Real Presence -- What did the disciples believe?
It seems to me that people who deny what Catholics call the “Real Presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist are forced to believe something really unlikely about the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. They are forced to believe the disciples thought Jesus was using a figure of speech when he said “This is my body.” Yet, there are reasons this is not what they thought.
The truth about Holy Eucharist is a stumbling block. Whether converting to Catholicism from another Christian fellowship or from no affiliation at all, the idea that Jesus gives himself to us in a physical way at every Mass is a hard thing to accept.
Yet… once a person believes what the Bible and Sacred Tradition and the Church have always taught about the Lord’s Supper, there is almost no reason not to become Catholic. If Jesus really offers himself as nourishment in the Catholic Mass, why would I want to be anywhere else?
So this thing is pretty important. Did the disciples at the Last Supper believe the Real Presence or did they think Jesus was drawing some kind of literary image?
Several persuasive arguments exist
First let me say there are many reasons, strong ones, to believe Catholic teaching about Holy Eucharist. The reasons break into two groups – what the Bible says and what the church has believed since the earliest times. For what it's worth, here’s the article that started my own journey to the Catholic Church.
What I want to offer you in this article is a non-theological argument that tries to mirror our reaction in the 21st century to the reaction of the disciples on the night of the Last Supper.
First, a little background music
All four Gospels record Jesus feeding 5,000 people by simply creating food for them to eat. Jesus was teaching a huge crowd of people in a place away from the cities, away from where food could be purchased. So the question comes up where these folks are going to get food. Long story short — Jesus took a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish and multiplied them into food for the entire crowd.
It’s obvious anyone who can feed people out of thin air during a time of permanent food insecurity is going to generate interest, to say the least. So what happens is the people decide Jesus would make a great king, which is actually pretty logical. First, Jesus can feed you with a miracle, and then he can heal people the same way (which comes in handy if you want to form an army to fight a war of independence against the Romans!). So Jesus leaves the scene. He is a king, but not that kind of king.
The next day, the people whom Jesus fed saw that he was gone and they figured out he was in Capernaum a few miles away. They find him. And there is a confrontation between them and Jesus over how he fed them the day before. Jesus starts by talking about himself as the manna from heaven, a part of the discussion that everyone agrees is metaphorical. But as the confrontation escalates, Jesus really bears down on the idea of himself as food. And in shocking language, he eventually tells the people they must eat his flesh (the word he uses means to chew – they must chew his flesh) and they must drink his blood. He tells the people if they don’t do this, they will not have life. They freak. They leave and they don’t come back. I mean, think about it – he must have seemed out of his mind to these people.
Even more strange, Jesus lets them leave. This is an important feature in the whole incident. He does not say “wait a minute, come back, you don’t understand – this is a metaphor.” He lets them leave. Things are so tense Jesus actually wonders out loud whether his own disciples will leave him, too. There is no other conclusion we can reach: the words about chewing his flesh and drinking his blood are exactly the words he wanted to use and he will not alter them.
So what you have is an astounding miracle involving food. Then the very next day comes a teaching that is hard to distinguish from cannibalism. This teaching drives away the crowds that follow Jesus, all of them. His twelve disciples cannot possibly forget this. This whole incident is as confusing and striking a thing as they encounter anywhere in his ministry. They will remember vividly that he told them they would eat his flesh and drink his blood. It’s the sort of thing you don’t forget…
Fast forward to the Last Supper
The night he was arrested, the twelve disciples know something is up. Events are building up to something that Jesus has been warning them will result in his death. They are all at the table and they are eating. Jesus picks up a piece of bread and tells them to eat it after he says “This is my body, which is given up for you.” (I Cor. 10:24) Then he picks up a cup of wine and he says “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.” (Mark 14:24)
How could anyone believe these disciples would fail to remember the confrontation with the crowds over Jesus saying they would eat his body and drink his blood? The master holds a piece of bread and says “this is my body.” He holds a cup and says “this is my blood.” He is no ordinary man. He raises dead people. He calms storms with a single word. He creates food and wine out of nothing. And they hear him say these strange words to them as he tells them to eat. At this critical time before he dies, he returns to the same language that so offended the crowds earlier.
Does anyone think these disciples muttered under their breath that this was just bread and it sure looks like Jesus is losing his mind? Taste it, look at it, and you know it is only bread? Can anyone imagine Peter raising his hand to correct Jesus by saying that Jesus’ blood was still in his body reclining at the table and the wine in the cup was merely what they bought earlier that day in the market?
This is the Hopkins translation of what Thomas Aquinas wrote in Adoro te devote:
Seeing, touching, tasting are in Thee deceived.
What says trusty hearing? That shall be believed.
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do.
Truth Himself speaks truly, or there’s nothing true.
To use Hopkins' phrase, these disciples believed what Truth Himself said. They did not understand it, but they believed it. They knew Jesus first hand, they knew his power, and if Jesus said something they believed it. What thoughts must have been theirs as they ate the body and drank the blood…
The same response is all the Church asks of us
When it comes to Holy Eucharist, you and I are not called to do anything more than those twelve disciples were. We are asked to believe that Jesus has power to make what he says true. We are not called to understand how these words become true or why Jesus chose such a remarkable way to give himself to us. How could we understand such things? But we can surely believe them, because we know Jesus and his power.
Over the last 2,000 years, great Christians have thought deeply on Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. And the Catholic Church has preserved the significance of the teaching with language that defines dogmatically the truth of what Jesus said. Nevertheless, we are not called on to understand. Only to believe, just like the disciples.
At Mass, a priest or other minister holds a consecrated Host in front of you and simply says what the Lord said. You hear “The Body of Christ.” And your response says all there is to say. “Amen.”
We cannot imagine the disciples at the Last Supper saying Jesus’ words were incorrect.
They remembered he said they would eat his flesh and now they hear his words at the table as they eat.
These same words of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit in answer to our prayer to the Father at Mass make present for us the same body and blood.