By Bob Sullivan
In other words, Scripture and history offer us a significant basis to intellectually know what transubstantiation is, and why the Church teaches that it means that the bread and wine cease to exist and become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ, when consecrated by a Catholic priest during Holy Mass.
While the first two parts of this series focused primarily on the intellectual understanding of transubstantiation, we will now turn to the faithful acceptance of the reality of the Eucharist. While this is not a feeling, it can be more like a feeling because it involves trust in God’s power and mercy, and it embodies St. Paul’s definition of faith: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” Hebrews 11:1.
I once wrote an article explaining that the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 is both a literal and a spiritual teaching. So far, we have looked at transubstantiation with a literal eye. However, Scripture is not limited to the literal. Scripture has both a literal and a spiritual sense1, and one of the most evident passages of these two senses is the Bread of Life Discourse.
In John 6:26-68, we can easily see the very literal statements of Jesus. He tells us that He is the Bread of Life. He actually tells us this several times. He also tells us, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (v. 51)
Some might point out that Jesus also said that He is the door, the vine, the shepherd, etc…, so are we to take these statements literally too? No. Nobody took those statements literally. But some other statements were taken quite literally. Jesus said He was the Son of God; the way, the truth, and the life; a carpenter’s son, a teacher, etc… and people did take Him quite literally, and without question.
People took Him quite literally in John 6 as well. So much so that many grumbled and said He was delivering a teaching too hard to believe. Some of His disciples even stopped following Him because of His statement about being the Bread of Life. (v. 66) Disciples never left Him for saying He was the vine, the door, or the way.
Therefore, John 6 is a source of literal and spiritual truth about the Eucharist and transubstantiation. The spiritual truth is three-fold. First, Jesus Himself alludes to the spiritual significance of His body being the Bread of Life when He says, “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (v. 63) In doing so, Jesus is using allegory to invite us to a deeper immersion into His word. He is telling us that there is a deeper meaning. Remember, He is talking to people who had just witnessed the miracle of the fishes and the loaves. Many of these people were simply looking for a free meal.
Yes, we see, feel, and taste bread and wine, but Jesus gives us a key to the spiritual truth of transubstantiation when He says, “spirit and life.”
The second spiritual interpretation is how we are supposed to act. This is known as the moral aspect of the spiritual sense of Scripture. So Jesus is the Bread of Life. Are we supposed to throw a party to remember this fact, or does Jesus have explicit directions for us? That is not how the Jews were interpreting Jesus at the very moment He delivered the Bread of Life Discourse. In verse 52, the Jews say: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
So Jesus lays it out plain and clear: ‘“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. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”’ (v.53-58)
Therefore, the moral lesson, the directions on how we are supposed to act, is obvious. We are to eat (gnaw) His flesh and drink His blood.
The third part of the spiritual interpretation is to see how this teaching will impact our very existence. In other words, “how will this impact me as a follower of Christ”? For an answer to this, we can look at several verses, but for the sake of brevity, let’s just look again at verse 51: “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”
There it is, folks. This is about 1% of the surface meaning of the Bread of Life Discourse. Theologians have gone much deeper, possibly even as far as 4 or 5% deeper. What I am saying is that the truth of the Eucharist is far beyond the capacity of any human being. Yet this one passage of Scripture is rich with meaning.
But wait, there is more.
1 The Catechism of the Catholic Church chapters 115-119