Recent surveys show that many Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I have no idea how to resolve this problem, but perhaps it would help to consider this series of questions.
We begin with the Eucharist. Do you believe that Christ can be really present in the Eucharist – as present as He was to the apostles in the upper room after the crucifixion? This is admittedly difficult, since what we see with our eyes still looks like bread and wine. That’s why in the Middle Ages, the Church attempted to clarify what it meant to say that Christ is “really present” in the Eucharist by saying that, although the accidents of bread and wine remain, the substance is now the body and blood of Christ. Yes, it still looks like bread and wine, but Christ is truly present there.
This belief in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, not merely “spiritually,” but really – as real as when your friend is in the same room with you – has animated the Christian Church from the very beginning – so much so that early pagans accused Christians of cannibalism.
Indeed, the faith of the Church is that Christ is even more intimately present to us than a friend in the same room, since He is not only “out there” but “inside” us, with the power to transform us in ways that the presence of a friend, although good, never can.
But of course, this affirmation of the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist is based on another affirmation, which brings us to our next question. Do you believe Christ was really present – present bodily – in the upper room after the Crucifixion, as present as He was to the disciples during His earthly life before the Crucifixion?
This too is difficult to conceive of. The Gospel accounts make clear that it was difficult for the apostles as well. The doors and windows were closed and locked, but then he was there. So, naturally, they thought, “It’s a ghost!” But then the Gospels go out of their way to affirm that He wasn’t a ghost. He was there bodily. They touched Him; they ate with Him. But then, all of sudden, He was gone again.
He was there bodily, but with a body that did not suffer the same limitations as ours. It is admittedly strange – unless, of course, He was truly God incarnate.
So this is our third question. Did God, the Creator of All Reality, really become incarnate as a true, human person named Jesus at a certain moment in history? Let’s be frank; this Christian affirmation is the most difficult for members of other religious traditions to accept or respect. The transcendent God, they believe, simply can’t bring Himself so low as to become one, single human being who lived in a certain place at a certain moment in history.
It seems like balancing the fate of the whole cosmos on the head of a pin. Something that big can’t become that small. Something that powerful wouldn’t make Himself that weak. If the ancient world knew one thing, it was that gods can’t die. Claiming that your God showed His power by allowing Himself to be crucified isn’t the most obvious thing in the world. When people looked at Him, what they saw was just another human person.
But Christians believe that God was really present – fully – in Him.
But all that we’ve considered so far is based on what is perhaps the most radical claim of all. Is it possible, we wonder, whether the One who is the Creator of All Reality – the entire cosmos with all its trillions of galaxies, stars, planets, comets, and black holes, most of them billions of light years distant from us – actually loves us and loves us so much that He would give Himself fully and selflessly to us to restore the gift of humanity that we have so grievously marred by our selfishness and sin.
Isn’t that the root of the problem? It is hard enough to believe that there is a God who created the vastness and complexity of everything that exists, but to believe that He actually knows and cares for us is, for many people, simply too hard to wrap their heads around.
There is no argument for the Eucharist here. These questions are meant simply to help clarify the issue. Is the problem really the question of whether or not Christ is present in the Eucharist, or do the doubts and difficulties start much earlier and go much deeper? It would make sense if they did. None of what I just proposed is easy or obvious. In fact, it seems to me to get harder the further down you go.
But once you’ve “swallowed the camel” that God loves us so much that He became incarnate as an actual human person with an actual, vulnerable, mortal human body, and died on a cross, then doubting the possibility that He could become present in bread and wine would seem to be “straining at the gnats.”
It would be like believing that Christ can raise people from the dead but then doubting he could cure a person with a cleft lip. Why? Too insignificant? Not “big” enough for my big, powerful God? So, then, is caring about you and your troubles not “big” enough for that big, powerful God?
Perhaps that is the real question we’re facing. Is the universe empty? Does anyone care? Is there any meaning in life, especially in the face of death?
Perhaps those interested in revivifying faith in the Eucharist should start there. If you can’t lay a firm foundation on the love of the Creator-God who became a human person and died for us, then everything else will be built on sand, and no quantity of glitzy brochures with pictures of a well-coifed priest holding the chalice are going to do much good.
*Image: The Incarnation as Fulfillment of All the Prophecies by Peter Paul Rubens, 1628-1629 [Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia, PA]
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Bevil Bramwell’s Benedict on the Real Presence
Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek’s How His Passion and Death Become Ours