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The Eucharist as the Living Christ
Conference by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
In large measure the crisis of faith within Catholic ranks today is particularly a crisis of faith regarding the Eucharist. Although there are many reasons, perhaps the most dramatic is doubt in the reality of Christ's presence in the Blessed Sacrament. We know what happened when Christ first announced that He would give His own flesh to eat and blood to drink as described for us by the apostle John in the sixth chapter of his Gospel. Many people who had until then been devoted to Him began first to murmur, then to wonder, finally to doubt and to leave His company. Since the mystery was first announced to the world, the Real Presence has always been THE mystery of faith.
Let us focus on two features of this mystery, first to consider the Eucharist as Reality and then to reflect on the Eucharist as Presence.
The Eucharist as Reality
What is the reality to which the Church so strongly directs our attention when we speak of the Real Presence? What is the substantive behind the adjective? What is the reality behind the word "real"? We say that something is real when it is not merely imaginary or illusory; it is real if it exists outside of ourselves and is not merely a figment of our imagination or even just an idea in our minds. What, then, is the reality which we believe is present in the Eucharist?
In order to get at what is by all accounts the deepest mystery that we daily deal with, suppose we begin by asking ourselves a few questions. Is this reality simply God? We cannot quite say that, because God as God was in the world from the moment He made it and, we should add, He would have been in the world even if there had been no Eucharist. He was in the world before He instituted the Blessed Sacrament, so we cannot quite say the reality is God, without further qualification.
Is it perhaps God present in a special way? Yes, indeed. But in what way? This is the essence of what we believe: it is God present as man. The Eucharist began with the Incarnation; it began in the womb of Mary. Except for her there would be no Jesus. Except for Jesus, there would be no Reality to speak of in the Eucharist. In a word, then, the Eucharist is unqualifyingly Jesus Christ.
Our faith tells us that Christ, true God and true man, full God and full man, is present. Where is He present? He is present now in Heaven at the right hand of His Heavenly Father. He really ascended into Heaven; the Ascension was not make-believe. But He is also present on earth, on our altars. We believe He is in the Blessed Sacrament as a living human being whose divinity assumed our nature; that He is the same, completely the same, identically the same, numerically the same Jesus who was born of His virgin mother and who will call us into eternity when we die, and who will come in glory on the last day.
Sometime ago, after lecturing to a mainly Protestant audience on one phase of the ecumenical movement, I discussed this particular point with a fervent Southern Baptist woman who had commented, "Father, listening to you, I can see that what I believe, you believe."
I asked her, "Do you believe that this Jesus, some forty days after His resurrection ascended into Heaven to His Heavenly Father?" "Yes, I do believe." "Where is Jesus now?" I asked. Then she said, "Why He is in Heaven!" "Well," I told her, "I believe that too, but is He only in Heaven?" "Where else would He be? He went to Heaven didn't He?" "Yes. With you I believe He went to Heaven, but unlike you, I believe He is also on earth. As a Catholic my faith tells me that the night before Jesus died, before He had left the earth in visible form, He gave His apostles and their successors the power to do what He did at the Last Supper, to change bread and wine into Himself." That is our faith. That is the reality.
The Eucharist as Presence
So we now ask ourselves, "If that is the Reality, what is the Presence?" The word "presence", as so many words in our language, is not easy to define. A clear understanding of the meaning of presence will help a lot to know what this Presence is all about.
In a manner of speaking, we may say that one thing is present to another, as, "The desk is present to me"; but we don't really mean it. Strictly speaking, only intelligent rational beings, "persons" in our human vocabulary, are present one to the other. But it is not only that somehow one person is where another person is that makes the one present to the other. Besides the one somehow being there with relationship to the other person, so that presence is always a relationship, it most fundamentally implies an awareness of the person's being there. But as soon as we say this, we run head on into a major difficulty.
If every presence is, as it is, somehow a relationship between persons, what are we then to say about Christ's abiding among us in the Eucharist? Let me take this slowly to simplify it.
Are we always present to Christ in the sense that He is always aware of us? Yes. Both as God and in the Eucharist as the God-Man, Christ is fully aware of us so that we are always present to Him. Prepositions here are of the essence.
But what about us? If we are always present to Him, is Christ in the Eucharist always present to us? In one sense, yes, if we understand presence as "thereness". Since Christ is always in the Eucharist with the fullness of His humanity and the plenitude of His divinity, He is there whether we think of Him or not, whether we are aware of Him or not.
So presence as "thereness" is independent of us. What an important statement that is: That is the faith of the undivided Catholic Church. We affirm with the fullness of realization as the Council of Trent so emphatically defined it: In the Eucharist is the "totus Christus, the whole Christ, with all that makes Him what He is; He is in the Blessed Sacrament. Presence as "beingness", presence as Reality, is independent of our awareness.
But what a difference there is between what we believe and how we live. Christ is, indeed, in the Eucharist, but in order to live out what the Church and Christ Himself want us to do, and what He intended when He instituted the Blessed Sacrament, He should be present to us not only physically in 'Reality, but also spiritually in our minds and in our hearts.
Some people take devotion to the Eucharist for granted. They act, or at least seem to act, as though because Christ is present in our midst, He should do something to them, like miraculously infusing into their souls some mystical light or mystical experience. But this is the mystery of faith and it is we who are supposed to do something for Him!
To make the Eucharistic Christ present to us, not only physically but spiritually, we must respond to the mystery of what is called the Eucharistic Covenant. No one will do it for us, not even Christ. Christ promises miraculous effusion of grace on condition that we do our part. What is our part? Spiritually we must do two things, one with our mind and the other with our wills.
Thinking About Christ
We must start with our minds to think of Him present in the Blessed Sacrament. Our thinking doesn't make Him there, but our thinking starts us becoming aware of His being there. If we don't want to think about Him being present in the Eucharist, we won't. We do not begin to make Christ present to ourselves spiritually unless and until we begin to think about His being there.
Let me illustrate what this means. Two people may be separated from each other by hundreds or thousands of miles, specially. But the moment one of them, A, starts thinking about the other, B, by a strange alchemy of the spirit, B becomes present to A in a mysterious, but ever so meaningful way. Spirit is unlike matter precisely because it is independent of space and time. That is spirit? What is matter? That which is bounded by space and time. What is spirit? The reality which is not so bound.
By the same token, then, two people may be next to each other physically, yet they can be ever so far apart spiritually and therefore absent to one another in spirit, even though they are right next to one another in body.
To repeat then: our first action or reaction to Christ's physical presence in the Eucharist must be to start thinking about Him if we want to make Him also present to us spiritually. What may not be common knowledge, but is just plain religious common sense, is that we have the ability to start thinking about something or someone if we want to!
We must then freely decide to think about Christ, reflecting that He is here in the Eucharist. The last part of that sentence can have all kinds of actions:
We must decide to make that mental effort if we wish to grow in that devotion to the Eucharist which the Church considers essential for all sound Christian living and the very foundation of a life of perfection. That is part one of our responsive reaction to Christ's Presence in the Eucharist, to be present with our minds.
Present in Our Wills
But that is not all. It is not enough to just think of Christ's Real Presence. To make the reality spiritually effective in our lives, we must also make Him present in our wills. How do we do this? Let us remember again, it is we who have to do it.
We go back to our earlier comparison of two persons who are physically separated; but in spite of all the distance of space, or for that matter of time, they become present to each other in spirit by first becoming aware of one another, making the mental effort to do so. More important than mental awareness, however, is the presence which is effected in the will. If these two specially or temporally separated people by thousands of miles or by hundreds of years (remember, spirit is independent of space and time), if they each will what the other wills, if each wants what the other wants, then they are present to one another, not only by their mental awareness, but by the strongest bond that can unite one spiritual being with another, by the bond of love.
Returning to the Eucharist we now ask: What does the Eucharistic Christ want of us? Or better, what does He want us to want in order to be united with Him not only by mental awareness but fully in spirit with our wills? He wants us to want to practice many things, because He taught us so much. But focusing only on the Eucharistic Christ who is a living human being, with a human and a divine will, with special emphasis He wants us to want to practice the virtues He practices in the Blessed Sacrament and thus become united to Him not only in mind, but also in will, in a bond of love. What are some of these virtues in the Eucharist?
Humility. He practices perfect humility. No make-believe; He is in the Eucharist. He not only hides His divinity there, which He did during His visible stay on earth except for those periodic breakthroughs in the cosmos when He worked miracles to give the contemporaries of His day some awareness of His being more than man. But in the Eucharist He hides not only His divinity, as He did in Palestine; He even hides His humanity.
We see and taste only the elements that seem to be bread and wine. Faith tells us they are neither bread nor wine, but He. Talk about humility! Talk about what Saint Paul calls the "kenosis" --God emptying Himself and not revealing the fullness of who He is. He wants us to cultivate, and what a terrifying comparison, a corresponding humility.
We can rightly shudder at what this demands of us. A corresponding humility constantly means that in greater or less measure we allow our gifts and talents and abilities we have to remain hidden. This is the sacrifice of recognition," and none is greater, especially when there is a lot to sacrifice. What a sacrifice to offer to the Eucharistic Christ!
Patience. In the Eucharist He practices a great patience, remaining in our midst even though we can be so cold and indifferent to His presence among us. Recall that Saint Margaret Mary would spend hours before the Blessed Sacrament finding it hard to tear herself away. Christ complained to her while she was kneeling before Him in the Eucharist that what most pains Him is the coldness and the indifference of consecrated hearts, of priests and religious, to the Sacrament of His Love.
Thinking of the growing number of convents without chapels, of priests who seem so casual in handling the Son of God, is it any wonder that Christ complained then to Saint Margaret Mary and complains now, wanting us who have the faith to see behind the veils of the senses, to realize that He is here?
He wants us to be patient in uncomplaining endurance of pain. In fact, "uncomplaining endurance of pain" is one of my favorite definitions of patience. And the worst pain is, as we know, not in the body, but in the spirit.
Generosity. In the Eucharist Jesus practices generosity. He is among us in his humanity ultimately for one reason only, in order to bestow those blessings which faith tells us are available only through His human nature. Christ is the way to the Father because He is a human being. It is through this humanity, depending on our faith, that He opens up the largess of His divinity, giving us so much if we only had the faith to ask.
By now we have all learned how good He is. He wants us, then, to be correspondingly generous by giving and giving and not asking or expecting in return. This generosity means mainly giving ourselves, our likes and dislikes being offered up in order to be of help to others whom, as He told us the night He, instituted this Sacrament, He puts into our lives that we might show Him how much we love Him.
Let us ask our Eucharistic Lord to help us understand that He is really in our midst and that we may grow in the consciousness of His Presence among us by going beyond mere mental awareness in uniting our wills with His, and in giving ourselves for Him and with Him and to Him, even as He is so generously giving Himself to us. In this way, we are anticipating the day when there will no longer be any sacramental veils separating Him from us, for Heaven is the Eucharist unveiled.
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