The Real Presence of the Lord in Communion

Posted: September 3, 2012 in Catholic Worship, Communion, The Mass
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The Communion Controversy

20120903-073641.jpgOne thing that has been a common refrain in my conversations with fundamentalists is a criticism that the Catholic Church forbids communion or participation in the Eucharist by non Catholics. They seem to view it as a personal affront and a suggestion that the church does not view them as christian.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I would submit to you that it is the height of charity to deny communion to those who do not recognize it for what we as Catholics see it to be: the real flesh and blood of God’s Incarnate Son.

Saint Paul is very clear in saying that when we participate in communion without discerning the flesh and blood of Our Lord, we eat and drink judgement on ourselves (1Corinthians 11:29). The Catholic church takes the sacrament of Holy Communion extremely seriously. In all loving kindness, the church seeks to prevent fellow christians from what they believe to be calling judgement on themselves.

Respect for Beliefs

On another, more relatable note, consider this: in my earlier years, as a non practicing catholic, I would attend church with my wife at her independent bible church. I knew that they did not consider my catholic baptism to be valid. Out of respect for them, and their beliefs, I declined to receive communion there. At the time, I believed I was a baptized Christian even thought they did not, and I believed that I was entitled to receive communion. However, because I respected the fact that they were entitled to their beliefs, and because I knew it was important to them, I refrained. The question arises, then, why would one desire to receive communion at a Catholic church to begin with if they do not believe the same things about it?

Symbol or Substance?

This leads me to the meat of the problem (pun intended). Catholics believe that in communion, the bread and wine on the altar become the true, real flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Most Protestant faiths, as well as those christian communities who deny that they are protestants, see communion as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice.

I won’t lie; this was perhaps the hardest doctrine for me to come to terms with in my return to the Catholic church. However, after a careful reading of Jesus’ sermon at Capernaum (John, Chapter 6), I was convinced.

The Bread of Life Discourse

In this sermon, Jesus tells us that he is the bread of life, come down from heaven, and that he who eats this bread will have eternal life. John’s Gospel records that when he said this, the Jews began to argue among themselves, asking “how can he give us his flesh to eat?”

Here’s where I became convinced that Jesus truly meant that we must eat his flesh. Rather than clarify or explain his statement, Jesus went even further. He nailed the point home and was even more explicit. This time, he did away with the symbolic language of calling himself bread and said “Truly, truly I say to you that unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” He then goes on to reiterate three more times that we must eat His flesh. Many of the people who heard Him say this were so upset that they left him that day. John quotes some of them as saying “who can believe this thing?”

A Leap of Faith

Sound familiar? Even today, many of Jesus followers find this doctrine impossible to believe. That is why, for me, it was the biggest stumbling block and, later, the greatest triumph in my faith. I consider the belief to be the greatest leap of faith one can make.

To believe that bread and wine can become flesh and blood is surely fantastical. In fact, I will wager that for many, this is far harder to believe than the fact that the dead were raised or that demons were cast out. We hear those wondrous works and we say, “yeah, that sounds right.” When we start talking about bread becoming flesh and wine becoming blood, though, all of a sudden we put limits on what God can do.

God Means What He Says, Says What He Means

When I was studying with a preacher who was trying to convince me to join his church (he was successful, by the way, albeit temporarily), he made it a point to take me through selected passages of the Old Testament to demonstrate that God means what he says. Ironically, I recall those sessions now in a completely different light. Of course, I still believe that God means what He says. Now, I simply believe He means everything he says, including that when He holds up a piece of bread and says “This is My Body,” he means that the bread is in fact now His body. Likewise, when He says that we must eat His flesh to have eternal life, He really means that we must eat His flesh.

Nowhere in his language, during the sermon at Capernaum or at the Last Supper, is there any indication that He means anything symbolic. What’s most telling is that, when people had a problem with what He was telling them about eating His flesh, he doubled down, getting even more graphic in His description.

Even when people left because of this teaching, He did not relent but continued to insist that we must eat of His flesh. At no point did he say “Hey, wait, you misunderstand! It’s just a symbol! I just mean you need to drink grape juice and have a cracker to remember me!” Instead, he said that unless we eat His flesh and drink His blood, we will not have life.

What He Says, Is

As I was explaining my decision to return to the Catholic Church to someone whom I love deeply, we got into a discussion about communion and the real presence.

“He says this is My body!” I exclaimed as I tried to drive the point home.
“Yes, but what is He holding?” my companion retorted.
“But what is He saying?”
“But what is He holding?”

Needless to say, we went round and round for a while until finally we agreed to disagree. Later, I realized the truth of what I was trying to argue, even though I wasn’t able to articulate it at the time. The simple fact is, what ever Jesus says, is.
God created the world with a word. Jesus told the storm to be still, and it was. Jesus told Lazarus to rise, and he rose. Whatever He said was. So when he says this is my body, then it’s His body. When He says this is My Blood, then it’s His Blood. For me, it really is that simple.

It didn’t matter what He was holding when He said “this is My Body.” What mattered is that whatever He was holding did whatever He told it. If He told us that it was His Body, then it became His Body. If He told us it was a Volkswagen, then it was a Volkswagen. That’s a crude alliteration, I know, but I use it to illustrate the point that, if we really believe that Jesus was the Son of God and in fact was God, then why is it so fantastical to believe that whatever He says is?

Do This in Memory of Me

Jesus also said “Do this in memory of Me,” and so every day this continues in the celebration of the Mass. Of course, it is not the priest or the bishop who turns the wine into blood but God. The priest acts in the person of Christ, though he is not another Christ. Rather, Christ acts through the priest, just as God acted through Moses, so that when the priest pronounces that “This is My Body,” God transforms the substances of bread and wine into Body and Blood.

Foreshadowing at the Wedding

Still finding it hard to believe? Take a closer look at the wedding in Canna, where Jesus performed his first recorded public miracle. In John 2:1-11, we see Jesus instruct the servants to fill the pots with water, draw some out and then take it to the headwaiter. The servants do this unquestioningly and present the water to the headwaiter, who drinks it and exclaims his surprise that the bridegroom waited to serve his choicest wine.

In one instance, the pots are filled with water, and in another, it’s wine. There’s no suggestion that the water was visibly changed into wine, only that they brought it to the headwaiter, who tasted it. But nonetheless, it is clear that Jesus wills it, and therefore it is so.

Just as the Old Testament is a foreshadowing of the New, Jesus’ first miracle is a foreshadowing of one of His last. If water may become wine by the will of God, why then is it so fantastical to believe that wine may become blood and that bread may become flesh by the same will? Jesus said “this is My Flesh” and thus, it was His Flesh.

Who Can Believe This Thing?

Of course this is hard to swallow. It was hard for Jesus’ followers to swallow it when He told them. Yet he did not relent, and He lost followers that day because of it. Much as now, many people find that the Catholic church’s belief in the real presence is too hard to believe and so they criticize it and stay away because of it.

The Passover Feast

Another point must be made here, which I think is far more important. It is not of little significance that Jesus was crucified at Passover, and that the Last Supper occurred at a Passover meal. Consider what the Jews did when they offered their lamb for sacrifice: they ate them. They didn’t eat a symbol of them. They didn’t substitute beef for lamb. They ate the lamb they sacrificed.

Now consider this: Jesus is the lamb we sacrificed, all of us, through our sins. Were it not for our imperfections and our sinful nature, God would have no need to show His love for us by allowing His son to be killed. Since God is ageless and timeless, all humans throughout time are responsible for putting Jesus on the cross.

Jesus the high priest offered up His own body and blood as sacrifice for atonement for all time. On this, all Christians agree. The important next logical leap, though, is to make the connection between the once and for all sacrifice on the cross to the bread of life discourse in the Gospel of John and the words Jesus spoke at the last supper:

“You must eat the flesh of the Son of Man to have eternal life.”
“My flesh is true food.”
“I am the bread of life; if you eat me, you will live.”
“This is my body.”

All of these, when taken in full context with His Passover sacrifice, can only mean that He intended for us to eat His true flesh in our remembrance of the the once and for all sacrifice. It is a miracle He performs for us daily, transforming bread and wine into body and blood.

Real Flesh, True Food

I know, this is a hard thing; who can believe it. Those words have been said before. But remember this: it wasn’t a cracker that was nailed to the cross, and it wasn’t grape juice that poured from His wounds when His side was pierced. It was real flesh that suffered and died, and it was real blood that was spilled. And it is real flesh that we eat and real blood that we drink when we commemorate this sacrifice in our communion with the Lord at Mass.

Image Courtesy asteegabo, via Creative Commons

  1. SR says:

    Have not read post, just wanted to comment here so you could reply and see what I get. Will be back to read. God Bless, SR

    • Okay; thank you for your kind words on the reblog! I appreciate the opportunity to work together to spread the Good News!

      • SR says:

        I got you on this one. You are welcome and I as well look forward to that opportunity. I was happy to do it, and tried to add you to our “blogging community.” Everyone gets along so well, even if we disagree. I do not know if you have ever been to Biltrix or Catholic1’s blogs but they are really good and I think you three have a lot in common. You can get them off of my blogroll if you want to go and snoop around:>) Have a great weekend and God Bless, SR

  2. Dennis Scarry says:

    Tim, as a cradle catholic, I still have difficulties with this. I love what you have said and will being thinking about this at every mass I attend and receive the Eucharist.

  3. SR says:

    Hey Joel,

    This again was an informative post. You know I never did struggle with this part of my conversion. When I looked up what “Do in “memory” of me” actually meant one of the definitions was, “Do it again.” So again, our English translation kind of got in the way.

    Now when I try and defend this belief one of my questions is, “Did Jesus lie?” Jesus not only said He was there, He “promised” He was there. “Truly, Truly.” Also the scoffers who were with Him and left, Jesus did not call them back and say, “Wait a minute come back, I only meant it as a symbol.” He let them go. (These I got from the Lamb’s Supper)

    At first I had a hard time of others not being able to share in Holy Communion. I as well after reading what Paul said, knew it was for the best, as those who did not believe, would be calling judgment upon themselves. So the Church has made the right call on that. Good post and God Bless, SR

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