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THE REAL PRESENCE OF JESUS AMONG US
On the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, many Christians celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, Latin for, “Body of Christ.” Unlike Maundy Thursday, which presents the Eucharist in the context of the Last Supper as a component of our Lord’s passion, Corpus Christifocuses on the Eucharist itself. Corpus Christi begs the question, what do we believe about the Eucharist? What do we believe happens to the Bread and Wine during Mass? And what are the implications of what we believe for the mission of the Church?
What Christians believe about the nature of the Eucharist has been historically controversial. Not being a confessional Church like some evangelical denominations, and lacking the magisterium of the Roman Church, Anglicans tend to be ambiguous and ambivalent on Eucharistic theology. Though most Anglicans will tell you they believe in “the Real Presence, as with many other issues, Anglicans tolerate a wide variety of views. What one Anglican may call the Real Presence another may not.
Some Christians do not believe in the Real Presence at all. That is, they do not believe that Jesus is present physically present in the bread and wine. For them, the bread and wine merely symbolize the body and blood of Jesus and are shared in memory of the Last Supper and the passion of Jesus. Those Christians, however, are often those who suborn a literal reading of Scripture. But the doctrine of the Real Presence derives from scripture itself. The Institution Narratives of the Synoptic Gospels, in every translation I’ve been able to find, Jesus’ words over the Bread and Wine were, respectively, “This IS my Body” and, “This IS my Blood.” He didn’t say “this “symbolizes.” The Johannine Gospel, though lacking an Institution Narrative, trumpets the Real Presence even more explicitly. In Chapter 6:48, Jesus proclaims that He is the bread of life, and that He is not ordinary bread. He explicitly tells them his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. He tells the synagogue congregation that questioned whether He could give them His flesh to eat that those who desire eternal life must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life and participate in the Final Resurrection.
Traditional Western Eucharistic theology sees the Real Presence of Jesus as occurring via “transubstantiation,” articulated by Thirteenth Century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas in hisSumma Theologicaas he attempted to apply Aristotelian logic to explain what happens when the priest consecrates the Bread and Wine. According to Aquinas, when the priest says the words of institution (“This is my Body” and “This is my Blood”) thesubstanceof the elements changes from ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus, though theaccidents(the physical properties of bread and wine) remain the same. Modern theologian Edward Schillibeecx explains the Real Presence at the Eucharist more concretely. Think of cloth. Think of a flag. The priest consecrating the Eucharist is like making a flag out of cloth. It still has the physical properties of cloth, but is now a flag instead of just plain cloth. Schillibeecx calls this “transignfication.”
The Eastern Church also believes the Real Presence, but disavows any particular explanation as tohowJesus becomes present in the form of Bread and Wine. For them, it is a mystery beyond human understanding, not capable of a logical explanation. For them, the change in the elements from bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus occurs not at the Words of Institution, but at the “epiclesis,” a prayer invoking the Holy Spirit.
The Eucharistic Prayers in the American Book of Common Prayer, originally modeled on the Scottish Episcopal Church, have always featured an “epiclesis.” In Rite II, Prayer A, we read, “….we offer You these gifts. Sanctify the by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son…” Prayer B reads, “We pray you gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.” The slight difference in wording is significant: Prayer A reflects a slightly more “receptionist” view than does Prayer B. Receptionism means that the presence of Jesus in the Sacrament depends on the faith of the receiver—that Jesus is notobjectivelypresent (He’s there, independent of whatever the receiver believes), but onlysubjectivelypresent (He’s there if the believer believes He is). Receptionism, however, is untenable when viewed in the context of the universality of God (God is the God of all) and why Jesus went to the Cross—because He loved all of us. This debate invites us to consider not only questions like whether God’s presence is an objective fact, but to what extent Jesus is a concrete reality in our lives? Does Jesus tangibly exist among us and in how we live, or is Jesus just someone we worship?
For me, the Real Presence has both a spiritual and objective dimension. Like many Christians, I say my prayers of adoration before the sacramental Real Presence of Jesus in the Tabernacle. But we can’t stop there. If the Church’s mission is to succeed in a secular world that lives in the here-and-now, to say Jesus is present in the Eucharist only spiritually won’t do. St. John Chrysostom tells us: “Do you wish to honor the body of Christ? Do not ignore him when he is naked. Do not pay him homage in the temple clad in silk, only then to neglect him outside where he is cold and ill-clad. He who said: “This is my body” is the same who said: “You saw me hungry and you gave me no food”, and “Whatever you did to the least of my brothers you did also to me”… What good is it if the Eucharistic table is overloaded with golden chalices when your brother is dying of hunger? Start by satisfying his hunger and then with what is left you may adorn the altar as well.”
As we ponder the words of St. John Chrysostrom, we should remember the Eucharist is not just for prosperous Americans, but for poor and hungry people everywhere. The hungry person who can’t afford food is an objective reality. The Bread and Wine on the Altar and in the Tabernacle is thus not a prison that confines the Real Presence of Jesus. It is a starting point rather than an ending point. For Jesus, feeding hungry was important: witness the Feeding of the Four Thousand and the Feeding of the Five Thousand. In the epilogue of John’s Gospel, Jesus implores us, “feed my sheep.” Modernly, the homeless feeding programs of many Churches carry on this aspect of Jesus’ ministry. Why? Because Eucharist is not only about a transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus; it is a transformation of us. We become what we receive. When we receive the Bread, we hear the words, “The Body of Christ,” and when we drink from the cup, “The Blood of Christ.” Mass makes us different people, healing and transforming us as the Body of Christ to be sent out into the world to do the work God has given us to do.
Thus, Mass is not just about what we do on Sunday, but what we do every day. Mass is about mission. All of us are the ongoing presence of the Risen Lord “out there” beyond the walls of the Church building. In encountering the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the vulnerable, and the oppressed, we encounter Jesus, who told His disciples that he would give himself to us tangibly as real food and real drink. Our mission as Christians is to make that tangibility reality, and it is the Eucharist that nourishes us to do that. Sunday Mass nourishes and comforts us, but our daily actions constitute the verifiable evidence that others can observe to see Jesus at work in the world beyond the walls of the Church. Yes, Jesus is objectively present, always and everywhere.