Recognizing the Real Presence in the Eucharist
Like many cradle Catholics, I grew up with a certain sense of God in my life. I went to Mass on Sundays, said prayers before bed and at meals, asked a few questions about the faith, but I was a pretty moderate Catholic. In high school I started dating a Mennonite girl, and I really didn’t see there being that much of a difference between various faiths, because as far as I could see, we all believed in God and that’s all that really mattered. It was a kind of lackluster faith. It was an encounter with Christ in the Eucharist that really made my faith come to life. In grade 11 I was invited to attend a retreat in Steubenville, Ohio. It was a very different atmosphere to be around young people who actually had a deep, genuine love for their faith. My curiosity was piqued—especially for the night we were going to have Adoration. I had never heard of this “Adoration” before, and a lot of other teens were talking about how amazing it was going to be, and how excited they were for it. I really did not know what to expect. Then they came out with the Blessed Sacrament in the Monstrance. I had never seen the Eucharist on display before, and people around me were kneeling down in worship and awe, and some even in tears. I got down on my knees and began to pray, asking the Lord to show me why it was that everyone else seemed so touched.
The priest proceeded to pick up the Monstrance and carry it throughout the crowd. As I prayed, the ushers were walking through the crowd and getting people to make aisleways between them so that the procession could come through. As I was praying, trying to figure out what was going on, a woman tapped me on the shoulder and politely asked me, “could you move a little to your right so we can make an aisle? Jesus is coming through”. My heart skipped a beat: “Jesus!? … WHERE?” For a moment I was in shock as to how this woman could make such a claim, and could it really be true, that Jesus had appeared and was going to walk up the aisle, right next to me? In complete shock, I looked behind me and saw the priest approaching from a distance with the Monstrance, and suddenly it hit me: Right! That’s Jesus! The Eucharist is Jesus! I knew that, but I hadn’t really thought of it that way—in a personal way. This was truly, completely and physically Jesus who was present.
When the priest passed by and turned the Monstrance toward me, I realised that I was looking at the face of Jesus. Here He was, just inches away from me, and I felt the weight of my whole body as though I could barely hold myself from collapsing entirely as I bowed to the ground, because God Himself stood before me. I was in such tremendous awe as for the first time in my heart I saw this was truly Him. What words could we ever have to express both the joy and the trembling of the honour of God’s presence? While I was reeling over the amazement of seeing Jesus face to face, I was wondering why we didn’t have this at home, and why it was only now that I got to experience such a thing. Suddenly it dawned on me: The Eucharist in Adoration is the same as the Eucharist in Mass! So that means that every time I go to Mass and receive the Eucharist, I get to hold Jesus? I get to consume Jesus? Woah, this just got far too intense. How was it possible that all this time everyone in Church gets to actually receive Jesus and be so intimately close to Him at every single Mass, and yet it sure doesn’t look like anybody has a clue? Needless to say, I was blown away, and it was at that point that my love affair with God began.
I tell you this story not because you don’t already know that Jesus is the Eucharist, but because I think we can easily become so accustomed to it that we lose that childlike wonder. I think we also need to continually dig deeper and reflect on this True Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. As Catholics, we need to have a tremendous appreciation and reverence towards the Eucharist because of who He is. But an appreciation must flow from both understanding and relationship. While I am going to talk about the theology behind the Real Presence in the Eucharist, it is not enough to simply understand it, but to be in relationship with the Eucharist. This means spending time in prayer, in particular before the Blessed Sacrament, and even in Adoration if at all possible. Without that encounter that I had with Jesus in the Eucharist, I would have never truly embraced the Catholic faith, let alone pursued my vocation.
Looking at the Bread of Life discourse in John chapter 6, notice the progression as Jesus explains Himself and what it is that He is giving to us. He tells the people that He is the bread that gives eternal life. He is saying that He, Himself is what they need to eat, because all other food will perish. They talk about the manna in the desert. This was the bread that God gave the people in the desert as they were fleeing from Egypt, when they complained that they had no food. Because this manna would appear like frost in the morning, it was said to have come down from heaven. But Jesus says that He is the new manna, the new bread which came down from heaven. Jesus isn’t going to give new bread, He is saying He is this new bread, and that He alone will satisfy and give us eternal life. Needless to say, the people are a little confused by this. Come on Jesus, surely you must mean that your teachings are the “spiritual” bread we must eat to have eternal life, right? After all, we know your parents, Jesus, so obviously you couldn’t have come down from heaven. But Jesus doesn’t correct them and say, “No you’re right, I’m speaking figuratively in symbols”. In fact, Jesus pushes things even further. He repeats himself again so as to make it clear that He is in fact the bread of life, but then adds, “…the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). Now the Jews are getting even more up in arms, because Jesus is offering his flesh to eat. But Jesus doesn’t correct any misunderstandings here either. He goes even further and says that if you do not eat His flesh or drink His blood, you will have no life in you!
Now even Jesus’ disciples at this point are questioning what Jesus is saying. And you have to understand here, that for a Jew, the concept of eating flesh with the blood is an abomination. In the Levitical dietary laws and ritual sacrifice, the blood was what contained the life of the creature. So it was forbidden to drink blood or to eat flesh that still had the blood in it. It had to be drained out before being fit for consumption. The blood was only ever used in ritual sacrifice, but never for eating or drinking. Yet this is precisely what Jesus is asking of the people, because once again, Jesus does not correct them and say, “Sorry, you misunderstand, I am only speaking symbolically”. In fact, the Greek verb used here for ‘eat’ is actually better understood as meaning ‘to chew’ or ‘to gnaw’. It is a very physical language instead of symbolic. Jesus even acknowledges that the disciples seem offended at what He has said, but He does not back down.
When we look at this in relationship to the Last Supper, we can see how we are not mincing around with words here when we’re talking about the Eucharist. It is Jesus. Body, blood, soul, divinity, whole and entire, this is Jesus. The Catechism says, “The Eucharist and the Cross are stumbling blocks. It is the same mystery and it never ceases to be an occasion of division” (CCC 1336). It is on truly knowing this point on the Eucharist that makes all the difference of our faith. And it is not enough to simply be aware that the Eucharist is Jesus, but we need to treat Him as such. We need to fall in love with Him in the Eucharist, speak to Him in the Eucharist, spend time with Him in the Eucharist.
Why then, do we receive Him at Mass? Sure it makes sense to adore Him, but why do we consume the Eucharist? First of all, when we consume Jesus, it is Jesus who consumes us. Think of it this way, you know the saying, ‘you are what you eat’? Well this describes very well why Jesus desires us to receive Him in Holy Communion. He wants us to become more like Him. So it is not God who is changed, but we who are changed. When we receive the Eucharist, God is transforming us bit by bit to become more and more like Him. It is also so that we may have a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. Heaven is where we are to be united with God forever. I know that is probably one of the most misrepresented theological points, since we’re used to seeing pictures of fluffy clouds and chubby cherubs with wings and halos and the like, but heaven is not about a nice, bright, fluffy place above the clouds. Heaven, rather, is the place in which we are so intimately united to God that essentially it is like becoming one with Love Himself. The whole point is to live in the heart of God and rest in His love forever. Well, God gave us the Eucharist as a foretaste of that heavenly unity with God. That’s why He is the bread come down from heaven!
Are you getting the sense that I’m saying the Eucharist is supposed to be the most important part of our lives? Think it’s just me and I’m being insane? Well, as the Second Vatican Council often repeated, the Eucharist is the source, summit and center of our faith. That is why as Catholics it is of the utmost importance for the Eucharist to be at the center of your lives.
The ‘source’ means that the Eucharist is the one from whom we receive all things. It means we should always seek to draw from the Eucharist; that our life is in Him. The ‘summit’ means that the Eucharist should be the highest point of our faith. We should hold no one and no thing in higher esteem than the Eucharist. And we can never truly hold that kind of reverence for Jesus without getting to know Him intimately, which means spending time with Him, just like you have to spend time with anyone for there to be an actual relationship. The Eucharist as ‘center’ means that in a similar sense, the Eucharist should play a part in the various aspects of our lives. The Eucharist is not something we consume at the end of Mass on Sunday and then we carry on with our “real” lives afterward. This is why we try to include the Eucharist in the other Sacraments as well. The Eucharist is central to our life of faith, so we should continue to return always to Jesus before the Tabernacle or in Adoration, spending time with him according to what the state of our lives permit. There should be an ongoing spirituality and desire for the Eucharist that remains with us in all that we do.
When we live our lives in this way, and the more solidly and clearly we see the Eucharist to be Jesus Christ Himself, the more that this should instill in us a deeper sense of reverence as well as wonder and awe toward the Eucharist. This is the reason why we have so many guidelines regarding the procedures and guidelines around the care of the Eucharist: Purification of vessels; what to do if the Host is dropped or the Precious Blood is spilled; who can and cannot receive, and so on. When you love someone deeply, you show that person special care, attention, and devotion. Sure when you’ve known someone for a long time, some of those things can fall by the wayside, but if we look closely enough, many of those things falling by the wayside are not due to love but to negligence and taking the person you love for granted. So the same is with Christ. The Eucharist ought to be precious to us, so much so as to be willing to lay down our lives for Him. And I’m quite serious about that—it may sound like I’m saying this tongue and cheek, but I mean it quite literally when I say there are those who have actually laid down their lives to protect the Eucharist. St. Tarcisius, for instance, was a 12 year old boy who lived in the 3rd Century when the Church was under Roman persecution. The Eucharist was entrusted to this boy to bring to those in prison, when a group of boys approached him with ill will, and demanded to see what St. Tarcisius was holding close to his heart. He refused to give Jesus over to them, and they proceeded to beat this poor child to death, and all the while St. Tarcisius clung on to Jesus to keep him safe. That is dedication and love.
I’m not saying that we are expected to die for the Eucharist. But I am saying that we should have a love so deep and profound for the Eucharistic Jesus, that He would hold pride of place in our lives, and we should be willing to suffer and sacrifice for Him. Meeting Jesus in the Eucharist is a two way sacrifice. Jesus is giving His life to us, and we should give our lives to Him. At the Last Supper, when Jesus instituted the Eucharist, he said this is my Body and this is my Blood, which are given up for you. The Eucharist is the sacrifice of Jesus, and we can see in it one and the same sacrifice of Jesus on the cross! But once again, there is something far deeper and more significant than a mere memorial or sign of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, but rather this is made present every time we celebrate Mass and the simple bread and wine transform into Jesus Himself!
When Jesus said, “Do this in memory of me” there is a big difference in how the Jews understood remembrance compared to how we often think about it. In the Jewish Passover tradition, this hearkened back to their time in Egypt, when the final plague approached before Pharaoh finally let Israel go. An angel would pass through Egypt and kill every first born child. Moses was instructed that to avoid this calamity, they would sacrifice a lamb and eat it with bitter herbs, and the blood from the lamb would be spread on the lintels of their homes so that when the angel saw the blood, he would ‘pass over’ that home and spare their first born from death. This sacrifice of the blood of what was called the ‘paschal lamb’ was used to save the Israelites from death. When Jews continued this memorial of the Passover, they continued the practice of sacrificing and eating a lamb, and they would read the story of Exodus to recall their freedom from death and their freedom from slavery in Egypt. But to them, this was not a mere story that they would recall, but remembering in this kind of way was a means of making present what happened in the past. It was as though they were truly there at the time of the slavery under Pharaoh, experiencing that same event in the here and now.
In the same vein, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are celebrating the New Passover. We are remembering the night on which Jesus hung upon the cross, and then rose from the dead. The new Paschal Lamb is Jesus, whose blood is poured out to save us from death. But this is not a mere memory in which we look back and acknowledge what happened, but Jesus makes truly present that one and same passion, death and resurrection. This presence of Jesus is not just the true and complete presence of God, but it is the presence of the events themselves in which Jesus gave His life and rose again! When the priest raises the host and raises the chalice, we are witnesses to Jesus being lifted up on the cross, and we are witnesses to Jesus rising from the dead! Once again, this is not symbolic, we are actually there. The one same event is brought forward in the mystery of the Eucharist, to be made present here and now. And so, by eating this Lamb we are being saved from death and slavery. We are witnesses to what He has done and we are transformed by it. So if God has loved us to the point of giving His life for us in the Eucharist, how much more should we respond to Him in kind, and give our whole lives to Him in the Eucharist?
Posted on March 2, 2013, in Catholic, eucharist, Eucharistic Spirituality, Mass and tagged blood, body, bread, completely, divinity, entirely, Eucharist, Jesus, Mass, real presence, soul, transubstatiation, true, whole, wine. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.