The Gospel Lesson this week includes Jesus' statement that He is the Bread of Life. As a result, our thoughts quickly turn to the Eucharist and our understanding that through the Eucharist Christ, the Bread of Life, is present with us as the bread and wine are consecrated into the Body and Blood.
The term we use to describe this is the Real Presence, and in speaking of the Real Presence we are speaking of something more than simply Christ being symbolically present as we memorialize Him. Rather, we understand that there is an ontological change that occurs during the consecration of the elements. Something real changes and happens so that the bread can no longer be called mere bread and the wine can no longer be called mere wine. Instead, after the consecration, the elements are rightly called the body and blood of Christ. We believe this because we believe the words of Christ when He said "this IS my body" and "this IS my blood" (Matthew 26:26-28; Luke 22:19-22). We believe this because St. John further clarifies Jesus' words when He said, "For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him" (John 6:55-56). As a result, we believe that the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes the blood of Christ, and that as Jesus said, if we partake of the flesh and blood then we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us.
Holy Scripture does not simply talk about a "spiritual presence" wherein the bread and wine are only spiritually or metaphorically the body and blood, nor does Holy Scripture teach that they only become the body and blood upon reception of them, for He declared them to be His body and blood before they had been consumed. As Jesus said, on the night in which He was betrayed, after he had taken the bread and brake it, he gave it to them and said, "take, eat, this is my body." He did not say, "take and eat, so that this can become my body" not did He say, "my flesh is metaphorical food indeed". Rather, He said, "this IS my body," and, "my flesh IS food." While Holy Scripture does not explain how this happens or what actually is occurring on a scientifically defensible molecular level, it clearly presents Christ's words that the bread and wine are His body and blood.
For this reason, after the consecration, the host is considered the body of Christ and the contents of the chalice are considered the blood of Christ. They are no longer mundane elements; they are no longer merely bread and wine. Rather, they are handled as holy elements. As a result, when we are in the presence of the consecrated elements we can speak of being in the presence of Christ himself in a more fully realized way then at other time. We might not be able to give a rationally satisfactory answer of how it is accomplished, but under the species of bread and wine resides the fullness of Christ's body, soul and divinity.
This helps shape and form how we approach the liturgy and the rituals of the church. If we see upon the altar the Real Presence of Christ, then by necessity how we behave with and around the consecrated elements should be different and what we do in preparation for receiving the body and blood of Christ should be thoughtful and intentional. In other words, we don't believe in the real presence because of the liturgy and rituals, we have the liturgy and rituals because we believe in the real presence; these actions are borne from the sacramental and theological reality of Christ's real presence with us.
Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 11:29 makes it clear that there is a risk if one partakes of the body and blood of Christ in an unworthy manner. John of Damascus, in Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (AD 743), discusses this matter well when he writes,
Wherefore to those who partake worthily with faith, it is for the remission of sins and for life everlasting and for the safeguarding of soul and body; but to those who partake unworthily without faith, it is for chastisement and punishment, just as also the death of the Lord became to those who believe life and incorruption for the enjoyment of eternal blessedness, while to those who do not believe and to the murderers of the Lord it is for everlasting chastisement and punishment. The bread and the wine are not merely figures of the body and blood of Christ (God forbid!) but the deified body of the Lord itself: for the Lord has said, "This is My body," not, this is a figure of My body: and "My blood," not, a figure of My blood. And on a previous occasion He had said to the Jews, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. And again, He that eateth Me, shall live.
The state in which we partake of the body and blood of Christ matters, as does our understanding of Christ's declaration of the real presence. If we understand that we are communing with and of Christ himself, then there should be a natural inclination to want to approach the sacrament in a worthy manner, having repented of our sins, pursuing absolution and the sacrament of penance if necessary, and being in fellowship one with another as an outworking of Christ's own fellowship with the Triune God and His bride, the church.
(as published in St. Luke's Weekly Newsletter, 8/08/18)