From Mystery to Meaning
by James G. McCarthy
My stomach was in full flight as we waited for Mass to begin. How embarrassing it would be if I forgot what to do! Nervously I rehearsed my Latin. But I had made up my mind; I was going to be an altar boy.
The priest was calm. The other boy, a veteran, was entertaining himself looking through a mirrored window at the people.
At last the nod came. The heavy door to the altar opened. As we walked out in procession, I pulled the gold chain on the bell above the entryway. Why did I ever get myself into this?
It was not the altar boy picnic at the end of the year. That drew many recruits, but for me the attraction was deeper. I was aware of the respect I would receive from my family. Also, becoming a priest was a possibility. This could be the first step. Then there was the grace I would receive from God. The richly paneled sacristy, where I had donned my black cassock and white surplice, even smelled holy. Soon I would be handling the water and the wine, and assisting in Holy Communion after those awesome words: "Hoc est enim corpus meum - For this is My body."
As the bell clanged, the entire congregation rose to their feet. Pretty heady stuff for an eleven-year-old.
I served Mass for four years. In the second year, the Latin Mass came to the end of its 1500-year history. I had to relearn all the responses in English. It was hard work but a big improvement.
Having attended Mass most of my life, I understand the reverence that every Catholic has for this sacrament. As a youth it was woven into the fabric of my life. Yet as an adult, my attendance often lacked meaning. As I sought a clearer understanding of this mystery, my search led me to the Sacred Scriptures. There God counsels, "Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good."(1) I decided to examine the Mass using the standard that God has provided: the Bible.
I found that the heart of the issue is the interpretation of Jesus' words , "This is My body. . . this is My blood."(2) Four major passages record the events of the Last Supper during which Jesus spoke these words. Three are in the gospels.(3) The fourth account is given by Paul. He was not present at the supper, but received a revelation directly from the Lord.(4) In addition there are several short references in the Acts of the Apostles and 1 Corinthians.(5) John 6, where the Lord speaks of himself as the "bread of life," is also important.
What is the correct interpretation of Jesus' statement: "This is My body" ? To answer this we must decide whether he was speaking in plain or figurative language.
Plain speech is just what it sounds like: plain. It's nonfigurative. For instance, we might say, "It is raining one inch per hour." This is stating the facts in plain language. However, we could have said, "It's raining cats and dogs!" This is figurative language.
Jesus used both types of language on the night of the Last Supper. Following the meal, he said, "These things I have spoken to you in figurative language; an hour is coming when I will speak no more to you in figurative language, but will tell you plainly of the Father."(6) Whether we take Christ's words to be spoken in plain or figurative language will determine our view of the Eucharist.
The Plain View
This is the interpretation held by the Catholic Church. It teaches that when Jesus spoke the words: "Take, eat; this is My body. . . this is My blood," he turned the bread into his body and the wine into his blood. The official name for this is transubstantiation. It means that the substance is changed. Although the outward appearance remains that of bread and wine, the real material or essential nature has been changed. This is done so that the priest can then sacrifice Christ on the altar. It is an "unbloody sacrifice," but one in which Christ is actually "immolated" or offered as the victim. The bread wafer is the "host." This term comes from the Latin word for victim. The offering of the host makes satisfaction for the sins of the living and the dead. Those receiving Holy Communion eat the body of Christ. Participation is essential for spiritual life, central to Catholic experience, and important for salvation. This is the Sacrifice of the Mass or the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
At the Last Supper, Jesus said, "This is My body. . . this is My blood." The Catholic Church interprets Jesus' words to mean, "This has become My body. . . this has become My blood."
This view interprets the verb "is" in its most usual way: showing that two things are equal to each other. For example, a young man showing his first car to his family might proudly announce, "This is my car."
The Figurative View
This interpretation treats Jesus' words as a figure of speech. The bread and wine are symbols. The bread reminds us of his body which was broken for us. The wine reminds us of his blood which was shed for our sins. The Lord Jesus wants his followers to take bread and wine for the purpose of remembering him; that is, to thank and praise him for the sacrifice of his life.
The figurative view understands Jesus' words as "This represents My body. . . this represents My blood." It interprets the verb "is" in another of its regular uses: showing that one object represents another.
An example of this might be the previously mentioned young man and his car. Later that day at dinner, he has the sad task of explaining to his father how he wrecked his new car. Arranging the plates and utensils to represent the scene of the accident, he picks up a spoon and, crestfallen, says, "This is my car."
Context is the key. The young man spoke the same words twice: "This is my car." Both times those listening immediately knew what he meant. The first time he used them in their plain sense. The second time in their figurative sense.
His words are similar to Christ's at the Last Supper. In which sense did Christ speak when he said, "This is My body?" Plain or figurative?
By reading Christ's words in context, we can determine their correct meaning. My study of the Last Supper has led me to believe that Jesus was speaking figuratively. Four points provide a summary of the reasons for my conclusion.
1. Jesus' Teaching Style
The Jews often spoke in figurative language. The Lord Jesus, being a Jew, was no exception. John records in his gospel seven figurative statements that Jesus made about himself. Each uses the same verb translated "is" in the words "This is My body." Jesus said,
"I am the bread of life,"(7)
"I am the light of the world,"(8)
"I am the door,"(9)
"I am the good shepherd,"(10)
"I am the resurrection and the life"(11)
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life,"(12)
"I am the true vine."(13)
All are figurative. The last two were even spoken the night of the Last Supper in the upper room.
At other times, the Lord Jesus referred to his body as a temple,(14) new life as living water,(15) his disciples as salt,(16) and the Pharisees' teaching as leaven.(17) In Matthew we read: "All these things Jesus spoke to the multitudes in parables, and He did not speak to them without a parable."(18) A parable is the comparing of one thing with something else. It is figurative language. This is not to say that everything Jesus said was figurative, only that he often employed figurative language to teach truth.
It is not surprising to find figurative language at the Last Supper. A study of that night's teaching, as recorded in John 13-17, will show that throughout the evening he used many figures of speech. He referred to the cup figuratively, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood."(19) The cup is not the actual covenant but symbolic of it.
The passage continues, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes."(20) Surely we are not to drink the cup! This is a figurative reference to the wine inside the cup. Note also that this verse refers to the substance eaten as "bread," not a body. In the Gospel of Mark, after Jesus said, "This is My blood," he referred to the substance as the "fruit of the vine,"(21) or wine, not blood. This is the context of the passage we are examining. Much of it is clearly figurative language.
Jesus' Jewish audience often misunderstood his teaching. They lacked discernment. They seemed unable to tell when he was speaking figuratively of spiritual truths. When he said, "Destroy this temple," they thought he meant the building.(22) When he referred to the "leaven of the Pharisees,"(23) they thought he meant bread. When he told the woman at the well of the living water, she wanted to see his bucket.(24) And when he spoke of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, they argued, grumbled, and left in disgust.(25)
The Apostle John records this last incident in the sixth chapter of his gospel. Because the Catholic Church uses this passage to interpret Jesus' words at the Last Supper, we shall take a closer look at it.
2. John 6
This chapter begins with Jesus miraculously feeding a great multitude. The following day, he proclaims that he can give "food which endures to eternal life."(26) This resumes a dispute with the Jewish authorities about who Jesus is. They were already plotting to kill him, because he was "making Himself equal with God."(27) He had even claimed that he could give life to the dead.(28)
In John 6, the Jews continue to resist Jesus' claim of being divine. They challenge him to prove this by bringing down manna from heaven as Moses had.(29) Jesus takes their reference to the manna, the food which was essential for life in the wilderness, and applies it figuratively to himself. He answers, "I am the bread of life."(30)
In the debate which follows, he uses bread to illustrate the truth that they have refused to accept: belief in Jesus is essential for spiritual life. First he states the matter in plain language, "He who believes has eternal life."(31) Then he states it in figurative language, "If anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever."(32) In his analogy, Jesus uses eating to represent believing.
This can be seen again in a following verse. Jesus went on to say, "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."(33) Moments earlier he had said, "For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise him up on the last day."(34)
Notice that the results are identical in both verses: eternal life and resurrection. But although in the one we must eat and drink, in the other we must behold and believe. Since the results are identical, we should understand that the actions to obtain them are also identical: eating represents believing. His figurative statements are easily understood when read in the context of the other verses in the passage.
But we should not read into this passage a reference to the Eucharist. The reason is once again context. The circumstances in John 6 and the Last Supper are different. Yes, Jesus refers to bread in both, but there the similarity ends.
In John 6, he is speaking to those who reject him as the source of eternal life. He uses bread as an analogy to illustrate mankind's need to believe in him. Jesus never even mentions wine.
At the Last Supper, he is among his eleven true disciples. There he is instituting a commemorative meal using bread and wine.
When we understand how different the two events are from each other, it becomes clear that we cannot use John 6 as a foundation upon which to rest our interpretation of the Last Supper. But this is exactly what the Catholic Church does. Let us examine five verses that it commonly uses.
In John 6:51, Jesus predicts, "The bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh." The Catholic Church interprets this as a promise of the Eucharist. Yet the context has nothing to do with the Last Supper or physical bread.
Earlier, Jesus had identified himself as the bread of life. Now he says he will give the bread, that is himself, his very flesh, for the life of the world. This is an accurate description of what he did on the cross. He is predicting his death. Many times near the end of his life he made similar predictions.(35)
This interpretation fits the context. By the sacrifice of his life, Jesus became the Savior of the world, the source of eternal life.
In John 6:52, the Jews begin to argue with one another, "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?" Because of their antagonism for Jesus, they not only rejected his teaching but lacked the discernment to understand when he was using an illustration.
In John 6:53, Jesus states, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves." Rather than teach the necessity of receiving Holy Communion, it speaks of the necessity of faith in Christ. If you do not trust in his payment for sin on the cross, you will not have eternal life in yourself.
In John 6:54 he says, "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day."(36) We have seen that "to eat" is "to believe," and that the giving of his flesh refers to his death on the cross. And so, "to eat his flesh" or "to drink his blood" would be to trust in the sacrifice of his life. It is to rely upon his death on the cross as the payment for our sins.
Finally, in John 6:55, he states, "For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink." To understand this as teaching that Christ is bodily present in the host is to interpret it out of context. Here again, Jesus is emphasizing that he is the source of real spiritual life and nourishment.
Quotes from John 6 should not be used to interpret Jesus' words at the Last Supper. The contexts are too different. However, those who insist on doing so should realize that in John 6 Christ uses bread to illustrate his point. If anything, this sets a precedent for a figurative understanding of Christ's use of bread at the Last Supper.
3. Sound Reason
God is rational. He invited Israel, "Come now, and let us reason together."(37) He expects us to use sound judgment. I take Jesus' words at the Last Supper as figurative on three grounds.
First, consider the location of his body. When he spoke the words, "This is My body," he was reclining with his disciples at the table. Surely they would not have reasoned that both the bread and his actual flesh and bones were his body. The plain view has them both as his body at the same time. Following this view, the Catholic Church teaches that Jesus' body is present on every altar in every consecrated host around the world. Is this what the Bible teaches?
The Scriptures tell us that Jesus is now enthroned in heaven. His bodily return is yet a future event.(38) The Bible never ascribes more than one location to his physical body at any given time.
Someone might object, "Is not Christ God? And is not God everywhere?" Yes. But this refers to his spiritual, not physical, presence.
Second, the appearance of the bread and wine before and after consecration look suspiciously alike. Moreover, they smell, feel, and taste like bread and wine.
The Catholic Church realizes that the physical evidence contradicts the doctrine of the real presence. To explain this, it teaches that the "accidents" (qualities) of the bread and wine remain, but that the "substance" (nature) changes. But is it not the inward nature of an object that produces the outward appearance? Also, there is no other "miracle" recorded in the Bible where all outward evidences declare that nothing has happened, while the faithful are expected to blindly believe that, in fact, something has happened. God has never dealt with mankind in that manner.
Third, let us look at the activity that results from a non-figurative interpretation. When the Son of God became a man, he took upon himself human flesh. Holy Communion is eating Christ's physical body. Why would God want us eating human flesh? Why would he want us drinking human blood? I know that we are speaking of the body and blood of Christ, but is this reasonable? Is it Scriptural? The drinking of blood is repeatedly forbidden in the Scriptures, including the New Testament.(39) The apostles were strict Jews who would not think of eating anything but kosher food.(40) And for a Jew, you cannot find a food more unclean than blood.
Some sincerely argue that eating Christ's physical body must certainly bring grace. Yet Jesus taught, "Hear, and understand. Not what enters into the mouth defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man. . . . Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated?"(41) If eating can not defile us, then how can it sanctify us? Is it Christ in my stomach that I need? Did not Jesus say, "The flesh profits nothing?"(42)
Some do not think that the Mass needs to be reasonable. "It is a mystery. Just accept it by faith," they declare. But the Scriptures never call it a mystery; why should we? Making it a matter of faith leaves the problems unanswered. Faith must rest upon divine revelation. The Mass, as described by the Catholic Church, is not in the Bible.
The problems listed above are real. The Mass is not only unreasonable, it is unscriptural.
A figurative interpretation of Jesus' words makes good sense. His body need not be everywhere. The inward nature of the bread and wine is consistent with its outward appearance. Rather than physically consuming Christ, we experience spiritual communion with him.
4. The Stated Purpose
Why did Jesus take bread and wine and ask his disciples to do likewise? We find the answer in Christ's own words, "Do this in remembrance of Me." The Scriptures continue, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes."(43) This is the purpose as Jesus stated it.
The figurative view is in harmony with this purpose. As each believer eats the bread, he is saying by his actions, "Christ's body was broken for me. He took my punishment." Drinking the wine symbolically states, "Christ's blood was poured out for me. He gave his life in exchange for mine."(44)
Jesus Christ went to the cross to save the world. God now offers full forgiveness to anyone who will turn from his sins and trust Christ alone for salvation.(45)
Partaking of the bread and wine is an outward declaration that I as an individual have accepted this offer. It is a public proclamation of my reliance on his death. When believers do this together, it is also a statement of their unity in Christ.(46)
The Lord Jesus need not be physically present for the church to remember him. The bread and the wine serve as fitting reminders of his body and blood given for us. We do this only "until He comes." Then we will not need the symbols, for we shall have him!
The figurative view places the emphasis of worship where it belongs: spiritual communion with God. God is spirit. He wants us to worship him "in spirit and truth."(47) This means he wants us to enter his presence in spirit and without hypocrisy in our lives. Simply showing up and eating the bread means very little to God. He is more interested in the internal than the external, the spiritual than the physical. The Scriptures emphasize self-examination to ensure spiritual reality rather than outward form or mere attendance.(48)
Finally, the taking of bread and wine simply to remember Christ is consistent with the simplicity for which he stood. He spoke against the use of "meaningless repetition" in prayer.(49) He harshly criticized the Pharisees for their pomp.(50) The Apostle Paul wrote, "I am afraid, lest as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, your minds should be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ."(51)
Today we find at the Mass elaborate vestments, ready-made prayers, and a man allegedly sacrificing Christ on an altar with a solid gold chalice. It certainly did not start out this way.
History tells of the late development of the present-day Doctrine of the Mass. It is not mentioned in the Apostles' Creed (written in the second century A.D.) or the Nicene Creed (325 A.D.). Individual writers from this period can be cited to support a variety of views.
There was furious controversy from the ninth through the twelfth century. The belief that the nature of the host changed at the consecration did not become an official doctrine of the Catholic Church until the Lateran Council of 1215. This was the first time that the Catholic Church sanctioned the "theory of transubstantiation." The Vatican was still developing the doctrine in the sixteenth century. At that time, the Council of Trent sought to meet the challenges of the Reformation. Trent further defined the theory and placed a solemn curse upon anyone who denied it.(52)
Since then, the simple request of the Lord to be remembered with bread and wine has been exalted to the "source and apex of the whole work of preaching the gospel."(53) These are the words of The Second Vatican Council (1963-1965). Yet when the Apostle Paul told the church what was of "first importance,"(54) "the gospel which I preached to you,"(55) he never even mentioned bread or wine.
What is the purpose of the Mass? It is the perpetuation of the sacrifice of Christ in an unbloody manner to make satisfaction for sins. Let us consider this statement a piece at a time.
First, it is a sacrifice. A sacrifice is an offering made to appease God. In the Scriptures we find no mention of the bread and wine as a sacrifice. Note also that the Lord took bread and wine at a table, not an altar. Tables are for eating; altars are for sacrificing. God commanded the Jews that there was to be only one altar.(56) If Jesus were indeed instituting a sacrifice, then he was establishing a second altar in Jerusalem. No Scripture supports such a significant change.
Second, the Mass is a continuing sacrifice. The Scriptures tell us that a sacrifice which must be constantly repeated reveals itself to be weak.(57) If there is power in the Mass, then why the weekly and even daily repetition?
Third, it is an unbloody sacrifice. The Scriptures state that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness."(58) A bloodless sacrifice is a powerless sacrifice.
Finally, the Mass is a sacrifice to make satisfaction for sins. Every Mass declares that Christ's death on the cross was not enough. Compare this with God's word: "We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. . . . Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin."(59)
Why was it that Christ died on the cross? The Bible tells us, "the wages of sin is death."(60) Christ came to pay that punishment for us with his own life.(61) As he was dying, Christ declared, "It is finished!"(62) When he gave up his spirit, God stamped the penalty for sin, "Paid in Full."
The Apostle Peter states the matter clearly, "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God. . . ."(63) Now that is something worth commemorating! What a joy to take bread and wine and remember what Christ did for us rather than attempt to repeat it.
Is the Eucharist a symbol or a sacrifice? Your answer will depend on a far more important question which each must ask himself: am I relying upon Christ's sacrifice on the cross alone as sufficient payment for my sins? Your response to this question will determine not just your weekly practice, but your eternal destiny.(64)
God gave his Son to die for your sins. He offers salvation as a gift.(65) He withdraws that offer from anyone who attempts to receive it, even in part, through personal merit.(66) To seek God's grace through a continued sacrifice is to do just that.
Some Catholics reject the teaching of the real bodily presence and daily sacrifice of Christ by the priest. However, many of these same people continue to attend Mass, while redefining it in their own terms. The Catholic Church does not permit this option.
At every Mass, the priest raises the host and declares, "This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." As each person receives the host, the priest proclaims, "The body of Christ." The person receiving Communion is to reply, "Amen." This Hebrew word is a solemn expression of approval. The person is saying, "It is so, this is the body of Christ." The Catholic Church asks those who cannot honestly state this to refrain from receiving Communion.
Every Catholic must make up his own mind. I struggled with my decision. Long after I began reading the Bible and had trusted in Christ as my Savior, I remained loyal to the Catholic Church. Although I was aware of many of the Scriptures in this booklet, I continued to go to Mass.
One evening, a group of Christians invited me to join them to remember Christ with bread and wine. They believed that the Eucharist was only a symbol. I could not agree. Though I knew the Scriptures did not support it, I continued to hold to that which I had been taught since childhood. I decided to attend, but only to observe.
We sat in a circle. A loaf of bread and a cup of wine stood on a small table in the center. Someone from the group asked if we could sing a hymn. Then another man stood and gave heartfelt praise to God. One elderly gentleman asked us to turn in our Bibles to a passage describing the crucifixion. He read the passage slowly. He then spoke with clarity and affection about the grace of God in sending the Lord Jesus to die for us. My mind and spirit were drawn back to that great event.
The meeting continued in this manner for about thirty minutes. It became clear that the participation was spontaneous. Their love and deep appreciation for Christ were evident.
One man gave thanks to God for the loaf and broke it into two parts. They then passed the bread from one person to the next, each taking a small portion. Another man gave thanks for the cup of wine and passed it around the circle.
At first I felt uncomfortable seeing several men taking the role the priest alone held in my church. Yet this all seemed so natural and glorifying to God. The Apostle Peter had written concerning all believers, "You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light."(67) Could this have been what he meant?
My study of the Scriptures had caused me to doubt the Catholic interpretation of the Mass. My mind was already prepared to accept the fact that the bread and wine were symbols. Now I found my heart confirming that truth.
As they freely worshipped their Savior and rejoiced in his finished work of salvation, I knew that I had been wrong. Here before my eyes was the fulfillment of the request of the Lord Jesus, "This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me."
1. 1 Thessalonians 5:21
2. Matthew 26:26-28
3. Matthew 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-38
4. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34
5. Acts 2:41-47, 20:7-12; 1 Corinthians 10:14-22
6. John 16:25
7. John 6:48
8. John 8:12
9. John 10:9
10. John 10:11
11. John 11:25
12. John 14:6
13. John 15:1
14. John 2:19
15. John 4:10
16. Matthew 5:13
17. Matthew 16:6
18. Matthew 13:34
19. 1 Corinthians 11:25
20. 1 Corinthians 11:26
21. Mark 14:25
22. John 2:19-22
23. Matthew 16:6-12
24. John 4:10-14
25. John 6:60-66
26. John 6:27
27. John 5:18
28. John 5:25
29. John 6:30-31
30. John 6:35
31. John 6:47
32. John 6:51
33. John 6:54
34. John 6:40
35. John 3:14, 16; 10:15
36. John 6:54
37. Isaiah 1:18
38. Acts 1:11
39. Acts 15:29
40. Acts 10:14
41. Matthew 15:10, 11, 17
42. John 6:63
43. 1 Corinthians 11:24-26
44. cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16
45. Romans 10:9-10
46. 1 Corinthians 10:17
47. John 4:24
48. 1 Corinthians 11:28
49. Matthew 6:7
50. Matthew 23:1-36
51. 2 Corinthians 11:3
52. Session XIII, can. 2, D.B., 884
53. Vatican II, Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, sec. 5
54. 1 Corinthians 15:3
55. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4
56. Deuteronomy 12:5-14; Exodus 20:24-26; Joshua 22:16
57. Hebrews 10:1-3
58. Hebrews 9:22; Leviticus 17:10-14
59. Hebrews 10:10, 18
60. Romans 6:23
61. Mark 10:45
62. John 19:30
63. 1 Peter 3:18
64. John 3:36; Romans 4:5; 9:30-33; Hebrews 10:38-39
65. Ephesians 2:8-9
66. Galatians 3:10; 2:21; 5:2-5
67. 1 Peter 2:9
The Mass: From Mystery to Meaning
James G. McCarthy
(©) Copyright 1989
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible
(©) Copyright 1977, The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
This book is available from your local Christian bookstore or from one of our recommended distributors.
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