son (cf. Exod 4:22-23). And on the night of their deliverance from Egyptian slavery, He established the Passover as a “day of remembrance,” a “festival to the Lord,” and a “perpetual ordinance” (Exod 12:14). Every year, during that same time of the year, the Jews are supposed to recreate and reenact the night of their deliverance from Egyptian slavery. Why do they do this? Because God wishes them to remember “that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there” (cf. Deut 24:18). He wants them to know who they are and who God is: “I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery” (Mic 6:4).

In every generation, the Jews were supposed to celebrate this memorial of the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery. Importantly, the Jews of later generations – even those who had not been in Egypt personally and had never experienced slavery – are supposed to celebrate the Passover as if it were really happening to them. The Mishnah Pesachim 10.5 comments on this fact as follows:

In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8). In every generation, each person must say: “This which the Lord did for me,” and not: This which the Lord did for my forefathers.

Mishna Pesachim 10.5

The Mishna understands the purpose of the Passover ritual as the education and formation of the Israelite. It imposes upon him a certain way of viewing himself: namely, as one who has been redeemed from slavery by God, one to whom God has acted favorably and kindly.

Why is it so important for Hebrews to think of themselves in this way? Why should they think of themselves as the redeemed of the Lord? Because there is always the temptation to grow suspicious of God and to stray away from Him. Indeed, the serpent tempted Eve precisely by trying to make her suspicious of God. And after the Exodus but before their entry into the Promised Land, the Hebrews again and again “grumbled in their tents” (Ps 106:25) and complained that it was out of hatred for them and a desire to destroy them that God had brought them out of Egypt (Deut 1:27). Instead of looking upon God as loving them and upon themselves as God’s beloved, they saw God as an enemy and themselves as doomed. That is why God created the Passover ritual: to remind the Jews again and again about who they truly are in relation to Him. Life with God is good, indeed it is freedom, whereas life apart from God is slavery.

When Christ celebrated the Passover with His disciples on the night before His death, He introduced a change into the ritual that was quite important. The Apostle Paul retells the story as follows:

The Lord Jesus on the night when He was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “This is My body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

1 Cor 11:23-26

Christ here establishes a new meal, one for Christians. It is like the Passover in the sense that it refers us back to a moment of deliverance. Just as the lamb was slain on the night of the Exodus and its blood marked off the houses of those redeemed from death, so also for Christians: “our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7). But the redemption of the Passover was only an image of the true Passover, which took place when Christ made atonement for the sins of the entire world. Whereas the Exodus played a major role in the self-conception of the Jewish people, the death of Christ now ought to play the same role in the self-conception of all people whatsoever. If the Jews are God’s people whom He redeemed from slavery in Egypt, then all human beings are God’s people whom He redeemed from sin and death through the self-offering of His Son. And when this meal is celebrated in the Church, we are reminded of our true identity relative to God: we are His people whom He has redeemed by Christ and who await the day His kingdom comes to earth forever and He dwells with us (cf. Rev 21:1-4).

I think the Paschal context of the Lord’s Supper is very important. The Passover is a reminder of the true identity of both the Israelite and of God: the Israelite is God’s chosen and redeemed person, whereas God is the one who freely chooses and redeems the Israelite. Is this reality always clear? No, obviously not. Sometimes things seemed as if God had abandoned the Jews or even as though He doesn’t exist. Sometimes they acted as if they were not in fact God’s people, as if they were not in fact redeemed from slavery. But the Passover is a way of going “back to the beginning.” It is a way of going back to the foundational moment in their history which defines their trajectory as God’s people. By being reminded of the beginning, they can get back on that right track. So also with us Christians. It may not always be obvious to us that God exists or that He loves us and has redeemed us from sin and death. It may not always be clear to us that we are His people and His children. The Eucharist, therefore, is established for us until the day when the Lord comes, until the day that faith becomes sight. It is a “remembrance” of the Lord and of our true identity as His redeemed people. It is a way for us to go “back to the beginning” and to remember who we truly are and who our God truly is.

Now, one of the most hotly debated topics among Christians concerning the Lord’s Supper is that of the doctrine of “Real Presence.” Is Christ really present in the Eucharist? For example, when He said of the bread: “This is my body” (Luke 22:19), did He mean that in something like a literal sense? When Christ taught: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53), did He mean this quite literally? And when Paul says that the bread and the wine are communions in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor 10:16), does he mean to suggest that we are somehow really, literally partaking of body and blood? I think the answer to all these questions is: No. A few arguments can be offered for this perspective.

(1) There is no “Real Presence” of the paschal lamb in the celebrations of the Passover. The Passover is a memorial of the Exodus and a sacrifice in its own right, and it is a kind of ritual reenactment of the night of the Exodus. But it is literally false to say that later celebrants of the Passover were redeemed from slavery in Egypt, nor is the lamb they sacrifice later one and the same as the lamb (which one?) slain in Egypt thousands of years before. Indeed, because the Passover is a reenactment, there is no need for a “Real Presence.” A reenactment can make it possible vividly to “participate” in a past event without the Real Presence of the reenacted thing. So also with the Eucharist, which is like the Christian Passover.

(2) In the words of Institution (e.g. Luke 22; 1 Cor 10), Christ is clearly speaking figuratively. You can discern a figure where one thing is called what it plainly is not. If a man said to his son: “Your room is a pigsty,” this would clearly be figurative because there are no real pigs living there, even though his room superficially resembles a pigsty from the point of view of disorderliness. So also, it is clear that Christ is referring to the bread and the wine as symbolically or figuratively representing His body and blood, which is about to be sacrificed for the salvation of the world. He is clearly speaking figuratively because bread and wine are not flesh and blood, even though there is a superficial resemblance between the terms.

(3) It is not clear in what sense the body and blood of Christ are eaten on the Real Presence view. This is because later refinements of the doctrine (as one finds, for example, in Thomas Aquinas) qualify the nature of the presence involved in very strange ways. Christ is purportedly present in the bread and wine, but He is not spatially or locally present, nor is He manifest or perceptible in any of the usual ways, nor is He affected by the process of eating, and so on. In this case, we have to ask the question: How is He being eaten? How can He be eaten in a literal sense if He is not spatially or locally present and is totally unaffected by what we are doing to the bread and wine? The answer, of course, is: Spiritually. But we do not need the Real Presence for this. We can understand the eucharistic elements as the symbolic representation of Christ’s body and blood. Just as these are eaten by the body, so also our spirits “feed” on Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, which makes us to be what we are as Christians, by finding spiritual nourishment in it. Thus, it would seem that the Real Presence doctrine is not a more “literal” interpretation of these passages than the broadly memorialist view that I propose. To the contrary, the memorialist interpretation gives a clearer understanding of the “eating” involved than does the Real Presence doctrine, according to which Christ’s body and blood are somehow eaten spiritually, being present in the bread and wine without being manifest as such in any way and while remaining entirely unaffected by the consumption of the bread and wine themselves.