So here we are, on our knees singing the Agnus Dei:
Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us!
Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us!
Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, grant us peace!
You, my Evangelical friend, recognize this as the most solemn point of the Mass, as we kneel to ask Jesus to “only say the word” and our souls shall be healed. In a moment we will rise to go forward and receive our Lord in Holy Communion.
As we come to the climax of our worship service, I think you can see that our emphasis and yours coincide – Jesus Christ is the entire focus of the Mass, just as He is the entire focus of your Protestant worship service. This is a great point of agreement between Catholics and Protestants. And yet, ironically, we have just come to our biggest point of disagreement. The fact that Catholics believe that Jesus is really present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist strikes many Protestants as odd. Not grossly offensive – more of a small, peculiar irritant than a major provocation. It’s weird, all this Body and Blood stuff, you admit, but there are other Catholic doctrines a lot more objectionable. Actually, from the Catholic perspective, you’re wrong about that. The Real Presence is the watershed doctrine separating Catholics and Protestants – not “faith ALONE,” not “once-saved/always-saved,” not Mary’s place in the divine scheme of things, not the Pope’s authority or infallibility…. It’s Christ Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. A Catholic who believes that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist can wholeheartedly confess with the likes of Flannery O’Connor that the Eucharist “is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.” It’s THAT important.
Why in the world do Catholics believe in the Real Presence?? I used to think I knew exactly why the Catholic Church taught that Jesus is really present in Holy Communion. I believed it was a doctrine developed in the Middle Ages to keep believers chained to the Church. If you can convince people that Jesus really is present in Holy Communion, and if only a priest can preside over the Mass that makes Jesus present, then obviously the priest, and by extension the Church, has power over all Catholics. If you don’t toe the line, they withhold Communion – and you think you’re gonna die and go to hell. Brilliant power play – deceive the masses by teaching them that Jesus actually meant what He said at the Last Supper, “This IS My Body” and “This IS My Blood,” as well as in His sermon in John 6, “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.” They’ll be slaves of the Church, because only the Church has this Body and Blood. Sheer genius!
Then I began doing a little research on that hypothesis, testing out my theory. When exactly did the Church hatch this diabolical plot and start teaching that Jesus is really physically present on the altar?
Well, going back to the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a prayer to be recited before reception of Holy Communion:
Almighty and Eternal God, behold I come to the sacrament of Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. As one sick I come to the Physician of life; unclean, to the Fountain of mercy; blind, to the Light of eternal splendor; poor and needy to the Lord of heaven and earth. Therefore, I beg of You, through Your infinite mercy and generosity, heal my weakness, wash my uncleanness, give light to my blindness, enrich my poverty, and clothe my nakedness. May I thus receive the Bread of Angels, the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, with such reverence and humility, contrition and devotion, purity and faith, purpose and intention, as shall aid my soul’s salvation.
Grant, I beg of You, that I may receive not only the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord, but also its full grace and power. Give me the grace, most merciful God, to receive the Body of your only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, born of the Virgin Mary, in such a manner that I may deserve to be intimately united with His mystical Body and to be numbered among His members. Most loving Father, grant that I may behold for all eternity face to face Your beloved Son, whom now, on my pilgrimage, I am about to receive under the sacramental veil, who lives and reigns with You, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, world without end. Amen.
The Angelic Doctor obviously believed in the Real Presence. Slightly earlier, St. Albert the Great wrote:
I adore You, Blood of the new, eternal Testament, flowing from the veins of Jesus in Gethsemane, from the flesh torn by scourges in the Praetorium, from His pierced hands and feet and from His opened side on Golgotha. I adore You in the Sacraments, in the Eucharist, where I know You are substantially present….
All right – this proves my point! These two conspicuously medieval Catholic priests proclaimed the literal interpretation of Matthew 26 and John 6. See? The doctrine was invented in the Middle Ages to enslave the faithful!
Hang on a second…. Going back a little earlier in time, to the eighth century, St. John Damascene wrote:
How can this come about?” Mary asked. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel answered, “and the power of the Most High will cover you with its shadow.” And now you are the one who puts the question: “How can bread become Christ and wine His Blood?” I answer: “The power of the Holy Spirit will be at work to give us a marvel which surpasses understanding.
Okay, the eighth century, that’s still the Middle Ages, right? But wait a minute, the roots of the nefarious plot stretch back farther still…
St. John Chrysostom (5th century):
How many of you say: I should like to see His face, His garments, His shoes. You do see Him, you touch Him, you eat Him. He gives Himself to you, not only that you may see Him, but also to be your food and nourishment.
St. Augustine (5th century):
Your eyes are looking at bread and cup. This is the evidence before your physical sight. But your faith must be instructed concerning it- this bread being Christ ‘s Body and the cup containing His Blood. Though perhaps these words may be enough to initiate faith, faith must be further instructed in accordance with the Prophet’s words: ‘Believe that you may understand’ ( Is 7:9).
Now that’s pushing it – my “medieval myth of the Real Presence” is beginning to fray around the edges. This idea of the bread and wine actually becoming the Body and Blood of Christ was clearly propagated at the very dawn of the Middle Ages, even as the Roman Empire wheezed its last. And look at what St. Ambrose prayed in the fourth century:
I beg of you, O Lord, by this most holy mystery of Your Body and Blood, with which You daily nourish us in Your Church, that we may be cleansed and sanctified and made sharers in Your divinity. Grant to me Your holy virtues, which will enable me to approach Your altar with a clean conscience, so that this heavenly Sacrament may be a means of salvation and life to me, for
You Yourself have said: “I am the living bread that has come down from heaven. If anyone eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”
Most Sweet Bread, heal my heart, that I may taste the sweetness of Your love. Heal it from all weakness, that I may enjoy no sweetness but You. Most pure Bread, containing every delight which ever refreshes us, may my heart consume You and may my soul be filled with Your sweetness. Holy Bread, living Bread, perfect Bread, that has come down from heaven to give life to the world, come into my heart and cleanse me from every stain of body and soul. Enter into my soul; heal and cleanse me completely. Be the constant safeguard and salvation of my soul and body. Guard me from the enemies who lie in wait. May they flee from the protecting presence of Your power, so that, armed in soul and body by You, I may safely reach Your Kingdom.
And St. Ambrose’s contemporary, St. Basil, prayed these words:
We give Thee thanks, O Lord our God, for the Communion of Thy holy, pure, deathless and heavenly Mysteries, which thou hast given for the good, the hallowing, and the healing of our souls and bodies. Do Thou, O Sovereign of the world, cause this Communion in the Holy Body and blood of Thy Christ to nourish us in unashamed faith, sincere charity, ripe wisdom, health of soul and body, separation from all ills, observance of Thy Law, and justification before His awful Judgment Seat. O Christ our God, the Mystery of Thy Providence has been accomplished according to our ability. We have been reminded of Thy Death and we have seen a figure of Thy Resurrection; we have been filled with Thine Infinite Life, and we have tasted Thine inexhaustible joy; and we pray Thee to make us worthy of these things in the life to come, through the grace of Thine Eternal Father and of Thy holy, good, and life-giving Spirit, now and forever, eternally: Amen.
And St. Cyril of Jerusalem obviously believed along the same lines:
Even of itself the teaching of the Blessed Paul is sufficient to give you a full assurance concerning those Divine Mysteries, of which having been deemed worthy, you have become of the same body and blood with Christ. For you have just heard him say distinctly, That our Lord Jesus Christ in the night in which He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks He broke it, and gave to His disciples, saying, Take, eat, this is My Body: and having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, Take, drink, this is My Blood. Since then He Himself declared and said of the Bread, This is My Body, who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since He has Himself affirmed and said, This is My Blood, who shall ever hesitate, saying, that it is not His blood?
…Do not, then, regard the eucharistic elements as ordinary bread and wine: they are in fact the body and blood of the Lord, as He Himself has declared. Whatever your senses may tell you, be strong in faith.
You have been taught and you are firmly convinced that what looks and tastes like bread and wine is not bread and wine but the body and the blood of Christ.
And St. Athanasius – Athanasius contra mundum – remember him? He put it very clearly:
…after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed, then the bread is become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ….
Let us approach the celebration of the mysteries. This bread and this wine, so long as the prayers and supplications have not taken place, remain simply what they are. But after the great prayers and holy supplications have been sent forth, the Word comes down into the bread and wine – and thus His Body is confected.
So, the hoax known as the Real Presence began with the Church Fathers??? Well, Constantine had by this time legalized Christianity – could creeping pagan influence have had something to do with this?
Yet going back even farther in time, to the third century – that is, nearer to the time of Christ – St. Cyprian of Carthage wrote:
And therefore we ask that our bread— that is, Christ— may be given to us daily, that we who abide and live in Christ may not depart from His sanctification and body.
St. Justin Martyr wrote in the second century A.D. to a Roman emperor, explaining Christian beliefs:
This food we call the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s Word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the Word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.
Medieval conspiracy, my foot! Pagan influence – puleezze! This literal understanding goes back as far as 120 years after the Resurrection, and even farther back….
St. Ignatius of Antioch (between 98 and 117 A.D.):
They (the heterodox) abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.
Less than 100 years after the Resurrection, the very Real Presence of Christ Jesus was being proclaimed by the martyrs who went to their death for their Christian beliefs! This was no medieval priest conspiracy, and it wasn’t a case of half-baked believers sliding down the pagan slope, either! This was the belief of Christians from the very beginning! This was a faith literally worth dying for, a faith in the literal meaning of Christ’s words, a faith that cried out in blood the words that still reverberate in our souls: Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable!
A faith that my Protestant belief system proudly rejected.
And yet He said what He said:
In John: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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.”
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” So 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 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.”
In Matthew: While they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”
In 1 Corinthians: For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself.
Why, oh why do Catholics believe that it’s His actual, real, literal Body and Blood??
Because He said so….
On the memorial of St. Catherine Labouré
Deo omnis gloria!