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. – St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 11:23-27
And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22-25 ESV). But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity. – St. Irenaeus, “Against Heresies”, c.130-200 AD
Consider how contrary to the mind of God are the heterodox in regard to the grace of God which has come to us. They have no regard for charity, none for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, none for the man in prison, the hungry or the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead. – St. Ignatius of Antioch, “Letter to the Smyrneans”, c.80-110 AD
The above quotes are just a few of dozens of quotes found in scripture and other documents by Christians in the time before Constantine. They are letters against heresies and a defense of what was taught by the apostles themselves to the church. In many cases, the Eucharist as the real flesh and blood of Christ was not only defended but also the tone of the letters often conveyed the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as a given, like how every person who goes to school is at least expected to know basic arithmetic.
We must then ask the question…why do so many Christians today reject the Eucharist as a symbol and do not believe it is the actual body and blood of Christ? Did Ignatius hear the apostle John and Polycarp wrong? Was Paul just kidding when he said whoever drinks Jesus’ blood or eats his flesh in an unworthy manner is guilty of profaning Jesus himself? These are questions I never thought to ask growing up. I never looked back into tradition and to people that were so close to the apostles, they probably were able to hear first-hand accounts about Jesus, or at least know people who knew the apostles. I think it stems from how we like to rationalize some aspects of the faith but hide behind the Bible when we do that. The Bible shows us truth and it contains the authority and the foundation of our faith, but does it show us directly and without any extra effort everything about our faith? Arguably, faith in the Bible is faith in God because God should be faithful to keep his Word. However, he also promised to keep his Church and his Church brought forth the Word, inspired by councils who determined it’s canon.
Furthermore, the above quotes (among others) pre-date the canonization of the Bible. Therefore, the people who compiled the Bible knew that every word in the canon would reaffirm what they already knew about the faith. They also spoke and read in koine Greek better than any of us can. So, let’s step back and have a conversation about what we choose to deny when it comes to our faith and what we choose to adopt. Because if we choose to adopt the Bible as the sacred apex of our faith and only that which is contained in it, then we must ask why we choose to deny the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, why we call it only a “symbol” and why we choose to ignore the words of Paul, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, etc. etc.
My perspective is that the Eucharist is not only a mystery, but it’s a mystery we must embrace. Believing in the real presence states that the Incarnation of Jesus Christ has so affected our world, that spiritual and physical things can now co-mingle under the power of the Holy Spirit, delivering grace directly to the people.
I’ll conclude with a quote from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s superb opus on the Eucharist, For the Life of the World:
The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom. We use the word ‘dimension’ because it seems the best way to indicate the manner of our sacramental entrance into the risen life of Christ. Color transparencies ‘come alive’ when viewed in three dimensions instead of two. The presence of the added dimension allows us to see much better the actual reality of what has been photographed. In very much the same way, though of course any analogy is condemned to fail, our entrance into the presence of Christ is an entrance into a fourth dimension which allows us to see the ultimate reality of life. It is not an escape from the world, rather it is the arrival at a vantage point from which we can see more deeply into the reality of the world.