Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Real Presence in
How is Jesus present in the Eucharist? Most of us,
at one time or another, find ourselves either asking that question
or trying to explain the mystery for someone else. Catholics believe
that the Body and Blood of Jesus is present in consecrated bread
and wine. We do not say the Eucharist is like the body
and blood of Jesus, but that it is the body and blood of
Jesus. In the Gospels Jesus says, "This is my body" and "This
is my blood." That is strong language. It is language which Christians
have sought to understand for many centuries.
Perhaps we struggle to understand in the good sense
of struggle. After all, in the Eucharist we proclaim the
Mystery of our Faith. It is a mystery! But unlike murder mysteries,
such as the Sherlock Holmes tales, where the author deliberately
obscures some of the facts to lead the reader astray, the mystery
of the Kingdom of God and the Eucharist is meant to be obvious.
It is meant to reveal and not to obscure, although it cannot be
reduced to human logic. As a parish priest who has struggled to
deepen my own understanding of this mystery, I contend that what
is most obvious sometimes is most overlooked.
In this Catholic Update, I invite you to look
at the obviousour ordinary human experiencesto
help make sense of Eucharist and real presence. Why does it make
sense for Catholics to believe in what has traditionally been
called transubstantiation (the changing of the whole substance
of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ)? Why
is it important to say that the Eucharist is a concrete encounter
of the community with Jesus and not just a spiritual thing
between an individual and God? In our own human experience we
can discover why real presence and the body-and-blood presence
of Christ are important to us and to God.
We often think of spiritual as invisible.
But who wants an invisible relationship with a loved one?
Consider this example. A father leaves
work early on a weekday, drives five hours to another city to be
present at his son's college basketball game and then drives home
the same night. The father arrives home about 5 a.m., catches an
hour of sleep, then goes to work.
He does this often. Perhaps it would
be enough to tell his son over the phone that he is thinking about
him and cheering and praying for him. But think how much more it
means to the child that his father is not just there in spirithe
is there in flesh. He is providing a real presence for his
son. What a big difference!
A flesh-and-blood relationship can make
a difference. Consider the true story of a baby who lost both parents
in a fire. The child became so traumatized that he clung to himself,
arms crossed over his chest, as stiff as a board. When rescuers
took the child to the hospital he was placed in a crib just outside
the nurses' station. Whenever the nurses and nurse's aides walked
by, they would speak softly to the baby and gently caress him.
Over a period of time, the baby began
to respond. First a finger loosened, then a hand, then an arm, then
a leg, until the baby was completely relaxed and finally recovered
from the shock. The body-and-blood relationship with the nurses
gradually brought about the child's wellness. Again, what a difference
the real presence of these nurses made to the child. There's
no substitute for a real flesh-and-blood relationship.
When we love someone we want a concrete
relationship. If a mother will stay at the bedside of her comatose
daughter day and night until her daughter comes out of the coma,
is not God going to be with the world, day and night, until it comes
out of its comatose state? The loving Spirit of God always seeks
a concrete body-and-blood relationship with us. Isn't that what
we celebrate in the Incarnation at Christmas, in the death and resurrection
of Jesus on Good Friday and Easter? The Spirit dwells in us so we
might experience God, who wants a real relationship with us.
Like the little baby in the nurses' station,
we need a body-and-blood relationship with God in Christ. Yet where
do we learn about body-and-blood relationships? We can only begin
to understand the body and blood of Jesus when we understand true
love in relationships involving friends, family and marriage.
Sacrifice and life
Think in terms of word associations. When I say "green"
someone might think of grass. When I say "blue," one might think
of sky. In our culture, when someone says "blood," we more than
likely think of something terrible, of violence or loss of life.
When we hear about body and blood as sacrifice, as in the sacrifice
of the Mass, we think somebody or something has been killed. But
in the ancient Hebrew mentality, if an animal was sacrificed to
God, the people did not think that the animal was killed to appease
an angry God. Instead, they thought of blood as the presence of
life. Sacrifice was not so much giving up their best lamb or the
first and best part of their crop. Sacrifice meant communion of
The bond between us and God, our loving parent, is
just as strong and concrete. God wants a body-and-blood relationship
with us. And as God's infants, we need that relationship.
This concrete relationship is made possible in Christ.
God so loved the world that God sent his only son. It is interesting
in Sebastian Moore's book, The Fire and the Rose Are One,
that Christ's sacrifice in becoming one like us in the Incarnation
and in his passion on the cross establishes a communion of life;
a real presence in which our greatest desire is assured: "The
one I most desire does in fact desire me." The Eucharist
is the continuous concrete encounter of a people with God in the
incarnation and passion of Christ. In a loving communion between
the mother and infant, that strong body-and-.blood presence assures
the child that the one the child most desires does in fact desire
him or her. In the body-and-blood presence of Christ, we are assured
the One we most desire does in fact desire us.
The bread and wine are not simply like the body and
blood of Christ; they are the body-and-blood presence of
Christ. This is because our relationship is that concrete, that
real, that wonderful! Jesus is God revealing God's self to us.
Neither we nor God want an invisible relationshipwe want
the real thing!
We can increase our understanding of God's presence
during the eucharistic prayer and Communion by thinking about
being in the womb of God where we are fed concretely through the
umbilical cord of the Holy Spirit. During this part of the Mass,
the priest says, "This is my body which will be given up for you:'
Then he says, "This is my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting
covenant." Through these words of life, love and communion,
we encounter the person of Christ!
Demonstrating the importance of this sacrament, a
Catholic visionary once said, "If I had a choice between a vision
and the Eucharist, I would choose the Eucharist."
Real reverence comes first
There is no doubt that a body-and-blood relationship
exists between a mother and her child. But they don't think of
each other as body and blood. They think about the human relationship
between them, whether or not it is mutually loving. It's the same
way in the eucharistic celebration. We have a body-and-blood relationship
with God in Christ. In this encounter, we no longer get stuck
on the elements of bread and wine, body and blood. This is because
we experience persons instead of things, relationships instead
of magic. Real reverence has to be for the person of Christ and
for all people for whom he diedthe two are inseparable.
That is why people are called the Body of Christ.
There was an unpleasant incident a few years ago regarding
whether proper respect had been shown toward the Eucharist at
a special youth Mass. Someone noticed that the precious blood
remained on the credence table after Mass. The precious blood
sat there during a lengthy youth function following Mass which
involved clapping, shouting and a lot of carrying on. When the
function was ended, a eucharistic minister took care of the consecrated
wine. What had happened was an unfortunate oversight.
The eucharistic ministers were unable to see that
the chalices were still on the credence table after Mass. There
was no deliberate disrespect or neglect. Some people, however,
felt it their duty to write the bishop about the pastor's neglect.
They made no bones about attacking the pastor, accusing him and
his staff of sacrilege. They never went to the pastor first to
talk about it. They ripped him in front of the bishop and probably
everyone else they knew. I firmly believe the real sacrilege,
the real irreverence was being done by those people in their actions
and attitude toward the pastor. Granted, we must treat the consecrated
elements with respect. Real reverence, however, includes how we
treat one another preceding and following the Eucharist.
We cannot have reverence for the body and blood of
Christthe person of Christif we knock down those for
whom he died out of love. For this reason, people are the Body
of Christ. Scripture always says it so well: "Truly I tell you,
just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did
not do it to me" (Mt 25:45). "Those who say, 'I love God,' and
hate their brothers or sisters, are liars..." (1 Jn 4:20). In
speaking of the condemnation of the unjust steward, Matthew's
Gospel says, "So my heavenly Father will also do to every one
of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your
heart" (Mt 18:35).
It is simple: We must have reverence for one another.
Can a man say he loves his wife if he abuses their children? Are
not the children part of her? We cannot abuse one another, cannot
help but want a community of compassion, mercy, peace and justice,
if we recognize that we all come from the same womb of God, the
love of God poured out into our hearts through the outpouring
of the Spirit; signed and sealed in the body-and-blood relationship
we have in Christ.
Both new and old
Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has made
it a priority to update and develop Catholic faith, not
simply preserve it. Gaudium et Spes says that theologians,
whether lay or cleric, "enjoy the freedom to inquire, to think,
and humbly and courageously reveal their minds on the matters
in which they are expert" (#62). Theologians have developed contemporary
models for understanding Christ's real presence in the Eucharist.
For example, theologians like Bernard Cooke, Joseph Powers, Piet
Schoonenberg and Edward Schillebeekcx have set forth the Interpersonal
Encounter Model, which emphasizes Christ's presence in the people
gathered to celebrate the Eucharist.
Although this model uses new terms like transfinalization
and transignification, it still adheres to the ontological
change or transubstantiation of bread and wine into body and blood
of Christ. In simpler language, the bread and wine really do become
the body and blood of Christ. Pope Paul VI's encyclical Mysterium
Fidei allows for these new formulas as long as they hold that
Christ is really present in the eucharistic species: "As a result
of transubstantiation, the species of bread and wine undoubtedly
take on a new significance and a new finality, for they are no
longer ordinary bread and wine but instead a sign of something
sacred and a sign of spiritual food; but they take on this new
signification, this new finality, precisely because they contain
a new 'reality' which we can rightly call ontological."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms
this approach: "At the heart of the Eucharistic celebration are
the bread and wine that, by the words of Christ and the invocation
of the Holy Spirit, become Christ's Body and Blood" (#1333).
Truly the Eucharist is a real, interpersonal encounter
between God and the worshiping community precisely because Christ
is body-and-blood present. Our human experiences of love and relationships
tell us that any lover seeks concrete union with the beloved.
Although there may be new formulas to describe the real presence,
the love expressed in the Eucharist is as old as Christmas. It
is like the love between a mother and her infant in the womb.
It is the love of God in Christ for his prenatal people not yet
fully born into the reign of God: "...the bread that I will give
for the life of the world is my flesh....Very truly, I tell you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you have no life in you....Those who eat my flesh and drink my
blood abide in me, and I in them" (Jn 6:51-56).