This past Sunday, an Evangelical friend joined me for Mass (he’d lost a bet). Mass was at St. Mary’s in Alexandria, and it was characteristically great: there was a solid homily about the need to take Jesus as Eternal Judge seriously, good music, a palpable reverence during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the works. My friend seemed to be attentive to the whole thing. Afterward, on our way to brunch, I asked him, “You know that we Catholics believe the Eucharist to literally be the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ. Do you want that to be true?”
My friend started to explain how his church understood the Lord’s Supper as a symbolic remembrance, so I clarified my question: “I’m not asking if you believe that Catholics are right about the Eucharist. I’m asking if you want Catholics to be right about the Eucharist.”
At this point, my friend admitted that no, he didn’t really see the point. After all, he reasoned, the primacy of “the word” was important, and in any case, Christ already dwells among us whenever we gather in His Name (Mt. 18:20). After thinking about it for a moment, he conceded that the Real Presence could be helpful for those struggling with their faith: something like what St. Thomas experienced with the Resurrected Christ (John 20:24-29).
I’ve been thinking about this conversation for the last couple days, and I’m thankful for my friend’s forthrightness, because I think it exposes something fundamental. For some converts, the Eucharist is one of the first Catholic doctrines they believe, because of the overwhelming Scriptural and Patristic support for the belief. But for others, it’s one of the last, and I’ve been curious as to why. (The same is true in reverse: some fallen away Catholics lost faith in the Eucharist right away, while for others, it was the only thing keeping them in the Church at all).
I have a few theories as to why this might be, so I thought I’d tee them up here as food for thought:
My friend’s comment that the Eucharist might be a useful aid to faith strikes me as completely backwards. While there’s a sense in which he’s right (the Eucharist does fortify our faith), that’s not the point. Where he treated the purpose of Communion as leading us to faith, the reality is that the purpose of faith is to lead us to Communion.
|Matthias Gerung, John’s Vision of Heaven (1532)|
After all, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). That is, faith is a virtue for us now, not one for Heaven. St. Paul explains, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). This is why Paul tells us that faith is inferior to love, since love will still exist in Heaven (1 Cor. 13:2, 13).
Heaven, for its part, is Communion. The Scriptural imagery is of a Jewish wedding, which takes place in stages. The couple weds, then the husband prepares a home for his new bride, and the move into together, at which point there’s a great feast. Jesus uses this imagery in John 14:2-4, to explain that He goes before us to Heaven to prepare a place for us. The angel in Revelation describes what we’re waiting for as the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9), while Christ is depicted as both the Bridegroom, and as the slain Lamb (Rev. 5:6). In other words, Scripture presents faith as the thing that brings us to Heavenly Communion. The Eucharistic meal gives us a foretaste of this Heavenly banquet now.
Elevating faith to such an extent that you diminish Communion would be like elevating driving so much that you diminish arriving at your destination. It misses the point.
|Paolo de San Leocadio, Christ with the Host (15th c.)|
Christianity has been plagued by recurrent heresies treating the flesh as evil, and treating the spiritual as the absence of the flesh: the Gnostics, the Manichaeans, the Albigensians, and so forth. Protestantism, and I would suggest Calvinism in particular (given its views on total depravity), sometimes flirts with this idea. This would certainly explain why intangible and invisible things (like faith and proclamation of the word) are viewed as the highest goods, while tangible things (like the Eucharist and other visible sacraments, religious art, etc.) are viewed with suspicion.
If there is some of that going on, I’d suggest that the answer comes through Christ Himself, and in particular through the Incarnation. If God Himself can take on flesh without becoming any less God, then flesh cannot be evil. Christ makes this clear through public ministry: look at the manner in which He performs His miracles. A great many of them involved direct physical contact (e.g., Luke 22:51, Matthew 9:29, Mt. 17:7, etc.), and at least two (Mark 7:33; John 9:1-7) involve Jesus healing people with His spit. But most of all, He makes this clear through His Resurrection, and the glorification of His Flesh. St. Paul tells us that, because of Christ’s Resurrection, glorified bodies (1 Cor 15:20-21, 35-44), and indeed, glorified Creation (Rom. 8:19-23), await us.
After all, consider my friends’ suggestion that the Eucharist is unnecessary, since Christ already makes Himself spiritually present to believers. If the sort of spiritual presence that Christ spoke of in Mt. 18:20 is the most we can hope for, this wouldn’t just be an argument against the Eucharist, but against the Second Coming and the Resurrection of the Body, and against the very idea of Communion with God in Heaven. But of course, Christianity is unambiguous that there’s more, and that we look forward to this more.
So Christ embraced Flesh in the Incarnation, establishing that it is not inherently evil; but then He glorified it, and promises to do the same for us. Participation in the Eucharist is Communion with this glorified Flesh of Christ, and raises us to become Christ-like. As St. Gregory of Nyssa explained, back in 385 A.D.:
|St. Gregory of Nyssa|
Since, then, that God-containing flesh partook for its substance and support of this particular nourishment also, and since the God who was manifested infused Himself into perishable humanity for this purpose, viz. that by this communion with Deity mankind might at the same time be deified, for this end it is that, by dispensation of His grace, He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers, to secure that, by this union with the immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption. He gives these gifts by virtue of the benediction through which He transelements the natural quality of these visible things to that immortal thing.
That is, just as when you eat bread and wine, you turn them into your body, when we partake of the Bread and Wine, Christ turns us into His Incorruptible Body.
My intention here isn’t to pick on Protestants, much less on my friend. Understanding the role of flesh in salvation is something that many Catholics struggle with, as well. Instead, I offer this just because I think that, for Protestants, this is a question worth asking. Do you WANT the Eucharist to be True? If not, why not?
It’s fitting that the Eucharist should be a sign of contradiction and a stumbling block. Many of the doctrines dividing Catholics and Protestants are far removed from the day-to-day lives of Christians. After all, whether Catholics or Protestants are right about justification, you should still behave the same way: believe in God, and obey Him. But the Eucharist impacts how we behave at every Mass. Are we worshiping and communing with the One True God, or a piece of bread? That’s an important distinction, and necessarily entails more than intellectual assent one way or the other.
God knows that the Eucharist rubs some people the wrong way on a basic level: that no matter how clear the Scriptures and Church Fathers are, some folks will have trouble understanding how it could be true. In Scripture, for example, when Jesus’ Jewish audience finally realizes that He’s not being figurative about the Body and Blood Eucharistic imagery, they’re shocked, and abandon Him in droves (John 6:60, 66). We shouldn’t be like that. Christ, the Image of the Invisible God (Col. 1:15), presents Himself to us as the Eucharist. We should address and reject whatever keeps us from accepting this with our full hearts.