'For this is my body'

Latin. In the Roman Catholic Tridentine mass, these are the words of institution - that is to say, the part of the service at which the bread (in this case) actually becomes consecrated. In the Catholic interpretation, there is a real change, described by the doctrine of transubstantiation. The equivalent English version is usually some variation on:

In the same night that he was betrayed, he took bread, and brake it, and gave it to them, saying 'Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you. Do this, in remembrance of me.'

The bold section indicates the source (in translation) of the original quote. This expression is often wrongly said to be the origin of the 'magic words' hocus pocus. The equivalent words for the chalice are hic est enim calix sanguinis mei.

For comparison, here's how Jesus' words are reported at the appropriate places in the Vulgate Bible. (St John's account of the Last Supper does not include the institution of communion):

  • Accipite et comedite hoc est corpus meum - Matthew 26:26 - 'Take, eat, this is my body'
  • Hoc est corpus meum - Mark 14:22 - 'This is my body'
  • Hoc est corpus meum quod pro vobis datur; hoc facite in meam commemorationem - Luke 22:19 - 'This is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me'
  • Hoc est corpus meum pro vobis; hoc facite in meam commemorationem - 1 Corinthians 11:24 - 'This is my body for you; do this in remembrance of me'

WARNING: The following writeup contains theology. Adult supervision is advised.

A variation of the phrase, “hoc est corpus meum”. See Mark 14:22, Matthew 26:26, ("Take, this is my body") cf. Luke 22:19., 1 Cor. 11:24 (“This is my body given for you...”).

The simpler version of the phrase, in Latin, was written in chalk by Martin Luther on a table at the Marburg Colloquy in 1529.

Philip, Landgrave of Hesse, sought to unite the Protestants of Strasbourg (southern Germany) and Switzerland with the Evangelicals (Lutherans) of the north, to present a united front against the Hapsburg (Catholic) Holy Roman Emperor. At this time Germany was fragmented into a patchwork of petty kingdoms, and geographically dispersed alliances required spiritual, as well as political and military bonds to hold them together.

Unfortunately, the theologians of the day, the German Luther and his allies, such as Philip Melanchthon, and Swiss Ulrich Zwingli and his allies, such as Bucer and John Oecolampadius, had been engaged in a war of religious pamphlets, fiercely attacking each other’s positions.

Luther brought with him to the meeting at Marburg a list of fifteen doctrinal issues. The Zwinglians quickly agreed to all but one: Luther’s insistance on a conservative view of the sacrament of communion. In the Aristotelian terms of medieval theology, this view was that “Christ is present substantively, essentially, though not quantitatively, qualitatively,or locally." The Zwinglians contended, on the other hand, that the sacrament was merely a symbolic reminder of Christ, who was present spirtually, but only for the faithful.

These men were used to fierce academic disputation, and used violent metaphor, Zwingli at one point asserting “this will break your neck” referring to a scriptural authority which supported his position. Luther took that in stride (he talked the same way) but it apparently upset the Landgrave of Hesse, who felt it necessary to make the professors apologize to one another.

Despite Phillip’s efforts, argument got very heated: and Luther wrote hoc est corpus meum ("This is my body") in chalk on a wooden table and pounded it with his fist. Zwingli pointed out that Jesus frequently referred to himself metaphorically ("I am the vine," "I am the door for the sheep"), which Luther had to concede, but insisted that this passage was different. Luther in the end would not even accept them as fellow believers: "You and I are of a different Spirit" he said to Zwingli and to Martin Bucer. They ended up signing a statement of their points of agreement, which fooled no one. The Protestant movement remained fragmented and continues as such to this day.

So what was the big deal? The difference is that the Zwinglians, and later the Calvinists held that Christ is spiritually present in the communion bread only for the faithful and morally worthy. Unworthy communicants receive only the visible sign, not the thing signified. This is entirely repugnant to Luther’s insight and the basis for the entire Reformation: we are all unworthy sinners, and it is only by God’s grace that we have faith and are saved from our sinful natures.

On the other hand, because Luther did not believe that salvation depended on our good behavior or attitude, the sacraments (baptism and communion) “worked” regardless of the worthiness of the person receiving them or the priest administering them. The Calvinists, who also believed in “predestination”, believed that only they, the Elect of God, the decent, hardworking, and well-behaved, got any benefit out of Communion. Indeed, they preached that the corrupt and evil sinners down the road were actually damned to hell by taking Communion as a blasphemous act.

Thus, when Luther said to the Zwinglians, "You and I are of a different Spirit", and made similar remarks to Calvin when they met, he undoubtedly alluded to the arrogance, self-righteousness and elitism with characterized the extremists in the Protestant camp. Of course, we can still see this self-righteousness among so-called “conservative Christians” today, smug in their confidence that they are the saved and righteous ones, and their belief that everyone else is a sinner and damned to hell.

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