More years ago than I would like to admit, I was speaking to a Protestant friend from college about St. Paul’s teachings on the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians. I read her the passage in which Paul warns against profaning the Eucharist by receiving unworthily (1 Cor. 11:23-29):
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, 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.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
I had been bowled over by the clarity of the passage. If the Eucharist were a mere symbol, why would he so gravely warn against the risk of profaning the actual “body and blood of the Lord”? My friend, reading this exact same passage, had come to an opposite conclusion: “if the Eucharist is really the Body of Christ, why does St. Paul continue to refer to it as ‘the bread‘?” What seemed to me obviously a reference to Jesus, the Bread of Life, just as obviously seemed to her to be about literal bread.
So how do we know how to read this passage? One answer would be to look to how the early Church understood things. If nobody in the first few centuries of the Church read the Biblical teaching on the Eucharist in the way that you do, how likely is it that you’re right and all of them are wrong? How bad of a job would the Apostles have had to have done to leave a Church in which nobody understands the basic teachings of Christianity?
But there’s another way to approach this question, too, which is to let Scripture interpret Scripture. Shortly before this passage from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul says (1 Cor. 10:16-17):
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
I’ve previously mentioned a fascinating trifold comparison that St. Paul makes between:
- Pagans, who become “partners with demons” by offering food and drink to idols, and then eating and drinking that sacrificial food and drink (“the cup of demons” ), taken from the altar, which he calls “the table of demons” (1 Cor. 10:19-21);
- Jews, who become who “partners in the altar” when they “eat the sacrifices” offered at the Temple (1 Cor. 10:18); and
- Christians, who “participate” in the Body and Blood of Christ by consuming the Eucharist, taken from the Eucharistic altar, which he calls the “table of the Lord.” He refers to the Chalice as the “cup of the Lord,” and a participation in His Blood. (1 Cor. 10:16-21)
This analogy only works if, like the pagan and Jewish examples, the Christian Eucharist is a ritual and sacrificial meal. Otherwise, what is Paul proving by these examples?
But there’s another dimension to this passage that I had never noticed until I read a commentary on it recently. The author (Cardinal Ratzinger, if memory serves) asks what we ought to make of the line, “we all partake of the one bread.” Like the line in 1 Corinthians 11, the interpretation question is whether “the one bread” (or “the one loaf”) refers to Jesus or literal bread. Or to put it differently, does Paul mean “the one bread” or “the one Bread”?
The commentary points out that Paul can’t mean that he, the Corinthians, and the rest of the Church are all one Body because they share a single loaf of bread. That would be obviously untrue. It’s not like some early Christian baker was preparing gigantic loaves of bread for every Christian on earth to share. In other words, Paul can’t mean what my friend understood him to mean, because that reading just isn’t true. Rather, he clearly means that Christians are one because they are sharers in Christ (cf. Hebrews 3:14), and sharers through the Eucharist.
The “one bread” in 1 Corinthians 10-11 is the one Bread, the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ. Read in that light, the passage is clearly teaching the Real Presence, which is why “any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:29).