Monday, June 30, 2008

The Blessed Sacrament -- the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ (Part One)

The Catholic Church recognizes the Eucharist as the source (beginning) and summit (end) of the Faith inasmuch as this Blessed Sacrament is Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Jesus, even though under the appearance of bread and wine.

A friend who is not Catholic has struggled with this, as have many persons throughout history, and he has asked for an explanation. He says, "I cannot logically understand or wrap my mind around it enough to just accept it on faith. What is the philosophy behind this? the tradition behind this? and for the love of all that is good... is there any proof?"

Recognizing that the Eucharist is indeed the "mystery of faith," and cannot be fully understood by us creatures of limited capacity and knowledge, what follows is a reflection and meditation on these questions, so as to continue down the road in the search for truth and understanding.

Part One

It really should not trouble us too much that many aspects of the Real Presence will remain shrouded in mystery. There are many things in life that we cannot fully comprehend, and that should guide us in deciding exactly how much "proof" can be reasonably and realistically expected.

How is it that the universe exists, and in an ordered way? An ordered universe should not exist, you can't get something from nothing and entropy always increases, but we have it nevertheless. The secular agnostic/athiest scientist says, we don't know how exactly, it just does. A Christian or Jew or Muslim would say that it exists because God says it exists. (And the Catholic would say that the Real Presence is true for the same reason.) How is it that some physical matter is somehow able move about and interact with the environment and even reproduce, i.e. is alive? How is it that the mass of hydro-carbons reading this sentence is able to have a shared understanding with the writer and to form independent thought, and how does it have autonomy and a will, so as to be able to choose to continue reading? How are we able to do these things if, in a purely material world, we have no more significance than a rock? All of these things are clearly impossible -- and yet, they are so. They are mysteries, suffice to say that the ultimate reality of a person or a thing is not always what it appears to be on the surface. For example, this is not a purely material world. If this is true throughout life, we should not be surprised that it is so with the Eucharist as well.

I cannot logically understand or wrap my mind around it enough to just accept it on faith. What is the philosophy behind this? the tradition behind this? and for the love of all that is good... is there any proof?

Well, to speak of “the love of all that is good” is to be on the right track because the answers to the question of the mystery of the actual Body and Blood of Christ – the who, why, what, where, when, and how of the Eucharist -- may be found where the answers to most questions of the Faith are found – in Love and in Truth. The answers to this great mystery can only be found (a) in Love, the nature of love itself, as well as the love of God and love for God, and (b) in Truth, the truth of Jesus Christ and the truth of who we are as human persons.

What is the proof that the Eucharist is the Real Presence? What is your evidence?

A few more words about “proof” -- while reason and observation of the physical world (scientific-style proof) may take us quite far on the question of the Real Presence, because we are speaking of things that are beyond this world, ultimately we must turn to faith to enlighten our reason, specifically, the revealed truth of things that go beyond and transcend our limited physical understanding of reality and being. Such revelation is found in the Bible.

In the law, we prove things by the testimony of witnesses and, for the Catholic, the proof is this –- because Jesus said so. It’s as simple and direct as that. But in addition to that, we have the understanding of the Apostles and the early Church, as well as the understanding of the Jews and of the Romans.

Others have explained in detail some of the various scriptural references, so I will only highlight a few. First, the Eucharist is hinted at in the life and ministry of Jesus. Indeed, on the night of His birth, the baby Jesus is laid in the manger. When we reflect upon what a manger is, we understand that this was not merely a sign of His birth into a humble life. A manger is the box holding the hay that is eaten by the animals in the stable. It is a food trough, and the placement of Jesus in the manger, as if He were food himself, prefigures the Eucharist itself.

Of course, the doctrine of the Real Presence is explicitly set forth in the “bread of life” discourse. If it were only symbolic, the people who actually heard it when it was said by Jesus would not have reacted by turning away in disgust, saying "This teaching is too hard. Who can listen to it?" (John 6:60) They certainly thought He was being literal. Indeed, when the people were initially unsure of what He meant by claiming that He was the bread of life, instead of assuring them that he only meant it as a metaphor, He not only spoke even more explicitly about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, He emphasized it by saying “Truly, truly, I say to you . . .”

At the Last Supper, Jesus is again quite direct in appropriating the elements of the Passover meal, the unleavened bread and wine, saying “This is by body . . . this is my blood,” and we must take Him at His word that He meant what He said and said what He meant. Jesus knew how to speak metaphorically, and if He meant it merely as a symbol, He certainly would have said so. One might suggest that, if Jesus meant His actual body, “He could have but didn't offer them his flesh to eat, or open a vein to fill the cup.” But that would not then be the Eucharist, but cannibalism, and the Eucharist is NOT cannibalism, and Christians are not ghouls, notwithstanding the later accusations of the Romans. Besides, the Body that is the Eucharist is not pre-crucifixion, but post-Resurrection. More on these points later, when we meditate in greater detail on the nature of the Real Presence.

As said before, the Apostles and early Church understood Jesus to be speaking literally. For example, Paul writes about the Real Presence and Justin Martyr writes in chapter 66 of his First Apology --

And this food is called among us Eukaristia [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.

Now, the pagan Romans later thought that the Christians took the words of Jesus literally, going so far as to accuse them of cannibalism. Stating things in mere poetic symbolism would not be enough to get you scourged and crucified, nor would it have been enough to have your followers martyred.

Finally, you have the testimony of believers over the last 2,000 years. You have the testimony of those who have not only received Communion, but those who have merely been close by the Eucharist and had a palpable sense or feeling of the presence of some indescribable Other.

To be continued . . .

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