What is the Real Presence of Christ?

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The clearest answer is the official one: Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist in his body and blood, humanity and divinity, under the forms of bread and wine. The church teaches that this presence is not a metaphor, it’s a reality. Real.

But how do we arrive at this idea? Jesus himself promises to be with us “always, to the end of time.” He promises to be present when two or more gather in his name, in the forgiveness of sins, and in the suffering world: “' 'Whatever you did for one of these least . . . you did for me' ” (Matthew 25:40). Jesus promises to be really present in many ways throughout the gospel. He’s most explicit about being with us, however, in one profound way: “Take it; this is my body” (Mark 14:22). “I am the bread of life. . . . Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (John 6:35, 54).

Coptic icon of Last Supper
A COPTIC Orthodox icon of the Last Supper.
For nearly a millennium Christians didn’t dispute this understanding. The controversy began in the 9th century when it was suggested that the bread and wine were not physically changed but only signs of the presence of Christ among us. In response, the church formulated the idea of transubstantiation: The elements of bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ—as do we, in our participation in this sacrament. Both the Fifth Lateran Council (1215) and the Council of Trent(1551) emphasized this teaching. It’s the basis for practices like Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, prayer before the Eucharist, and processions that feature the Real Presence carried in a monstrance.

Needless to say not all accepted this teaching, which influenced the reaction of the Reformation movement. Luther viewed the Eucharist as a “co-existence” of Christ and the physical elements. Calvin saw it as a symbolic meal. Zwingli called it an occasion of grace depending not on the minister’s actions but the faith of the recipient.

In 1965 Pope Paul VI reiterated that Christ is present in prayer, works of mercy, preaching, teaching, sacraments, and uniquely in the Eucharist, “a way that surpasses all others” (Mysterium Fidei, no. 38). The Second Vatican Council affirmed Christ’s Eucharistic presence in the consecrated elements, the proclaimed word, the minister of the sacrament, and the worshipping assembly. In 1982 the World Council of Churches took a big step toward unity in the Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry documents in which participating denominations agreed that the Eucharist involves “real change” in the elements and necessitates “real change” in the participants.

Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20; John 6:22-59; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

Mysterium Fidei, Encyclical of Pope Paul VI on the Holy Eucharist
• World Council of Churches, Unity: The Church and Its Mission, with links to documents including Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry
"Why do Christians believe Jesus is God incarnate?" by Alice Camille

101 Questions & Answers on the Eucharist by Giles Dimock, O.P. (Paulist Press, 2006)
• The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World
by Monika K. Hellwig (Paulist Press, 1976)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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