Ecclesiasticus 4:28

"Fight to the death for truth, and the Lord God will war on your side."

Ora pro nobis,

Most Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Dominic. Amen.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Body of Christ

Image © 2010 Gregory Watson

Pencil Sketch, 5 1/2" x 8 1/2".

I know I don't typically post my artwork here at Barque of Peter. That's what Doubting Thomist is for (and the image is posted there, too), but it just seemed to fit so perfectly with my recent and ongoing writings on the Eucharist, that I thought I'd put this sketch up here, too.

It's the value drawing of a painting I plan to do in the not too distant future. The image was inspired by an experience I had this past February or March. I was sponsoring someone through the RCIA process at my parish, and on one of the Rites of Welcoming, we happened to be in the front pew during Communion. At the time, we had a seminarian with us doing his internship, Deacon (now Father) Jeff Oehring, who happened to be distributing the Host directly in front of where I was kneeling after receiving the Eucharist. I looked up from prayer, and right in front of my face was the ciborium that he was holding, and reflected in it, I could see myself, and the entire church behind me. Immediately, I knew I had to paint it.

Hence the image here, depicting, in a slightly different way, the scene that I saw. I say slightly different because that's not technically me in the foreground of the ciborium. It was intentionally a generic blurry person. Also, the structure of the church is decidedly more traditional and Gothic than my parish. Finally, I had intended to depict reception of the Eucharist kneeling and on the tongue (of course, the image doesn't depict the actual communicating, so it's a bit ambiguous that way, which is good in its way because it's applicable to a wider range of Catholic experience then).

The title, "Body of Christ", is as multi-layered as is the term in Catholic theology, which is what made me want to make this image. Obviously, first and foremost, it refers to the Eucharistic Host, in which Jesus is truly present, His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. The moment captured is right when the priest or other minister of Holy Communion would say, "The Body of Christ" before administering the host to the communicant. However, the priest's hands are also a part of the meaning of "Body of Christ", since we hold that the priest is himself an alter Christus--by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, the priest has the authority to act in persona Christi for us, a tangible sign and example of Christ's presence among us.

Finally, the reflection of the Church in the ciborium brings out a third dimension to "Body of Christ", in that we, the Church, is the Body of Christ, and we, individually, are members of it. It is through Communion that we become that Body, as St. Paul writes, "The blessing-cup, which we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ; and the loaf of bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? And as there is one loaf, so we, although there are many of us, are one single body, for we share in the one loaf" (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
God bless

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Journeying Into His Real Presence

Sorry for the long delay in new posts. Had to deal with a comment on an old Open Forum, turned it into an article unto itself for Doubting Thomist, and then had to deal with the slew of comments it generated--as well as actual, you know, life stuff.

Anyway, before I delve into the strictly apologetical writing on the Eucharist, I wanted to write a personal post and give a testimony of sorts about how I came to believe that Jesus is truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Eucharist.

As anyone who's been around this blog for any length of time--or who's read the blurb below my name in the right hand sidebar, or, for that matter, has read my Conversion Story--knows, I grew up in the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. Despite having a deep and lively faith, believing that Jesus could in the Bible, and still did today work miracles of all sorts, and believing that we should be filled with the Spirit and have Jesus alive in our hearts, we deplored the notion that sacraments had any efficacious power. While the Baptism of the Holy Spirit could cause one to speak in tongues and prophesy, baptism in water was simply a symbolic action (for adults and children old enough to decide on their own). While miraculous healings were claimed all the time, the clear biblical instruction to anoint with oil in the sacrament of the anointing of the sick was by and large overlooked. While the sanctity of marriage was stressed, the sacrament of marriage was never mentioned. Ordination was outright denied, within the ceremony itself, to have any power to confer any unique authority to the newly ordained pastor. Confession was supposed to be to God alone, because the Temple Veil had been torn open at the Crucifixion, and "confirmation" was when someone said something, or some sign was perceived, as verifying a thought that you had that you weren't sure was from God or not.

And, of course, we celebrated the "Lord's Supper", because He commanded us to do so, after all. But while, "Do this in memory of Me" was taken literally, "This is My body...This is My blood..." was most certainly not! And while the Book of Acts was used to argue that every time someone was baptised in the Holy Spirit, they spoke in tongues, and therefore tongues had to be the initial evidence of the baptism in the Spirit, apparently the clear example of Acts that the early Christians met together daily to "break bread" was not in any way an instruction on how often the Lord's Supper was to be celebrated. In an effort to keep this memorial meal from losing its meaning and impact, it was celebrated on the first Sunday of every month, instead--with saltine crackers and Welch's grape juice.

Now, to be fair, Communion in the Pentecostal Church really is just a symbol of that Last Supper. The cracker and grape juice one receives really is only a token of Jesus' Body and Blood. Not having anything even resembling Holy Orders in the Pentecostal Assemblies, let alone valid Apostolic Succession, there is no one capable of consecrating the bread and wine so that it would actually become the Body and Blood of Christ, even if they believed that it should.

Despite this rather impoverished view of the Eucharist, we still managed to take it rather seriously in my family. I remember one morning saying to my mother as a little boy, "I'm glad we're having communion today, Mommy, because I'm hungry!" This comment greatly disturbed her, and she wouldn't let me partake, understanding, even as a Pentecostal memorialist, that this was no ordinary food.

I remember, as a boy, very in tune to the love of God and attracted to the mystical things in life, staring at the cup of grape juice (it was a little clear plastic "shot glass", more or less), and seeing the sparkle from the ceiling lights reflecting in the deep purple of the juice, and listening to the words, "This is My blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. Drink this, in memory of Me." I "knew" Jesus was being metaphorical when He said those words, but even so, I felt that it was something. At the time, I didn't even know what the Catholic Church was, let alone what it taught about the Eucharist. I just knew Pentecostalism, and the various Protestant denominations I encountered at private Christian school growing up. Nothing in my upbringing even suggested that Jesus might have actually meant what He said. Even so, I had a glimmer.

During high school, I undertook to actually read through the whole Bible, cover to cover. I actually made it, too (after stalling out repeatedly in Leviticus). Actually going through the text, cover to cover (even with a Protestant Bible, missing its seven-plus books, and containing very dispensationalistic footnotes), really makes you sit up and say, "Hey, I've never heard of this before!" I'd been going to church all my life--memorising Bible verses since I was six years old or younger. But they never covered everything, cover-to-cover. I quipped to a friend of mine recently that the rule of faith for Protestants is not the Bible, but the Bible Alone. What I meant by that rather glib statement, was what I began to learn when I actually read the Bible through for the first time: There's a heckuva lot in there that never gets touched. And I'm not talking about obscure Old Testament prophecies. I mean a good chunk of everything between 2 Thessalonians and Revelation.

This included certain fascinating (and eventually life-altering) tidbits such as St. Peter's statement in his first epistle, "Baptism now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21). That one made me sit up and say "huh?" As I said above, I believed baptism was nothing more than a symbol of our new life in Christ--not the thing that actually gave us new life in Christ! What on earth could Peter be talking about?! This small portion of a verse eventually revolutionised my thinking about baptism--but that's another article. But a similar phenomenon happened as I read through 1 Corinthians. I saw St. Paul building up an argument, from at least chapter 10, and culminating in chapter 11, that took "the Lord's Supper" far beyond anything I'd understood before. I couldn't articulate it then, and didn't know how to ask what I wanted to ask, let alone who to ask it of. So, beyond offering confirmation of those glimmers I'd had in childhood, I pocketed this idea as "something to investigate" later.

Later ended up being Bible College (where so many things are investigated). In a class on Worship, taught by a former Catholic, we discussed at some length the centrality of the Eucharist (I believe Bible College was the first time I'd heard the term) and its centrality in the Christian life. That it was central was news to me, honestly. I could never understand why so much time was devoted to it in classical art, since it was only celebrated once a month! Of course, I found out that there's a spectrum among Protestants--from once a year (or not at all), to quarterly, to monthly, to weekly. Those of us who celebrated no more regularly than monthly, like myself, viewed weekly celebration as ritualistic, and tending to take the meaning out of the Eucharist. That was, after all, the justification for less frequent celebrations. Of course, the sad irony is that it's those who celebrate it less who think it means less.

We further discussed different interpretations of the Eucharist--from Zwinglian Memorialism, to a Calvinist view of a "Spiritual Presence", to Lutheran "Consubstantiation", and finally, Catholic "Transubstantiation." That someone would actually believe that the Eucharist was really Jesus boggled my mind. However, my previous experiences and study of Scripture had already convinced me that a purely memorialist understanding of the Lord's Supper was insufficient. Calvin's "middle of the road" approach seemed very much in keeping with what I was discovering. I talked to a friend of mine about all of this, because it was so new to me. I figured most common sense people would believe in a memorialist understanding, and that this new "Spiritual Presence" concept was somewhat "out there". But I was challenged by it, and wanted to see where others stood. I still remember my shock when my friend told me he agreed with the notion of Consubstantiation--that Jesus was truly and bodily present with the bread in the Eucharist. It was enough of a shock that someone could believe such a thing--it was augmented by the fact that my friend believed it. I resolved to research this further.

It was around this time that I'd been introduced to Catholicism--in no small part by the worship class I mentioned, but also through history classes and theology and others. I'd met the Early Church Fathers while researching papers, and found that these giants were startlingly Catholic in their beliefs. At first, I easily dismissed their Catholicism as somehow being "leftover paganism" (or, more sinisterly, "pagan syncretism"). I would read St. Augustine and say, "He sure makes some amazingly good points here, but about this, he's way off," until one day I realised the arrogance of supposing that I, a Bible College undergrad, knew more about theology than one of the people who essentially wrote the book on it. Around this time I also started dating the woman who would become my wife, herself a cradle Catholic. I started attending Mass with her, and experiencing (though merely as a spectator) the Eucharistic Liturgy for myself. I studied the Fathers, I studied contemporary Catholic sources like the Catechism and websites like Catholic Answers and Biblical Evidence for Catholicism. And I studied the Scriptures--I intensely scrutinised what the Bible had to say about the Eucharist. What I didn't study, awkwardly, was my Bible College course load. It's a strange irony to learn more about your faith than ever before, and fail the courses trying to teach it to you.

I remember sitting in History class, hearing the professor disparage various Catholic beliefs saying, "And then the Catholics started believing such and so on this or that date. How ridiculous is that?" Transubstantiation definitely received such attention, the belief being attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas as if no one had ever taught or heard of such a thing as Jesus transforming the Eucharistic elements into His flesh and blood. I remember thinking, "I could probably put together a thoroughly biblical defence of that doctrine in 10 minutes--and I don't even believe in it!" It was, perhaps, the overwhelming bias of my history professor that led me to really pursue an investigation of what the Catholic Church actually taught.

So I investigated Scripture (the conclusions of which will make up the next few articles, so I won't go into great detail here). As I said, 1 Corinthians had made an impact. Being the earliest-recorded account of the Eucharist, St. Paul's thoughts had particular interest to me. I knew from childhood that one wasn't to partake "unworthily", but what did that mean? In the context of chapter 11, Paul writes rather clearly, that "a person who eats and drinks without recognising the Body is eating and drinking his own condemnation" (v.29). Earlier, in verse 27, he writes that eating and drinking unworthily makes us "answerable for the body and blood of the Lord" (v. 27), which, I found out, was a juridical term in Paul's day, meaning, "You're guilty of murdering that person." Now that's a fancy claim to make about a symbol! And it was so serious that many who were guilty of this were getting sick, and even dying, at the Corinthian Church! This was certainly serious business! Something more was going on than a symbolic memorial. Something seemed to be going on even beyond a "spiritual presence." If I'm to recognise a body, there must be a body to recognise!

Could Jesus have really meant what He said, when He said, "This is My body"? Instinctively, I said, "That's cannibalism!"--which, incidentally, is what the pagan Romans accused the early Christians of. Hmmm. I said, "How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?"--which is what the unbelieving Jews said in John 6.

So I read through John 6. At first, I wanted to isolate it from the notion of the Eucharist. But St. John doesn't allow that. In verse 4, he lets us know that Jesus said everything in the context of the Jewish Passover--the same Feast He was celebrating with His disciples the night before He died. The insinuation was clear. And Jesus said, in no uncertain terms, "I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world" (v. 51). That's staggering enough, but then He repeats this four different times in four different ways--each and every time getting more specific and more literal. "Spiritualising" John 6, or taking Jesus figuratively, is completely impossible. This is clearly seen in the fact that he let the multitudes leave Him because they couldn't accept this teaching. Had it been a metaphor, He could have--and should have--corrected their misunderstanding. But the Jews, and even His disciples, knew exactly what He meant, and that He meant it. And because they couldn't accept it, they walked away from Him.

I realised, at this point, that because the Reformers, and their successors, couldn't accept it, they rewrote their theology.

It seemed to me that changing my theology to not recognise the Body was exactly the same thing as walking away from Jesus. I didn't want to walk away from Jesus, and I knew what He meant in John 6. I knew what He meant in that Upper Room. I knew what Paul meant about "recognising the Body". I recognised the Body, and I hungered for Him.

However, because I still struggled with other Catholic beliefs, I remained outside the Catholic faith. I attended Mass every week for three years as I struggled to believe in these other things, believing all the while that "This is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Happy are those who are called to His supper."

I remember thinking, and praying, during this time, that I wish I could be called to that supper. I had heard about mystics in the middle ages who, for whatever reason, were barred from receiving Jesus, but He Himself brought them the Host. I wished, I longed for such an experience--that when I responded with the prayer, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive You, but only say the word, and I shall be healed," that maybe, just maybe, Jesus would work just such a miracle, and say that Word. That miracle never came, and my "Eucharistic Hunger" (as my priest called it) continued to grow--often to unbearable peaks. This itself was the miracle, the word of healing for which I prayed. My hunger for Jesus in the Eucharist was the impetus--often the only impetus--for continuing to struggle with the other doctrinal issues keeping me from faith in the Catholic Church. Finally, I was able to surrender in faith to the Catholic Church, and really recognise the other "Body of Christ".

I remember, that Easter Vigil night, when I was to be Confirmed and receive my First Holy Communion, that a diabolical doubt overtook me. "What if I'm wrong? What if it really is just bread and wine? What if this 'Eucharistic Hunger' I've built up over more than three long years finds its culmination in an anti-climactic let-down of a lie?"

For two hours I sat, enveloped by the beauty of the liturgy--from the lighting of the candles through the Scripture readings that outlined God's plan of salvation, up until that Great Alleluia and the proclamation of the Gospel, and Jesus' Resurrection, and on through the homily, the baptisms, the confirmations, and right up until the Eucharistic Liturgy with this nagging doubt, this awkward "What if...?"

I recognise that feelings are not what we should base our faith on. I recognise that Grace is not something we can perceive with our emotions or our senses. But God is faithful, and when I came up to receive our Precious Lord for the first time, He did not disappoint! I felt such an overwhelming sense of His Presence going through me that I was compelled to let out a little of my inner Pentecostal. I returned to the pew speaking in tongues (as quietly as possible, so as not to freak out any of my fellow new converts), and could not stop the entire time the packed church's parishioners filed up for their own encounter with the Risen Lord.

I will not say that this experience is normative, or that every time I receive Communion I'm caught up into ecstacy. But I know in my knower (as my mother would say) that this truly is Jesus, the Lamb of God. Despite bad music, sloppy liturgies, and even, occasionally, faithless priests, Jesus is still present, truly and completely, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist, waiting for us to come to Him and imbibe on Him, so that He may come into us and dwell with us in a manner more intimate than anything else we can experience.

It's deeper than sex.
It's better than chocolate!

Jesus Himself ardently desires your presence at the altar. Don't wait three long years as I did. Run to Him, and let Him fill your soul so that you become, literally, what you eat--until you become another Christ.


(Category: Catholic Distinctives: Sacraments--The Eucharist)