Posted by: mattcolvin | August 19, 2022

Ritual Meal or Hocus Pocus?

Detail from Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina, The Eucharistic Christ. 1520 – 1530. Museo del Prado, Madrid.

In discussion with one of my Greek students, a Lutheran from Australia, who was acting as though an ontological “real presence” view of the Supper were the natural and obvious reading of the Bible’s words, I noted that Jesus does not say “This bread is my body”; and likewise, Paul does not say, “The bread which we break, is it not the body of Christ?” He says, “is it not the koinonia of the body of Christ?”

In my book, I have argued that the Supper is a ritual meal, and the ontological categories by which we should think about its efficacy and operation are those appropriate to a ritual meal. The ritual meal, i.e. the act of the people of God consuming the elements together in obedience to Jesus’ command, is the real subject of “is” in Jesus’ statement “This is my body” and in Paul’s rhetorical question “is it not the body of Christ?”

To make the element of bread the subject of that verb is to misunderstand what Jesus and Paul are saying. They had no intention of designating the bread, considered as an object, as a locus of Jesus’ presence. The claim that the bread itself is the body is therefore inappropriate to the sort of thing that the Supper is. It is a failure to consider the Supper as a meal — which is how it is actually described in the Bible, and is also what the Passover was. It is to locate the Supper’s working and efficacy in things other than its nature as a meal that is eaten and a ritual that is performed by the people of God; to locate its working and efficacy instead in words of consecration or ontological transformation, i.e. in things about which the Bible is wholly silent, because they are not part of the intended way the Supper was designed and intended by Jesus to work.

Stop and consider what stupendous omissions the advocates of “real presence” are forced to posit in the NT itself: on their view, the central event of the Church’s worship, the eucharist, works because of the “real presence” of Christ in the elements of bread and wine, and this “real presence” is brought about by the celebrant, when he says the words of consecration, which are misunderstood as a performative utterance with the illocutionary force of “I am hereby making these elements my body.” Yet this momentous event of ontological change is never described or narrated; the formula of words is never spelled out for us or understood this way; the identity of the celebrant tasked with this momentous power is never disclosed. There are several descriptions of the duties and qualifications of Christian ministers (e.g. 1 Tim. 3, Tit. 1), but these passages say nothing about consecrating the Eucharist to make the bread the body of Christ—an odd omission, since if that is something the clergy must do, then it is the most important part of their job! Surely these omissions must be puzzling for the advocates of a sacerdotal priesthood with the power of confecting Christ so that He becomes ontologically present in the elements? If the Supper works by the consecrating of the elements, why is it that such consecration is never described—neither in the New Testament, nor Ignatius, nor the Didache, nor any of the other apostolic fathers?

It was Peter Leithart who first caused me to see this point when he asked, in Against Christianity, “What is the Supper?” and answered that “It is not just bread and wine, and not just eating of bread and wine. It is eating bread and wine by members of Christ’s body at Christ’s invitation.”

One consequence of this way of viewing the Supper is the realization that traditions that posit ontological change in the elements actually have a very low view of the efficacy of the ritual meal itself. If the bread becomes or contains or is united with Jesus’ body quite apart from whether any Christians are consuming it as part of a ritual meal, then the power and efficacy is dislocated from that meal to whatever means are thought to effect the ontological change in the elements. All the gaudy ceremonial (tabernacles, monstrances, chasubles, sancing bells, manual acts and gestures, elevation, reservation, adoration) suddenly appears compensatory, like a sports car driven by a balding middle aged man; or worse, a distraction, like the gestures of a stage magician engaged in legerdemain.

To dislocate the Supper’s power to an alleged ontological change in the elements is to miss the all-too-real way in which it does work: namely, by the power of God himself who raised Jesus from the dead, and will also raise those who partake of the ritual meal, so that He makes them to be united with Jesus by their eating of the bread and drinking of the wine.


  1. I always assumed that ideas about the ontological change in the elements were sort of an intellectual superstructure gradually built over the problems in understanding the Eucharist related to magical accretions that developed during the effort to Christianize Europe. I agree that the Lutheran explanation is not the most immediately intuitive!

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