Q&a 80 in the Heidelberg Catechism is famous for its explicit criticism of the “mass”, that is, the way the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in the Roman Catholic church. It concludes that the mass is basically … an accursed idolatry. This hard criticism of the Roman Catholic was missing in the first edition of the catechism, but Elector Frederick III added it personally to the second edition, because he wanted to make it very clear in his realm that the Roman Catholic view has a serious theological problem. It is not a disagreement about minor things; this is a question of giving God the honour he deserves.
Our goal today is not so much to condemn Roman Catholics, but to make sure that we have a balanced view of the Lord’s Supper, and especially to give glory to our Lord Jesus Christ, who in the sacrament feeds us with himself. Something very special happens as we participate in the body and blood of Jesus. On earth we have communion with Christ, who is in heaven. The Lord’s Supper is not just a sign of heavenly reality; in some sense, heaven and earth meet when we participate. The question is how this happens.
Where heaven and earth meet
1. Unchanged elements (q&a 78)
2. Unique sacrifice (q&a 80a)
3. Uniting Spirit (q&a 80b)
In the catechism, one of the key issues is stated in q&a 78: Are then the bread and wine changed into the real body and blood of Christ? When the elements of the Lord’s Supper are placed on the table, they are simply bread and wine. But when Jesus passed it around to his disciples, he said: “This is my body.” If it was just bread at first but later is the body of Christ, doesn’t that mean a miracle has happened?
In the course of the Middle Ages, more and more emphasis was placed on this special, sacramental change. The moment of consecration, when the priests spoke the words of institution, “This is my body, which is broken for you…” a magical change took place. What was first bread, now was considered so holy that it would be sacrilege to even drop it on the floor, or to throw the leftovers in the trash. It didn’t help that the priest spoke the consecration formula in Latin, and when he said “this is my body”—hoc est corpus meum—all the people heard was “hocus pocus”… (That is where that expression comes from!)
And it wasn’t just that the bread and wine had become consecrated, set apart for the special purpose of the sacrament. The church started taught that the bread and wine had literally become Jesus’ flesh and blood. Those who disagreed were silenced. When around 1050 a French theologian, called Berengar, criticized this view, he was forced to take an oath that “the bread and wine are the true body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, physically touched and broken by the priests and crushed by the teeth of the faithful, not only sacramentally by in actuality.”
Of course, the big question was how the bread and wine could be the physical body and blood of Jesus without actually looking and tasting like it. To answer it, the church adopted terminology from the ancient philosopher Aristotle. He made a difference between the essence of something—what it really is—and its accidents—how it appears outwardly. Using this language, the church adopted an official statement in 1215 that during the consecration, the bread and wine miraculously change their essence into the body and blood of Christ, but without changing the accidents. According to this doctrine, believers are partaking of the real, physical body of Jesus, which however looks and tastes exactly like bread. This idea is known as transubstantiation. It is still officially taught in the Roman Catholic church, and those who disagree with it are considered heretic.
To all this, the Reformers said: no! And the Heidelberg catechism says: no, the bread in the Lord’s supper does not become the body of Christ itself! It is true that in the Lord’s Supper we have real communion with Jesus, but not through transubstantiation. The body of Jesus—which is now in heaven—does not magically appear on earth when the bread and wine are consecrated.
But what about Jesus’ statement that “This is my body”? We all agree that the bread and wine are closely connected to Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. The catechism explains: it is called ‘Christ’s body’ in keeping with the nature and usage of sacraments. When Jesus said, “This is my body,” it was true not physically, but in a sacramental way.
Why should we be concerned about the idea of transubstantiation? Why call it “idolatry”, as the catechism ends up doing? An important reason is that we should respect the proper relationship between heaven and earth. In q&a 80, the catechism explains that the mass teaches … that Christ is bodily present in the form of bread and wine and there is to be worshipped. But we know that Christ with his true body is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and this is where he wants to be worshipped. The mass is a form of idolatry because it worships the bread and wine as if they themselves are divine.
Let’s be clear: we should not undervalue the sacrament. In the Lord’s Supper, a miracle really happens. We have intimate fellowship with Christ. Heaven and earth meet together in a powerful way. But not by pulling the heavenly reality down to the earth. Jesus Christ is with us, but not by teleporting the essence of his physical body to earth when the priests speak the magical words. It is rather the other way around: Our Lord lifts us up to heaven to bring us in communion with him.
Another issue is that the Roman Catholic understands the mass as a sacrifice. It is not true that our worship is an offering to God; but things go wrong when the Eucharist is viewed as repeating Jesus’ death on the cross as an atoning sacrifice. As if, when the priest breaks the bread, the body of Jesus is broken again to provide grace and atonement again, because in the previous week we have sinned again. Then the Lord’s Supper is no longer a memorial but an actual re-sacrificing of Jesus.
But the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is unique. Not just unique in the sense that Jesus’ death is the one only sacrifice that can and does bring atonement. It is also unique in the sense of “once for all”. There is only one event in history that provides atoning grace, even for today.
The Bible teaches this clearly in Hebrews 10. “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (v. 10) In contrast to the Old Testament ritual in the temple, where “every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, … Christ offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.” (v. 11-12) The conclusion, says v. 14, is that “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Two thousand years ago, Jesus entered the sanctuary of heaven with the sacrifice of his broken body and poured out blood, and placed it on the altar there. That is enough. Whenever we look for atonement and grace, whenever we need forgiveness, we look at that one sacrifice from the past.
To be fair, Roman Catholics also confess that everything depends on Jesus’ single, once-for-all offering. But they also insist that the grace of this sacrifice is only available if we (or at least the priest on our behalf) perform this sacrifice over and over, breaking the physical body of Jesus and eating it. So the catechism is fair when it says: the mass teaches that the living and the dead do not have forgiveness of sins through the suffering of Christ unless he is still offered for them daily by the priests. No, Jesus’ work is much more glorious and powerful. He doesn’t need the church to do anything to provide grace for his people. Again, in the words of the catechism, we have complete forgiveness of all our sins through the one sacrifice of Jesus Christ, which he himself accomplished on the cross once for all.
But we do not merely criticize wrong views. We want to do justice to the sacrament, and to the work our Lord Jesus has done. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we don’t think of it as a sacrifice, because Jesus sacrificed himself once for all. And the bread and wine don’t become the physical body and blood of Jesus, because he is now in heaven at the right hand of the Father.
But if it is not a sacrifice, and it is not literally Jesus’ physical body and blood, then what is the Lord’s Supper? What can we say positively?
Many people say it is only a symbol, just a ritual that commemorates truth from the past. Just as we read Bible stories to remind ourselves of the wonderful things God has done, so we break the bread and drink the wine to remember that Jesus died on the cross.
But sacraments are more than that. They are means of grace especially appointed by God to strengthen our faith. Remembering is part of that. In the Lord’s Supper we proclaim the Lord, as Paul said. But another part, clearly spelled out in the Bible, is that through the sacrament we have communion with Jesus—even with his body and blood.
How does that work, if we don’t believe in transubstantiation? This is a deep mystery. We cannot fully analyze the inner workings of God’s means of grace. But we can say a little more, and the catechism does that, too.
The key phrase in q&a 80 is that through the Holy Spirit we are grafted into Christ. In q&a 20, the catechism said that we are “grafted into Christ by true faith”, as a branch is grafted in a tree and so receives nutrition. Now q&a 80 bring that language back. The sacraments strengthen our faith because in them, the Holy Spirit grafts us all the more firmly, into the true vine, that is, into our Lord Jesus Christ. In this way we are one with him; his grace is our lifeblood, his life is our life.
When the gospel is preached, the Holy Spirit gives faith and strengthens faith; but when we participate in the Lord’s Supper, he connects us to Jesus in a special way.
In the Belgic Confession, Art. 35, we find a further description, much in line with the teachings of the Reformer John Calvin:
It is beyond any doubt that Jesus Christ did not commend his sacraments to us in vain. Therefore he works in us all that he represents to us by these holy signs. We do not understand the manner in which this is done, just as we do not comprehend the hidden activity of the Spirit of God. Yet we do not go wrong when we say that what we eat and drink is the true, natural body and the true blood of Christ. However, the manner in which we eat it is not by mouth but in the spirit by faith. In that way Jesus Christ always remains seated at the right hand of God his Father in heaven; yet he does not cease to communicate himself to us by faith. This banquet is a spiritual table at which Christ makes us partakers of himself with all his benefits and gives us the grace to enjoy both himself and the merit of his suffering and death.
The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament, a true means of grace. We should not think of it as optional; that would be disobedience to the Lord, and also missing out on a special grace that he loves to bestow on us. This grace is not produced by the magic of transubstantiation which pulls Christ’s body out of heaven, so it can be sacrificed again. Rather, this grace comes from the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. As we eat the bread and drink the wine, the Holy Spirit connects us more profoundly to Jesus, by lifting us up to him, to have real, spiritual communion with all that he is.
We have criticized the Roman Catholic church for distorting this reality. This criticism must be expressed, so that we do not fall in similar error. But let’s be careful not to call out the splinter in the Roman Catholics’ eye while carrying around a beam in our own eye. We must hold the Lord’s Supper in the highest honour, as a true means of grace. It is a God-appointed sign and seal, through which we have actual, spiritual fellowship with Jesus and receive his grace in a special way. Let it never be said of us that we have a “low” view of the sacraments!
- According to the church in the late Middle Ages, what happened when the priest spoke the words: “This is my body…”?
- What is the doctrine of transubstantiation?
- May we say that the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper are the body and blood of Jesus?
- Why is the Roman Catholic mass idolatry?
- What does Hebrews 10 teach about the sacrifice of Jesus?
- What does the Holy Spirit do when we use the Lord’s Supper?
- Is it essential for our faith that we participate in the Lord’s Supper?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Hebrews 9:1-10. Which Old-Testament sacraments are mentioned here? What do they accomplish?|
|Tuesday||Hebrews 9:11-28. Where did Jesus bring the sacrifice of his blood?|
|Wednesday||Hebrews 10:1-18. Why is there no longer any offering for sin (v. 18)?|
|Thursday||Hebrews 7:11-28. What aspects of the Old Testament office of priests is no longer appropriate in the New Testament church?|
|Friday||Romans 10:1-13. Why is it unnecessary to bring Christ down from heaven or up from the grave?|
|Saturday||John 20:11-18. How does this passage exhort us not to look for the body of Jesus on earth?|