Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why I'm Catholic... part 3 (Eucharist)

We have come to the single most important reason why I am Catholic: the Eucharist.  Having covered the papacy, the single greatest point of contention between Catholic and Orthodox Christians,  who believe the same thing about the Eucharist,  I am free to explore the amazing grace that comes from Jesus’s promise to be with us always, “even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

The Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion, refers to the bread and wine that is central to Catholic worship, because a mere work of the human hands and fruit of the vine is literally transformed in our presence into the body and blood of Our Savior, Jesus Christ.  Once this transubstantiation, as it is called, takes place, we no longer look at the host as “a wafer” or the cup of wine as “drink”.  We believe that God is capable of all miracles, and we believe Jesus when He speaks to us in Scripture.  And in the 6th chapter of John, He is very clear about His institution of the Eucharist as a way in which He intends to be present for future generations in a way that surpasses all human understanding.

Receiving Our Lord in the Eucharist for the first time.
Jesus says in John 6:51, I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.  We know that Jesus was understood at the time to be speaking literally because the response of the Jews in verse 52 is “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?  Yet Jesus does not correct them here, saying that he means this as a metaphor.   

Instead, He reaffirms that they have understood correctly: “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 yourselves. He who eats 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.  He who eats 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 he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me.  This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:53-58).  Jesus doesn’t leave much room for misunderstanding here. He literally says “he who eats me”, not “he who eats that which represents me”. 

In verse 60, we see that the Jews understood Jesus literally, yet had much trouble accepting this: “This is a difficult teaching; who can listen to it?” Clearly, they had the same objections as many modern-day Protestant Christians do. In fact, this teaching proved to be too much for them and they stopped following Jesus over it: “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore” (John 6:66). 

Jesus would not allow these would-be disciples to walk away from faith over a mere misunderstanding. He would correct their assumptions and let them know that they could still follow Him.  But He did not.  Why not?  If Christians can believe in the literal meaning of the Scriptures in reference to the creation, incarnation, resurrection, then why not believe in the literal meaning of the Scriptures when it comes to the manner in which Jesus would stay with us always?

But to be honest, it’s not the Scriptural evidence that compels me to be Catholic; it’s the presence of Our Eucharistic Lord that I sense when I am near the tabernacle (the ornamental box where the Eucharist is kept).  There is, without a doubt, a difference for me between entering a Catholic church and any other place of worship.  In a Catholic church (I’ve never visited an Orthodox church, so I can’t speak to that experience), upon entering, I am reminded of Exodus 3:5, where the Lord tells Moses “Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground. I feel compelled to show reverence in the house of God.  I am not there to fellowship with others, or to be entertained by the choir, or to sit back and enjoy a thought-provoking sermon.  I am there to worship God.

Recall that in the post on Mary, I mentioned that Catholics see a difference between prayer, praise, sermons, Bible studies, and worship.  The Eucharist is the reason for this.  During the celebration of the liturgy of the Mass, we have prayer, we have musical praise, we have sermons (called homilies), we have Scripture readings, but it is all of these together, done with reverence in the presence of the living God, that for Catholics means “worship”.

The Mass is made up of two parts: the liturgy of the Word, and the liturgy of the Eucharist.  In the liturgy of the Word, we listen to the Word of God – usually a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament epistle or letter, and a Gospel reading.  In the liturgy of the Eucharist, we are brought to our knees as we witness the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.  The priest reminds us of Jesus’s words in John 6, and then obeys His command to “do this in remembrance of Me” (1 Corinthians 11:24b). We pray, we tithe, we sing.  And then, the climax of the worship service: we humbly approach the altar to come face to face with Our Maker, something that cannot be sufficiently explained to someone who doesn’t believe and hasn’t experienced His presence.  

The popular Christian song by MercyMe, “I can only imagine,” comes close:

I can only imagine what it will be like when I walk by Your side.
I can only imagine what my eyes will see when Your face is before me.
Surrounded by Your glory, what will my heart feel?
Will I dance for You Jesus or in awe of you be still?
Will I stand in Your presence or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all? 

When I stand in the presence of the holy Eucharist, I am standing on holy ground, as Moses was.  When I prepare to receive Jesus in Holy Communion, I am sitting with Him at His last supper table.  When I kneel before the altar, I kneel before the presence of God Almighty. Too often, Catholics take for granted the amazing grace that we have in the Eucharist.  It is easy for us to take for granted that which is so easily available to us.  Nonetheless, I try to remember just how blessed I am that my Lord wishes to share Himself with me.  The words from Matthew 8:8 that we say just before going up to receive the Eucharist speak for themselves: “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof”.  I’m not, and yet He does.  

The Eucharist is a humbling total-body experience. This side of heaven, it is home.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. 

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