Today at Mass we celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. According to the Roman Missal, the actual date of the feast worldwide was last Thursday, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday; but in countries in which Corpus Christi is not a Holy Day of Obligation, including the United States, it is commuted to the following Sunday. In short, I get a slight reprieve for forgetting to blog about it on Thursday.
Corpus Christi celebrates the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Brad made a brilliant and fascinating post over at SFC on the historical origins of Corpus Christi, to which there is little I can add. But in the spirit of my own blog, I wanted to say a few words about my journey toward a belief in the Real Presence, and share my own tribute.
The Doctrine of the Real Presence in Scripture and Theology
First, what do I mean by “Real Presence”? I take for granted that most people know, but I certainly didn’t until I studied the Church in school. Catholics (and Orthodox, too) believe and affirm that Christ’s Body and Blood are really present in our Eucharist — that our Eucharist, or Holy Communion, is not just bread and wine, but that by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the elements actually become the Body and Blood of Christ. I am not theologian enough to argue to the fine point of transubstantiation, but it amounts to this: we believe that the substance of the the bread and wine change into the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ; while everything that we can see, feel, smell, and taste (the appearances, or species in Latin) remains the same. Christ’s Body and Blood are contained in the Eucharist, under the forms of the bread and wine. Father Joe has a great, accessible post from a week or two ago on the doctrine of transubstantiation, St. Justin Martyr, and St. Thomas Aquinas.
Many Protestants, on the other hand, believe that Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, is only a symbol or memorial. Others, like Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists, have varying ideas about the Real Presence. Growing up, I was taught that it was only a memorial, though the doctrine was never clearly stated. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Christ said in St. Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist. “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:23-26): these are the verses that were always emphasized. I frankly, now, have a very difficult time understanding how Protestants can read even this passage (and especially the parts before and after it) as describing anything but a real, actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist; let alone the passages in when Jesus was describing it (Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:17-20, and especially John 6:22-59). I simply don’t see any other way to interpret it than as the Eucharist being Christ’s Body and Blood. I would be very happy if some of my Protestant friends could discuss that with me (civilly and, I hope, productively).
I’ve posted about the Real Presence before, and gave some important proof texts attesting to the very early belief in the Real Presence. It is very clear that St. Paul, the Apostles, and their followers all believed the Eucharist to be much more than a symbol. How did Protestants fall away from a belief in the Real Presence? I know Luther rejected transubstantiation, but affirmed a different idea of the Real Presence. Did Calvin reject the Real Presence? According to the wiki, Calvin rejected a real, physical presence, but still affirmed a definite spiritual presence. Apparently we owe the view that the Eucharist is only a memorial to Zwingli. Many thanks to the wiki.
The Real Presence in My Journey of Faith
Growing up, despite believing that Communion was only a symbol, it was always an occasion for solemn reflection. The churches I was a part of never had Communion with particular frequency; only about once a month (I suppose the Methodists had it every week). It was in college, as I learned about the Church in history classes, that I first learned of the Catholic doctrine of the Real Presence. And immediately, I admired it, and somehow longed for it, long before I even realized I was longing for it: it was something real, something substantial, something tangible; something more than I was getting: a way to actually touch the presence of my Lord. Every time we took Communion after that, I began receiving it with the idea of “what if” this is really Jesus; until I began to think that “I want” it to really be Jesus.
It wasn’t until I was halfway converted already that I realized how wrong it was that I admired the Church Fathers so much, while discounting so much of what they believed, including the Real Presence. And by that time, there was no turning back. So much of my belief in Catholic doctrine was less a process of having to be convinced, than of acknowledging that the Catholic Church was the True Church, and belief in its doctrine falling in line after that.
Before I close, let me share with you a couple of my favorite reflections on the Real Presence in the Eucharist. I have always loved Ave verum corpus, even long before I was Catholic, especially through Mozart’s setting:
St. Thomas Aquinas’s Adoro te devote is also very important to me, reminding me that even though what we see is bread — even though even the most brilliant minds may doubt — it is our Lord beneath the species:
I devoutly adore you, O hidden Deity,
Truly hidden beneath these appearances.
My whole heart submits to you,
And in contemplating you,
It surrenders itself completely.
Sight, touch, taste are all deceived
In their judgment of you,
But hearing suffices firmly to believe.
I believe all that the Son of God has spoken;
There is nothing truer than this word of truth.
On the cross only the divinity was hidden,
But here the humanity is also hidden.
I believe and confess both,
And ask for what the repentant thief asked.
I do not see the wounds as Thomas did,
But I confess that you are my God.
Make me believe more and more in you,
Hope in you, and love you.
(There is more).