Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
Presence of the Risen Lord
Is Christ really present in the Eucharist? I am sure you would answer “yes” to
that question. I can’t imagine why you would be spending the time and effort needed
to read these articles if you were not already convinced of this central mystery of our
The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the topic of this month’s
article, and because you already believe this doctrine, I thought we might approach the
subject in a slightly different way. Let’s consider icebergs and shoeboxes.
Several times in these newsletters I have used the metaphor of an iceberg.
I don’t know how familiar you are with icebergs—I must admit I have never seen
a real one myself—but all you need to know about them to understand this article
is that the biggest part of the iceberg (about 87%) lies unseen below the surface of the
water. The part that we see is literally only the “tip of the iceberg.”
Our understanding of the Real Presence is something like an iceberg. There
is a conscious, reasoned, logical part of us that embraces all the things we “know” about
the Eucharist—the things we have been taught in school, catechisms, the writings
of the popes, Sunday homilies, etc.
All of these “facts” rest on top of a much larger body of experiences
and meanings which, like the submerged part of the iceberg, lie unseen below the surface
of our consciousness. Sometimes we may not even be aware of this vast body of memories
and feelings. Yet they are very important because of the way they support and interpret
“facts,” the things we “know” about the Eucharist (the “tip
of the iceberg”
part of our understanding).
The whole picture
Recently I saw a spectacular photograph of an entire iceberg, top to bottom.
The picture was taken by a diver when the water was especially calm and the sun was almost
directly overhead. The photo not only revealed the beauty of the iceberg as we normally
see it, floating exposed on top of the waterline, but also showed the great mass of ice
hidden below the surface of the water.
In this article I invite you to put on your “theological wetsuit” and
stick your head in the icy waters to take a look at the bottom of your
“Eucharist iceberg.” Together we will attempt to look at some of the meanings
and images that lie underneath the statements we make about the Eucharist.
As Catholics we believe that in the most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist,
our Lord Jesus Christ
“is truly, really and substantially contained” (Catechism of the Catholic
Church, #1374). This is a “tip of the iceberg” type of statement: conscious,
But what happens when you look underneath those words and try to see what
they mean for you? For example, when you say that Jesus is contained in the
Blessed Sacrament, who is this Jesus? What unconscious images and memories shape your understanding
When I close my eyes and imagine Jesus, the pictures that first come to
my mind are images of Jesus of Nazareth, the man born of Mary. Jesus looks something like
the statue of the Sacred Heart that gazed down on me each morning at Mass during my grade
I know that Jesus was not only a human being; he was also truly God, the
Word who “became flesh and made his dwelling among us”
(John 1:14). It’s hard to imagine the Second Person of the Trinity.
I have seen frescoes in old Spanish churches of the Trinity pictured as an
old man, a younger man and a dove arranged in a triangle, but those images can mislead
me into thinking that there are three separate Gods rather than one God in three Persons.
It’s hard to “picture” God.
Jesus of Nazareth, the historical Jesus—truly God and fully human—
passed through death and is now our risen Lord. While I know that Jesus’
risen body “is the same body that had been tortured and crucified,” I also
know that it now “possesses the new properties of a glorious body” (CCC,
#645). Jesus did not die and then simply come back to life like Lazarus (see John 11:1-44).
Jesus passed through death and is now
“the man of heaven” (CCC, #646). How do you picture this Jesus?
Imagining the Body of Christ
We believe that Jesus, “the man of heaven,” is truly, really
and substantially contained in the most Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist. How do you
picture the Jesus present in the Eucharist? Does he look like the host at Mass—a
small, round, white piece of unleavened bread? Or do you think of an image of the Last
Supper and picture Jesus of Nazareth holding a loaf of bread?
At Mass we pray that the Holy Spirit will “gather all who share this
one Bread and one Cup into the one Body of Christ” (Eucharistic Prayer IV).
How do you picture this Body? When I close my eyes and imagine the Body of Christ that
is the Church, it sort of looks like a group of ordinary people. It really doesn’t
look much like my other images of Jesus. This brings us to the second metaphor: shoeboxes.
In my bedroom closet I have several pairs of shoes, each pair neatly put
away in its shoebox. I have a pair of black dress shoes that I wear for Mass. I have a
new pair of sneakers I wear to the gym and an old pair I wear when working in the yard.
I have a pair of sandals and a comfortable pair of slippers for lounging around the house.
These shoes all have some things in common: They are all the same size and
each pair has a left and a right foot. But the different pairs don’t interact with
each other. They are five distinct pairs of shoes, each pair in its own shoebox.
No shoebox for Jesus
This is OK for shoes, but it is not OK for our image of Jesus. Sometimes
when I listen to Catholics talk about Jesus present in the Eucharist, I am led to suspect
that they have five different images of Jesus operative below the surface of their
“Eucharist iceberg” and that each image is kept in its own separate
There is one Lord Jesus Christ. The task of the mature Catholic is
to work to get those below-the-surface images integrated into one, coherent, combined understanding
of the Body of Christ.
Jesus eucharistic Body
When I look back on my childhood days and examine my under-the-iceberg understanding
of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, I think that I imagined the historical Jesus
making himself very small and getting into the host. That is why I worried about hurting
Jesus if I chewed the host. And I wondered if Jesus was lonely in the tabernacle at night.
Only later did I finally put together the historical Jesus with the Word
made Flesh and come to realize that the risen Lord is beyond suffering. He reigns glorified
at the right hand of the Father. I can’t physically hurt Jesus in the Eucharist.
But even more important, I don’t think I put together the eucharistic
Body with Christ’s Body, the Church. Integrating the way I treat the people around
me with the way I understand the Eucharist came later in my faith journey.
Putting it together
For St. Paul it came first. His very first encounter with the risen Lord
was in and through actual Christian people—the people he was persecuting and sending
“On that journey as I drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from the sky
suddenly shone around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul,
Saul, why are you persecuting me?’
I replied, ‘Who are you, sir?’ And he said to me, ‘I am Jesus the Nazorean
whom you are persecuting’”
Paul’s conversion experience is the key to understanding why he is
so insistent that we have one integrated understanding of the Body of Christ. The vision
taught him that the risen Lord is so identified with his disciples that they cannot be
separated. This unity comes about through Baptism (“For in one Spirit we were all
baptized into one body”—1 Cor 12:13) and the Eucharist (“Because the
loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf”—1
Getting it right
When Paul writes to the Corinthians regarding their conduct at the eucharistic
supper he is not concerned about their reverence toward the risen Lord. He is concerned
about their reverence toward the Body of Christ, the Church. “When you meet in one
place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead
with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk” (1 Cor 11:20-21).
The Corinthians were celebrating the Eucharist without due regard for their
fellow Christians, especially the poor and those on the margins of society. Paul reproaches
them for not putting together the eucharistic Body of the risen Lord and the Body of Christ,
Stopping too soon
Today, each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, our petition (epiclesis)
at the Eucharistic Prayer asks the Spirit to change the bread and wine into the Body of
Christ and to change us into the Body of Christ. The words change depending on the prayer,
but the point of the request is always the same: that we who feast on the Body of Christ become the
Body of Christ!
We must not limit our reverence and our concern so that they are directed
only to the first part of the epiclesis: the change in the gifts and the resulting presence
of Christ in the Eucharist. We must follow through to the second part of the epiclesis:
the change in us and the resulting concern for Christ in our neighbor.
One day, St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) was preaching on the parable
of the sheep and the goats (“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty
and you gave me drink
”—Mt 25:31-46). He told his congregation:
“You want to honor Christ’s Body? Then do not neglect him when he is naked.
Do not honor him here [at Mass] with silk garments while you leave him outside perishing
from cold and nakedness.
“For he who said, ‘This is my Body,’ and by his word confirmed
the fact, also said, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me no food,’
and, ‘Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to
me.’ Here [at the Eucharist], the Body of Christ needs no clothing but pure souls;
there, it needs great solicitude.”
Our daily challenge
As Catholics we believe that the Eucharist is truly the Body of Christ. As
Catholics we struggle to integrate our love for the Body of Christ present in the Eucharist
and our love for the Body of Christ which we encounter daily in the people with whom we
live and work, pray and play.
How have we celebrated this mystery throughout the centuries of Christian
history? That will be the topic of our next article.
Next: A Short History of the Eucharist
What images and memories shape your understanding of Jesus?
How has your understanding of Jesus grown and changed over time?
At Mass we pray that the Holy Spirit will “gather all
who share this one Bread and one Cup into the one Body of Christ” (Eucharistic
Prayer IV). How do you picture this Body? How truly inclusive is your image?
What must you do to better integrate your love for Jesus with
your love for the everyday, ordinary—and sometimes irritating—people
who make up Christ’s Body?
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