MY LIFE AND THE EUCHARIST
By Griff Ruby
In the course of my life, and my various conversion experiences my understanding of Christís words has deepened in many ways. On the night of His betrayal, He took a piece of bread in His hands and said, "For this is My Body." Soon after that He took the cup (full of wine) and said, "For this is the Chalice of my Blood of the new and eternal testament, the mystery of faith; which shall be shed for you and for many unto the remission of sins." Over the course of my life, I have had at least half a dozen different understandings of and experiences with those words of our Lord.
My first perspective, in which I was raised, was not to even know of such words at all. Having been raised an atheist, I had no idea what went on in Churches, even as I have very little idea to this day what goes on in the Moose Lodge or the Rotary Club. A bunch of people would go to some building where they engage in some mysterious business or mumbo jumbo and then leave. To my humanized secularized mind, all ritual including this would have been defined by me as "a sequence of complex actions which serves no purpose."
The next exposure I had to the Eucharist came in the Rock Opera "Jesus Christ Superstar." The scene presented was that Jesus, knowing that He was about to be crucified, is having His last meal with His disciples, and as usual they are not paying any attention to Him, so He happens to look at a piece of bread He is eating and says, "For all you care this bread could be My Body." How typical for Hollywood or Madison Avenue: His disciples never really understand Him, only Hollywood or Madison Avenue does. Aside from the touching quality of the music associated with that scene, such a perspective really did not mean that much to me.
The first religion which sufficiently impressed me so as to leave my atheism was that of Jehovahís Witnesses. Theirs is just about the most stripped down, bare bones form of Bible belief I have ever known. As such, I could retain much of my atheistic outlook, except for the presence of a God and respect for the Bible. I do not wish to go into any further detail regarding their beliefs, except to discuss their handling of Jesusí words "This is My Body." They "keep doing this in memory of me" in a very different way from how we Catholics do it.
For one thing, they do it precisely once per year, on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Nisan (comes about Passover time). For another they insist on using the word "emblems" to describe the bread and the wine. They regard them strictly as symbols, and such a belief even finds its way into their translation of the Bible (The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures) as follows: "For this means my body." If nothing else, that allowed me to see just how the Bible would have read if the Protestant position on this had actually been the correct one. Another thing I gained from their understanding of it was that first element of divine mystery about it.
In their plan of salvation, there are two possible hopes for the redeemed, namely an "Earthly" and a separate "Heavenly" hope. The "Heavenly" hope is reserved to 144,000 special members selected from all of history, and less than 10,000 of them are alive today. These would rule over the "New Earth" where everyone else would live. Those who are headed towards their "Heaven" are instructed to eat the "emblems" and those who are headed towards their "New Earth" do not. So far so good, but how can one be sure to which category he belongs? It was almost a year from my baptism as a Witness until I had the "emblems" before me as a baptized Witness, and therefore in a position to take them, providing of course that my hope is Heavenly instead of Earthly.
I really wondered about this until the actual moment came. When the time came I just knew, a truly strange and supernatural knowing: I was not to partake of the "emblems." I had therefore no Heavenly hope, hardly anything to complain about in that society. Somehow it was just as obvious to me as whether or not I had a headache. Perhaps it really was because I really did not have as yet a Heavenly hope, whether real or fictitious.
I left the Jehovahís Witnesses rather abruptly in an episode which is a whole long story in itself, but in a several month period between my departure from them and before my before my arrival at Evangelical Christianity, I tried many different things, including Jewish worship. It was there I first tasted kosher wine, which is really sweet just like all sacramental wines are. Unlike most people there, I liked it. I was also exposed to the Jewish prayers which are said over the bread and the wine at the Shabbat services, "Baruch Hatad Adonai, Elohaynu Melach Ha AlomÖ," Blessed be the Lord, God of all creation.
The next step in my spiritual journey brought me to a sort of generic, non-denominational Evangelical Christianity. In the church I started going to, Calvary Way Christian Fellowship by name, they had a very flexible and ecumenical way of approaching such things. For example if you spoke in tongues that was fine and if you didnít that was also fine. When it came to their Communion service (which they had about once per month), they would pass around a small metal plate with tiny bread pieces on it, and a round, pan-sized thingamabob with lots of little cups in it. The cups at the edge of this thingamabob had wine for those like myself who felt that "wine" meant wine and nothing else, and the other cups inside had grape juice for those who felt that alcohol was always bad, or didnít like the taste of it or just had some other reason to avoid it.
I knew it had to be wine (actually kosher wine, and the stuff used by the Catholic Church is also the same recipe as kosher wine) and not grape juice because there was no refrigeration and grape juice would spoil where wine does not. Also the Biblical word used to describe the stuff poured into the cup of chalice before the service is the same word as is translated "wine" in such passages as which say "wine is a mocker" or "drunk with wine," both phrases implying an intoxicating beverage. Therefore those who insist that it was grape juice or that wine must never be used really havenít got a leg to stand on.
The Protestant notion of Communion was taken as an assumed at these services but never pressed very hard. One thing that did happen is that I stopped using the Watchtowerís Bible and turned to more standard translations in which Jesus says "This is My Body." It was only a matter of time before meditating on this short sentence would move me onward in my spiritual journey. During my Protestant and then Pentecostal phase, if someone were to ask me then why Jesus said "This is My body" instead of "This means My Body," I would have answered, "thatís just the way people sometimes talk. For example one could be pointing out things on a map and saying ĎWeíre here, and this is Santa Barbara, andÖí no, thatís not Santa Barbara, thatís a spot on a piece of paper which means Santa Barbara. The town itself is thataway."
Moving from Evangelical to Pentecostal didnít itself directly change my views of the Eucharist but it did help me to see that the "Christianity" I knew was something less than complete. The Protestants had taught me about the Trinity and the Physical resurrection of Christ and some other doctrines which the Witnesses deny, and despite the clear deficiencies in their Christian doctrine, it represented for me at the time a forward step from my Watchtower beliefs which are relatively materialistic (in the philosophical sense of saying matter is everything, not in the worldly sense of wealth and possessions are everything) and earthbound in comparison.
The Pentecostals taught me that miracles were not merely a thing of the past but very real even today, an essential point to grasp in understanding the Eucharist. But my understanding of the Eucharist itself underwent no change during that change in my life. Having had my fill of all of that singiní shoutiní jumpiní around Halleluia "Praise the Lord" Pentecostalism I returned to a more sedate Protestant denomination which at times made me comfortable and at other times made me bored. During that time I had two other observations of the Eucharist before the one which would draw me towards the Catholic faith. The first is of little importance except to show that I too have had my imperfections.
In my spiritual boredom, I did at times drift rather far from God, even to the point of trying to jump into the world (in the sense of the World, the Flesh, and the Devil), that "world," with both feet. At a dorm party in College I remember being already drunk and taking a glass of champagne, I held it up and said to the equally drunk idiots around me, "This is My Communion," by which I meant getting drunk with these people. The second was as profound for me as that one had been silly and irreverent.
When I went on a retreat sponsored for a Campus Youth Group there came a part of it in which during the course of a very informal Communion service I came to realize the depth of the Godly love I felt for the people I had come to know as friends. They meant so much to me that I knew that if any one of them were starving and all I had to give them was pieces of meat hacked off my own body, I would have cheerfully done that just to feed them. To this day I regard that as a kind of Jesusí eye view of the Eucharist. It was as if His love for these people was streaming out of me towards them. From that time onward I knew that there was something important and profound in what He did that night.
It was after I came here to Lompoc that I really began to start thinking about the question, "What exactly did Jesus mean when He said ĎThis is My Bodyí?" The understandings of it I had developed while it was not all that important to me were wearing quite thin and threadbare. The map model doesnít work because if He is merely using a piece of bread to illustrate what they are then to do with His Body, why do they not eat Him next? Obviously it was intended that they eat Him quite literally, if not at that time, then at least at some point in time.
Another idea which had occurred to me at that time was that "This" of "This is My Body" referred to the group of disciples He was with that night. Certainly the Church is the Body of Christ, but in that case if that is all He meant, who is He talking to? If that had been all He meant, He should have said "You are My Body." No, Jesus said "This is" which refers to a single inanimate object, obviously the piece of bread in His hands.
Another notion worth mentioning is the Lutheran idea which they have named "Consubstantiation." This teaching states that the bread and wine are still bread and wine, but that the spirit of Christ is there as well, floating or blowing in between the molecules of the bread and wine. Such a teaching denies that Christ is fleshly, even in Heaven since His Body and Soul are totally united and inseparable. Also, if that were what Jesus meant, He would have said "This bread contains My Body."
Jesus called it His Body. Either it is or He is a liar. Then I found John chapter six in which He says to the people that they must eat His Flesh and drink His Blood or else they have no share in eternal life. Unlike in John chapter three where Nicodemus takes Him literally and has to be set straight, Jesus refuses to spiritualize what He just said. He meant for them to actually believe that they are to consume pieces of Him. For me, that was the final nail in the coffin for any interpretation except the literal one that it is as He said, His Body and Blood.
The Protestants, even those ultra-literalists who insist on taking the seven days of Genesis as seven literal 24-hour days, always become strangely symbolic when it comes to this one Bible passage. Their only prooftext against it has always been the passage which comes right after, "Do this in remembrance of Me." As if a person canít be remembered while they are still around! It gets even worse than that for the Protestant. The part about remembrance is a command, the previous statement is a fact. How can the command nullify the fact just stated? "Here, this is a can of gasoline. As a favor to me would you please pour it down that little hole in the back of my car?" How does one get from "as a favor to me would you please pour it down that little hole in the back of my car" to "therefore it canít possibly be an actual can of gasoline?" One canít, of course, and the entire Protestant case against the Eucharist falls flat on its face under a momentís scrutiny, never to recover.
It was not hard for me to accept that the Body also contains the Blood and that the blood also contains the Body, and so therefore it is not necessary that both be received, although receiving both certainly doesnít hurt. It is easy for me to see that because in any piece of flesh or meat, there will always be traces of blood which cannot be quite squeezed out, and in the blood there are fleshly particles (the red and white corpuscles and platelets, etc.) suspended in the fluid. So it obviously must be with His Flesh and Blood. That it should also be His Soul and His Divinity is also easy enough to see. Jesus is alive, and physically resurrected. Therefore His Body and Soul are united. Jesus is God, the Second person of the Trinity, who proceeds from the Father, and from whom together with the Father proceeds the Holy Spirit. While present here in earth, it is not "God in Heaven but some lesser representative agent here on earth." God is here, wherever the Body and Blood and Soul of Christ are.
All of that being the case, the Eucharist, or Blessed Sacrament is not only the Body of Christ, but His Blood, Soul, and Divinity. It is therefore Him, and He is God. To adore this Blessed Sacrament in Eucharistic devotions such as Holy Hours, Benediction, or Processions in which the Blessed Sacrament is carried about in the monstrance are all perfectly appropriate.
One might be tempted to think that we have now arrived at a fully Catholic position regarding the Eucharist. "This is My Body." That is actually and literally true. This much I believed the day I was received into the Church by Monsignor Rawden. But, I ask, was Jesus in saying this, and for that matter the priest at Mass doing likewise, merely stating a fact? Therein enters the doctrine of transubstantiation, the changing of its substance from bread and wine to the Body and Blood of our Savior.
In all that I had learned by that time I nevertheless found it unfathomable that some sort of change should take place, as though the Mass were some sort of magic show. The grammar of "This is My Body" seems to imply that it already was His Body even before He said so, and had been for who knows how long. He does not say "This is now becoming My Body," although that is in fact what is happening right then. According to this still less than perfect understanding, it was "always" His Body, and the priest in saying the words is merely revealing something to those in attendance which was already true, but hid from their eyes until then.
An interesting case could be made for this view from authoritative sources, not to expound a new doctrine of the Eucharist but simply to illustrate that as one gets closer to the truth, one finds more and more pieces fitting in the puzzle without having to be jammed in upside down. It goes like this: God is from eternity to eternity, forever unchanged, and this "Manna from Heaven" being his Body and Blood and Soul and Divinity is therefore Him, and since He is eternal, "This" is Him from eternity to eternity. It was always Him. In the Bible, during one of the resurrection scenes, two disciples are with Jesus but they donít know itís Him until He breaks the bread (Mass). Likewise Jesus is already with us in the Blessed Sacrament but we donít know itís Him until the priest "breaks bread" (says Mass).
There is more. While one can easily find doctrinal definitions in the Church regarding what the Blessed Sacrament is once he has said Mass over it, one searches in vain for any formal definitive statement as to what it is before that point is reached. One other I didnít even know about when I was as yet still ignorant enough to hold that view was that in the traditional Mass, there comes some rather considerable language about its being a "venerable, unspotted host" even before the priest says "This is My Body," perhaps hinting that there may be already more to it than mere bread and wine. Finally there are those words "for us" which one finds in the new Mass. Thomas Cramner originally inserted those two words in his English edition of the Mass in order to plant in the minds of those attending the subtle notion that the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine was merely a subjective point of view on their part, not an objective reality.
I saw however, an altogether different meaning in those words, actually two meanings. One of them harked back to my Jesusí eye view of the Eucharist as a devotional point that Jesus comes down to the altar for us, that is on account of His infinite love for us. The other meaning is that only "us" Catholics are privileged to know what the Blessed Sacrament actually is. "For us," that is Christ, not because we choose to delude ourselves that we see Him, but because that actually is Christ who hides Himself from the world but reveals Himself to us. The world is deluded because they think itís bread and wine. At this sacred moment Christ does not talk to them at all, leaving them in their ignorance, but he reveals to us that He really is present.
Well, that may sound very convincing, or at least plausible, but like every theory which isnít quite right, there remains some loose ends on the periphery which donít quite fit in. Because I did not grow up Catholic, nor visit a Catholic Church until after the new Mass was official, I did not know that the priest used to whisper the words "This is My Body" making it almost impossible to hear him, furthermore he said it in Latin, and he faced away from the people. Clearly he is not talking to them at all. The fact that such a practice could be on the books and par for the course for who knows how long utterly smashes the notion that "the priest in saying the words is merely revealing something to those in attendance which was already true." He is not "revealing" anything to anybody; he is just quietly whispering to God.
The next objection to that theory is more serious. There exists a rather considerable teaching in the Church regarding the role and powers and the nature of the priesthood. In fact, such a theory altogether leaves out any real need for any sort of a priesthood at all. In merely stating a truth that "This is My Body," the priest requires no special capacity which could not be done by any other designated official of the Church.
The third objection is by far the most serious, and the one which totally blows it out of the water. If the wafer were always Him, what does that say about the time before it was prepared? Was it God Himself who was those grains of wheat out there in some field somewhere? Was God the soil and the water and the air which the wheat plant combined into its own substance? There is also the other end to think about. After we eat it, does it therefore remain God? After some of it has been absorbed into our bodily tissues and some of it excreted, is it still God? I hate to think of what some weird cult could do with that idea.
It is a mighty short jump to the conclusion that everything is God and that we should therefore be Pantheists worshipping everything. Pantheism so flatly contradicts Christianity and indeed all Western religion as to be almost its opposite. The theory as given is therefore false and all that remains to be done with it is to refute the evidences produced in its defense before leaving it altogether.
Yes, God is eternal, and from eternity to eternity never changing. But the created Universe is not. It has an identifiable start and presumably an identifiable finish. Therefore for any matter in the Universe to have the identity of God it must take on that identity at some point in time and either lose that identity at some later point of time (as the Eucharist does some minutes after it is consumed), remain permanently God, or be taken into Heaven (as Christís body was so taken at the Ascension). The resurrection scene with the two disciples and the absence of any formal Church defined belief that the unconsecrated Host is mere bread do not actually prove anything. They only make it easier to understand and believe such a theory were it to be true. If a detective can explain away a suspects alibi, that would invalidate the alibi and the suspect remains on the suspect list, but it doesnít prove that the suspect committed the crime.
In the traditional Mass, the phrases such as "venerable and unspotted host" may simply imply that the respect shown for so great of a sacred action extends to the use of the choicest bread, just as the priest does not say Mass in dirty vestments or light up crooked ugly candles or intersperse his Mass with swear words. In the new Mass, the words "for us" can still be quite properly taken in their devotional sense, namely that Jesus did all that He did for us on account of His love for us. Any other interpretation of those words is simply not Catholic. I think the flawed theory that the Host is somehow always the Body of Christ can be regarded as completely refuted, I now leave it behind.
We now return full circle to the problem which created the need for the heresy I just expounded and then refuted: The priest does not say "This is now becoming My Body," yet that is precisely what is happening. He says "This is My Body." In what sense is it reasonable to use those words when the other words better describe what is happening? Remember, at the altar the priest is "alter Christus," another Christ. He acts therefore with the authority of Christ. And who is Christ? The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is the King, and so at the moment is the priest.
Kings make decrees and mandates, and sometimes those decrees and mandates take the grammatical form of a statement. If the King says "It is forbidden to burp in my presence," then that is the law, regardless of whether such a law already exists on the books or not. If it doesnít already exist there his clerics are expected to put it there immediately. It is not necessary for the King to say, "I am now promulgating a new decreeÖ" He has spoken of something as law and that makes it law. So it is with the priest acting in the place of the King of Kings. He says "This is My Body," and that is a decree. It becomes so by virtue of his having said it.
That is not merely a command to those present to regard the bread as Christís Body, remember he is not really speaking to them but to God, and perhaps to the bread itself. He who commanded the dust to become man, and the wind and the waves to be still and the water to hold Him up as He walked on it most certainly has the power and authority to command a piece of bread to become His Body. And now one has the whole Catholic picture. The priest, by virtue of his ordination, acts as Christ with Christís authority and power to command that it should be so that "This is My Body." The substance of the bread and the wine is changed into the substance of the Body and Blood and Soul and Divinity of our Lord, a process which we Catholics call transubstantiation.
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