Protestants can and will argue that the early Christians would agree with their symbolic interpretation, as they would have to in order to justify their current belief system around the Lord's Supper. But how true is this claim?
The Early Church can supply an enriching insight into the direct affect of the ministry of the Apostles and their disciples, and how the teachings of the Apostolic Age carried on within the heart of the Church. Because of this, Pope Benedict XVI said:
"What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too” (July 7, 2007)
With that in mind here are the received perspectives of the Eucharist within the Early era of Christianity.
St. Ignatius of Antioch
“I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7:3 [A.D. 110])
“Take note of those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us, and see how contrary their opinions are to the mind of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. They who deny the gift of God are perishing in their disputes” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 6:2–7:1 [A.D. 110])
St. Justin Martyr
“And this food is called among us Eucharistia [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Savior, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh. For the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels, have thus delivered unto us what was enjoined upon them; that Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, ‘This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;’ and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, ‘This is My blood;’ and gave it to them alone.” (First Apology 66 (151 A.D.))
St. Irenaeus of Lyons
"Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities,earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity." (Against Heresies 4:18:5 (189 A.D.))
"If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread,which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood?" (4:33:2 (189 A.D.))
"He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase to our bodies. When, therefore, the mingled cup and the manufactured bread receives the Word of God, and the Eucharist of the blood and the body of Christ is made, from which things the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they affirm that the flesh is incapable of receiving the gift of God, which is life eternal, which [flesh] is nourished from the body and blood of the Lord, and is a member of Him?— even as the blessed Paul declares in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. [Ephesians 5:30] He does not speak these words of some spiritual and invisible man, for a spirit has not bones nor flesh; [Luke 24:39] but [he refers to] that dispensation [by which the Lord became] an actual man, consisting of flesh, and nerves, and bones—that [flesh] which is nourished by the cup which is His blood, and receives increase from the bread which is His body. And just as a cutting from the vine planted in the ground fructifies in its season, or as a grain of wheat falling into the earth and becoming decomposed, rises with manifold increase by the Spirit of God, who contains all things, and then, through the wisdom of God, serves for the use of men, and having received the Word of God, becomes the Eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ; so also our bodies, being nourished by it, and deposited in the earth, and suffering decomposition there, shall rise at their appointed time, the Word of God granting them resurrection to the glory of God, even the Father, who freely gives to this mortal immortality, and to this corruptible incorruption, [1 Corinthians 15:53] because the strength of God is made perfect in weakness, [2 Corinthians 12:3]" (5:2:2-3 (189 A.D.))
St. Cyprian of Carthage
Also in the priest Melchisedech we see the sacrament of the sacrifice of the Lord prefigured…The order certainly is that which comes from his [Mel's] sacrifice and which comes down from it: because Mel was a priest of the Most High God; because he offered bread; and because he blessed Abraham. And who is more a priest of the Most High God than our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when he offered sacrifice to God the Father, offered the very same which Melchisedech had offered, namely bread and wind, which is in fact his Body and Blood! (Letters 63:4 c. 248-256 A.D.)
St. Hippolytus of Rome
“And she hath furnished her table:” that denotes the promised knowledge of the Holy Trinity; it also refers to His honored and undefiled body and blood, which day by day are administered and offered sacrificially at the spiritual divine table, as a memorial of that first and ever-memorable table of the spiritual divine supper. (On Proverbs (217 A.D.))
Origen of Alexandria
"Formerly there was baptism in an obscure way [...] now, however, in full view, there is regeneration in water and in the Holy Spirit. Formerly, in an obscure way, there was manna for food;now, however, in full view, there is the true food, the flesh of the Word of God,as he himself says: ‘My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink’ [John 6:55]" (Homilies on Numbers 7:2 [A.D. 248])
St. Augustine of Hippo
“In the sacrament he is immolated [offered as sacrifice] for the people not only on every Easter Solemnity but on every day; and a man would not be lying if, when asked, he were to reply that Christ is being immolated. For if sacraments had not a likeness to those things of which they are sacraments, they would not be sacraments at all; and they generally take the names of those same things by reason of this likeness” (Letters 98:9 [A.D. 412]).
“For when he says in another book, which is called Ecclesiastes, ‘There is no good for a man except that he should eat and drink’ [Eccles. 2:24], what can he be more credibly understood to say [prophetically] than what belongs to the participation of this table which the Mediator of the New Testament himself, the priest after the order of Melchizedek, furnishes with his own body and blood? For that sacrifice has succeeded all the sacrifices of the Old Testament, which were slain as a shadow of what was to come [...] Because, instead of all these sacrifices and oblations, his body is offered and is served up to the partakers of it” (The City of God 17:20 [A.D. 419]).
"I promised you [new Christians], who have now been baptized, a sermon in which I would explain the sacrament of the Lord's Table, which you now look upon and of which you last night were made participants. You ought to know that you have received, what you are going to receive, and what you ought to receive daily. That bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ"(Sermons 227 [A.D. 411]).
"What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the Body of Christ and the chalice is the Blood of Christ. This has been said very briefly, which may perhaps be sufficient for faith; yet faith does not desire instruction" (ibid., 272).
St. Aphrahat the Persian Sage
“After having spoken thus [at the Last Supper], the Lord rose up from the place where he had made the Passover and had given his body as food and his blood as drink, and he went with his disciples to the place where he was to be arrested. But he ate of his own body and drank of his own blood, while he was pondering on the dead. With his own hands the Lord presented his own body to be eaten, and before he was crucified he gave his blood as drink” (Demonstrations 12:6 [A.D. 340]).
St. Cyril of Jerusalem
Consider therefore the Bread and the Wine not as bare elements, for they are,according to the Lord's declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ; for even though sense suggests this to you, yet let faith establish you. Judge not the matter from the taste, but from faith be fully assured without misgiving, that the Body and Blood of Christ have been vouchsafed to you. Having learned these things, and been fully assured that the seeming bread is not bread, though sensible to taste, but the Body of Christ; and that the seeming wine is not wine, though the taste will have it so, but the Blood of Christ ; and that of this David sung of old, saying, And bread strengthens man's heart, to make his face to shine with oil , "strengthen your heart," by partaking thereof as spiritual, and "make the face of your soul to shine." And so having it unveiled with a pure conscience, may you reflect as a mirror the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18), and proceed from glory to glory, in Christ Jesus our Lord:— To whom be honour, and might, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen. (Catechetical Lectures 22:6,9 (350 A.D.))
[T]he Bread and Wine of the Eucharist before the invocation of the Holy and Adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, while after the invocation the Bread becomes the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ (19:7)
St. Ambrose of Milan
Perhaps you will say, "I see something else, how is it that you assert that I receive the Body of Christ?" And this is the point which remains for us to prove. And what evidence shall we make use of? Let us prove that this is not what nature made, but what the blessing consecrated, and the power of blessing is greater than that of nature, because by blessing nature itself is changed. [...] In that sacrament is Christ, because it is the Body of Christ, it is therefore not bodily food but spiritual. Whence the Apostle says of its type: Our fathers ate spiritual food and drank spiritual drink (1 Corinthians 10:3). for the Body of God is a spiritual body; the Body of Christ is the Body of the Divine Spirit, for the Spirit is Christ, as we read: The Spirit before our face is Christ the Lord (Lamentations 4:20). And in the Epistle of Peter we read: Christ died for us (1 Peter 2:21). Lastly, that food strengthens our heart, and that drink makes glad the heart of man, as the prophet has recorded. - The Mysteries 9:50, 58 (390 A.D.)
Theodore of Mopsuestia (Bishop)
“When [Christ] gave the bread he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my body,’but, ‘This is my body.’ In the same way, when he gave the cup of his blood he did not say, ‘This is the symbol of my blood,’ but, ‘This is my blood’; for he wanted us to look upon the [Eucharistic elements] after their reception of grace and the coming of the Holy Spirit not according to their nature, but receive them as they are, the body and blood of our Lord. We ought . . . not regard [the elements] merely as bread and cup,but as the body and blood of the Lord, into which they were transformed by the descent of the Holy Spirit” (Catechetical Homilies 5:1 [A.D. 405])
In reflection, it would be prudent to also consider the novelty of the idea of Eucharistic symbolism, in that it was not a wide spread theological belief until the past 500 years stemming from the Protestant Revolution. This belief is not in tandem with the first 1500 years of official, orthodox, Christian teaching and theology, as we saw the opposite being taught by those in the Early Church, and in the case of most of them the belief in symbolism and denying the Real Presence was rebuked. If the belief in pure symbolism is true, this would mean that the first 15 centuries of the Church was plagued with widespread cancerous heresy and it would thus stand to mean that Christ lied when He said:
Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age. - Matthew 28:20.
I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. - Matthew 16:18
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you in to all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. - John 16:13
If the belief in the Real Presence is false, then the Holy Spirit truly failed to guide the Church in its first 1500 years and it allowed the gates of hell to prevail against the Bride of Christ by permitting the heretical idolatry of bread and wine to spread like wild satanical fire unchecked. But it would stand to reason, in tandem with the perspectives of the inherited ministry of the Apostles, and through faith, that this is an impossibility.