I was going to write a post about the theology of the Eucharist this week - can you believe the audacity of that? I was going to dive into the heart of this mystery of faith, because this past Sunday was the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ.
Our deacon in his homily at Mass said a high school student once challenged a pastor, "Why are you Catholic?"
The pastor at first responded, "Because of the resurrection."
The student wasn't having it.
"No, that is why you are Christian, but why are you Catholic?"
After thinking a bit the pastor replied, "The Eucharist."
Yes, it is certainly not because we have livelier music or more dynamic preachers or a more "progressive", hipper congregation (for truth is truth and cannot be altered by the mere passage of time; it is not an ever-shifting target, for then it could not be truth). It is the Eucharist, and most truly engaged Catholics would tell you so.
So I prepared to write a post, and I went to read again John 6:32-69. I reflected on Christ's words, Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you, and how Catholic theologians have pointed out that Jesus would not have lost that day, by His Bread of Life discourse, many disciples if they had understood him to mean by flesh and blood simply the words which he spoke. Some protest perhaps that Christ said hard things simply to weed out fickle disciples as his passion approached. This opens up the negation of all his teachings which we dislike. No, Christ was truth; he spoke truth. His words were not gimmicks meant to manipulate people. You either accepted them or you moved on, as he said, Whoever has ears ought to hear. He was either the Son of God or a lunatic. I have faith in the Truth of His Words, and he has promised that they will set me free.
Yet I found I couldn't write about what I grasp with my heart but cannot wrap my head around at all. I am not going to explain why I agree with the Catholic interpretation of John Chapter 6, Corinthians 10:14-17, and Corinthians 11:23-32 (a rather scary one that warns us about eating the bread or drinking the cup of the Lord unworthily, something which has applied to me personally and which in itself cements that this is a vital matter of our faith). If anyone wishes, they can also go here, http://www.catholic.com/tracts/the-real-presence, to read what some of the earliest Christians from the 2nd, 3rd, 4th centuries believed and stated.
There I stop with theology. I realized as I struggled along in my research for this post, becoming frustrated with my poor understanding and disheartened by all the Christian quarreling and disparate interpretations of the very same Scripture - that I am neither clever nor conceited enough (for one possessing so little understanding and knowledge) to even attempt a full explanation about why I believe in The Real Presence. What then can I give?
Just my witness.
For a decade or so I took communion without proper instruction and preparation. This will shock my fellow Catholics rather badly, I'm afraid. I was not part of any church - my dad baptized me in a creek - not even the one, holy, catholic (derived from a Greek word meaning universal), apostolic church whose Mass I attended and loved and whose communion I accepted. I loved the Eucharist, but I did not grasp what I should have grasped of its meaning in my receiving it. I cherished my ignorance. My devout sister-in-law told me bluntly I should not be taking it, but she did not explain why. I retorted it was my right as a disciple of Christ to accept what he had prescribed for his followers at the Last Supper. Later, a nun told me I should pray very hard about taking it - that it seemed like I knew what I was receiving but I should really discern through prayer if I was right. I prayed half-heartedly for a few days before giving it up. Of course I was right! Jesus would want me to receive Him - I just knew it. But a few years later when my newly confirmed Catholic sister told me I shouldn't be receiving it, I had a momentary quite painful pang of concern. Perhaps she was right. If I was wrong that was a very serious concern for my spiritual well-being.
It pains me to say that I continued in my ignorance after that rebuke from someone I trusted, but I did. It was only when I entered RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) as a mere matter of course in order to be confirmed before my oldest son that I got my wake-up call.
(I'll talk more about the meaning of the sacrament of Confirmation and its Biblical roots later. Suffice it to say my Protestant pride had deemed it something unnecessary, a matter of form. I cannot tell you how wrong I was except to say that once I was confirmed I began to understand some pretty important things, began to realize just how much I did not understand, and began to be ravenous for greater understanding.)
I abstained from communion during RCIA - again as a matter of form and also respect for the beliefs of the Catholic Church, those beliefs that I had not bothered to learn about - but yet I may never have come to a realization of my prideful error in receiving communion were it not for the grace of Christ by which I stand and receive Him more fully now. Just a few weeks before I was to be confirmed, having gone through the classes with the same fog of ignorance with which I approached too many things, a new priest took over our instruction and jolted me awake with his spirit. Because of his influence I truly read for the first time the RCIA book that explained why Catholics believe what we do and stumbled onto a pertinent section on communion, how by partaking of it we symbolize our unity in the One Body of Christ, as St Paul said:
Because the loaf of bread is one, we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. Corinthians 10:17
To take it without professing unity would be a lie. To take it without believing in the Real Presence would be a lie. To take it without confessing serious sin would be judgment.
I was in a bad way. Immediately I poured my heart out to that priest in a long, long email, telling him of most of my mistakes and how I arrived at them. Miraculously, he did not express to me his horror, if he felt any - which I am quite certain he must have. He did not expel me from class, telling me I was hopeless in my ignorance. But he did not respond except by inviting me to the next class. I understand why he did not respond now. How could he?
After I wrote that email to the parish priest, I remember sitting in my rocking chair with my littlest boy asleep in my arms, tears streaming down my face as I said to Jesus over and over and over again, "I'm sorry." That was where Christ brought me. I do believe it was what Catholics would call a perfect act of contrition. I was not sorry simply because I feared consequences. I was not sorry merely for not educating myself on Catholic doctrine, thereby offending my now fellow Catholics. I was sorry for offending my Lord Jesus through my foolish pride, the One has given me so many wonderful things and so great a foundation through my parents. When I sobbed I felt I was looking up into His face, offering up all my regret over my many mistakes.
So where can this sad story about a pitiful, ignorant girl end? Why, at immeasurable joy and comfort.
I truly received the Eucharist for the first time at Easter Vigil. This is what I wrote about the experience soon after my confirmation:
But what I will always remember most about that night is Communion. I have told you that I was seated in the very first pew. The catechumens and the candidates were to receive the Sacrament first. When the priest came down from the altar, I looked across the aisle to the catechumens, not wanting to jump before others. They hesitated, because many of them were young kids, and Father hastily motioned me forward. In that moment, my lovely sponsor stepped out of the way to let me proceed, and I realized I would be the first in my parish to receive the Eucharist at Easter Vigil. It didn't strike me fully until after I had received it and returned to the kneeler. Then moisture leaked from my eyes, and unfortunately my nose as well, in a flood. I offered up a spontaneous prayer of thanksgiving, God is merciful. His Mercy endures forever. Thank you, thank you for Your mercy. While doing so I glanced up to see my little children, who had behaved so well at such a late service, receive a blessing from the priest and watched my husband receive Communion, and my gratitude increased. (My eldest son would himself be confirmed in another month. I had for some time held the hope that we could be confirmed in the same year.)
Things got too moist and messy, and not knowing how else to battle my wet face without lifting up my skirt, I begged several tissues from my friend and sponsor. I felt embarrassed; I was the only one who seemed to be reacting in such a powerful and obvious way for others to see. Still, more than embarrassment at having my emotion exposed, I felt God had conferred on me a special blessing that night. In that holy gift of His Son, He was telling me my mistake no longer mattered, His love for me was boundless, and His mercy truly does endure forever.
That was the night when I felt Jesus washing it all away. I was assured of His mercy and was completely overcome. I felt His Love in so powerful a way that it will always be a bolstering memory and a moment too profound to describe. I felt His meekness and humility and was completely humbled by it.
That is why I believe in the Real Presence of my Lord in the Eucharist. It is a beautiful, personal encounter with Christ. It is the Body of Christ.