One of the hardest things for me to accept, as a Catholic, was the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Mind you, when I would walk into an empty church, I would feel an uncanny sort of presence. A feeling of being watched, though the church was empty. I would walk in and not want to disturb the quiet because it felt like someone else was already there and that I was interrupting something very grand that I didn’t understand.
But, I never really thought of God being there in a very physical way. I always kind of thought that He was all around us, kind of like the idea of the Force, as told in Star Wars. That way God would be omnipresent and powerful. The idea that God could or even would be contained in a wafer of bread? That was a strange thought indeed! The idea of Christ humbling Himself into a human form was one thing… at least I could understand that. I am human after all! But the fact that Christ humbled Himself into a little wafer? That was just hard to believe. I have a hard enough time trying to understand why He would humble Himself to the point of dying for us. But, this? This seemed impossible. Surely what I was eating was just a thin wafer?
But, as I rekindled my faith in Catholicism, I found out that my hero, St. Thomas Aquinas, was not only completely brilliant and adept at transforming Aristotelian philosophy into a coherent explanation of Catholicism, he was also a devout believer in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He even created the song, Panis Angelicus, which is still sung during Corpus Christi! This guy was a whole lot smarter than me. A genius, you might say! Yet, he believed in the Real Presence, whereas I had doubts.
And so, I did the sensible thing: I kept my mind open. Though I still had doubts, the more I explored, the more coherent the theory of Transubstantiation seemed to be and the more I accepted it, albeit hesitantly. And, when my parish advertised their perpetual adoration, I took that chance.
And what do you know? I found Jesus… right there in the Eucharist, like so many people before me have found!
My experience, both of doubt and then of experiencing Christ in the Eucharist, is hardly new occurrence! One of Raphael’s greatest artworks, The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament, deals exactly with this situation!
In this artwork, the people in heaven — The Holy Trinity, our Blessed Mother, John the Baptist, the apostles, some patriarchs, and a legion of angels — look down below at the Blessed Sacrament. And the people on Earth debate of the reality of Transubstantiation. Some eagerly embrace it and point to it with reverence, while others are a little more skeptical and want to discuss it more. Many famous people are present in this disputation, including Fra Angelico, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, Pope Gregory I, Pope Julius II, Pope Sixtus IV, Savonarola and Dante Alighieri.
Even back then, the idea of Transubstantiation and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was a strange idea. Yes, it has biblical passages that support it — the three gospel accounts of the Last Supper, the Bread of Life discourse in John, and the long discussion of how to receive the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 11. But it’s still hard to wrap our minds around! How can Christ appear to us in such a humble way? And why?
Hopefully the answer of how is apparent — God can because He can. But the answer to the big question of why appears in the artwork too. In the background to the left, so small that it is easy to miss, is a church that is being built. There are people, both adults and children, walking to the unfinished church in the background, even as this magnificent scene regarding the doctrine of Transubstantiation occurs in the forefront.
Why does He do it? Simple. He is sharing Himself so that we may come to Him and build up His Church.
And isn’t that the way it is with us? While Christ works in the center and our clergy do their best to listen and obey the commands of God, we come to church to witness this grand scene, where heaven kisses the earth for just a moment. For just a moment, the Bridegroom, Christ, embraces His Bride, the Church.
And in that moment, Jesus says, “Take this, my body.”
I don’t know about you, but in a way, that is one of the most incredible parts about the Real Presence — perhaps the most unbelievable part. The fact that Christ would humble Himself so much that He would even allow Himself to be consumed in this way to establish a covenant with a sinner like you or me out of love. After all, what have we done to deserve it?
And the answer to that question? Nothing. There is nothing that we have done to deserve it.
And yet God loves us all the same.
Thank You for being present with me, a sinner. Let me see Your face in the Blessed Sacrament.