Jesus' Real Presence in the Eucharist
“This Teaching is Difficult; Who Can Accept It?” (John 6:60)
A primary concern of Christology, the study of the person and work of Christ, is to ask the question, “Where is Jesus?” On the day of Ascension, Jesus told his apostles that the day would come when the Holy Spirit would empower them to proclaim the truth of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. As they looked on, Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” (Acts 1:9) Two angels then told the apostles that the fullness of the kingdom of God is still yet to come for Jesus will appear yet again at the end of time.
Today, there are many Christians who believe that after the Ascension, Jesus’s physical and divine presence exists in the heavenly realm seated at the right hand of God the Father. They profess that Christ is active as an advocate and intercessor as we strive to shape our character and live our lives in harmony with God’s will. Jesus works within each of us and resides in every believer in the Third Person of the Trinity—the Holy Spirit. While this is all true, our Catholic faith tells us that this is not the whole story. Jesus did not just give us the promise of the Spirit; he also gave us the promise of his flesh and blood. While the gift of the Holy Spirit does indeed provide us with the courage, strength, and guidance to carry on the mission that Christ began during his earthly ministry, Jesus also gives us the prolonged event of himself—his Real Presence. Though Christ is raised and has been lifted up to heaven, he is still present corporally in the world. This understanding is at the heart of both Roman and Orthodox Catholic Christologies.
Unfortunately, from the very first “advance notice” of the Eucharist, people revolted and walked away. In John’s Gospel, we hear Jesus addressing the crowd at Capernaum; “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…For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:53-56) These words were not merely symbolic and metaphorical expressions. Jesus did not invite the dissenters to return in an effort to reassure them as if they had simply misinterpreted his words. What he said was beyond their ability to comprehend. Jesus was well aware of the shock that his words would bring. However, Jesus was not expecting an understanding; he was looking for faith—a faith rooted in himself and in his words, “I am the bread of life.”
The Real PresenceWhen the Church speaks of the Real Presence of the Eucharist, she is referring to the sacrament initiated during the Last Supper—the real, substantial presence of Christ among us. In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (The Council of Trent) This unique presence of Christ found in the Eucharist begins at the moment of the consecration at Mass and continues as long as the species of bread and wine subsist. In an attempt to explain what is virtually unexplainable, the Church uses the concept and term “transubstantiation”—a change of substance. At the root of this concept is a philosophical idea that says, “Everything that exists has an inner and invisible essence or substance that makes an object what it is.” We might also say that reality is not something that can be measured. The shape, the taste, the color, or appearance is non-essential to its essence or being. The attributes or “accidents” of an object are only exterior and superficial qualities. At the consecration, the inner-substance of the bread and wine is completely transformed into a new reality—a reality that is neither subjective nor symbolic.
The late Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic writer, and essayist recalled a visit with a well-known author and former-Catholic. Flannery’s colleague had, over time, come to see the consecrated bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist as being only a symbol, but implied that it was a very good one. Flannery replied, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” She later said, “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.”
When we hold onto the Holy Eucharist as the foundation of our existence, our desire to contemplate, venerate, and worship the Real Presence extends beyond the liturgical celebration of the Mass. Christ’s life-nourishing manifestation in his “flesh and blood” is absorbed and integrated into every fiber of our being. When we face hardship, are tempted, and struggle with the cost of commitment to our faith, our confidence in Christ’s mystery and presence in the Blessed Sacrament allows us to lift our voices with St. Peter and say, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
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