On Thursday, I also noted that St. Augustine’s mentor, St. Ambrose, wrote in the late 380s that the Eucharist “is the true Flesh of Christ which crucified and buried, this is then truly the Sacrament of His Body.”” A Protestant reader, H.R. Diaz III, responded:
You’re right, Joe; He does say that. And since he’s basically quoting Scripture, he’s right. However, he disagrees with Romanism [sic] when he further explains:
“58. Wherefore, too, the Church, beholding so great grace, exhorts her sons and her friends to come together to the sacraments, saying: “Eat, my friends, and drink and be inebriated, my brother.” What we eat and what we drink the Holy Spirit has elsewhere made plain by the prophet, saying, “Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the man that hopeth in Him.” In that sacrament is Christ, because it is the Body of Christ, it is therefore not bodily food but spiritual. Whence the Apostle says of its type: “Our fathers ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink,” FOR THE BODY OF GOD IS A SPIRITUAL BODY; THE BODY OF CHRIST IS THE BODY OF THE DIVINE SPIRIT, for the Spirit is Christ, as we read: “The Spirit before our face is Christ the Lord.” And in the Epistle of Peter we read: “Christ died for us.” Lastly, that food strengthens our heart, and that drink “maketh glad the heart of man,” as the prophet has recorded.”Ambrose, when read in context, does not here seem to be in harmony with Rome.
The mistake here is a basic one: yes, the Eucharist is spiritual food. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not the physical Body and Blood of Christ.
St. Paul describes the manna in the desert as spiritual food (1 Cor. 10:3). Does that mean that there wasn’t physical manna? Of course not. Rather, St. Paul’s point is that the manna existed primarily not to feed to the bellies of the wandering Israelites, but to strengthen their souls: it showed them that they had a loving God who cared about them, and that if they trusted in Him daily, He’d never let them down.
Jesus compares Himself to this Manna, and says that His Flesh will nourish us in the same way (John 6:51). So yes, undoubtedly, the Eucharist is spiritual Food. Or put more bluntly: nobody takes Communion because they’re physically hungry. We’re not doing it to fill our bellies (the portions are so tiny!), but to fill our souls (the portions are so infinite!).
That this is Ambrose’s point as well is obvious from reading the passage carefully. Look at the arguments that Ambrose is making one at a time, including the parts that Diaz doesn’t capitalize:
- Wherefore, too, the Church, beholding so great grace, exhorts her sons and her friends to come together to the sacraments, saying: “Eat, my friends, and drink and be inebriated, my brother.”
- What we eat and what we drink the Holy Spirit has elsewhere made plain by the prophet, saying, “Taste and see that the Lord is good, blessed is the man that hopeth in Him.”
- In that sacrament is Christ, because it is the Body of Christ, it is therefore not bodily food but spiritual.
- Whence the Apostle says of its type: “Our fathers ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink,”
- for the Body of God is a spiritual Body; the Body of Christ is the Body of the Divine Spirit: for the Spirit is Christ, as we read: “The Spirit before our face is Christ the Lord.”
- And in the Epistle of Peter we read: “Christ died for us.” Lastly, that food strengthens our heart, and that drink “maketh glad the heart of man,” as the prophet has recorded.”
In case any more nails were needed in this argument’s coffin, Ambrose provides them here. He just equated the Eucharist with the same Body of Christ that died on the Cross. And obviously, Christ was physically Present there, or our sins weren’t forgiven.
So needless to say, every single thing that Ambrose says argees with “Rome,” or more accurately, the Roman Catholic Church. But let’s go back to the parallel that Ambrose and St. Paul draw between the manna and water in the desert and the Eucharist.
The quote Diaz pulls is from a beautiful sacramental writing by St. Ambrose called On the Mysteries, in which he promises to “take great pains to prove that the sacraments of the Church are both more ancient than those of the synagogue, and more excellent than the manna.” After doing the first of those two things, he turns to the second, saying:
47. We have proved the sacraments of the Church to be the more ancient, now recognize that they are superior. In very truth it is a marvellous thing that God rained manna on the fathers, and fed them with daily food from heaven; so that it is said, “So man did eat angels’ food.” But yet all those who ate that food died in the wilderness, but that food which you receive, that living Bread which came down from heaven, furnishes the substance of eternal life; and whosoever shall eat of this Bread shall never die, and it is the Body of Christ.
Jacopo Tintoretto – Moses Drawing Water from the Rock (1577)
48. Now consider whether the bread of angels be more excellent or the Flesh of Christ, which is indeed the body of life. That manna came from heaven, this is above the heavens; that was of heaven, this is of the Lord of the heavens; that was liable to corruption, if kept a second day, this is far from all corruption, for whosoever shall taste it holly shall not be able to feel corruption. For them water flowed from the rock, for you Blood flowed from Christ; water satisfied them for a time, the Blood satiates you for eternity. The Jew drinks and thirsts again, you after drinking will be beyond the power of thirsting; that was in a shadow, this is in truth.
49. If that which you so wonder at is but shadow, how great must that be whose very shadow you wonder at. See now what happened in the case of the fathers was shadow: “They drank, it is said, of that Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with many of them God was not well pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. Now these things were done in a figure concerning us.” You recognize now which are the more excellent, for light is better than shadow, truth than a figure, the Body of its Giver than the manna from heaven.
This is rather clear. The spiritual water he’s referring to is the water in the desert which came from the Rock, who St. Paul says was Christ (see 1 Cor. 10:1-4). So the people were being spiritually fed by Christ giving them the bread of angels, and water flowing from Himself. These things, of course, were spiritual food and drink, but were physically present. And Ambrose says that this is only a shadow of the reality of the Eucharist. I don’t see how this passage could possibly make sense unless Ambrose believed that the Eucharist was actually the Body of Christ… like he says.
In case there’s any question that he means physical Presence, not the general spiritual Presence enjoyed wherever two or more are gathered, Ambrose continues:
50. Perhaps you will say, “I see something else, how is it that you assert that I receive the Body of Christ?” And this is the point which remains for us to prove. And what evidence shall we make use of? Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated, and the power of blessing is greater than that of nature, because by blessing nature itself is changed.
So already, we can see that Ambrose is defending the position that the Eucharist is not actually bread, but is the Body of Christ. To support this position, he gives the example of Moses’ miracles, before hitting something of a crescendo:
52. We observe, then, that grace has more power than nature, and yet so far we have only spoken of the grace of a prophet’s blessing. But if the blessing of man had such power as to change nature, what are we to say of that divine consecration where the very words of the Lord and Saviour operate? For that sacrament which you receive is made what it is by the word of Christ. But if the word of Elijah had such power as to bring down fire from heaven, shall not the word of Christ have power to change the nature of the elements? You read concerning the making of the whole world: “He spake and they were made, He commanded and they were created.” Shall not the word of Christ, which was able to make out of nothing that which was not, be able to change things which already are into what they were not? For it is not less to give a new nature to things than to change them.53. But why make use of arguments? Let us use the examples He gives, and by the example of the Incarnation prove the truth of the mystery. 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 in saying the words of consecration through the priest, Christ turns the bread and wine into His Flesh and Blood — the same Flesh of Christ that was crucified and buried. This is exactly what Diaz claims Ambrose doesn’t believe. And you know where Ambrose makes this incredibly obvious declaration of faith in the Real Presence of the Eucharist? Five paragraphs before Diaz’s proof-text.
The reason that I bring this up, and address it in full, is because I want readers, both Catholics and Protestants, to remember this when they hear Protestants claiming that such-and-such Church Father denied the Real Presence. Every single time, it has been my experience that said Protestant either had no idea what he or she was talking about, or was stretching the truth. They’d either misunderstood a passage, pulled a sentence out of context, or simply copy-pasted from some Protestant apologetics lists, without ever checking their facts.
Any serious reading of the Fathers (that is, anyone reading to hear what the Fathers teach, rather than simply mining for proof-texts) will lead the reader to the conclusion conceded by the Protestant historian J.N.D. Kelly in Early Christian Doctrines: namely, that during the early Church period, “Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood.”
You might, like Catholics, carry on the faith of the early Church. Or you might, like J.N.D. Kelly, think that the Fathers were wrong. But you can’t credibly claim that they taught something other than they did. You’re entitled to your own beliefs: to accept or reject the Faith the Fathers hand on. But you’re not entitled to your own facts: you can’t simply recreate history to make the early Church a Protestant one.