A Pentecostal Discovers the True Working of the Holy Spirit

[I outlined this post a few Saturdays ago but got busy and didn’t finish it. It refers to the day’s prayers at Mass. For the record, they are from Saturday, March 18.]

worship concert

Growing up as a Pentecostal youth, pretty much the sum of my Christian experience was in waiting for, proclaiming, or savoring the presence and working of the Holy Spirit. High-powered, emotional worship services were all about experiencing the Holy Spirit through ecstatic detachment, “getting lost” in Jesus. I’ve written before about how this emotional experience of God was difficult to maintain, especially for a teen who struggled with depression and anxiety, and how ultimately it lacked a lot of substance in terms of real commitment or intellectual depth. It was about momentary excitement and stimulation, but after the emotion was passed, this didn’t always amount to a real change.

Whether it lasted or not, core to my faith in God was the belief that Holy Spirit is immanent in the Church and in our lives; that He works in us and through us daily; that He moves in us powerfully, inspires us, changes us, heals us. I believed in miracles, both in wondrous physical healing and in changed lives through spiritual transformation.

Holy Spirit

None of this faith was lost when I became Catholic. Though it’s true I’ve grown more skeptical of the sensational and the ecstatic, I still believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in us and in the Church, and that He has the power to change us and to heal us. I’ve often heard the complaint that the liturgical approach to experiencing God feels regimented, constricted, and limiting; that it “quenches the Holy Spirit” and does not allow Him to work; that unless we are free to “get lost” in worship, we are not giving God the freedom to move in us.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. Though at times it may seem, as it did to me early in my journey to Catholicism, that Catholic practice marginalizes the Holy Spirit or downplays His work (I once suggested here that Catholicism made the Holy Spirit a “tag-along”), in fact the Holy Spirit is absolutely central to everything the Church does and Christians do, to all our prayer and all our liturgy, to every work of God’s grace that we do and that God does in us, most of all to the Sacraments.

Come, Holy Spirit

Antiphon Veni Sancte Spiritus

A key difference that I observe between the Catholic approach to the Holy Spirit and the Pentecostal or Charismatic one is that the Catholic approach to the Holy Spirit is introspective, focused on the work of the Holy Spirit in us, while the Charismatic approach tends to focus on outward signs and manifestations. This is evident in the very ways in which we invoke the Holy Spirit. Charismatics very often speak of the Holy Spirit “filling this place” like an atmosphere, or “feeling the Holy Spirit here” as something external, as “the presence of God.” A popular song implores:

Holy Spirit, You are welcome here
Come flood this place and fill the atmosphere
Your glory, God, is what our hearts long for
To be overcome by Your presence, Lord

The presence of the Holy Spirit, for the Charismatic, is about “God showing up and showing out” — as I often heard. It is something that manifests itself most of all in a show of power and wondrous signs; something that overpowers the senses and overcomes the person.

The differences in the Catholic view can be seen in our own hymn, Veni, Sancte Spiritus (“Come, Holy Spirit”):

Veni, Sancte Spiritus,
et emitte caelitus
lucis tuae radium.
Come, Holy Spirit,
send forth the heavenly
radiance of your light.
O lux beatissima,
reple cordis intima
tuorum fidelium.
O most blessed light,
fill the inmost heart
of your faithful.
Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium.
Cleanse that which is unclean,
water that which is dry,
heal that which is wounded.
Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.
Bend that which is inflexible,
fire that which is chilled,
correct what goes astray.
Da tuis fidelibus,
in te confidentibus,
sacrum septenarium.
Give to your faithful,
those who trust in you,
the sevenfold gifts.

For the Catholic, the coming of the Holy Spirit is not so much about “filling this place” as about “filling our hearts“; not about outward displays or manifestations so much as about inward sanctification, healing, and transformation.

The Holy Spirit in the Sacraments

Holy Spirit EucharistThe essential ground of the Holy Spirit is the Sacraments. When I was first becoming Catholic, I was so accustomed to looking for the Holy Spirit in outward signs and wonders that I mistook that He was missing or absent from Catholic life altogether. Far from being absent, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God on the earth, and is present in the Church, in everything we do, and most of all in us. In each of the Sacraments, God works in our lives and communicates His grace to us through the Holy Spirit.

In Baptism, we are “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5-7); we are washed, regenerated, and renewed (Titus 3:5) — and the agent is the Holy Spirit. In the sacrament of Confession, it is the Holy Spirit Himself who forgives our sins and accomplishes the same cleansing (1 John 1:9). And most powerfully and intimately in the Eucharist, it is the Holy Spirit who makes present the reality of Christ’s Body and Blood in His Paschal mystery. I was struck today by how the Mass’s prayer after Communion highlights the work of the Holy Spirit in us:

May your divine Sacrament, O Lord, which we have received,
fill the inner depths of our heart
and, by its working mightily within us,
make us partakers of its grace.
Through Christ our Lord.

In a real way, both physically and spiritually, the Sacrament fills us — but it is the Holy Spirit Who through it, fills the innermost depths of our heart and works mightily within us. I don’t think I had made this connection before, between the reality of the Lord’s Presence in the Eucharist and the presence of the Holy Spirit as worker. But certainly I had always felt this innately.

From the very first time I received the Lord in the Eucharist — and every time since — I have felt this powerfully and viscerally: the Lord Himself working powerfully in my heart, more intimately than I had ever experienced before — an overpowering sense of being touched, inhabited, seized from within. This working is transformative: Coming to the Sacrament from the greatest places of darkness and despair, it has never failed to bring light to my heart; from the deepest hurt, it has brought healing and restoration; from the brink of the greatest temptation, it has brought strength and respite; even from moments or boredom, disinterest, and not wanting to be there, it has brought, unexpected and unlooked for, a renewed focus and friendship with the Lord. In the truest sense, I am overcome by the Lord’s presence in the Eucharist, in my encounter with Him.

The Bread of LifeJesus worked His miracles through physical touch, visiting His people in the flesh and impacting their lives by direct and physical interaction. He gave us the Eucharist using the same physical language of encounter: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51) As He invited sinners throughout his earthly ministry, He invites us to sup with Him and share a meal with Him (Revelation 3:20). After He ascended bodily to Heaven, and sent His Holy Spirit to be our Paraclete, He nonetheless left us with the possibility, in that meal and through the Spirit, of such an intimate encounter with Him. As He touched us physically during His earthly ministry, through His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, he continues to touch us physically in the most intimate communion, and through that touch to work powerfully in our hearts and spirits. The Sacraments are the means by which the Holy Spirit enters, is poured into our lives. He literally fills us and transforms us.

Key to Protestant misunderstandings

Hudrych Zwingli (1484 - 1531).

Hudrych Zwingli (1484 – 1531).

It occurs to me that understanding of the Holy Spirit’s central role in the Sacraments is the key to several Protestant misunderstandings. Of the Eucharist in particular, it is easy for the mind to trip over the physical claims about the real presence of the Lord, when the truth is not one of material at all but of encounter and indwelling, concepts Protestants readily understand in speaking of the Holy Spirit.

Even more important, Protestants routinely charge that Catholic claims about receiving grace through the Sacraments amounts to a system of “works’ righteousness,” that somehow we are subjecting the reception of grace to what we do or to human working. It is only in the understanding that each of the Sacraments is solely the work of the Holy Spirit, given to us in grace, that this myth can be dispelled. Where is the “human work”? In requiring that we do something? Humans need only be there, to receive the grace. In placing the Sacraments at the hands of a priest? The priest is only a servant, a vessel, a tool; it is only the Holy Spirit who accomplishes the work. Is it in making grace about something more than “faith alone”? It is only the most radical misreading of Paul that presumes even the Sacraments of the Church to be “works done by us in righteousness” (Titus 3:5, which is one of the most explicit references in Scripture to the efficacy of Baptism as “the bath of regeneration” by the Holy Spirit). In neither the views of Jesus or of Paul does “faith” exclude action: Jesus asks His listeners to step out in faith in order to receive their healing (e.g. Matthew 9:20-22; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 17:11-19; John 9:1-7); Paul, as above, holds forth sacramental means of grace (et. e.g. Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-6; Galatians 3:27) rather than a bare “faith alone” — which threatens, as much as any charge against Catholics of “works’ righteousness” to make grace subject to the action of the person (having faith) rather than the working of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the glue of our faith: In a Trinitarian sense, neither the Father nor the Son, but the Spirit of God that proceeds from both. He is the medium of grace, the means, the actor and worker in our lives and in the Church, by which we are filled, renewed, healed, and transformed. It is in the Holy Spirit that we are bound to God and to each other in communion. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God on earth, the person through whom we encounter God and Christ — and that encounter, the place of our God entering our lives and working in our hearts, is most viscerally and tangibly in the Sacraments.

Re-presenting the Sacrifice of Christ: The Fundamental Doctrines of the Eucharist and the Presbyterate in Scripture

The Sacrifices of Melchizedek, Abel, and Abraham. Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna

The Sacrifices of Melchizedek, Abel, and Abraham. Mosaic from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe, Ravenna.

We have examined how the word “priest” in English is actually a translation of the New Testament Greek word πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros] (“elder”), etymologically distinct from the concept of a ἱερεύς [hiereus] or sacerdos, the sacrificing minister of the Old Testament; and thus “priest” is an appropriate title for the office of Christian ministry. We have shown how Jesus, in instituting a New Covenant, appointed the Apostles ministers of His New Covenant, and they in turn ordained bishops, priests, and deacons to continue in their ministry. We have examined how these early ministers understood themselves to be ministers of the New Covenant in some sense analogous to the priests (sacerdotes) of the Old Covenant, and how even the Old Testament prophets foretold that the coming New Covenant of the Messiah would be served by priests.

Priests making sacrifice

But another, crucial aspect of the term priest (Latin sacerdos or Greek ἱερεύς [hiereus] or Hebrew כֹּהֵן [cohen]), essential to the understanding of that office in both Judaism and in every other ancient culture to which the term was applied, is that a priest makes sacrifices. In the tradition of the Church, some early authors came eventually to refer to presbyters synonymously as sacerdotes or ἱερεῖς [hiereis].* In asking whether it is appropriate to call Christian ministers priests, it is thus important to ask whether they make sacrifices, and whether the earliest Christians understood their office as such.

* I’m still working on this research, which is complicated by the fact that I don’t have very easy access to the source languages, and that at a certain point in even the Protestant-edited Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (Schaff and Wace), the words presbyter, sacerdos, and ἱερεύς all begin being translated as “priest” without qualification. So far I’ve found that Tertullian makes reference to the Christian ministry as sacerdotalia munera (“priestly services”) (De praescriptione hereticorum XLI, c. A.D. 200). Cyprian very frequently refers to Christian ministers as sacerdotes (c. A.D. 250) who make sacrifices. Augustine casually refers to a sacerdotem tuum, quendam episcopum nutritum in ecclesia, “a priest [of God], a certain bishop brought up in the Church” (Confessions 3.12). In the East, Basil the Great calls the Christian minister a ἱερεύς, to be distinguished from a layman (λαϊκὸς) (Letter XLIV, c. A.D. 370). I will continue to work on this.

But an important preliminary to this question is whether the idea of sacrifice is even present in the New Testament.. The answer will hopefully seem obvious to most Christians: The idea of sacrifice, and sacrificial language, in fact pervades the New Testament.

A. Sacrifice in the New Testament

1. A Sacrifice of Praise

As our critics have thus far noted in response to previous posts, the New Testament presents that all the Christian faithful, the whole people of God, are called to make spiritual sacrifices. Thus Paul urges:

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. (Romans 12:1)

And Peter calls:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. … [For] you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:4–5,9)

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews likewise presents Christian worship and even the Christian life as sacrifice to God:

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:15–16, cf. Hebrews 12:28-29)

The language of offering and sacrifice in fact does pervade the New Testament, especially in the writings of Paul (e.g. Philippians 2:17, 4:18, Romans 15:16. This is understandable and fitting given the Jewish foundations of the Christian faith, its roots in the Old Testament, and the Pharisaical education of Paul. Most of all, it is fitting given the example of the Author and Perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus’s Sacrifice

Grunewald, Crucifixion, Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece

Matthias Grunewald, Crucifixion, from Grunewald, Crucifixion, from Tauberbischofsheim altarpiece, c. A.D. 1524.

The New Testament is also clear in presenting the death of Jesus on the Cross as a sacrifice for our redemption, the gift of Himself out of love for us.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (Ephesians 5:2)

The Epistle to the Hebrews elaborates on this understanding throughout the letter:

[Jesus] has no need, like those high priests [of the Old Covenant], to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people; he did this once for all when he offered up himself. (Hebrews 7:27)

Paul in particular explicitly presents Christ as our paschal lamb, the fulfillment of the Jewish Passover, a new sacrifice to institute a new covenant:

Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. (1 Corinthians 5:7)

Zurbaran, Agnus Dei

Francisco de Zurbaran, Agnus Dei (A.D. 1635-40).

And the Evangelists — especially John — shared this understanding. John presents John the Baptist’s exclamation at Jesus’s approach:

The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

Peter shares this understanding (1 Peter 1:19) as does John the Revelator (Revelation 5:6, etc.). It appears that the Synoptic Gospels might also allude to it:

Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the passover for us, that we may eat it.” (Luke 22:7–8, cf. Mark 14:12)

The mention of the lamb and eating it is curious: for the lamb is not mentioned again. And in fact this was the day on which Jesus, the Passover lamb, had to be sacrificed.

B. The Eucharist as Sacrifice

1. The Connection between the Last Supper and the Crucifixion

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena

Juan de Juanes, Última Cena, c. A.D. 1562 (Wikipedia).

Many tomes have been written on the theology of the Eucharist; I cannot but begin to nick the surface here. But this seems to be the very burning heart of the disagreement between traditional Christians and Protestants regarding the priesthood: All seem to agree that Jesus gave Himself up as a sacrifice for us; but what is the relationship of His sacrifice on the Cross to His presentation of the Lord’s Supper? What is the meaning of His commandment to do this in memory of Him? What is the role of Christian ministers in this ritual?

Scripture itself presents that there is an essential connection between the Lord’s offering of bread and wine at supper that night and His Crucifixion the next day. It is clear, first of all, that the Lord’s Last Supper was the Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-19, Mark 14:12-16, Luke 22:7-13, John 13:1-2ff.). Jesus alluded, more clearly than He had up to that point, to His impending death (Matthew 26:2, etc.). At supper, he called out the one who was to betray him (Luke 22:21–22, etc.). After the meal, the drama of His Passion played out in His agony in the garden (Matthew 26:30–46). All of this, it might be argued, is simply foreshadowing, allusion to what is about to happen. But the meat of the matter — the subject of so much disagreement and debate and controversy — are His words and actions at the meal itself:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22–25)

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:26–29)

And when the hour came, he sat at table, and the apostles with him. And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Luke 22:14–20)

Ugolino di Nerio, The Last Supper

Ugolino di Nerio, The Last Supper (A.D. 1324) (Wikimedia).

Discussions about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist tend to hinge, often fruitlessly, on the word is: “This is my body.” But I would like to draw attention to the tense of this verb, and to the tenses of His surrounding statements: He declares that the bread which He presents is His body, present tense, which is given, present tense, for us. Regardless of disagreements about what the bread and wine are — whether they are His Body and Blood as he said, or mere symbols or representations — His words indicate that what He was giving was being given in that instant. This was not “My Body, which I will give for you when I suffer,” or “My Blood, which will be poured out for you this day”: For Jesus, speaking at the Last Supper, the moment of His suffering had come. Even as most Passion plays present it, the events of the Cenacle to the Cross to the Tomb can be understood as one continuous movement.

Protestant opponents to the traditional understanding of the Eucharist (as our commenter) tend to get hung up on temporal and chronological aspects — calling it “science fiction” to suggest that Jesus could give His body up for us “before going to Calvary.” But this view seems to ignore the plainly sacrificial language of what Jesus was doing. Jesus did, Scripture insists, offer Himself up as a sacrifice for us. And in His own words at the Last Supper, he then and there gave Himself for us: “This is my body which is given for you.”

Jesus’s words consciously echo the words of institution of the Mosaic covenant:

And likewise the cup after supper, saying, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant (διαθήκη) in my blood.” (Luke 22:20)

And Moses took the blood and threw it upon the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant (Septuagint διαθήκη) which the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:8)

Even the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews explicitly acknowledges and relates this essential connection between the Lord’s sacrifice and His words of institution at the Last Supper:

When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the Holy Place, taking not the blood of goats and calves but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. … Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant (διαθήκη), so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred which redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant (διαθήκη). For where a will (διαθήκη) is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will (διαθήκη) takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. Hence even the first covenant (διαθήκη) was not ratified without blood. For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant (διαθήκη) which God commanded you.” (Hebrews 9:11–12,15-20)

Our commenter attempted to make an argument that Christ’s words of institution at the Last Supper must have been only symbolic and not essentially connected to the Crucifixion at all, since His words are here presented as a will or testament, and no death had yet occurred at the Last Supper, etc. But this is clearly wrongheaded, for the passage itself declares that the New Covenant is in effect, since a death has occurred which redeems us.

Moses concludes his covenant

The author of Hebrews thus presents Christ’s words of institution (His own declaration that His blood was a New Covenant) and His sacrificial death as essentially the same act: the declaration of the covenant and its ratification by blood. Just so, Moses’s institution of the Old Covenant in Exodus involved separate elements of the same act of institution: offering blood, words of institution (Exodus 24:8), and a meal between the parties of the covenant (Exodus 24:11). Such is the protocol of covenant in the ancient world: and it was played out again by Jesus in the Last Supper and the Crucifixion as a single act.

The chronology of these acts is thus irrelevant: Jesus’s institution of the covenant at the Last Supper was the presentation of His death as a sacrifice, using explicitly sacrificial and covenantal language. Jesus Himself told us that in the death of His body, He was offering Himself as a sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins; that in His blood, He was instituting a New Covenant for us. He offered the sacrifice of His body at the Passover supper, and gave it to his disciples to eat as the new Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). The very idea that Jesus was our paschal lamb as Paul expresses depends on the understanding that Jesus was sacrificed and presented in place of the lamb at the Passover meal. Scripture is thus clear in this understanding.

Pitre, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist

Dr. Brant Pitre’s study of the Jewish roots and context of the Eucharist casts a brilliant light on this reality. A valuable outline is available online: “The Fourth Cup and the New Passover.” Even more fruitful is his book, Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. A quote in summary from the outline:

1. By vowing not to drink the final cup of the Last Supper (Luke 22:18), Jesus extended his last Passover meal to include his own suffering and death.

2. By praying three times in Gethsemane for the “cup” to be taken from him (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus revealed that he understood his own death in terms of the Passover sacrifice.

3. Jesus also transformed the Passover sacrifice. In the old Passover, the sacrifice of the lamb would come first, and then the eating of its flesh. But in this case, because Jesus had to institute the new Passover before his death, he pre-enacted it, as both host of the meal and sacrifice.

4. Most important of all, by waiting to drink the fourth cup of the Passover until the very moment of his death (John 19:28-29), Jesus united the Last Supper to his death on the cross. By refusing to drink of the fruit of the vine until he gave up his final breath, he joined the offering of himself under the form of bread and wine to the offering of himself on Calvary. Both actions said the same thing: “This is my body, given for you” (Luke 22:19). In short, by means of the Last Supper, Jesus transformed the Cross into a Passover, and by means of the Cross, he transformed the Last Supper into a sacrifice.

2. “Do This In Memory of Me”

Tintoretto, The Last Supper  (1592-1594)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper, A.D. 1592-1594 (Wikipedia).

So Scripture is clear that at the Last Supper, Jesus presented His Body and Blood as a sacrifice. But what did He mean when He commanded His Apostles to “Do this in remembrance of me”? Do what, exactly? To whom was this command addressed? And if Jesus’s presentation was a sacrifice, what would be the character of others’ doing it in His memory?

Doing this was important enough to St. Paul to quote in full the words of institution and give specific instruction about what was to be done and why:

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For 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)

Thus it is clear that the Apostles understood Jesus meant specifically to do this: to reenact the offering of Himself at the Last Supper, and to give the Christian faithful this food to eat (John 6:34). If the Lord’s presentation of Himself at the Last Supper was a sacrifice, then the re-presentation — which He commanded His Apostles to do — is the re-presentation of a sacrifice.

That Paul understood the re-presentation of the Eucharist to also be a sacrifice is also evident — for he explicitly compares the Eucharistic table to an altar of sacrifice, and opposes the food of the Eucharistic table to food offered in sacrifice to idols:

Therefore, my beloved, shun the worship of idols. I speak as to sensible men; judge for yourselves what I say. The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. Consider the people of Israel; are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. (1 Corinthians 10:14–21)

Paul thus implies that if pagans offer their sacrifices to demons and not to God, and in eating of the sacrifices become partners with demons, Christians do make their sacrifices to God, and in eating of them, have participation (Greek κοινωνία [koinōnia], literally “communion”) in the Body and Blood of Christ.

3. Testimony from Tradition

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Agape feast, Catacombe di San Priscilla, Rome.

Scripture is thus clear in understanding the re-presentation of the Eucharist as a sacrifice in some sense: a re-presentation of Christ’s own sacrifice. That this is the correct interpretation of Scripture can be verified in the earliest understandings of the Church after Scripture. Our commenter accuses that we must “go outside Scripture” to support the view that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, but on the contrary, all the support that is necessary is already evident in Scripture; looking beyond Scripture only further confirms the truth we find in Scripture. We read in the Didache, which many scholars reasonably date to circa A.D. 70, within the Apostolic age itself:

And on the Lord’s day of the Lord assemble yourselves together and break bread (Revelation 1:10); and give thanks (Greek εὐχαριστήσατε [eucharistēsate]) after having confessed also your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. And let not any man that is at variance with his fellow come together with you until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not polluted. For this [sacrifice] is that which was spoken of by the Lord: In every place and time offer unto me a pure sacrifice (Malachi 1:11), for I am a great King, saith the Lord; and My Name is wonderful among the Gentiles. (Didache XIV, from G. C. Allen, trans., The Didache or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles [London: The Astolat Press, 1903])

The value of this testimony is not that our understanding of the Eucharist as a sacrifice depends on it (in fact, I wasn’t even aware of these passages before I wrote the above sections of the article), but that it demonstrates that the earliest Christians, taught by the Apostles themselves, shared the same understanding we now derive from Scripture. It also directly refutes the arguments our commenter has already advanced, that the Council of Trent innovated the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice, that “no Christian in the 1,600 years prior to Trent” held such an understanding. Not only is the understanding of the Eucharist as sacrifice expressed in Scripture, but the earliest Christians, taught by the oral teaching of the Apostles, held and expressed this same understanding.

Opposition from Hebrews?

As clear as Christ’s command to re-present His sacrifice, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews makes just as clear that Christ’s sacrifice was made once for all; that Christ, our High Priest, has no need to offer repeated sacrifices; that He does not suffer repeatedly (Hebrews 7:27, 9:26). We know that Scripture cannot contradict itself. Thus it is clear that the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice which He commanded cannot be a repetition of His sacrifice, or a re-sacrificing of Christ; rather it must be a presenting again of the same once and for all sacrifice.

Rather than an argument against the Eucharist, as Protestant opponents insist to read it, Hebrews thus becomes a treatise on the Eucharist, an explanation to especially Jews that Jesus’s one sacrifice, and the sacrifices which Christians make in memory of Him, were not the kind of repeated and inefficacious sacrifices presented again and again in the Old Testament, but indeed one final, once and for all sacrifice for our redemption and salvation. Nothing about the argument of Hebrews nullifies or eliminates Christ’s command to do this in memory of Him; rather, it is only with His command in mind, and the understanding that this was practiced regularly as the central element of Christian worship (Acts 2:42,46), that the Book of Hebrews can be read with benefit in its proper context.

C. Ministers of the New Covenant

1. Office and Authority

Pope John Paul II New Orleans 1987

St. John Paul II celebrating Mass, New Orleans, 1987. (CatholicVote.org).

So, then, as Scripture teaches, Jesus, through the sacrifice of His Body and Blood on Calvary, presented at the Last Supper, Jesus instituted a new covenant. The Book of Hebrews especially elaborates on this idea of the new covenant. Paul too understands this idea, identifying himself and his associates in ministry as “ministers of the New Covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:4–6).

Scripture is not explicit in declaring that the ministers of the New Covenant make sacrifices, and it intentionally shies away from calling them ἱερεῖς [hiereis] or sacerdotes. But the implications of Scripture are clear: Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, becoming our High Priest (ἀρχιερεύς [archiereus]); he presented this sacrifice through the signs of bread and wine at the Last Supper; he commanded His Apostles to “do this in memory of me” — to re-present the sacrifice He had presented. What would they then be presenting, if not a sacrifice?

Indeed, as shown above, and as is evident throughout the literature of the Early Church, the earliest Christians did understand the presentation of the Eucharist to be a sacrifice. Once again, this testimony is offered in verification of the truths already revealed in Scripture:

Being vehemently inflamed by the word of His calling, we are the true high priestly race of God, as even God Himself bears witness, saying that in every place among the Gentiles sacrifices are presented to Him well-pleasing and pure (Malachi 1:11). Now God receives sacrifices from no one, except through His priests. Accordingly, God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through this name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer, i.e., in the Eucharist of the bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him. (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 116–117, c. A.D. 160)

Justin here makes reference to God’s priests, especially in juxtaposition to the Jewish priests of the Old Covenant, whom he says God now rejects. Justin thus seems to understand that even though all Christians are the “high priestly race of God,” there are nonetheless some who offer the sacrifices.

Who is it, then, who offers the sacrifices? To whom was Jesus giving the commandment when he said to “Do this in memory of Him”? As an Evangelical, I would have answered “to all Christians,” and this seems to be a common response (as there is a tendency in especially Evangelicalism to read all Scripture as if every statement were a direct address to the individual Christian). But most obvious to me now, the closed group to whom Jesus was actually speaking was His Twelve Apostles.

There are practical reasons to think that Jesus was offering a charge to His ministers and not to all Christians, as are played out in even Protestant churches. Just as Jesus presided over the Last Supper, the re-presentation of such must also be presided over: there must be someone to speak and offer the sacrifice, someone to operate in the place of Christ. By their very position, this role usually falls to pastors.

But in traditional Christianity, the charges of Jesus to His Apostles, not only in the ministry of the Eucharist but in the very roles of teaching and pastoring, are understood not just in terms of practicality but of office and authority. As we have already discussed, Jesus did appoint His Apostles to an office of ministry. In His charges to speak in His name and carry His message throughout the world — and to do “Do this in memory of Him” — He authorized them to carry out this ministry; to be His representatives (Matthew 10:40, Luke 10:16), His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20).

2. Apostolic Succession

Paul ordaining Timothy.

Paul ordaining Timothy.

As we have discussed, Jesus appointed the Apostles to an ordained office of ministry, with specific duties and authorities (Mark 3:13-18, Matthew 10, Luke 9:1-6, John 20:19-23, etc.). The Apostles then appointed presbyters and bishops to continue in their ministry after them:

And when they had appointed presbyters for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. (Acts 14:23)

This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you. (Titus 1:5)

That this office and charge was only committed to another by the Apostles themselves or others in the order of presbyters is also evident:

Command and teach these things. Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Till I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of presbyters (πρεσβυτέριον [presbyterion]) laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Take heed to yourself and to your teaching; hold to that, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:11–16)

Hence I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands. (2 Timothy 1:6)

Likewise Paul warned Timothy to take care with whom he ordained to the ministry:

Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor participate in another man’s sins; keep yourself pure. (1 Timothy 5:22)

But nonetheless Timothy was charged to ordain others to continue in his own ministry:

What you have heard from me before many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. (2 Timothy 2:2)

Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome.

Thus Scripture presents the fundamental idea of apostolic succession: that the Apostles appointed ministers to continue after them, who likewise should appoint ministers to continue after them. And thus it was understood by the Early Church, as the earliest testimony of those who came after the Apostles bears:

[The Apostles] preached from district to district, and from city to city, and they appointed their first converts, testing them by the Spirit, to be bishops and deacons of the future believers. … Our Apostles also knew through our Lord Jesus Christ that there would be strife for the title of bishop. For this cause, therefore, since they had received perfect foreknowledge, they appointed those who have been already mentioned, and afterwards added the codicil that if they should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed to their ministry. We consider therefore that it is not just to remove from their ministry those who were appointed by them, or later on by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and have ministered to the flock of Christ without blame, humbly, peaceably, and disinterestedly, and for many years have received a universally favourable testimony. For our sin is not small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily offered its sacrifices. (Clement of Rome, 1 Clement XLII, XLIV, c. A.D. 70s; from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Kirsopp Lake, vol. 1, The Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge MA; London: Harvard University Press, 1912–1913])

Clement thus testifies to the earliest Church’s understanding of apostolic succession — and also, to add to our discussion here, confirms that offering sacrifices was part of the office of the episcopate (i.e. the office of bishop).

Ignatius of Antioch likewise confers, clarifying that offering the Eucharist was the express authority of the bishop and of presbyters he might appoint:

See that you all follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ follows the Father, and the presbytery as if it were the Apostles. And reverence the deacons as the command of God. Let no one do any of the things appertaining to the Church without the bishop. Let that be considered a valid Eucharist which is celebrated by the bishop, or by one whom he appoints. Wherever the bishop appears let the congregation be present; just as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful either to baptise or to hold an “agapé” without the bishop; but whatever he approve, this is also pleasing to God, that everything which you do may be secure and valid. (Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans VIII, c. A.D. 107; from The Apostolic Fathers, ed. Lake)

Thus if we accept that specific duties of ministry were the charge of the offices of ministry to which Jesus appointed the Apostles and to which they appointed other faithful men, then it follows that offering the sacrifice of the Eucharist — which Scripture presents as a central element of Christian ministry and worship — would have been a key component of those offices, and not a casual celebration which any believer could conjure at his whim. The earliest testimony of the Apostolic Fathers confirms that this was the case, as it has been understood throughout Christian history and tradition.

Conclusion

Priests, Westminster

This is the outline of the doctrine presented by Scripture: Jesus offered Himself as a sacrifice to God for our redemption (Ephesians 5:2, etc.); He presented this sacrifice at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19, etc.) and perfected it on the Cross (John 19:30, etc.). He commanded His Apostles to “Do this in memory of Him” (Luke 22:19) — that is, to re-present the sacrifice which He had presented. This office was carried forth by those Apostles and by others whom they appointed to their ministry. That these were the doctrines which Christ taught, which the Apostles communicated, and which they committed to Scripture, is confirmed by the fact that this is the way the earliest Christians received and understood such teaching.

Thus we have an order of ministers, called by God and ordained to an office, to serve the New Covenant of God (2 Corinthians 3:4–6). Thus even the Apostle Paul saw this ministry to be analogous to the priesthood of the Old Covenant (Romans 15:16). The prophets of the Old Testament foresaw that God would call a new order of priests in service of His New Covenant, to offer sacrifices forever (Isaiah 61:6, 66:18, 20–21; Jeremiah 33:17–18, 22). Jesus commanded His ministers to re-present His sacrifice — and in so doing what they presented was a sacrifice. The order of Christian ministers in service of Christ’s New Covenant thus do make sacrifices, in some mysterious sense that does not call into question the oneness or finality of Christ’s once and for all sacrifice. Christian ministers can thus rightly be called sacerdotes — priests — in the service of Christ.

Over the generations to come, through prayerful reflection and close study of the Scriptures, the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist, the Sacraments, and the priesthood deepened and expanded. Priests, teachers, and theologians would explore the mystery of faith, the sacrifice of the Eucharist, to attempt to understand and explain its beauty, majesty, and truth. Church Fathers such as Cyril, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Augustine offered forth elaborate theological treatises, practical instructions, and glorious panegyrics in praise of the Eucharist — but these were only the flowering forth of the core truths of the faith, which had been present, in Scripture and Tradition, from the beginning. Our recent commenters here have raged against the “nonsense” they can cite from the Council of Trent and other late promulgations of doctrine, arguing that such elaborations of doctrine were nowhere found in Scripture — but attacking a mere flourish is as ineffective in refuting the core truths of traditional Christianity as plucking leaves from a tree. The outline, the seed, is here, presented in Scripture and verified by the testimony to Tradition.

The Sunday Obligation: “Missing Mass is a Mortal Sin”?

Van Gent, Institution of the Eucharist (c. 1474)

Justus van Gent, Institution of the Eucharist (c. 1474)

A common charge against the Catholic Church that I’ve heard from a number of opponents is against the fact that the Church obligates her children to attend Mass each Sunday and on other declared holy days of obligation, and especially against the fact that “it’s a mortal sin to miss Mass.” Supposedly this is an example of the flagrant and tyrannical legalism of the Church, that she would dare to assert authority over how Christians spend their weekends and even dare to declare, arbitrarily, what is sin and what is not.

I’ve always had a simple answer to this challenge, but never had any particular scriptural support to cite. But today in my private Bible study I happened upon it: a clear statement of the mind of God on the matter, and what has always been the mind of the Church. But first, addressing the objections is in order.

Not Dictating Sin, but Labeling Sin

Return of the Prodigal Son, by Batoni

Return of the Prodigal Son (1773), by Pompeo Batoni.

First, it’s important to realize that the Church does not have the authority to dictate what is and isn’t sin, beyond what God Himself holds. The Church’s authority and duty is to teach the truth she has received from Scripture and Tradition. When the Church teaches that something is a sin, it is not arbitrary: it’s because something about that act or behavior objectively places one in opposition to God and His order and plan for us.

It is that opposition, not anything arbitrary, that makes an act a mortal sin. The Church teaches that in order to be a mortal sin, an act must be of a grave matter, objectively opposed to God’s order, and done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). A sin is a sin because it is those things, not because the Church declares it sinful; and yes, there are certainly cases, when an act is done in ignorance or against one’s will, that it is not a sin after all. The moral teachings of Scripture and of the Church are there to guide and to guard, to direct God’s people to a safe path; it is only God who judges. The Church declares something a sin not to condemn the sinner, but to warn him, to correct him, to save him.

Those who object to the idea of mortal sin in the first place ought to read my recent series on grace and justification and “falling from grace.” Does mortal sin — and does missing Mass — cause a Christian to “lose his salvation”? No — not in the terms that Protestants understand such things. Mortal sin, for a Christian, is more akin to stumbling into mud and hurting oneself than being cast out from the Lord’s kingdom.

“Missing Mass is a Mortal Sin”?

Jesus and the Eucharist

So, “missing Mass is a mortal sin.” Well — it’s not quite that simple. Yes, I know any one of you can dig up quotations from popes, teachers, catechisms, that state in plain terms, “missing Mass is a mortal sin” — when taken out of context. But I am here to say, as anything more than a topical reading would reveal, that there is more to the matter than such a flat declaration. Is simply missing Mass, not going to church on a Sunday, for whatever reason, “grave matter”? Many in today’s western (largely Protestant) world — where church attendance has become casual and inconsequential — would say no, of course not; it is an optional and personal decision. But the more important question to ask is, why did you miss Mass? Was it intentional and deliberate? Could it have been avoided? Did you know better?

There are plenty of cases — more than I could possibly name — when missing Mass would not be a sin. Were you elderly and homebound, or even simply sick in bed? Did you have to work, and there was no possible way around it? Were you traveling and not in a place or situation where you could reasonably find a Mass to attend? Were you caring for a new baby or a sick loved one? Did you have other, important family or social obligations that could not be missed or rescheduled? Or did you simply choose, deliberately and intentionally, not to go to Mass? Did you decide that there was something else, a football game or holiday party, that you would rather go to instead? Did you simply not feel like it, out of anger or spite or even apathy? Any priest would tell you that in the former cases, and many more, you were not at fault; the latter are a different situation entirely.

Missing the Lord’s Banquet

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Alterpiece: Adoration of the Lamb

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Alterpiece: The Adoration of the Lamb (c. 1432).

Jesus gave several parables in His preaching to the kingdom of God being a great banquet or feast (Matthew 22:1–14, Luke 14:7–24, cf. Revelation 19:6–9). Throughout His ministry, He invited the lost to dine with Him (e.g. Luke 15:2). The Mass, the Eucharist, is the Lord’s Supper — the great feast He has prepared for us, at great cost to Himself, and invited each of us to come and dine with Him (John 6:35; cf. Revelation 3:20), promising to feed us richly with the bread of life, to reward us with the great bounty that awaits, eternal life, and to share with us the most intimate fellowship and communion with Him (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16). Missing Mass is more than simply “deciding not to go to church today”; to deliberately choose not to go to Mass is to refuse the Lord’s invitation, to say to Him that there are more important things to you. This is the mortal sin: not merely “missing Mass” — which, by itself, might not be a sin at all — but the deliberate rejection of the Lord.

And there’s more, a striking biblical support for this teaching, that I was stunned to discover today.

Offering the Lord’s Offering at the Appointed Time

Marc Chagall, "The Israelites are eating the Passover Lamb" (1931)

Marc Chagall, Les Israélites mangent l’Agneau de la Pâque (“The Israelites are eating the Passover Lamb”), 1931 (WikiArt).

Of course, as everyone knows, we are to “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8) — and, barring the objections of “Seventh-Day” Christians and some “Hebrew Roots” proponents (which I will address another time), most Christians generally accept the traditional teaching of the Church, that from apostolic times Christians have transferred the Old Testament Sabbath obligation to Sunday in honor of our Lord’s Resurrection. But today I found an even more explicit statement of the Church’s teaching on the Sunday obligation, in the ordinances of the Israelites concerning the Passover:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Let the people of Israel keep the Passover at its appointed time. On the fourteenth day of this month, in the evening, you shall keep it at its appointed time; according to all its statutes and all its ordinances you shall keep it.” …

The Lord said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, If any man of you or of your descendants is unclean through touching a dead body, or is afar off on a journey, he shall still keep the Passover to the Lord. … But the man who is clean and is not on a journey, yet refrains from keeping the Passover, that person shall be cut off from his people, because he did not offer the Lord’s offering at its appointed time; that man shall bear his sin. (Numbers 9:1–3, 9–10, 13)

Not only is Sunday the fulfillment of the commandment to “remember the Sabbath,” but the Mass is the fulfillment of the Passover, “for Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). To the degree that the Israelites kept the Passover, which marked their liberation from human bondage — that much, and more, should Christians venerate the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, which sets us free from darkness unto life!

Similar to the Church’s teaching, it is only the man who, despite being perfectly well and able, deliberately refrains from keeping the Passover who is to be cut off. But if failing to keep the Passover was such a grave matter for the Israelites, is it not understandable that refusing to honor the Passover of the Lord, refusing to offer the Lord’s offering — ourselves — at the appointed time, is a grave matter for the Church? And yet the Lord, and the Church, is merciful: for this and every other sin, there is forgiveness and healing and a welcoming back to the banquet.

An Exposition of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist in John 6, and a Common Protestant Rejoinder

Giotto, The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1306), by Giotto. Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua.

[The fruit of another discussion somewhere.]

The Real Presence of Christ does not appear in Scripture? You must be stretching really hard not to see it. 😉 As I said above, Jesus makes painfully clear his literal intentions in John 6:

“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)

“I am the bread of life. … This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die.” (John 6:48–50)

“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

When the Jews hear this, naturally, they are alarmed and confused — is this man suggesting we become cannibals? “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52). Obviously, they are misunderstanding Him, right? Surely He didn’t mean for them to take this literally, right? So you would think He would correct them.

But He doesn’t. He does just the opposite.

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Consequently [Greek οὖν, so, therefore, consequently, accordingly] Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:52–53)

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto.

A lot rests on that οὖν: It connects Jesus’s repeated admonition that the people must eat His flesh and drink His blood as a direct response and consequence of the crowd’s supposed “misunderstanding”: Rather than saying, “No, you’ve got it wrong; I’m only being ‘spiritual,'” he tells them, “Yes, I’m bloody serious.”

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)

“For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:55) (The word here translated “true,” ἀληθής, can alternately be translated real, genuine, actual, not imaginary.)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56) (He even uses a different, much more visceral, if not vulgar, word for “eat” here: τρώγω, the word for animals feeding or munching.)

“As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” (John 6:57)

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio.

Jesus says, not once, not twice, but some dozen times altogether, not only that “He is the bread of life,” but that “this bread is actually My flesh” and “this drink is actually My blood” and “you must eat Me and drink Me” to have eternal life. He uses explicit words that cannot be mistaken for “spiritual” terms, even using several different words in the discourse to make Himself clear. When the crowd questions, in disgust, whether He is serious, He makes no effort to correct them, but instead affirms using even stronger language that what He is saying is the literal truth. And in the end, as a direct result of this discourse, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (John 6:66), muttering that “this is a hard saying” (John 6:60), because they did take His words literally. And yet Jesus made no attempt to clarify Himself if they were mistaken, but instead reaffirmed again and again his literal meaning. He could not have been more explicit if He tried — for in fact He did try.

And then, as if this weren’t enough — but he then gives His Apostles the actual occasion to eat His flesh and drink His blood:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” (Matthew 26:26)

And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” (Mark 14:22)

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19)

And when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:24)

If any one of these four authors had meant to imply that this giving of His Body and Blood were meant to be mere symbols, one would think they would have used less explicit and more figurative language.

Not a Gate, or a Vine, or a Light?

vineyard

Regarding your rejoinder that Jesus also said He “is the Door,” “the Vine,” the “Way,” etc. [and that these cases are not to be taken literally, so why should we take John 6 literally?] — yes, this is the common Protestant response. But allow me to point out a couple of things:

1. When Jesus expresses these metaphors, they are directly related to the verbs he applies to them, which are to be taken literally:

Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

I am the door; if any one enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:9)

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” (John 11:25)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6)

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

We are literally supposed to follow Jesus, enter into eternal life by Him, believe in Him, come to the Father by Him, and abide in Him. This rhetorical device applies in every case in which Jesus says I AM something.

2. But in John 6, Jesus says, using several different verbs:

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:51)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:54)

“He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:56)

Et cetera. So, for these times, following the other times Jesus said I AM something, are we not also supposed to literally eat and drink Him? In all these cases, though Jesus is speaking metaphorically, He is also speaking quite literally — and this case is no different.

What is more, your position supposes that every Christian from the Apostles to the sixteenth century — who certainly read Jesus’s discourse literally and believed Jesus was really and substantially present in the Eucharist — was mistaken in their interpretation and “silly.” Even John Calvin believed fully that Jesus was really present in the elements in a spiritual sense, and read John 6 literally.

Twelve Reasons I Love Resurrection Chapel

Resurrection Chapel, at Morris Chapel

Resurrection Chapel, at Morris Chapel.

This is a post I’ve been thinking of for a little while. Here are a few reasons why I love my new parish, Resurrection Chapel:

  1. My connection: The sudden revelation of a deep, historical connection with the church here — one that God knew I would appreciate and be attracted by — lit my path here, and reminds me that He is guiding my steps. Just this past week, I discovered yet another connection: my mom’s closest cousin Dana is a dear friend of Rick Chenault our parish director and Peggy his wife.

  2. The building: Not only is the church building a lovely and cozy place, but I learned this past weekend that it is apparently built around the church’s original log structure, founded in ca. 1852 and moved here from the church’s original location a few miles down the road. When I go to church, I am standing not merely in the same locale, but in the same building and the same spot as my ancestors. It makes me giddy to think of.

  3. The name — Resurrection — is apt on so many levels. This parish signifies the rebirth of Catholicism in this area, which was actually the location of the first Catholic church in what became the Diocese of Birmingham. It is the calling back to the Church of so many lapsed Catholics who have been away from the Sacraments. It is the rising again of a vibrant church on this spot, where a Methodist congregation flourished for so many years. It stands alongside an old country cemetery, where so many faithful Christians are resting in the hope of a glorious resurrection.

  4. The very idea of a rural parish appeals to everything I love — to my Southern, agrarian, hobbitish ideals. We are pioneering the Church at its frontier, delving into an area darkened not only by the recession of Catholicism but among so many, of Christianity in general. We are bearing the torch of the Gospel and the light of Christ’s love where no Catholic has gone before, or at least not in a very long time.

  5. hobbit church

    But not small like this hobbit church.

  6. It is small, like me. I have a hard time in a big place. I was going to Mass at the parish most local to me for months before I even spoke to anybody or anybody spoke to me. I felt lost in the crowd, swallowed hole, overwhelmed. But I set foot in Resurrection Chapel and immediately people saw me and greeted me. Mr. Rick* welcomed me warmly and invited me back, and a dozen or more people introduced themselves after Mass. I felt love, and connection, and fellowship, from the very first moments, when those are things that have always come so hard for me. I don’t fault the people of the larger parish at all: it’s not a failure to love; just a failure of the dynamic of a large parish, and of me to reach out and take the connection that would be there if I did.

  7. * I never know what to call Rick. It feels so cold to just call him “Rick,” after all he does for us and for the parish. Being Catholic necessitates a new set of terms of endearment. I can’t call him “Brother Rick,” as per my Evangelical inclination, because he’s not a brother in any order. I can’t call him “Pastor,” because he’s not a priest, and that’s not a title he claims. “Mister” will have to do for the time being, until I can call him “Deacon.”

  8. Following from that point, the people in general. It’s not just any people who would reach out to me in the way these have. They are so loving and welcoming and full of charity in a way that does go beyond so many other churches. My dearest friends at St. John’s, found over the course of so many months, can compare. And here, after just a few weeks, I feel fully a part of their family.

    They have made some additions since this photo was taken, but it still has the distinct feel of a country Methodist church inside. Also, it's not easy to retrofit Methodist pews with kneelers.

    They have made some additions since this photo was taken, but it still has the distinct feel of a country Methodist church inside. Also, it’s not easy to retrofit Methodist pews with kneelers.

  9. Opportunities for ministry: Part of it, I guess, is that I was just a baby Catholic when I was at St. John’s (in so many ways, I still am), but from the very beginning here, I’ve been offered the chance to minister for the Lord. Mr. Rick asked almost immediately to be thinking about any ways I would like to minister: as a lector, or an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, or anything else. I am still a neophyte! I feel so unworthy. But this past Sunday, I was given the opportunity to present the gifts — something that has always been such an important part of the liturgy for me. And my dear new friends Leo and Harriet have welcomed me so warmly as a helper in the RCIA class. And Mr. Rick invited me to be a part of a meeting of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is truly doing God’s work in our community of ministering to the poor and hurting, the very first time I came to Mass.

  10. There are certainly many downsides of not having a dedicated priest as pastor in our parish, but I also value the upside: I can get to know many priests. I have already met half a dozen or more dear priests on a personal level, and that is so valuable to me in my growth as a Catholic.

  11. It’s a bit of a drive to get there — something I have really missed for so long, living in a small town like Oxford and especially now living at home. Time alone in the car, to revel in the open road, if only for a few miles and minutes, time to listen to my podcasts and my music, and to decompress and destress, is so precious to me. And I love Lawrence County and love going there and should go much more often.

  12. Resurrection Chapel, with altar rails

  13. Altar rails! ‘Nuff said. But the traditional mode of taking Communion, of reverencing our Lord in the Eucharist and receiving him humbly, is to kneel. And we didn’t build these — they came with the church, a gift from the Methodists. I know God saw us coming, and prepared this place for us.

  14. Miracles: God is at work here. It shows in everything we do. But it especially shows in several miracles I heard about this past weekend. Especially this: A woman, eaten up with cancerous tumors and given not long to live, was prayed for and anointed with oil, and on her next CT scan, her tumors had begun to shrivel up. On the next scan after that, they were completely gone. That was a year or two ago, and she is still healthy. Another one I heard about may not be for public consumption, and I might be forgetting something else.

  15. And most of all, I love the great miracle the Holy Spirit gives to us each week, the Eucharist. I love that Christ comes to meet us in the flesh, in His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity. I love the intimate communion Holy Communion brings, made all the more intimate by sharing it with people I know and care for and can truly commune with. I love that Christ is in our midst, in His Church, and this in every parish on earth, anywhere I go.

Whatever Happened to the Eucharist? Why Don’t Evangelical Protestants Celebrate It?

El Greco, The Last Supper (c.1598)

The Last Supper (c.1598), by El Greco. WikiPaintings.org)

The major topic that prompted me to delve into a series on the Sacraments was wondering why Evangelical Protestants* don’t celebrate them. How can a people who profess to base their faith on Scripture alone ignore the very things — in fact, some of the only things — that Jesus told us explicitly to do? Baptism and the Eucharist are the only two of the Seven Sacraments that Evangelical Protestants have preserved in any form — but even these are relegated to the status of marginal, symbolic acts in very many cases. I’ve already written a bit about Evangelicals and Baptism.

Now, in considering the Eucharist, the perfectionist and scholar in me wants to offer a thoroughly researched and documented treatise on the theology of the different Protestant interpretations of the Eucharist, but this topic is now pressing and I thought I would give you instead a few preliminary thoughts. The Wiki provides a decent overview if you like that kind of thing. (And good Lord I had no idea it was this complicated and fragmented and daunting.)

* I am going to start capitalizing “Evangelical Protestant” as a proper noun (even though it’s incorrect! incorrect! by the Chicago Manual of Style) to distinguish Evangelical Protestants, the ones I grew up with and complain about from time to time, from other kinds of Protestants to whom my criticisms might not apply, such as Lutherans. I do this for the sake of not confusing or alarming my dear friend.

Fra Angelio, Institution of the Eucharist (1442)

Institution of the Eucharist (1442), by Fra Angelio.

Compared to the rest of His teaching in the Gospels, Jesus gave us few direct, unambiguous commands. Among them are some of the last words he gave us before departing this earth: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mark 28:19) — an explicit imperative to baptize — and His words at the Last Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). One would think that the Apostles and the Early Church would place great emphasis on these things. And in fact they did: they were the very basis of early Christian worship, as St. Justin testifies.

The Witness of the Apostolic Church in Scripture

One would also think that Evangelical Protestants, professing to live and worship by the Word of God in Scripture, would place great emphasis on celebrating these essential Christian sacraments. For coming to faith in Christ is always, as a rule, followed immediately by baptism in Scripture. Likewise for the Eucharist: for it is clear from Scripture that the Apostolic Church celebrated it frequently, if not at every gathering:

Dürer, Last Supper (1510)

Last Supper (1510), by Albrecht Dürer.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts. (Acts 2:42,46)

On the first day of the week [i.e. Sunday, the Lord’s Day], when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7)

The word translated “as often as” in 1 Corinthians 11:25–26 is simply ἐὰν (eàn), most literally ifif you take the cup, do this — whenever you take the cup — but implying that it is something that will be done. It only makes sense in the context as an implication that it will be done frequently:

“Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:25–26)

Most crucially, Jesus tells us that He is the Bread of Life (pun intended):

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst . . . . Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (John 6:35,55–56)

The gyrations to which Evangelical commentators must go in order to evade a sacramental interpretation of Baptism and the Eucharist in these passages is rather uncomfortable to see.

The Reality in Many Evangelical Churches

Grünewald, The Last Supper (Coburg Panel)

The Last Supper (Coburg Panel) (c.1500), by Matthias Grünewald. (WikiPaintings.org)

But as my new Protestant friends have just recently attested, and as I myself saw in my wanderings, many Evangelical churches seldom celebrate the Eucharist at all — as infrequently as once a month or even once a quarter. Some have even dispensed with it altogether. It blows my mind how the celebration that Scripture plainly indicates was the central act of early Christian worship can have become so irrelevant, to people claiming to follow in the same tradition — how far down and far away the acorn has fallen.

I struggle to understand it. I would be happy if the leadership of one of these churches stopped by and explained the reasoning. But the very idea of dispensing with the Eucharist must rest on the assumption that Baptism and the Eucharist aren’t sacraments at all, but merely symbols or “ordinances.” This idea certainly wasn’t present in the theology of the better-known and revered Protestant Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, who both fully affirmed the sacramentality of Baptism and the Eucharist, and the Presence (however that Presence is understood) of Christ in the Eucharist. It was Huldrych Zwingli who first rejected the idea of the Sacraments, though it’s unclear to me (as yet) how this idea made it into modern Evangelicalism, which largely flowed out of the Second Great Awakening. The rejection of sacramentality seems to have followed in the death of any sense of the sacred at all.

Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1594)

The Last Supper (1594), by Tintoretto.

These modern Evangelicals want to avoid any suggestion of doing something “religious” or “liturgical” or “ritualistic” or — God forbid — Catholic. The idea of “sacraments,” in the Evangelical mindset, suggests that some “works” other than mere belief in Christ is necessary for salvation. The notion that “faith alone” saves, taken in this sense, rejects any idea of sacramentality before it can even begin. If we assume from the get-go that nothing else is necessary for salvation — something Scripture never shows — then any other idea, even if plainly stated in Scripture, is short-circuited.

These churches make a token of practicing Baptism and the Eucharist occasionally, just because they are plainly commanded by Christ. But they have no real meaning or efficacy. If something is merely symbolic, it must be unimportant and unnecessary. It becomes a mere “symbolic act of obedience” — read, “We do this just because He said to do it.” If it doesn’t do anything — if it in itself isn’t necessary for salvation, and doesn’t further the Kingdom of God — then why should we bother doing it? I often get the feeling that these churches feel that the Eucharist is merely gets in the way of the more important work of the church, preaching and teaching and evangelizing.

Eucharistic adoration

Not that those things aren’t important. For how are the lost to hear the Gospel without a preacher (Romans 10:14)? But the Early Church, and the Church throughout history, has understood that, as St. Paul says, the Bread and the Cup are a participation — a communion — in the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). Through the eating of His Body and the drinking of His Blood, we abide in Him and He in us (John 6:56). It is a “remembrance,” but it is a remembrance in the same way the Passover was a remembrance of the Old Covenant: a re-presentation, “as often as you take it,” of the salvific sacrifice of Christ, our Passover Lamb — the New Covenant that saves us and sets us free. How can anyone shuffle that off as merely a quarterly “symbolic act of obedience”?

When Church is Good

Giotto, The Last Supper

The Last Supper (1306), by Giotto. Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua.

Every week when my parents get home from their church and I get home from my Mass, they ask me “how church was.” Growing up Protestant, this was a common way of talking. “Church sure was good.” “That was a good service.” Just yesterday, they came home telling me how “good” their church was. Now, as a Catholic, I’m struck by how foreign this mode of speech has become, and I’m never quite sure how to respond.

They mean, of course, that the sermon was good, edifying or inspiring, or that the worship was stirring or emotional. Which are good things. That’s why Protestants go to church — to hear good preaching, or experience good worship, or have good fellowship.

Eucharist

But that’s not why Catholics go to Mass. We go to Mass for the Eucharist — to partake in the intimate communion of Holy Communion; to share in the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ; to receive Him in person, in our person and in His person. And that is always good — beyond good; it is divine.

So asking a Catholic if “church was good” is like asking if Jesus is good. Why yes, of course it was good. The homily could have been dull, and the music could have been grating; but Jesus was there in the Eucharist. He came to meet me, to touch me and be with me. How can that be anything but good, wonderful, awesome, overwhelming? Evangelicals like to brag that their faith is not a religion, but a relationship, and yet they only experience Christ in the abstract in their services, through their singing and someone else’s preaching.

Poussin, Institution of the Eucharist (1640)

Institution of the Eucharist (1640), by Nicolas Poussin.

It strikes me, too, that I never really understood what “Communion” was about as a Protestant. Who is it that we were supposed to be having “Communion” with, and in what way? I guess many Protestants think of it as a meal in common, a symbolic gesture of unity, a sign that the church is together in following and serving the Lord. They are sitting down to a meal, symbolically, with each other and with Jesus. But the very term Communion evinces something much deeper and more intimate, and I can now see why many Protestants shy from it, calling it instead only the Lord’s Supper. But St. Paul himself testifies to what it is:

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion [Greek κοινωνία (koinōnía), often translated participation or sharing] in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
(1 Corinthians 10:16–17)

The Eucharist: The Source and Summit of Our Faith

Juan de Juanes, La Última Cena (ca. 1562)

La Última Cena (ca. 1562), by Juan de Juanes. (Wikipedia)

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all. Yeah, I’m a little late on that one, but it’s been a busy and stressful few weeks. I’m still trying to settle back in at home, and re-situate my books and my life, and make progress on my thesis.

I’ve been stressing, too, you know, about the next post in my series on the Sacraments: an introductory post on the Eucharist. How can I do such a subject justice in a single brief post, or even in a dozen? It’s had me bound up for weeks, researching fervently and never feeling worthy. So I finally decided to sit down and give you, rather than the ultimate, perfect, authoritative post, a human and personal reflection.

Eucharistic adoration

We Catholics say that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the whole Christian life.” (Second Vatican Council [1964], Lumen Gentium III.11.1, lit. totius vitae christianae fons et culmen — those words are a lot richer than they come across in English: fons is the fount from which the blessings of our faith flow; culmen means the very peak, the summit, the apex, the culmination). As a Protestant growing up, I had no notion of this — we rarely celebrated Holy Communion in the churches I was a part of — and even early in my conversion, after I’d begun attending Mass, I couldn’t comprehend it. I used to think as a Protestant that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was merely a pious superstition, one inconsequential to the substance of the Christian faith and message: what does it matter whether He’s really there or not, as long as we believe in Him and follow Him? What is the big deal about the Lord’s Supper? Why make Communion the central act of the Christian life — the very reason for going to church? Don’t we have better things to focus on, like edification through preaching and teaching, and fellowship and support through community, and ministry to the lost and hurting? As I heard Mass, as I witnessed it and stood in the presence of the Eucharist, though unable to partake, a glimmer of the truth began to dawn on me; but it wasn’t until the very moment of my First Communion, the first time I came to the Eucharistic table and experienced it for myself, that the full reality, the full mystery, hit me and overwhelmed me.

van der Weyden, Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), center panel

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (1450), by Rogier van der Weyden. The center panel, showing the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the whole Christian life because it is Christian life itself. In the Eucharist we have the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, really and truly present. In Holy Communion we share in His full humanity and His full divinity; we partake of His eternal life itself — the love and the life of God delivered to us directly, not just spiritually but corporeally and viscerally. We are united with Him more intimately than we can ever be united with anyone else, in the flesh as well as in the spirit; united with the very Body of Christ, in Communion not only with Him but with all the saints and believers who have been united with Him over the ages, in the Church on earth and in His eternal kingdom. The Eucharist is our font and our apex because from it flows all else: all the grace by which God forgives us and saves us; all the faith and hope and love with which He imbues us; all the power and authority and ability He gives us to turn from sin and follow Him, to pursue His righteousness, to love and minister to others. All the preaching, all the teaching, all the ministry, all the fellowship are subsumed to the Eucharist because without the Eucharist we could have none of those. It is the source of our life; our very food from heaven.

In the grace of the Eucharist, I find so much strength, but at the same time see how truly weak I am, how desperately I need Christ, how I am nothing without Him. Where before the Lord’s Supper was “no big deal” to me, a nice symbol and memorial, now not only my faith, but my entire life orbits the Eucharist. I know I cannot live without His Presence; the Lord’s Day is the center of my week; my soul and my body ache to be departed from Him even the few days in between. What is this miracle, what is this mystery, what is this treasure God has given us?

The Protestant will ask, can you support that biblically? And yes, Jesus states it plainly (John 6:22–71):

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. … I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. Somehow, by some tragic blindness, Protestants interpret this passage as symbolism and metaphor. But the universal witness of the early Church attests to the belief of the earliest Christians in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and of its centrality to the Christian life. For Christian life is about communion with Christ — even Protestants should admit this — and it is only in the Eucharist, the Most Blessed Sacrament, that we have the true and full Communion with Him that His Body was broken for; that He gave to us for all time.

Una Misa en Español

Our Lady of Guadalupe

Our Lady of Guadalupe.

This past Sunday I had the opportunity to attend a Mass in Spanish. I thought I would share a bit of my cultural reconnaissance.

First, I know exceedingly little Spanish — a truly sad paucity, given that I took Spanish in school for two and half years (though that was now over ten years ago). So I had a difficult time even getting the gist of the homily or the announcements. But thanks be to God, the Mass is universal: though I didn’t know the words, I nonetheless knew the liturgy. The missalette had the words of the Spanish liturgy facing the English; and I do know enough Spanish and enough Latin to read Spanish with a fair proficiency.

It was a large parish, and had a large church building; and it was packed. I’m not a good judge of numbers, but I would say at least a couple of hundred were there? To my knowledge, it was one of the only Sunday Masses in Spanish within a thirty-mile radius. It seemed to be a very active and close-knit community, judging by the length of time spent making announcements both before and after Mass, and the bulletin that I snagged.

Holy Spirit

But they have a superb pipe organ.

The music was lively and contemporary with a distinct Latin beat, not surprisingly (the church architecture and decor were also contemporary, or were fifty years ago). The homily was longer than any English homily I’ve heard, probably thirty minutes or so; I caught scattered bits here and there about the Year of Faith, the importance of living the faith, and what sounded like bits of the Credo. The congregation both spoke and sang a lot faster than my feeble attempts at Spanish pronunciation could keep up, but I did my best, and finally during the Liturgy of the Eucharist resorted to responding in English under my breath. I suppose I am a dead giveaway as an Anglo, with my pale white skin, brown hair, and green eyes, because both the priest and the extraordinary minister of the Cup spoke to me in English (to my slight disappointment): “The Body of Christ.” “The Blood of Christ.”

Holy Spirit Church

Holy Spirit Church, Huntsville.

There was one very striking thing: When it came time to go up for the Eucharist, only a small fraction of the people went; I would say only one or two per row, and not even from every row. I am not sure how to interpret this — certainly it is a vast cultural difference. At every English-speaking Mass I’ve ever been to, the majority of people go up; indeed, I tend to feel a little uncomfortable not going up, when I’m not well-disposed for whatever reason — though I know I shouldn’t. One hears of all sorts of “cultural Catholics” or “cafeteria Catholics” who go to receive Communion even when they shouldn’t, when they go to Mass irregularly and haven’t been to Confession, or when they hold views starkly in conflict with the teachings of the Church (thinking especially of certain Catholic politicians). Many of these merely cultural Catholics (judging by what I’ve heard and not by knowing any of them) feel that receiving Communion is their “right” as Catholics, and are incensed if they are denied it. The attitude seems to be that the Church is there to serve them, not they to serve Christ’s Church.

And here in this Latino congregation, the thinking seemed to be much different. I can think of several ways to read this phenomenon. Clearly the large number of people in attendance thought it was important if not necessary to be there. Were all of these people who didn’t go up — which included young people and old people — not well-disposed to receive, on account of unconfessed sin or being away from Confession? Or, are they merely “cultural” Catholics who attend Mass for the community aspect but do not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist or in its importance? Or is taking regular Communion simply not a part of their culture? In any case, the one thing I think I can say for sure is that these people had a profound respect for the Blessed Sacrament, not to dishonor it by receiving it in sin or unbelief.

EDIT: In discussing this with a friend, I realized the probable reason for so many congregants’ abstinence from Communion: this was the first Sunday Mass after All Saints’, a Holy Day of Obligation. Many of these folks may not have been able to attend Mass that day (especially not a Spanish Mass). But still, at an English Mass, many people who had missed the Holy Day would have nonetheless gone up to recieve: these people were very respectful.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, Witness of the Early Church, and Three Important Lessons He Can Teach Us

Ignatius of Antioch

St. Ignatius of Antioch

Today is the feast day of St. Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr. St. Ignatius was born in Syria ca. 50, and is believed to have been a disciple of the Apostle St. John. He became the third Bishop of Antioch, following St. Peter and St. Evodius, in ca. 69. In about 108, on the authority of the emperor Trajan, St. Ignatius was arrested and condemned to die for his faith before a Roman audience.

It is at this point that he becomes for us one of the greatest μάρτυρες (martyrs) of the Early Church. A martyr in Greek literally is a witness, one who gives testimony — and in his death, St. Ignatius not only bore great testimony for his faith in Christ, but he bears great testimony to us in this day of the faith, beliefs, and practices of the Early Church. For on his way to Rome, he wrote seven letters to the Churches of Asia Minor, exhorting them to remain firm in their faith, and to the Church at Rome, admonishing the believers there not to intervene and prevent him from giving his ultimate witness.

Martyrdom of Ignatius

The Martyrdom of St. Ignatius of Antioch

A.D. 108 — this is scarcely two generations from the time of Christ’s earthly ministry, at the very closing of the Apostolic Age: the Apostle John is believed to have died as late as ca. 100. Ignatius of Antioch lived early enough to have known several of the Apostles and heard their teachings. He was held in high esteem by the entire Church, a well-known, respected, and authoritative bishop and teacher. He was notorious enough even outside the Church for Trajan to have made an example of him. So we have every reason to trust Ignatius’s testimony regarding the faith of the Christian Church of his day — the faith received from the Apostles.

What Ignatius can teach us

The Authority of the Bishop

Bishops' Croziers

The crozier, one of the symbols of the episcopate.

There has been considerable debate among historians about the development of the episcopacy and at what point in the growth of the Church the office of bishop came to mean what it means to the Church today. Bishops (or overseers — the Greek is ἐπίσκοποι* [episkopoi]) are described in the New Testament (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:7), but it appears that in the earliest days of the Church, the offices of bishop and presbyter (πρεσβύτερος [presbyteros], or elder — the presbyters of the Church became what we call priests) may have been to some extent synonymous. (For example, in 1 Peter 5:1, St. Peter refers to himself as a fellow presbyter†; in the above passage in 1 Timothy 3, St. Paul describes the offices of bishop and deacon but not presbyter.) The governance of the local church by only one monarchical bishop, as came to be the model and continues to be the model, is known to historians as the monoepiscopacy — with some liberal scholars, such as Bart Ehrman, suggesting that it was not established until well into the second century. This has particular bearing on the claims of the Church of Rome — for its bishop is also known as the pope, and as the successor of St. Peter, claims primacy over the whole Church.

* See “Bishops and Priests” for a lengthier discussion of the Greek for this terms.

† In the Church to this day, however, all bishops are presbyters (priests), but not all priests are bishops.

St. Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Clement), dated ca. 95, does not give explicit evidence of the monoepiscopacy (neither does it contradict it). But St. Ignatius’s letters, dated ca. 107, give absolute and undeniable evidence of the monoepiscopacy, and he asserts it as a known and established fact, not as a recent institution:

See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery [i.e. the priests] as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is [administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8)

Not only does the bishop have absolute authority in the local church, but neither baptisms nor the Eucharist are valid without the ministry or approval of the bishop. This establishes definitely the monoepiscopacy, the subordinate roles of presbyters and deacons, and the authority of the bishop over the Sacraments of the Church. Ignatius compares the office of the bishop in every community of believers to the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist — Wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. (This is also the earliest known description of the Church as Catholic, or universal.)

The Belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

Eucharistic adoration

The Catholic Church believes that in the Eucharist, the elements of bread and wine become in reality the Body and Blood of Christ. Many Protestant detractors argue that this doctrine is a later development and not a true apostolic teaching (despite clear statements in Scripture, e.g. 1 Corinthians 11:27-29). St. Ignatius, however, attests firmly to the Church’s belief in the Real Presence in the first decade of the second century — a much earlier time than Protestants would like to admit, and too soon after the Apostles for such a doctrine to have been “invented”:

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. . . . They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh (σάρξ) of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6–7)

The Compilation of the New Testament

Codex Vaticanus

A leaf from Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest extant manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

Third and finally, Ignatius’s writings demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the New Testament Scriptures, and he quotes from them as if from memory — it is unlikely that he would have been traveling to his death with a full church library. Working from the citations labeled by the editors of the texts at New Advent, I find:

  • Matthew
  • John
  • Romans
  • 1 Corinthians
  • Galatians
  • Ephesians
  • Philippians
  • Colossians
  • 1 Thessalonians
  • 1 Timothy
  • 2 Timothy
  • James
  • 1 Peter
  • 1 John

Considering the contemporaneous Martyrdom of Ignatius, believed to have been written by eyewitnesses to Ignatius’s death — probably the believers who accompanied him to Rome — adds Acts and 2 Corinthians to the list above.

NOTE (2013/10/30): I may have to review this argument. It seems the editors of the Ante-Nicene Fathers may have been a little overzealous in their citations, and marked as Scripture references passages and phrases that were not explicitly Scripture references. I withhold a verdict at this time, until I can study the problem more deeply.

That makes for a fairly comprehensive collection of New Testament documents. Ignatius was familiar with the writings of St. Paul, St. Peter, St. John, and St. James, as well as the Gospel of Matthew — the citations ascribed to which, I suppose, might include references to the other Synoptic Gospels also. For a date mere decades after these documents were written — and these documents having been written in diverse parts of the Christian world — the Church seems to have very quickly assembled the collection known as the New Testament nearly in its entirety. And what’s more, Ignatius quotes from the New Testament with the same authority as he quotes from Old Testament Scripture — certainly the Church in Ignatius’s day considered the Gospels and apostolic letters holy, inspired writings. By the first decade of the second century, the Church had nearly (if not fully) assembled intact the body of Scripture that has been handed down to the Church today.