What Do We Mean by "The Real Presence?"

     A spectrum of teachings exists in the Church regarding the presence of Christ when we gather together and break bread and share the cup. These range from a view that Jesus is spiritually present in the gathering as we do this in his memory, to a view that Jesus is made spiritually present in the believer who eats the elements in faith, to a view that Jesus is spiritually present in the elements themselves, or that Christ is substantially present in the bread and wine. In our Episcopal context, we assent to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In this article I hope to share several witnesses that speak to the meaning of the Real Presence.

The Witness of Scripture

     The New Testament indicates that the first Christians believed that Christ is present when we come together to break bread and share the common cup in Eucharist, following the example and command he gave to his disciples. St. Paul’s witness to this in his letter to the Church in Corinth:

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. (1 Cor. 10:16-17)

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. (1 Cor. 11:23-27)

These writings are complimented by the witness in the Gospel of John, relating Jesus’s teaching the day after the feeding of the five-thousand:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (John 6:51).

Though we partake in Christ’s Body and Blood in Eucharist, he remains bodily present in heaven, as exemplified in this passage from Acts:

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you - even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:19-21)

Our understanding of the Real Presence, then must hold to these and other related Scriptural references.

A Look at the Catechism

     Along with Baptism, Holy Eucharist is described by the Catechism[1] as one of the two great sacraments of the Gospel. As a sacrament, the Holy Eucharist consists of an outward and visible sign that conveys an inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.[2] In the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, God has paired ordinary worldly substances that humans need to sustain life with spiritual significance.

     In Baptism, the outward action is that a person is washed by water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The grace received is that they are brought into union with Christ in his death and resurrection, born into God’s family the Church, forgiven of their sins, and beginning new life in the Holy Spirit.[3]

     In Eucharist, the outward action is that bread and wine is given and received according to Christ’s command (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23-27 quoted above). The spiritual grace received is the Body and Blood of Christ given to his people, which is received by faith. The presence of Christ in the sacrament of Eucharist is a Holy Mystery. Jesus has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father until his coming again, and yet we receive his Body and Blood in this sacrament though the power of the Holy Spirit.

Are the Elements of Bread and Wine Changed?

     A tension exists within the Anglican / Episcopal Church regarding the place of Christ in the Eucharist. Does the Body and Blood of Christ lie hidden under the appearance of the blessed bread and wine? Or do we receive his Body and Blood in the acts or partaking in the bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus?

     Perhaps this tension is best captured in the traditional words of distribution:

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.[4]

The first sentence of each comes from our Catholic roots, grounded in the idea that the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. The second has origins in the Reformation, following which focus on the bread and wine as signs that represent the grace once offered on the cross and received by faith.

     This ambiguity is preserved in Rite II, where the priest prays that the bread and wine would be sanctified “by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him.”[5] (Book of Common Prayer, 1979. p. 363)

     Great care has been maintained in our Prayer Book to assert that the Body and Blood of Christ is made present as we partake in the bread and the wine without making definitive claims as to how this happens. It is an act of grace that we receive through the power of the Holy Spirit by faith, a Holy Mystery in our life in Christ Jesus. This idea is summarized in a 1991 statement of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, “The elements are not mere signs; Christ’s body and blood become really present and are really given. But they are really present and given in order that, receiving them, believers may be united in communion with Christ the Lord.”

[1] The Catechism provides an outline of the faith of the Episcopal Church and can be found in the Book of Common Prayer, 1979, beginning on page 845.

[2] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Page 857.

[3] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Page 857.

[4] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Page 338.

[5] The Book of Common Prayer, 1979. Page 363. This phrase is from Prayer A. In Prayer B a more concise phrase is used, “the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.” Prayers C and D refer the bread and wine to be “the Body and Blood” of Jesus without qualification. The prayer after communion in Rite II captures the Sacramental language of the Real Presence by referring to the “Sacrament of his Body and Blood” (Page 365) or the “spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood.” (Page 366).

The Rev. Bob Corley is Rector of St. Mark's in Irving

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