Communion, as also called in ancient Christianity, the Eucharist—was something that Catholics did every day. In fact, it is the focal point of the Catholic Sunday morning celebration.
And it is believed that the bread and wine are actually and miraculously really Jesus’s flesh and blood.
Its practice is traced right back to the apostles. And a lot had been written in that time, similarly, there is a lot to pick from it as a lot of them referred to the Early Church Fathers.
The Early Church Fathers were Christian writers who wrote at the very beginning of the Church. Often they were disciples of the apostles or removed by only a generation or two.
For instance, Polycarp, who was one of the earliest sources, was a disciple of John and his letter to the Church at Philippi was read as Scripture in Philippi along with Paul’s letters which were eventually adopted into the New Testament canon. These Early Church Fathers were often bishops of the Church and were appointed successors to the apostles. They also wrote in the same way which we see the apostles writing in the New Testament epistles—authoritative letters and notes to churches who were struggling to uphold Christian teachings.
Reading through the Early Church Fathers, one would be struck by how Catholic they sounded and
Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of John, was born around AD 50 and writes about a sect of heretical Christians like this,
You have noted those who teach heterodox things about the grace of Jesus Christ which came to us. How they are contrary to the mind of God! They are not concerned about love, neither the widow, the orphan, the afflicted—whether bound or free, the hungry nor the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from [set times of] prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, that flesh which suffered for our sins but which the Father raised in his kindness.
Notice how Ignatius identifies these Christians as not believing and practicing the true faith of the Early Church: They aren’t concerned about love, widows, orphans, the poor, and don’t believe that the Eucharist is “the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
On his short list of things that make this group, not Christians, he identifies, clearly, unbelief in the Eucharist as the actual flesh of Jesus.
Justin Martyr, a Christian convert writing around AD 130-160, describes a Eucharistic celebration in the Early Church which sounds nearly identical to what Paul describes in his letter to the Corinthians,
We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration [i.e., has received baptism] and is thereby living as Christ enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.
Justin Martyr writes that just as Jesus was made flesh and blood “as we have been taught, the food… is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus.”
Tracing back to the Bible, in John 6, after a miraculous multiplication of bread and fish, Jesus tells his disciples, the many thousands listening, that they must “eat [his] flesh.” The crowd scoffs. Of course, to imply his good Jewish disciples should eat his flesh was tantamount to murder—and disgusting to the law-abiding Jew—so many cried out in disbelief. And what does Jesus do? He repeats himself, just so his message is clear.
In the original Greek, he opts for an even stronger word to make his point, telling his followers they must “gnaw [his] flesh.” It’s pretty graphic. So graphic, and difficult to hear, in fact, that many of his followers left. They’ve had enough. Jesus doesn’t stop them. In fact, when the disciples approached asking Jesus for clarification he tells them that, yes, it is difficult teaching and asks if they want to leave too?
Jesus spoke quite clearly but we’d always assumed it wasn’t literal. It couldn’t be, after all, because who believed that we needed to eat his actual flesh? This was what the Early Church Fathers talked about, too.
Even earlier than that.
Jesus, at the Last Supper, (which forms our understanding of the Communion across all Catholics) again talks about his flesh and blood, and there is nothing to suggest that he means it figuratively as some Christians simply read it.
Later, in the epistles of Paul, Paul referred again to the Lord’s Supper as Jesus’s “flesh” imploring the Corinthian church to “discern the body” before eating or else fall into grave sin.
What did Paul mean when he said: “Discern the body?”
Did he mean that one needed to recognize what Jesus said—that it wasn’t simply bread and wine in a solemn celebration—before taking Communion? Yes, it certainly seemed that way, especially in the context of a letter to a group of believers ( the Corinth) who were using the Lord’s Supper as a means to eat excessively and carelessly—treating it like another everyday meal instead of a partaking in “the body” of Jesus.
In fact, if we look back at Justin Martyr, writing a generation or two after Paul, he mentions that “no one else is permitted” to take part in the Eucharist unless they “believe our teaching to be true.” This sounds like what Paul warns the Corinthians about—that they must “discern the body” before partaking.
As you read the Catholic sources, from the Early Church Fathers, and re-read the Bible with a more discerning lens, you would begin to understand and contemplate. The more closely you read, you might be faced with various tough questions such as: Why was Jesus speaking figuratively here and not there; why were Paul’s words literal about one thing and metaphorical about another? Did the Catholic Church get it right about what Jesus meant when he said we had to eat his flesh? Was he speaking literally? Was the ancient Church concept of the “Real Presence” actually real?
For 1,500 years the Church had believed that Jesus was “really present” in the Eucharist. That Communion wasn’t merely a symbolic celebration but Christ coming to actually dwell amongst his people in a miraculous way. Even if we don’t take Christ at his literal word on John 6 or at the Last Supper and even if we ignore Paul’s very literal charge to the Corinthians the witness of the Early Church Fathers is unambiguous and two were only quoted.
Then from Augustine to Athanasius to Thomas Aquinas and up to the Protestant Reformation, the chain of belief is clear and concise. Contrary to what other Christians think Communion is a symbol, Jesus is really present in the Eucharist, and not merely a symbol.
The Eucharist is not merely a symbolic memorial with bread and wine but a memorial sacrifice where Christ became truly present?
Some believe that when Judas received it at the last supper, he received his condemnation and death because he was not in the state of Grace.