Before I go much more into my story, I need to address the one theological point that continually drew me back to the RCC: The Eucharist.
Growing up Baptist we did not take the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis. It came along every three or four months, unannounced, and we would miss it from time to time when out of town or busy. When this happened, I would be devastated. Even as a young girl, something about this moment, this supposed symbol, was incredibly powerful for me. I loved hearing the scriptures read, out pastor expound on the night of the Last Supper and the symbolic meaning behind it. Then ushers would pass out the brass plates that carried the tiny, pillow-like crackers and small cups of juice. The Baptized would take their portion and hold it until the moment the pastor instructed us to take each element. We would then reverently consume the bread, the juice in unison. I loved it! We were participating in something, united in this action rather than sitting passively watching a choir sing or a man preach. It was a sample of the liturgy and it pulled at me, drawing me deeper into reality.
When I went to college, I knew I had to find a more formal, liturgical church and I ended up in a very small, super conservative Lutheran church. It was here, in Bible study lead by our pastor, that I learned the deeper meaning behind the Eucharist. So meaningful, in fact, that I wasn’t allowed to participate. The pastor reviewed the reasons (essentially – I wasn’t a member of the church, thus not officially in agreement with their belief about Christ’s Spiritual presence in the elements). I understood, but was incredibly frustrated by this. I eventually ended up attending an Episcopal Church for a little bit just so that I could take communion.
I eventually joined that Lutheran church upon my graduation from college and was delighted to fully participate in their liturgy, uniting myself through this table to the church body. I never really struggled to accept that Christ was present, but I was sure to distinguish between a true physical presence (Transubstantiation – understood to be heretical) and a more spiritual reality (Consubstantiation). Jesus was there, we believed, but it had no effect on the elements.
Post college, and a little church drama later, I found myself in a church in the hipster part of town. They were of no denomination, highly liturgical, and somewhat ambiguous on theological matters. Here the liturgy was in place for the Eucharist, but the reverence was not. At the end of the service the left over bread (which was baked fresh by a member of the congregation each week) was left on a table where the kids, and some adults, would pick pieces off while chatting and hanging out. A friend of mine who had grown up Episcopal asked me one day, “Does it bother you to see them pick at the Body of Christ like that?”
“Yes,” I confessed. I had tried to let it not bother me, but really it did. It seemed horribly wrong, and yet I couldn’t really say why. Another friend had a different perspective, “It’s cute! The kids are approaching Christ, so genuinely.”
Ok, I kind of get that, but still… STILL! It just seemed completely disrespectful.
Tired of so much Theological Ambiguity, I ended up at an Anglican church. It was an open table and a very reverent approach to the Eucharist. After the priest learned your name he would say it to you as he handed you the bread, “K—, This is the body, broken for you.” It was beautiful. I would often cry. They believed in a real presence, just not as real as the Catholic’s did. In a Bible study, the pastor informed us that the theology of Transubstantiation was idolatry. I nodded.
So there I was, I knew the Eucharist was more than a symbol, I knew Christ was present in some way, but how… to what degree? And what did the Bible say? How about the Early Church Fathers?
As I started to read chirch history, I came across a reference to St Ignatius calling the bread True Flesh (in his Letter to the Smyrnaens). I read the quote to my roommate. “Maybe the Catholics are right,” she offered casually. Maybe they were. I couldn’t let go of it.
So I studied up and found other Church Fathers claiming this. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement, and so on. I searched Catholic writers and websites, looking for more information. Everything pointed to a True Presence.
And of course, most importantly, I looked at The Bible.
John 6 – The Bread of Life Discourse. In it Jesus explains over and over again that he gives us his body and blood and that we must consume it: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of this world.” John 6:50-51
Naturally, the crowd is repulsed. He has just multiplied the loaves, he has pointed to himself as the bread of life, referencing the manna in the Old Testament, calls himself the “true bread from heaven” and “The bread of life”. The crowd is disgusted by this idea – this cannibalism. They question him about it, and he doubles down:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This it he bread that came down from heaven.” John 6:53-37
The disciples grumble. many of them WALK AWAY and abandon their way of life with Christ. If this was a mere symbol would Christ have explained that? If eternal life was so crucial and he was only talking in symbol, as a parable, a dramatic story, wouldn’t he clarify!!?!?!
No, again he reinforces it.
Simon Peter says he cannot leave because He has the words of eternal life.
The disciples confirm it.
This is also why we are warned against taking it in an improper manner in 1 Corinthians 11. If it was just a symbol then anyone should participate!
The Early Church Fathers (some of whom were taught directly by the disciples) wrote that this is indeed Christ’s flesh and they witnessed to it with their lives.
This is the True Bread that brings us True Fulfillment. It brings grace, unity. It draws us together. It is the Source and Summit of our faith and the purpose of the Mass.
I love that we come together and sing and pray as a body. That we worship. But what I love the most is that we come together, hands stretched out, and receive the body and the blood, proclaiming our common heritage as sons and daughters of God, receiving Christ!
From time to time I attend Mass at a nearby church that is not to my aesthetic. It is a bit on the folksy side – there’s an off key band that plays terrible music (Tambourines! Ugh!) and the building is quite unattractive. I have never been able to locate the Tabernacle.
Often I am fighting my own frustration with the experience. I have forgotten my true purpose in attending. I am confessing my judgmental feelings, constantly asking for forgiveness, distracted by the unattractiveness of the space, the wobbly voice.
Then I approach the Alter. I take Christ. And I am at peace. I am reminded the purpose. I am here for Him. I am here to unite in His passion, to remember that He loved me (everyone!!) so much that He would die a horrible death to reconcile the world. I am united to these people through my faith, this love, this adoption.
This is everything.
For resources: I love the book THE FATHERS KNOW BEST by Jimmy Akin also WHEN THE CHURCH WAS YOUNG by Marcellino D’Ambrosio.
Take time to research far and wide. Catholic.com is helpful. And of course read the Bible and look at the Catechism. There is so much out there.