In Luke 24, we hear how, on Easter Day, Jesus made Himself visible to two travelers on the road to Emmaus and then, after breaking Bread and giving it to them, He disappeared. And in John 20:19, in one of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus, we hear:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”
To anyone reading that text, it sounds very much like the risen Christ simply walked through the wall into the locked room, or else miraculously materialized there. These passages pose some real problems for John Calvin, though. In denying the possibility of the Eucharist, he ran headlong into a series of what can safely be described as “unorthodox” views.
Calvin, in Book IV, Chapter 17 of his Institutes of Christian Religion, argued against the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist by claiming that Christ’s glorified Body was incapable of being in the Eucharist, since “the essential properties of a body are to be confined by space, to have dimension and form.” How Calvin knows this fact about the glorified Body of Christ, I can’t say. In defending this claim, Calvin has to attack a number of the apparent miracles of Jesus, particularly after the Resurrection:
The objection, that he afterwards appeared to Stephen, is easily answered. It was not necessary for our Saviour to change his place, as he could give the eyes of his servant a power of vision which could penetrate to heaven. The same account is to be given of the case of Paul. The objection, that Christ came forth from the closed sepulchre, and came in to his disciples while the doors were shut (Mt. 28:6; John 20:19), gives no better support to their error. For as the water, just as if it had been a solid pavement, furnished a path to our Saviour when he walked on it (Mt. 14), so it is not strange that the hard stone yielded to his step; although it is more probable that the stone was removed at his command, and forthwith, after giving him a passage, returned to its place. To enter while the doors were shut, was not so much to penetrate through solid matter, as to make a passage for himself by divine power, and stand in the midst of his disciples in a most miraculous manner. They gain nothing by quoting the passage from Luke, in which it is said, that Christ suddenly vanished from the eyes of the disciples, with whom he had journed to Emmaus (Luke 24:31). In withdrawing from their sight, he did not become invisible: he only disappeared. Thus Luke declares that, on the journeying with them, he did not assume a new form, but that “ their eyes were holden.” But these men not only transform Christ that he may live on the earth, but pretend that there is another elsewhere of a different description. In short, by thus trifling, they, not in direct terms indeed, but by a circumlocution, make a spirit of the flesh of Christ; and, not contented with this, give him properties altogether opposite. Hence it necessarily follows that he must be twofold.
- Christ probably put the stone back in place after leaving the Empty Tomb, despite no mention of this in any of the Resurrection accounts;
- Christ didn’t actually walk through the walls into the empty room, but miraculously made a passageway (one which the Apostles either didn’t notice, or decided not to mention).
- Christ can walk on water like pavement, but can’t walk through walls. He can, however, make stone yield to His step, enabling Him to leave the Tomb without moving the stone, if He so chose;
- Christ can disappear, but not become invisible.
But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. But God gives it a body as He has determined, and to each kind of seed He gives its own body. Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body.
Paul proceeds to argue for the existence of “spiritual bodies” from v. 45 onwards. Now, “spiritual” doesn’t mean “not physical,” but it does mean “not simply physical.” I’ve noted before that Paul calls the manna and water from the Rock “spiritual food” in the way he considers the Eucharist “spiritual food” (see 1 Cor. 10:3-4). And this is the same sense in which Christ declares that “the Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing” (John 6:63). Christ isn’t saying that His Death on the Cross was worthless because it was His physical Body which died. He’s saying it’s worth something only because He hands over His Spirit. Otherwise, it’d simply be murder or human sacrifice.
This same principle is true in the Eucharist: just as the Holy Spirit first gave Jesus His Body in the Incarnation, this same Spirit makes the true Body of Christ present in the Eucharist. That same Body of Christ is not bound by the normal limits of a human body. As St. Ambrose wrote, it’s absurd to argue that the Virgin Birth can happen, but the Eucharist can’t, since both equally defy our conventional notions of the possible and impossible:
Did the course of nature proceed as usual when the Lord Jesus was born of Mary? If we look to the usual course, a woman ordinarily conceives after connection with a man. And this body which we make is that which was born of the Virgin. Why do you seek the order of nature in the Body of Christ, seeing that the Lord Jesus Himself was born of a Virgin, not according to nature? It is the true Flesh of Christ which crucified and buried, this is then truly the Sacrament of His Body.
So Christ’s Body doesn’t play by the normal rules, even in His Conception and Birth. We see Him doing things during His earthly ministry, like miraculously passing through a mob without being harmed (Luke 4:30). All of this is even more true after the Resurrection, since as St. Paul tells us, the Seed becomes something more than it was before it dies. For this reason, the Resurrection was often depicted as a butterfly in the early Church. Calvin’s view is essentially that if our pre-glorified body can’t do something, our glorified body can’t do it either, and neither can Christ’s. By that logic, butterflies can’t fly, since caterpillars can’t.
The fact is, we know that Christ’s Body, despite being in the Tomb for three days, did not see decay (Acts 2:31), and that He ascended into Heaven, something regular human bodies can’t do (Acts 1:9). As noted above, He’s able to exit the Tomb before the angel rolled back the stone (Mt. 28:2-4), able to appear somehow in locked rooms, and to totally disappear (Luke 24:31). To say that He can do all of these things, but not pass through walls or appear in the Eucharist strikes me as presumptuous at best, and more than a bit silly. Better to take the approach of St. Paul and call all such speculation pure foolishness, since we lack the knowledge to speak sensibly of our resurrected bodies, or Christ’s.
Finally, note the setting of the Emmaus meal in which Christ disappears (Luke 24:30-35):
And it happened that, while He was with them at table, He took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized Him, but He vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning (within us) while He spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the Eleven and those with them who were saying, “The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!” Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how He was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.
It’s Christ’s Easter Mass. On the road to Emmaus, Christ explains the Scriptures to the two travelers, although they still don’t know it’s Him. This represents the first half of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Word, in which the Scriptures are read and explained. Then there’s a transition (marked here by the arrival in Emmaus), and we shift to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This is made clear by the language in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. There are four verbs to describe the simple act of passing out bread. To read this as nothing more than Christ serving His hosts* is to misread it entirely: why would Luke specify such a detail at all, much less in such depth? No, this is all very liturgical language. Specifically, it’s Eucharist. Look at how Luke describes the Eucharist in Luke 22:19:
And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is My Body given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.”
It’s the exact same four steps: taking the bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it. Of these four steps, one in particular should stand out: breaking. Leavened bread, of the sort Jews usually ate, is torn: it’s only unleavened bread which is broken. This is one of the reasons that the Passover requires unleavened bread. Because Christ would be broken for our sins.
And it’s here, in the midst of this incredibly liturgical, incredibly Eucharist language, that Christ simultaneously opens the pilgrims’ eyes to His Presence, and disappears. When He was walking plainly with them, they did not recognize Him. Now, they recognize Him “in the breaking of the Bread,” as the Emmaus pilgrims later put it. For this reason, when we look at the Eucharist, we have a better idea of Who we’re looking at than the companions of Christ ever did during His earthly ministry.
If there was any question that this is heavily Eucharistic and Liturgical, Acts 2:42 quashes any ambiguity by saying that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of Bread and to prayer.” Obviously, the Bible isn’t saying that the early Christians remembered to eat dinner. Nor are they simply saying that the Christians enjoyed Christian fellowship; Acts 2:42 actually distinguishes the two.
So I think that Scripture strongly suggests Calvin is quite wrong. Christ not only is capable of being physically Present in the Eucharist, He actually is. And there’s little question as a historical matter that this what the early Christians understood Jesus to be teaching. It’s Calvin who’s proposing a totally new set of beliefs about the Eucharist, and proposing new limitations on the power of Christ in the process. As Paul said, that’s foolish.
*You might say that Christ isn’t serving His hosts, He’s serving His Hosts!