|Nicolas Poussin, The Institution of the Eucharist (1640)|
Tonight marks the beginning of Triduum, the most sacred season of the year. It’s the three day period lasting from Holy Thursday evening until Easter. It’s here, on Holy Thursday, that Christ institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Here’s how St. Paul describes it in tonight’s Second Reading (1 Cor. 11:23-26),
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Paul rarely gives any biographical details about the life of Christ, since he assumes the Christians he’s writing to are intimately familiar with Christ’s life. So it’s all the more remarkable that he chooses to detail this event in the life of Christ so closely, particularly when you realize how close it follows the precise wording found in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:17-20).
Even more incredibly, Paul describes the institution of the Eucharist as something that he “received from the Lord.” That’s the same way that he described his ministry (Acts 20:24), and he seems to be saying that he didn’t just hear about the Eucharist from the Twelve, but by a direct revelation from Jesus Christ.
I’ve written about the Eucharist many time before, but I want to issue something of a Holy Thursday challenge to my Protestant readers: what if Catholics are right about the Eucharist? The Catholic view is that the Eucharist is actually the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. And this is what the early Christians believed as well. The Protestant historian J.N.D. Kelly, admits this in Early Christian Doctrines, saying that amongst early Christians, “Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood.”
The Eucharist was always understood to be more than a symbol; it was always understood to be more than Christ’s spiritual presence in some generic way; it was always understood to be more even than Christ’s physical presence alongside the bread and wine. There’s a continual, two thousand year tradition that says that the bread and wine actually cease to exist (despite what our eyes may tell us), and become the Body and Blood of Christ. And I’m asking: what if that tradition is right?
Because it seems to me that this teaching, if true, is of incalculable importance. Think of how precious the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy of Holies was to the Jews of old, how reverently pious believers treated every word of prophesy, every contact with the Divine. Think even, of how reverently good Protestants treat God’s holy word in Scripture. Think of how we might quietly envy the Apostles for getting to talk with Jesus, might envy Mary of Bethany for getting to sit at His feet. If you could experience an encounter with Jesus Christ beyond all that, beyond what even His closest companions enjoyed, what wouldn’t you do?
|Adriaen Isenbrandt, Mass of St Gregory (16th c.)|
The level of intimacy in the Eucharist is paralleled only by what the Virgin Mary experienced when the God of the Universe deigned to dwell inside of her, to share her body. You can actually receive Jesus Christ – Flesh, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – into your body, and into your soul.
And it seems to me that if this is what’s on offer, you should do everything in your power to receive Him. Think of how we react to the Disciples who couldn’t bother to make it to the Crucifixion. We’re embarrassed for them, and some part of us might imagine that we would have done better, singing songs like “Were You There?”. Well, here’s your chance.
There’s another alternative, of course: that we Catholics are totally wrong. This would mean that for two thousand years, everyone from the students of the Apostles to Pope Francis has been worshipping mere bread and wine. If that’s the case, we Catholics aren’t really Christians. But then, neither are Augustine, Jerome, Ignatius, or any of the other Church Fathers; neither, in fact, are any of the believers whose testimony we rely upon to know the canon of Scripture. But if that’s the case, I think you’ll quickly see that all of Christianity falls apart.
So that’s it in a nutshell. If Catholics are Christians – if we’re not idolaters – then we actually possess the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, and can commune with Him at every Mass. Protestants can encounter Christ in many ways – through the Scriptures, through the proclamation of the Gospel, through encounters with the poor and “least of these,” through prayer – but this is something that no Protestant denomination can offer. So again:
Jesus is physically present here. Where are you?
Here are a few other blog posts that I’ve written related to Lent / Holy Thursday that you might enjoy:
- This 2009 post on Holy Thursday was one of the first Shameless Popery posts that I ever wrote.
- Here’s a Sacramental look at Holy Thursday, and its connections to the Eucharist, Holy Orders, Baptism, and Reconciliation.
- Pope Pius XI has a beautiful explanation of how Christ’s chief sufferings in His Passion are our sins, and His chief solace are our good works, both of which He perfectly foresaw. This means that we, here, today, can actually comfort Christ in the Garden. I talk about it in Part II of this post.
- John MacArthur claims that Lent and Easter are derived from paganism. It’s not true.