Is the Eucharist Real or Symbolic? Or Both!

I think that Christians who believe in the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and who believe in regenerative Baptism face an unnecessary obstacle when it comes to the “real or symbolic” debate. Namely, we don’t believe it’s “real or symbolic”; we believe it’s “real and symbolic.” The first Passover, for example, was quite real: if you didn’t cover your doorpost with the blood of the spotless lamb, and didn’t eat his flesh, your first-born son would die. Yet it’s hard to miss the parallels to a later real event, where God sends His only-begotten Son (John 3:16), the “first-born” of Mary (Luke 2:7), a Son who was consecrated to God under the Old Covenant (Exodus 13:15). Indeed, Paul outright says it in 1 Corinthians 5:7: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”

The Church has historically read the Old Testament in this way: as symbols and prefigurements for what was about to happen: arrows pointing in the direction of Christ; like clues in a good thriller, these pieces only made sense when Christ arrived. Suddenly, the meaning of dozens of engimas was revealed, and new layers and depths of meaning were discovered where they had previously been overlooked. Unfortunately, today, we all too often view “symbolic interpretations of the Bible” as precluding “literal interpretations of the Bible,” as if an event must either be historical or symbolic. It’s clear from Jesus’ miracles that He didn’t feel this way, just as the New Testament makes it clear that the early Christians didn’t feel this way.

Miracles like transforming water into wine were largely symbolic. Yes, the water was now literally wine, but Jesus’ primary concern wasn’t about whether the guests could drink to their hearts’ desire or not. Rather, His point was something deeper:

  • He was showing His power in a way which provided abundance. The wine wasn’t a necessity by any means, and if they were thirsty, they had water, and had already had all the wine they brought. This simultaneously demonstrated the power of God and His love for us.
  • He signalled His blessing of marriage. The location is not a coincidence, especially given the traditional understanding of God and His people as similar to a marriage. We see these examples throughout the Old Testament: the entire Song of Solomon, Isaiah 50:1 and 54:6, Ezekiel 16:32, Jeremiah 3:8 and 5:7, and most dramatically in Malachi 2:10-16, where God declares, “I hate divorce,” and contrasts Judah’s religious infidelity to the infidelity of her people. In the New Testament, we find this trend continued: there’s Matthew 9:15, Matthew 25:1-13, John 3:28-29, Revelation 19:7, Revelation 22:17, etc.
  • He showed His willingness to listen to His Mother when she petitioned Him. This miracle, the first of His public ministry, was not His original plan (John 2:4), but He did it in answer to her petition, and her incredible faith (John 2:5 bears witness to this faith). More generally, this showed the benefit of petitionary prayer.

What’s interesting here is that this symbol is real [that said, I will explain tomorrow some significance differences between the wedding at Cana and the Eucharist, and why we shouldn’t expect them to look like one another]. We commonly think of a symbol as something representing something else, but which is not really that thing. For instance, the symbols of men and women on bathroom doors are not really men and women. If an actual man or woman stood by the doors to signify which to enter, it seems unlikely that we would refer to them as symbols. But in the Biblical context, this sort of thing happens all the time.

When Jesus refers to the “sign of Jonah” in Matthew 12:39-40, He means that the story of Jonah foreshadows His own Passion, Death, and Resurrection: “Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. ” But the fact that He says that Jonah in the whale is a sign or symbol of His death and resurrection doesn’t mean that the story wasn’t itself historical (of course, it doesn’t mean that it was, either). When Arthur Miller wanted to speak out against McCarthyism, he produced The Crucible, about the Salem witch trials. Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee (the playwright, not the general) wrote Inherit the Wind, using the historic backdrop of the Scopes trial to make a point about the Red Scare. Lawrence said, “We used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control. It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.”

None of this means that the Salem witch trials weren’t real, or that the Scopes trial wasn’t real, any more than it means it means that the story of Jonah and the whale wasn’t real. The Early Church Fathers understood this much better than we do today, and this is the cause of some confusion. They believed in regenerative Baptism, for instance, but didn’t hesitate to call Baptism a symbol, as well. In this, they’re not very different from St. Paul, who describe a Baptism which both effects a change, and symbols the change it’s effecting, in Romans 6:3-8. We are “buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

The Eucharist, likewise, is symbolic as well as authentic. It is really and truly the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. But Christ chose the elements of bread and wine to point to that reality, just as He chose the particular form of Baptism to signify its reality, as well. While we cannot see the washing of the Holy Spirit in Baptism, we can partially understand it through the rich symbolism of washing in water. Likewise, bread looks vaguely like flesh, and wine like blood; bread provides sustenance, and wine abundance. The Eucharist was foreshadowed in the manna in the desert, so Christ’s audience had been conditioned to recognize this connection; likewise, John’s baptism foreshadowed, and prepared for, Christ’s, as did other events with salvation through water, like Noah and the Ark (see 1 Peter 3:20-21). Paul uses the parting of the Red Sea, the water from the Rock, and the manna in the desert to show the prefigurement of Baptism and the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 10:1-4.

It’s clear that Jesus, the New Testament writers, and the Early Church Fathers viewed Baptism and the Eucharist as both real and symbolic, just as they viewed many other things, like Noah’s Ark, or the Garden of Eden, or Jonah and the Whale, in the same way. Catholics are quick to note that Biblical literalists, in their attempt to prove the literal 24-hour nature of the days of Creation, often miss symbolic elements: that is, if we get too caught up in only one sense (historical), we can miss another (prophetic). Perhaps we should take our own advice: not by diminishing the Eucharist (the source and summit of our Faith, and the Risen Lord Himself) or Baptism (our doorway into the Church, and the means by which the Holy Spirit washes us of sins), but by acknowledging that God works in ways we can understand – He spells things out for us slowly and carefully, and the symbolism of these sacraments helps us. Looking through a second lens (without eschewing the first) can give us a richer and more profound love and respect for these gifts from God, a true wedding banquet.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *