Dear Friends in Christ,
“This is My Body”
There are Christians, often with a vibrant faith, who seem to believe that when Jesus said, “this is my body,” he didn’t really mean it. Or at least, he meant it in a purely metaphorical sense. They quote his words, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
Others, however, point to Jesus’ declaration, “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (John 6:55) as the key to interpreting his words at the Last Supper.
The Colloquy of Marburg
In October of 1530, a gathering of Protestant leaders led by Martin Luther and the Swiss reformer, Ulrich Zwingli met at Marburg in order to resolve their theological differences and create a united front within the Reformation. They agreed on fourteen points, including the authority of scripture, and justification by faith, but their efforts reached an impasse on the nature of the Eucharist. Zwingli and the Swiss reformers were strict memorialists; they believed the bread and wine were purely symbolic. For them, the Jesus’ human body had ascended to heaven, and only his divine nature could be omnipresent. Luther believed deeply that Jesus humanity and divinity were inseparable and “ubiquitous” (universally present) and hence that Christ was really present “in, with, and under” the forms of bread and wine.
As the discussion continued Luther grew agitated; he wrote hoc est corpus meum (“This is my body”) in chalk on a wooden table and pounded it with his fist -giving dramatic expression to his conviction that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist was real and tangible. “You and I are of a different Spirit.” he sputtered in frustration.
The Anglican View on Real Presence?
Where do we Anglicans stand? The fact of the matter is that Anglican teaching on the Eucharist has been a moving target over the years. At Zwingli’s side at Marburg was the Strassburg reformer, Martin Bucer. Decades later, Martin Bucer visited England and significantly influenced Archbishop Cranmer’s second edition of the Book of Common Prayer in 1552. Cranmer and the English reformers were far closer to Bucer and Zwingli than to Luther. “For Christ,” said Cranmer, “when he bids us eat his body it is figurative, we cannot eat his body indeed.”
A generation later, the Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, rejected Luther’s teaching and located the presence of Christ not in the bread and wine, but in us as we receive the Eucharistic elements. The bread and wine are simply “means instrumental” by which we receive the body and blood of Christ, but the body and blood are not contained in the bread and wine. This view, known as “dynamic receptionism,” goes beyond memorialism. There is a genuine encounter with the Risen Christ. Yet the emphasis is on the subjective act of receiving, not on a presence inherent in the bread and wine.
The fact is: the traditional Lutheran understanding of the Eucharist is far more “Catholic” than the views of the Anglican reformers. Today, however, most Anglicans embrace a notion of the “Real Presence” that is closer to Luther than Cranmer. Contemporary Anglicanism, though admittedly diverse, has rightly made adjustments in its theology of the Eucharist, with the result that we now affirm both presence and remembrance. After all, Jesus speaks of both. Why should we have to choose between one or the other?