Swimming the Tiber 17: The Sacraments: The Eucharist (Part Two)

I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life.) She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

– Flannery O’Connor, in a letter to “A.,” 16 December 1955

No doubt this quote from a famous Catholic author is scandalous. How dare someone use such terms about Holy Communion, right? But that’s the whole point of what I talked about last week: without the Real Presence, it’s just bread and wine (or grape juice). If that’s the case, there’s not much communion, and it’s not particularly holy. It has some benefits–it can focus the mind on God, and help us remember the sacrifice of Christ. But so too can reading Scripture, hearing a good sermon, singing a hymn or a worship song, attending a prayer group, or watching a sunset. Is the Eucharist not worth more than these things?

And, of course, many Protestant denominations have realized this. How do I know? Frequency. Most Baptist churches I attended as a child had communion once a month–some only once a year (on Good Friday, ironically,1 or on Easter). Songs and Scripture readings and sermons, on the other hand, were every week, and encouraged among the faithful every day. These were easier to understand, and thereby, easier to participate in. I couldn’t comprehend the oddity of Holy Communion as a child, so I embraced the Scripture, teaching, and singing to encounter God instead. So it didn’t bother me that we didn’t receive communion very often; to my mind, it wasn’t more special than any other encounter with God, and no one had ever tried to convince me otherwise.

Catholics, of course, still can’t comprehend the Eucharist. (It is a mystery, after all.) But the Real Presence means that partaking of the Eucharist is a truly Holy Communion, uniting finite man to infinite God. As I said last week, reading Scripture and hearing sermons and singing hymns is an encounter with God, but it pales next to the Eucharist. And again, this explains why we’re so careful about partaking of it (alongside Matthew 5:23-24 and 1 Corinthians 11:27-29; consider also Romans 7; 1 Corinthians 6:15-17). It is absolutely essential that our souls be prepared before encountering God in this way. (We’ll talk about how to get prepared next week, when we talk about the sacrament of confession.)

What does all this mean, though? What does the Eucharist actually accomplish for us? It’s quite nebulous to say that it’s an encounter with the living God and leave it at that.

Well, I’ve already said that the Eucharist is the third step of the rites of Christian initiation. This sacrament unites us to the Body of Christ by allowing us to partake of his Flesh; by extension, uniting us to the Church seems a simple and small matter indeed. What began in baptism and was furthered by confirmation is now brought to the full in the Eucharist, bestowing on us graces to overcome evil and turn to the Lord. As our bond to the Lord is strengthened, we are also enabled to love others more freely and more fully in the Body of Christ.

The Eucharist is also the first sacrament we’ve looked at that can be received more than once. Baptism happens once (Ephesians 4:5); confirmation happens once (throughout Acts, no one receives the Holy Spirit more than once, though they are filled with Him several times); but the Eucharist can be received many times. Of course, the sacrifice only happened once (on the Cross; see 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Hebrews 7:26-28; 10:1-25), but the priest (in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, who is the perfect high priest) makes that sacrifice present for us in the Mass. This repetition, even ubiquity, means that we can keep gaining the graces of the Eucharist, which converts us continually to the love of God.

I keep mentioning “graces,” and you’re probably saying, “What graces? You talk about them like they’re enumerated.” Well, they sort of are. Graces are, first and foremost, the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), which obviously direct us toward God (and make us holier). Part of making us holier, of course, is forgiving sins, which is why receiving the Eucharist can forgive venial sins (but not mortal;2 if you’ve forgotten the difference, look back over my post on that subject).

You may say that this sounds suspiciously utilitarian. “You mean you just eat this bread and get grace from God? That’s a little too quid-pro-quo to be Christian.” Well, of course, there’s no magical formula here. You can’t chant your way to a sacrament, nor can you buy the secret ingredients for any price (Acts 8:14-24). The mystery of the Eucharist being as great as it is, I’m not about to rule out that it could be efficacious even if you didn’t believe in it, but that would be an extraordinary means of grace (a phrase you may be growing tired of by now); the ordinary means of grace through the sacrament requires us to unite ourselves spiritually with God. Christ sacrificed himself once for all, and the priest makes that sacrifice present at the Mass, but the Church sacrifices herself daily to be united to the Lord in spirit and in truth (Psalm 51:17). That sacrifice repeats.

I don’t have much more to say on the subject. Accepting the Eucharist was all too straightforward once I studied the history of the sacrament, and even easier in light of the transcendence of Christ’s resurrected Body (Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-29). As a result, this post is (as promised) rather short. If you want to read more about the Eucharist, of course, the Catechism of the Catholic Church talks about it in some detail, with references to still more texts on the subject. You could probably spend years studying the Eucharist; I’m trying to limit this blog series to just one, so I’m going to move on to more sacraments. Next week, as I said, is confession. Look forward to it!

1 This is ironic because Good Friday is the one day a year Catholics don’t celebrate the Mass (that is, the consecration of the host as the Eucharist). In commemoration of Christ’s death, we fast absolutely. There are no church bells, no songs, and any services are quiet and respectful. Sometimes the Eucharist is received on Good Friday, but the host comes from the Mass on Maundy Thursday. Except for Good Friday, Mass is being celebrated at every hour somewhere in the world. It is the constant prayer of the Church.
2 Mortal sins are the sort of things warned against in Matthew 5 and 1 Corinthians 11. We ought not receive the Eucharist unworthily, but we are not perfect; our concupiscence does not keep us from the Eucharist, but can actually be healed by It.

Swimming the Tiber 16: The Sacraments: The Eucharist (Part One)

Tell me the story again
Tell me the story again
A Child in a manger bed
See the Virgin smile, for she understood

Now grow up and break your bread
Pour your cup of wine
On a cross of wood
A cross of wood
A cross of wood

– Chris Rice, “Tell Me the Story Again”

The faithful, incorporated in the Church through baptism, are destined toward the cultivation of the Christian religion by its character and, regenerated into sons of God, they are bound to profess, in the presence of men, the faith that they accepted from God through the Church. By the sacrament of confirmation they are bound more perfectly to the Church; they are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit, and thus they are held more closely to the faith, which ought at the same time to be poured out and defended, as true witnesses of Christ in word and deed. Participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice, the wellspring and summit of the whole Christian life, they offer the divine Victim to God and their very selves along with It.

Lumen Gentium 11 (my translation)

The Eucharist is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. I am tempted to put qualifiers–“perhaps” it is the greatest mystery, or “maybe” it is–but no, I can say with confidence that the Eucharist is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. It is with no small amount of trepidation, then, that I undertake this task of explaining such a mystery in the sort of brief terms that my medium allows.

The first step, I think, is to lay out clearly what the Catholic Church really teaches. With most topics, I think, I try to build up to the teaching of the Church, or at least reveal it a step at a time, but there is so much confusion and misinformation about the Eucharist–even among Catholics, who ought to know better–that I think it important to state it up front.

The Eucharist, that is, the unleavened bread and wine offered at every Catholic Mass, is physically, really, actually, for all intents and purposes, the literal Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christ’s presence in the species of bread and wine is called the Real Presence, not because his presence through prayer or Scripture isn’t real, but because, in the Eucharist, he is substantially present.

Here, species means something like vehicle. The bread and wine do not disappear, and indeed, the Eucharist still tastes like bread and wine, but they truly become Christ’s own Body and Blood. Every piece of the host (another term for the species) is the wholeness of Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, which is why Catholics are so cautious about the whole deal. If you drop a crumb, you must pick it up immediately and, if it is clean, consume it; if it gets too dirty to eat, you must dissolve it with water and pour it directly into the earth; if it is taken by some nefarious person and sold or given to Satanists for their “black mass,” the profanation of our Savior’s Body is deplorable.

And when I say substantially present, I really mean present in substance. The Eucharist does not represent or symbolize the Body of Christ; it is the Body of Christ.

Okay, by now, I’m sure you’re flipping out. If you haven’t just closed the site in frustration, I appreciate your patience. Because while I’ve defined the Eucharist, I haven’t explained it. I haven’t justified a word of it yet. So let’s dig in a little bit and take a look at why the Catholic Church believes this.

The Simple Explanation

The so-called “simple explanation” is that the Eucharist is Christ’s Body and Blood because he said it is. It seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Just read Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. These are the moments of institution for this sacrament, when Christ laid out for us how to receive it, and he says quite plainly, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.” He does not say that it symbolizes his Body, or represents his Blood, but he says that it is.

Too simple for you? Easily refuted, you say? Fair enough. Let’s step up our game.

The Johannine Explanation

The Gospel of John doesn’t actually include the institution of the Eucharist. Surely this must be some mistake, right? The “wellspring and summit of the whole Christian life” isn’t represented in one of the Gospels? Probably not that important, then, huh?

Well, John does include talk of the Eucharist–more, in fact, than the synoptic Gospels do. But he doesn’t include it via the Lord’s Supper, but rather through Christ’s teaching. Read John 6:25-65. Here we see Christ declare, in very clear terms, that eating his Body is necessary for salvation. Without it, he says, “you have no life in you” (NRSV). This is some of the strongest Eucharistic language in all of Scripture. “But-but-but!” you say, “What about John 6:63? It clearly says the flesh is useless, so he must mean something else.”

Well, I struggled with this for a little while, because it wasn’t quite clear, but as usual, St. Augustine provides us with an easy (if loquacious) answer.

What is it, then, that He adds? “It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing.” Let us say to Him (for He permits us, not contradicting Him, but desiring to know), O Lord, good Master, in what way does the flesh profit nothing, while You have said, “Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him”? Or does life profit nothing? And why are we what we are, but that we may have eternal life, which Thou dost promise by Your flesh? Then what means “the flesh profits nothing”? It profits nothing, but only in the manner in which they understood it. They indeed understood the flesh, just as when cut to pieces in a carcass, or sold in the shambles; not as when it is quickened by the Spirit. Wherefore it is said that “the flesh profits nothing,” in the same manner as it is said that “knowledge puffs up.” Then, ought we at once to hate knowledge? Far from it! And what means “Knowledge puffs up”? Knowledge alone, without charity. Therefore he added, “but charity edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Therefore add to knowledge charity, and knowledge will be profitable, not by itself, but through charity. So also here, “the flesh profits nothing,” only when alone. Let the Spirit be added to the flesh, as charity is added to knowledge, and it profits very much. For if the flesh profited nothing, the Word would not be made flesh to dwell among us. If through the flesh Christ has greatly profited us, does the flesh profit nothing? But it is by the flesh that the Spirit has done somewhat for our salvation. Flesh was a vessel; consider what it held, not what it was. The apostles were sent forth; did their flesh profit us nothing? If the apostles’ flesh profited us, could it be that the Lord’s flesh should have profited us nothing? For how should the sound of the Word come to us except by the voice of the flesh? Whence should writing come to us? All these are operations of the flesh, but only when the spirit moves it, as if it were its organ. Therefore “it is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing,” as they understood the flesh, but not so do I give my flesh to be eaten.

– St. Augustine, Tractate 27 paragraph 5 (trans. John Gibb)

But perhaps you are unconvinced. Let’s carry on.

The Pauline Explanation

St. Paul reminds us that, just as there is only one Body of Christ, there is also only one bread, though we break it and share it and eat it. Read 1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 11:27-32. Combined with the institution narrative we saw earlier, this clearly indicates the sameness of the Body of Christ and the bread of the supper we share. See also Romans 12:4-5; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4-6.

If you’re still unconvinced, let me run through one final explanation in the hopes that overwhelming evidence will sway you.

The Typological Explanation

We Catholics looooove typology. It comes from being intellectually descended of the school of Alexandria rather than exclusively that of Antioch. Being able to look at Scripture, especially the Old Testament, and find precursors of the New Testament–it’s a good feeling. God gave us these hints all along the way, and we couldn’t see them for what they were until he revealed the full truth later. So it is that we talk about Israel as a type of the Church, the parting of the Red Sea as a type of baptism, and Adam as a type of Christ.

Some important things to remember about types: (1) They’re always inferior to the thing they foreshadow. Adam fell, but Christ rose. The escaping Israelites almost immediately constructed a golden calf to return to their dead ways, but baptism grants an indelible mark of grace. Israel strayed time and again, but the Church clings to the teachings handed down to us by Christ and his Apostles. (2) They’re typically both literal and allegorical, meaning they had a real, historical existence that made sense in context, but they also prefigure a deeper reality. This also means that you can’t extend the metaphor too far; the type is only an incomplete representation.

So let’s sprint through a few types of the Eucharist, shall we?

Our first stop is the garden of Eden, where eating is extremely important. Obviously, the fruit of the tree of life is a precursor of Christ, whose Body hung on a tree, from which we eat his flesh and gain eternal life. But there is also the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; it’s a kind of reverse type, which we will see again in this series later. For by the consumption of one food (of death) we were condemned and died, so by the consumption of another (one of life) we are granted eternal life.

Next, we join Abram for his blessing by the priest-king Melchizedek (Genesis 14). Here, we see that Melchizedek brought out “bread and wine” (verse 18), and of course we know (from Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5-7) that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, but we know that he offered not bread and wine, but his own Body and Blood.

Then of course there is the Passover (Exodus 12). The parallels here are drawn when Christ uses this backdrop to institute the Eucharist. But not just the bread and wine are precursors here; so also the sacrificial lamb, which they killed and ate. And they spread its blood on the doorposts. (If you don’t see Christ crucified every time someone talks about blood on an upright wooden structure, you’ve been missing out.)

Quick, to the wilderness with the Israelites (Exodus 16)! Jesus himself draws this comparison in John 6, which I hope you’ve already read; Jesus is the bread from heaven, the true bread, which satisfies forever. Manna came from God, but only satisfied for a time; Jesus’ one sacrifice on the cross fills us for all eternity. Note also that a jar of this manna was placed in the ark of the covenant (Exodus 16:33-34; Hebrews 9:4), which was so called because it contained the covenant of God (Exodus 25:16) and it was there that God’s presence came forth to speak to the Israelites (Exodus 25:22). There’s also the Bread of the Presence (Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:7). And what contains or holds these breads (you might call it the vehicle) should not be touched by any unworthy person (2 Samuel 6:7-8; see again 1 Corinthians 11:27-32).

Let’s jump ahead to Elijah, who was fed bread by ravens (1 Kings 17) and cake by an angel (1 Kings 19). This latter kept him nourished for forty days, just as Christ fasted forty days in his own wilderness.

Then to Elisha, who fed a hundred men with twenty loaves of barley in 2 Kings 4. This reminds us instantly of Christ’s feeding of the multitudes, which were similar miracles, but all the more vast (five and seven loaves instead of twenty, thousands instead of a hundred), and were themselves a type of the Eucharist (a small body of bread, broken and shared among many).

Skip to the Prophets. Ezekiel ate a scroll (Ezekiel 3). That’s kinda weird, huh? At least until you think about how Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14), and we consume his Body for our salvation.

But enough Old Testament. Let’s look at some New Testament types!

Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 15:20) that Jesus was the first fruits of those who died. On the one hand, we know that this means more will follow, but it also means we sacrifice him and eat his Body (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Leviticus 2:14; 23; Deuteronomy 18:3-4; 26; Nehemiah 10:35; Judith 11:13; etc.).

I’ve already mentioned the miracles of feeding the multitudes, but they’re worth another shout-out (Matthew 14:15-21; 15:32-38; Mark 6:35-44; 8:1-8; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14).

And there are more, but this post grows long, and there’s just one more that I want to mention. In all God’s wisdom and authority, when he became man and dwelt among us, in his very first moments out in the light, breathing air alongside us, he could have been laid anywhere–but he was laid in a manger.1

Next week, I want to keep looking at the Eucharist–now that I have established, in some small way, what the Eucharist is, I still need to look at what it does in the Christian life. It will likely be a much shorter post than this one, but it covers some important topics that still need to be addressed.

1 The English word manger derives from French mangier (“to eat”), originally from Latin mandere (“to chew”). In English, it technically means the place where food for animals is placed (like a trough).