Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Real Presence

To the non-Catholic, seeing someone on their knees before an ornate box inside a Catholic Church might seem foolish, overly ritualistic, or even blasphemous.  To the non-Catholic, seeing someone genuflect while entering or leaving a pew within a Catholic Church can generate a puzzled or inquisitive look.  Truth be told, based on my observations of how casual Catholics are in the way they come and go to Mass, many of the faithful are equally likely to be puzzled by other parishioners’ adoration towards that which is kept in the tabernacle.  Yet the basis for these practices is foundational to what it means to be Catholic.

In the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper of Jesus, Christ takes bread and wine, gives it to his disciples and utters the words, “Take and eat; this is my body” (Mt 26:26) and “Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant…” (Mt 26:27-28).  Alone, we may argue Jesus was using a simile when he spoke of the bread being his body, and the wine being his blood.  However, in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus tells those present, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).  A few versus later, Jesus states, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:54-55).  In these few short sentences, Jesus equates bread with his flesh, and tells us his flesh is real food.  His instructions during his last supper are to be taken literally, and that is exactly what the Church teaches.

The implication of the literal interpretation of Christ’s statements is, following the consecration of the bread and wine, we are in the presence of the physical and true Jesus Christ.  Think about that for a moment.  Let it sink in.  We are in presence of the physical Christ when we are in the presence of the Eucharist.  Based on Jesus’ own instructions, and the power of the Holy Spirit working through our priests, with these words of the Eucharistic prayer, “Take this, all of you, and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you,” and “Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood” the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.

The late Fr. John A. Hardon wrote in his book, With Us Today, On the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, “Transubstantiation describes how the physical qualities of bread and wine – their color, texture, taste and whatever else is perceived by the senses – remain, but they lose their substance.  The qualities of bread and wine remain, but their substance is replaced by the whole Christ” (Hardon, p 29).

In the Modern Catholic Dictionary, also written by Fr. Hardon, ‘substantial presences’ is defined as, “The manner of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, ‘according to the manner of a substance,’ as taught by the Council of Trent.  This means that the whole Christ is present in every portion of the Eucharist, similar to the presences of the entire substance of something, e.g., the human soul, in every part of the body” (Hardon p. 523).  So as not to be viewed as religious double-speak, Merriam-Webster defines substance as, “ultimate reality that underlies all outward manifestations and change.”  While the outward appearance of the Body and Blood of Christ is bread and wine, the substance of those elements is truly the whole, physical Body and Blood of Jesus.

You may question the validity of taking Christ’s words from St. John literally.  Fair enough.  Even those Jesus was speaking to were troubled by what Christ said.  St. John writes, “The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us [his] flesh to eat?’” (Jn 6:52).  But as we read earlier, Jesus didn’t back down.  He simply repeated his teaching, stating, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55).  While what Jesus said there weighs on your thoughts, the Catechism of the Council of Trent tells us, “For since it is most revolting to human nature to eat human flesh or drink human blood, therefore God in His infinite wisdom has established the administration of the body and blood of Christ under the forms of bread and wine, which are the ordinary and agreeable food of man” (CCT).

You won’t be able to prove the Real Presence through any scientific experiments.  My guess is, analyzed at the molecular level, the elements of bread and wine will appear to be the same after consecration as they were before.  From a secular perspective, transubstantiation would likely be viewed as a word made up to try to explain how bread and wine changes into the Body and Blood of Jesus.  However, I would ask you to consider this: is belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist any more unreasonable than belief in a man rising from the dead three days after being buried?  Is it any more unreasonable to believe in the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus than it is to believe in His miraculous conversion of water to wine at the wedding in Cana?  With the power of the Holy Spirit, I don’t believe it is unreasonable.

The belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is faith-based.  It is a revealed truth from God, through the words of Christ as recorded in Sacred Scripture.  It has been studied and scrutinized by the Fathers of the Church, by Councils, and theologians since the early days of the Church.  No scientific instruments known to man could analyze the consecrated host and consecrated wine and find the substantial presences of the whole Body and Blood of Christ.  Yet, just as we believe in God, just as we believe in Jesus, his only son, just as we believe in the Holy Spirit, we believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  We believe because Jesus himself told us of his presence.  We believe because the Holy Spirit has guided the Church for over 2000 years to teach us of the Real Presence.  We believe because God gave us the gift of faith so we could believe.

And how fortunate for us to believe and have this gift.  Christ, the Son of God, the Word of God Incarnate, our Redeemer, is truly and physically with us.  We have the opportunity to draw closer to Christ physically through adoration of the Eucharist.  We have the opportunity to strengthen and nourish our spirit though the real food and real drink of the Body and Blood of Jesus.  We have the opportunity to thank Christ while in his physical presence for his sacrifice.  We should not let these opportunities pass us by.


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