Really, Truly Present

I have been reading and rereading the opening quote.  It troubles me to think that he believes that “without the sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord.”  Do you believe that?

Just for orientation, here is the quote in question:

Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord. Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest…. Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.  St. John Vianney

It’s important to read in the way the writer intended.  St. John Vianney was exercising poetic license in praise of the priesthood, and to any Catholic, it’s clear he is referring to the Real and Substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  If the excess of his language troubles you, remember he is a man very much in love and men in love say flowery and excessive things in an attempt–ultimately futile–to portray the depth of their love.  We hear, and accept such language routinely in the course of daily secular life (“That ice cream is to die for!”  or “I can’t live without you!”); how much more appropriate such language is when trying to convey our love for the gifts of God.  The priesthood is one such gift.

Of course we have Jesus apart from the Blessed Sacrament.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…..  Jesus is eternal, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and nothing that we can do or say will alter that.  We do not create Him nor do we control Him. To think otherwise is to get the order of creation utterly backwards.  St. John Vianney is simply exalting the gift of the priesthood, and of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist, not making a statement that limits the presence of Christ or His grace outside the Blessed Sacrament. 

Understanding the Real Presence requires an excursion into the deeper seas of Catholic thought and an awareness of the areas in which Catholics and Protestants view the same things–even the same words–differently.  In this case, the words are “This is my body…this is my blood…” 

If we read scripture we find that the Church is the Body of Christ.  The Bread of the Eucharist is also called the Body of Christ.  The question arises–is this language symbolic in either case, as Protestants believe–or did Christ intend it to be somehow real? 

Catholics take the view that this language expresses a mystical reality that cannot be fully understood–no great surprise given that a creature can never understand the mind of the Creator.  It is a great mistake to think that only that which we can explain can be real and true.  It is not faith to believe only that which you can prove.  Nor is it faith to refuse to believe what is presented simply because you cannot prove it.

Protestants have less trouble with the mystical Body as the Church than with the concept of the Real Presence.  When Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus, the voice he heard did not say “Saul, why are you persecuting my Church?” or “Why are you persecuting that group of people that symbolizes my body?”  He heard “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  The incident seems to indicate that, while we might be tempted to take that  language as merely indicative of some ecclesial concept or loose social relationship, Christ Himself takes it rather literally.  The persecuted Christians were, in some mystical sense really, truly a part of His body, their persecution was His persecution.

This  has interesting implications for us as Christians. If we are truly, if mystically, participants in Christ’s body in the “hand-arm-eye” sense rather than the “independent person symbolically part of Christ because of membership in a group” sense, then the idea that matter might communicate grace becomes not only sensible but pretty much imperative.

The Catholic faith is sacramental because the Christian experience is Incarnational.  God could have effected salvation any way he chose.  A simple fiat would have worked as well as anything, had God so chosen.  But He did not.  God, totally Other, chose to bridge the gap between Himself and man by using matter, by becoming man Himself.  God likewise permits us to participate in His life by means of the sacraments–for that is what grace is: participation in the life of God.

That notion has interesting implications that extend beyond the scope of this discussion, but it underlies the fact that to God, matter matters.  Throughout salvation history, He uses matter to communicate with and enter into relationship with His people.  God–in a word–loves matter.  After all, He created it.  He  loved it into existence and maintains it with His love even at this very moment.  Creation is not over and done with, it is result of the ongoing love of God that holds it in being.

And God used matter throughout time and uses it still to communicate with His people.  He established sacramental life from the very beginning.  His covenant with the Israelites was sealed with blood, the blood of the sacrificed animals sprinkled on the people as well as the altar in order to establish the covenant.  At the Passover, blood had to mark the doors and the lamb who gave it had to be eaten in order for the Angel of Death to spare the people.  Was there a symbolic aspect?  Without a doubt.  But there was a real, if mystic, aspect to it all as well and that aspect conveyed grace.  Those who failed to mark their doors and eat the sacrificial lamb were not spared.  Matter–and what one did with it–mattered in the life of faith.

The Incarnation is the summit of God’s use of matter to convey grace to His people. God entered human time in fully human form, the more beautifully to reconcile Himself to His people.  God, completely Other, was now also fully human,  with a material body as real and yours or mine and human soul like ours but undefiled by sin. The suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of that material body would effect our salvation, for even as Christ is fully man, also is He fully God.  The idea that matter can be more and essentially different than we perceive it with our senses to be ought not be foreign to a student of scripture.

In His ministry, Christ used matter to convey His grace.  Those who touched the tassels of His garments were healed; the tassel was the conduit of grace.  Could He have done it otherwise?   Certainly, and sometimes He did, as He did with the centurion.  But sometimes He used matter, and the matter was beautifully effective and a continuation of the  sacramental nature of God’s interaction with man, Old Testament and New.  Think back to Elijah, who sent Naman to bathe in the waters of the Jordan to be healed.  Could  not God have cured Naman as easily with a spoken word from Elijah?  Of course. But He did not.  Instead he used the matter of creation and the cooperation  and faith of the man Naman  (and his maidservant) to effect a cure. So  it was in Christ’s own ministry. He used spittle  and touch to cure the deaf man; a paste of mud to heal the blind man.  

That God established ways for grace to be brought down by His use of matter is neither new nor strange.  Taking that as a whole, it ought not be surprising, then, that Christ established the Eucharist in just the same way: to use matter to bring the grace of His presence to His people in a particular way.   To the Christian, a God who is omnipotent –and who became Himself incarnate in matter–is certainly capable of transforming matter He created and holds in existence in any way He chooses.  The possibility of transubstantiation, the Real Presence of Christ in the consecrated elements under the appearances of bread and wine, should not be a problem to the Christian mind.  To deny that God could do such a thing is to limit God.

The question then becomes: Did He–Does He?  Catholics answer with a resounding yes, Protestants almost always with a no. 

I once had a discussion bordering on dispute with a Protestant friend on this subject, in which he vehemently maintained the wholly symbolic nature of the Eucharist.  At the point where it became obvious that the discussion was going nowhere, he smiled and told me: “We can both be friends even if we disagree about this.”

I replied (somewhat uncharitably),” We can both be friends–but we cannot both be right.”

Make no mistake about it: the doctrine of the Real Presence is critically important to the Catholic faith and it is a source of division between Catholics and Protestants.  The Protestant celebration of the Lord’s Supper is, in fact, only symbolic and can only be symbolic for there is no valid Protestant priesthood.  The Catholic mass, by contrast,  makes present Christ Himself, body and blood, soul and divinity.  Although His presence is manifest in many ways and in all places, this substantial presence is found only in Heaven and in the Blessed Sacrament.  And because Christ Himself is the source and summit of Christian faith, it follows that the Eucharist is too, under Catholic belief.  It is, in fact, Jesus’ way of fulfilling His promise to be with us always until the end of the earth and a gift to His faithful.  It is His way of becoming part of our lives in the most intimate way possible.  It is, to borrow the language of our Evangelical brethren, a very personal relationship with our Lord and Savior.

The basis of the Catholic belief is echoed in the Gospels as well as in the letters of Paul, and this teaching has always been a source of division among the followers of Christ, even before the Church was formally established.  Christ taught:

He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life in me…he who does not, has no life in him…..He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood will live forever…I will remain in him and he in Me.

The plain language is hard to miss.  And his followers grumbled.  This is a hard saying; who can hear it?  Some turned away and ceased to follow Him.

At this point, Christ did not call them back and explain He was speaking symbolically.  In fact, He turns up the linguistic heat, restating what He had just declared, using words that are unmistakeable in their connection to the physical acts of eating and drinking.  He uses words that, in the original texts, describe the animal act of eating, gnawing–something that no one then, and no one now–would mistake for a lofty, symbolic statement.  These are words that underscore the reality that we feed on this sacrament in order to live spiritually, just as animals eat to live physically. If Christ meant the words symbolically, it is strange and ineffective teaching indeed that would let followers leave because of a misunderstanding that could have been cleared  up so easily, especially when the very salvation of their souls depended on it. 

The language of bread and food in connection with the Messiah is laced throughout the Bible and is unmistakeable,  Christ is born in Bethlehem–house of bread.  He is laid in a manger–a trough used to feed animals.  He calls himself the Bread of Life, Living Bread.  And he says, ever so plainly, that in order to have eternal life, we must eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood.  Particularly read in context, this simply cannot be symbolic language.  It always perplexes me that those who contend that the Bible speaks so plainly that anyone can understand it without an interpreter reject the plain reading of these very important–essential–bits of scripture.

At the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, Christ took bread and said This is my body which will be given up for you…this is my blood.  It was not a mere man saying those words, it was God the Son, Second Person of the Trinity, through whom all things are created, who said those words, and that makes them special indeed.

It’s helpful to remember how creation came about:  God spoke and it was so.  The words of God carry power to create–and re-create–and change.  Because God the Son said this is my body, my blood (not this represents my body, my blood), it became so.  Every Christian must admit of the fact that Christ has the power to do anything He wishes with the matter of creation, and it seems in this situation, He desired to turn bread  and wine into His body and His blood.  It would follow that He did just that when He spoke those words.

The priest at mass can likewise effect the same result.  All Christians participate in a real and mystical way in the body of Christ through the grace of baptism.  It is a reality, not just a metaphor, even though that reality is beyond our current understanding. 

Priests, by virtue of their ordination, participate in that reality both through baptism and in a  separate and different way both from the laity and Protestant ministers.  The priesthood they possess is not theirs alone, but is itself a participation in the priesthood of Christ, the one and only High Priest.  That is why, in the mass, the words of consecration are “this is my body” not “this is His body.”  The priest is acting in the person of Christ when he celebrates the mass. 

Put another way, the priest supplies the physical body and voice in the here and now, but it is Christ Himself who is consecrating the elements, just as He did at the Last Supper because of the grace of Holy Orders.  And now, as always, His words have transformative power.  What Christ says, becomes.  The bread and wine become the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, present here and present simultaneously in heaven.  The Mass truly becomes the point at which heaven and earth touch, and we are there.  There is no greater privilege, and without the priest, it cannot happen.  This is the source of St. John Vianney’s lyrical words.  And yes, Catholics believe that Christ is indeed present in the Blessed Sacrament.  We believe it with the assent of faith, and we’ve experienced it in our lives.

Now let’s deal with the usual objections:

Christ died once for all.  Catholics claim to re-sacrifice Christ at every mass.

No we don’t.  We neither claim that nor do we attempt to do it.  Yes, Christ died once for all, but His actions, being those of a Divine Person, are outside of time and hence may be made present at any place in any time.  We do not re-sacrifice Christ, we re-present (make present again) that sacrifice in an un-bloody way in the mass.  The mass is a re-presentation of Calvary, not a symbolic representation of it.

This has to be symbolic language.  Christ also compared himself to a vine, a gate and a sheep-fold, and He was none of those things. This is no different.

Actually, it’s completely different.  When Christ compares Himself to a sheepfold, he is indeed speaking symbolically, for He is saying I am.  This statement isn’t  I am but this is.  His use of symbolic language in the one situation doesn’t imply symbolic language in the other.  Christ cannot alter the substance of Himself, for He is unchangeable God.  The Creator can, however, transform any created thing.

There are also those who argue that “eating and drinking the body and blood” was symbolic language at the time of Christ. This is true enough but the meaning of the expression at the time was “to mock or reject,” rather like the modern expression “to have someone for lunch.” If Christ were speaking symbolically, He is asking listeners to reject Him and His teaching.

But nothing changes.  The bread still looks like bread and the wine still looks like wine.  How can that possibly be Christ’s body and blood?

We, as post-Enlightenment people for whom education no longer includes training in philosophy, have forgotten an important construct of metaphysics: that matter is made up of accidents (appearances) and substance (that  which makes a thing its very self).  We can get some inkling of this concept if we apply it to ourselves.  We have an appearance–tall or short, thin or fat, old or young– and that appearance can and does change with time.  But that appearance–the accidents of our physical selves–is not the whole and substance of our selves, which is much, much greater and entirely different than that.  So it is with everything.  There is a sense-perceptible reality–the accidents  and a deeper reality–the substance.

The Church teaches that in the act of consecration, the accidents (appearances) of the elements are retained, but the substance is transformed (transubstantiated) from that of bread and wine into the substantial presence of Christ.  Thus, what appears to be bread and wine has, in the deeper reality been transformed into Christ Himself, for that is what He intended and that is what He does.  Proper understanding of Church teaching means that this question above doesn’t even arise because the accidents are not expected to change.  Protestants are free to reject this, of course, but intellectual integrity requires acknowledging the merits of the explanation.  It is not unbiblical and it is grounded in both scripture and in philosophy. 

God never forces humankind.  He gives us enough evidence that, if we give the assent of faith, we can encounter Him, but never so much that there is absolutely no room for doubt.  If the host and wine assumed the accidents of flesh and blood, we would not believe by faith and it is our faith God wants.

That having been said, history is riddled with Eucharistic miracles: hosts that bled real blood, hosts that became visible flesh (of a human heart), chalices that were suddenly filled with visible blood.  These miracles are unlikely to convince and unbeliever and the believer does not need them.  Yet they exist and have occurred in recent times.  Once in a while, I think God likes to call the bluff of those who doubt His words.  These miracles support–though they do not prove–the Church’s teaching.

The Last Supper happened before the crucifixion.  It is the sacrificed body and blood of Christ that saves us.  Thus, even if we accept the idea that the bread and wine somehow became the body and blood of Christ at the Last Supper, it wasn’t the sacrificed body and blood of Christ and therefore, cannot be a conduit of salvific grace.

If Christ were only a man, that might make some sense, as for us men, all acts are limited to and bound in and by time.  That which I do now, I do not do later or earlier.

However, the Incarnation teaches us Christ was both fully God and fully man.  Hence, every action of His was both fully human and fully divine.  And God exists outside of time–God, as it were, exists in a perpetual “now” so that there is only eternity to Him.  Hence, all of the actions of Christ in their divine dimension are eternally present–and can be brought down in grace at any moment in the world of time we live in.

Protestants understand this when they admit that they must claim, make present, or bring down the gift of salvation to apply to themselves in this moment, even though in terms of human time it happened two millennia ago.  If it were not for the eternal dimensions of the sacrifice of Calvary, this would not be possible, but we all know it is.  And it is just as possible for Christ to have reached forward in time, as it were, to bring the effects of the cross to the Last Supper in a real and substantial way as it is for us to reach back in time and make the spiritual aspects apply to our own lives.

Jews did not consume blood and the idea of eating the flesh of a man was so repugnant, no one would have taught that, let alone Christ, who was a faithful Jew.

Right on one point, wrong on another.  Of course it was repugnant!  That’s why people turned away–and Christ did not call them back with the explanation that He was only speaking metaphorically.  He did, in fact, teach that the faithful were to consume His flesh and blood and it was a problem then as now.  This argument really just confirms the principle.  This is not symbolic language.

Moreover, practice required both the sacrifice of the animal (body and blood) and that these sacrificing it consume part of it.  The passover required the sacrifice of the lamb and that the Israelites consume it.  In that way, the effects of the sacrifice were literally taken in and made part of the person, the covenant is bound and renewed.

All those sacrifices are foreshadowings of the sacrifice of Christ, and He made it clear that the same pattern would be followed: He would be sacrificed, and His followers, in keeping with making present for themselves the fruit of the sacrifice, would eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Only in this case, when we take in Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, it is we who are swallowed up by His grace.

This idea of transubstantiation is a new one.  It’s not found in the early Church.

This is simply unfounded, as any reading of scripture or Church history will demonstrate. The early Christians devoutly believed in the Real Presence, though they did not use the term transubstantiation to describe it.  They were willing to go to their deaths rather than deny it.  It’s hard to explain that if the early Church thought the Eucharist just a symbol.  In fact, one of the earliest charges brought against Christians by the Romans was that of cannibalism, because this understanding was so clear.  Even the pagans understood that these Christians believed in the Real Presence, not just a symbolic communion, though the pagans misunderstood the sacrament.

St. Paul not only writes that when we take communion we participate in the body of Christ and in His blood, he also writes that to take communion in a state of sin or irreverently is to risk bringing down judgment, precisely because we are taking in Christ Himself.  If Communion were only symbolic, this would not be so.

Over and over again in the writing of the early Church fathers, we find an affirmation of the truth of the Real Presence–and warnings against these who claim that the Eucharist is only symbolic.  The term transubstantiation did not arise until later, when the Church was able to put into words that which it already knew and taught:  even though the consecrated elements look like bread and wine, they are, in fact Christ in a real and substantial way.  The fact of transubstantiation been always been taught by the Church, the how of it took time to work out.  This ought to be a familiar sequence on a moment’s reflection; the fact, for example, that iron rusts in water was known long before we were able to explain how that happens.  

Okay, maybe the early Christians believed in the Real Presence, but it was a superstitious belief.  We know better now.

There’s actually no good response to this; it’s a conclusion, not an argument, but I have heard it often enough.  It amazes me how easily modern man can fall into the trap of thinking himself far superior in intellect and wit than first century Jews.  He’s not.

Catholics don’t really believe this, no matter what they say.  If they did, they’d be crawling on their hands and knees to receive the Eucharist.

This might be the best argument, but only for the level of faith and piety of the average Catholic, not for the truth of the statement asserted.  There’s no doubt that the greatest argument against Christianity is always the behavior of Christians, and this is no exception.  Fortunately, the truth of any doctrine doesn’t depend on whether it is generally accepted or put into practice.  And we are all sinners.

Make no mistake, the doctrine of the Eucharist separates Catholic thought from Protestant thought.  For the first fifteen centuries of Christian life, there was one accepted belief about the Eucharist: that of the real presence,the belief still held by both Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Following the Reformation, Protestants can only generally agree that the Catholic Church must somehow  have it wrong.  They cannot agree among themselves what the truth is–what the Eucharist really is.  Some Protestants (orthodox Anglicans) claim transubstantiation without a valid priesthood to support it.  Some hold “consubstantiation”–the belief that, the substance of Christ enters into the bread and wine, without changing the substance of the bread and wine.  Others believe that, when received by the believer, the elements contain something like the Real Presence of Christ, but only when received by a believer.  Others reject any idea of change at all, and simply hold that Christ is somehow spiritually especially near when communion is received.  Still others maintain a stoutly symbolic interpretation that serves only to stir the memory of the faithful about the sacrifice of Christ.  And this theological chaos occurred quickly after the Reformation, some 200 different views being articulated within 50 years.   Even the early Reformers disagreed, Luther holding initially to the view of transubstantiation, and vowing to see Zwingli, who did not, in hell for his disagreement.

I often hear from both Protestants and Catholics alike that “We believe 95% of the same things,” as though disagreements are minor and few and it really doesn’t matter where and how one worships.  It’s important, of course, to note areas of agreement, but equally important not to gloss over areas of difference, and this is one. 

There can be no reconciliation between Protestant views of communion and the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist.  Only one can be true.  If Protestants are right, Catholics are the most pitiable of people because we do, indeed, fall down to worship and adore the Blessed Sacrament.  If Catholics are right, Protestants are turning their back on Christ in the Eucharist just as those disciples who ceased following Christ when He first taught that it would be necessary to eat His flesh and drink His blood.  Reason alone cannot decide the matter, for there are cogent arguments on both sides (though it appears that the Protestant arguments start from the premise that transubstantiation simply cannot occur). 

For my part, I have chosen to reject the myriad of mutually exclusive Protestant explanations.  Instead I choose to look to the Church established by Christ, for she has maintained the teaching, intact from the time of the Apostles, who received it from the lips of Christ Himself.  And that teaching is that the bread and wine consecrated by the priest become really and substantially the body and blood of Christ Himself, food from the hand of Christ to feed His faithful people.  Food to sustain us in our journey.  Food to bring us home.

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