Transubstantiation is the Christian doctrine that at a certain point the bread (or wafer) and wine (or grape juice) of the Eucharist (or Mass, or Communion) become atom-for-atom and molecule-for-molecule the body and the blood of Jesus Christ. That “certain point” is usually when a Catholic Priest sanctifies it; that is, he prays over it and dedicates it to God. Other religious groups also hold to Transubstantiation, such as Lutherans and Anglicans (Episcopalians), therefore, obviously, it doesn’t have to be a Roman Catholic Priest who consecrates such elements.
This is a short Bible study about Transubstantiation. If it were longer, I would go into the Passover and explain that, too.
I’ve decided to use the Douay-Rheims Bible, a break from my tradition. That is because the Douay-Rheims translation is as good as any, and it might be more acceptable by some in this audience. Please remember, this is a Bible study, not a Roman Catholic Doctrine study.
My plan of action is first to give the scriptural basis on which that doctrine is based, and then other scripture to shed more light on the matter of the elements (bread and wine) used in the service.
In the Gospel of John 6:48-58, Jesus said,
48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers did eat manna in the desert: and are dead. 50 This is the bread which cometh down from heaven: that if any man eat of it, he may not die. 51 I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world. 52 The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? 53 Then Jesus said to them: Amen, amen, I say unto you: except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. 54 He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. 55 For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed. 56 He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me: and I in him. 57 As the living Father hath sent me and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, the same also shall live by me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. Not as your fathers did eat manna and are dead. He that eateth this bread shall live for ever.
To read the fuller context of this passage (which I recommend), refer to John 6:1-71.
When Jesus said, “Amen, amen,” that is the same as “Truly, truly” or “Verily, verily.” It means, “This is absolutely true; I swear it.” When Jesus says “Amen, amen,” he is speaking in his official authority as Son of God. That means we should pay especially close attention to what he is saying.
In that passage (John 6:48-58) Jesus said that in order to be saved, you must drink his blood and eat his flesh. That’s pretty gruesome, but he did say it. His words had ramifications, too. Because many of his disciples said, “This saying is hard; and who can hear it?” (John 6:60). Also, afterwards, “many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him.” (vs.66)
So how did we go from Jesus saying, “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood” in order to be saved, to the Eucharist being the body and blood of Jesus? That’s answered during the story of the Last Supper.
“19 And taking bread, [Jesus] gave thanks and brake and gave to them, saying: This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me. 20 In like manner, the chalice also, after he had supped, saying: This is the chalice, the new testament in my blood, which shall be shed for you.” (Luke 22:19-20).
Jesus said the bread of the Last Supper was his body, and the wine his blood.
Taking the two together – Jesus saying to eat his flesh and Jesus saying the bread is his flesh – we arrive at the doctrine of Transubstantiation.
But just because we arrive at a doctrine through evidence and deduction, that doesn't mean our conclusion must be correct. It's possible to conclude something and be wrong in our conclusion.
Some Objections to the Doctrine
Participants in Mass (the Catholic rite of receiving the consecrated bread and wine) sometimes respond, “Well, it doesn’t taste like blood and meat to me. It tastes like bread and wine.”
That, I think, is where faith comes in. If you really believe there is a God who created heaven and earth, and if you believe God really can save you from your sins through the death of Jesus, then why can’t you believe God can create what is blood and flesh to Him but tastes like bread and wine to you?
Another objection that some have is, “Isn’t that cannibalism?” The objection to cannibalism is cultural. It’s disgusting to us, just as eating grubs or cockroaches might be disgusting to us. But it may not be disgusting to other people in other cultures.. A parallel argument is that God forbade us to commit human sacrifice, and yet he told the patriarch Abram to offer his son Isaac as a human sacrifice. In the same way – getting back to cannibalism – God told us not to engage in cannibalism, and yet he told us to eat his Son, Jesus, if we want to be forgiven for our sins and acceptable to Him..
There is another way to understand Transubstantiation: the bread being flesh and the wine being blood is only symbolic. This is the approach many Protestants take.
Concerning his statement in John 6:53, “except you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you,” when his discourse was over and many of his disciples had deserted him, Jesus explained to his remaining disciples (included the twelve apostles), (John 6:61, 63) “Doth this scandalize you? 63 It is the spirit that quickeneth: the flesh profiteth nothing. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
Right there Jesus, at that same time, explained himself and said, “It is the spirit that makes alive (quickeneth). The flesh profits nothing.” He also said, “The words I speak unto you are spiritual.” He was giving a spiritual lesson in human terms. He spoke a parable, to weed out the true believers from the opportunists (Again, read the entire chapter of John 6 to get the context.)
Jesus explained about parables in Matthew 13:10-16,
“10 And his disciples came and said to him: Why speakest thou to them in parables? 11 Who answered and said to them: Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven: but to them it is not given. 12 For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall abound: but he that hath not, from him shall be taken away that also which he hath. 13 Therefore do I speak to them in parables: because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. 14 And the prophecy of Isaias is fulfilled in them, who saith: By hearing you shall hear, and shall not understand: and seeing you shall see, and shall not perceive. 15 For the heart of this people is grown gross, and with their ears they have been dull of hearing, and their eyes they have shut: lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. 16 But blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear.”
That is what happened in John 6, when Jesus told the opportunists that in order to be saved they must eat his flesh and drink his blood (both acts forbidden by Jewish law). Then he explained to his disciples that he was telling a spiritual truth, not a physical one.
The Last Supper
So, why did Jesus say, “This is my body… this is my blood…” at his last (earthly) supper? Ask yourself first, what was that supper? Luke 22:14-15 says, “14 And when the hour was come, he sat down: and the twelve apostles with him. 15 And he said to them: With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you, before I suffer.”
“Pasch” is Passover. It’s the Jewish word for Passover. Pasch is still celebrated annually by the Jews in springtime. Perhaps you’re seen television renditions of Pasch in various movies. The Seder table is set with a specific type of food and the family is gathered around it. During the meal, a child stands and asks the perfunctory questions:
Why is this night different?
Why do we eat such unusual foods as Matzoh, the unleavened bread, and Maror, the bitter herbs?
Why do we dip green herbs in salt water?
Why do we open doors?
Why do we hide and then eat the Afikomen?
After each question, the leader of the Seder meal gives the answer.
When Jesus and his disciples were sharing the Seder meal, Jesus explained the meaning of the meal. This bread (being served at Passover) represents my body. This wine (being served at Passover) represents my blood. If it were literally his body and blood, then one would expect bite-sized chunks to start disappearing from his body.
The Apostle Paul, who was not present at the Lord’s Supper but was later told what happened, said in 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, “23 For I (Paul) have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed, took bread, 24 And giving thanks, broke and said: Take ye and eat: This is my body, which shall be delivered for you. This do for the commemoration of me. 25 In like manner also the chalice, after he had supped, saying: This chalice is the new testament in my blood. This do ye, as often as you shall drink, for the commemoration of me. 26 For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come.”
Thus we have the record that Jesus told his disciples to do that in remembrance (commemoration) of him. Do what? What was he doing? He was having the Passover. He was eating the annual Seder. He told his Jewish disciples that the Passover, first introduced in the Old Testament in Exodus 12, was a shadow – a prophecy – of him. At the first Passover, the people of Israel was saved from destruction by the blood of the lamb. John the Prophet later said of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
The Apostle Paul also said (Galatians 3:24), “24 Wherefore the law was our pedagogue in Christ: that we might be justified by faith.” Pedagogue is tutor, or schoolmaster. So we learn that the things written in the Old Testament were put there to point us to Christ – to prove who he was and to eliminate all possibility of missing him.
So when the disciples were enjoying Jesus’ last supper, the Passover Seder, he was explaining it was all about him. This was the lesson of God, to bring them to salvation.
What Is the Mass?
“Mass” is a Latin word meaning “sacrifice.” A Mass is the sacrifice of Jesus. If you believe in Transubstantiation, then it is the literal sacrifice of Jesus. If not, then it is the symbolic sacrifice of Jesus.
The Roman Catholic Church does hold to the doctrine of Transubstantiation, which means that the serving of a wafer and wine is a literal sacrifice of Jesus. And, by extension, since the Catholic church is worldwide, the sacrifice is carried on continually, twenty-four hours a day, as a never-ending sacrifice of Jesus for our sins.
Masses are performed in commemoration of people and events. Masses were held for our fallen President, John Kennedy in 1963.. Masses are performed for people’s birthdays, or for saints. In Vatican City, April 22, 2007, a mass of thanksgiving was held in remembrance of Pope Benedict XVI’s 80th birthday. Even Baby Jesus is given a special mass each year on December 25, Christ’s mass. So, we have gone from holding a “last supper” in remembrance of Jesus to a mass in memory of everything else, including Jesus.
Some Protestants take exception to holding mass as a literal sacrifice (again and again) of Jesus. They base their objection on several Bible verses.
4 For it is impossible for those who were once illuminated, have tasted also the heavenly gift and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, 5 Have moreover tasted the good word of God and the powers of the world to come, 6 And are fallen away: to be renewed again to penance, crucifying again to themselves the Son of God and making him a mockery.
That is to say, if someone falls away from Christ after having received all he has to offer, and they reject his salvation, they cannot come back later and try it all over again – to crucify the Son of God again, and making a mockery of him again (that which secured their salvation in the first place). A second sacrifice of Jesus is not allowed by God.
24 For Jesus is not entered into the Holies made with hands, the patterns of the true: but into Heaven itself, that he may appear now in the presence of God for us. 25 Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the Holies every year with the blood of others: 26 For then he ought to have suffered often from the beginning of the world. But now once, at the end of ages, he hath appeared for the destruction of sin by the sacrifice of himself.
If I may, let me reword that so that perhaps it makes more sense to some people.
24 Jesus did not enter an earthly Jewish Temple in Jerusalem made with human hands, which was only a pattern made after the heavenly temple
25 Nor does Jesus offer himself over and over again, as the earthly priests do when they enter the temple year after year and offer someone else’s blood (not their own).
26 If that were the case, then Jesus would have to be sacrificed over and over and over since the beginning of time. But instead, at this one last time, Jesus offered himself as a sacrifice only once for the destruction of all sin for all time.
Here are other scriptures that indicate Jesus’ sacrifice was made once and only once, and may not be done over and over.
10 For in that he died to sin, he died once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.
27 Who [Jesus, our High Priest] needeth not daily (as the other priests) to offer sacrifices, first for his own sins, and then for the people’s: for this he did once, in offering himself.
but by his own blood, entered once into the Holies, having obtained eternal redemption.
we are sanctified by the oblation of the body of Jesus Christ once. 11 And every priest indeed standeth daily ministering and often offering the same sacrifices which can never take away sins. 12 But this man, offering one sacrifice for sins, for ever sitteth on the right hand of God
1 Peter 3:18
18 Because Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust: that he might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit
And so we learn from scripture that Jesus died for sins one time only, and that one time covers all sins from the beginning of humankind until Jesus returns again as King and Lord. We learn also - according to scripture - that the bread and wine is representative of his body and blood, but not literally his body and blood.