Controversial isn’t it?
I will admit I have been circling writing this blog for months – until God finally orchestrated the circumstances to bench me this Sunday so that I could finally write down my struggle, and final assent, to believe that that little wafer, and that chalice of wine, when raised and consecrated in Mass, become God. Fair play by God to engineer the circumstances for me to quarantine today so that I finally write this, like I promised Him many months ago. Today, I am deprived of being in the Real Presence of God. I will admit this is something I am sad about, but at least now, I can finally reflect on how much the Eucharist has come to mean to me.
The truth of the matter is, I have been circling this question of believing in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist for at least three years. It started when someone made a rather matter-of-fact statement that the Eucharist was the summa, the climax, of the Mass. In fact, the Eucharist was THE sacrament of all the sacraments. I was rather taken aback because I had spent my life going to Mass on Sundays to listen to the Word.
How could the consecration of the Eucharist be the most important part of Mass?
I had considered myself a faithful Catholic but was self-aware enough to know that I mentally checked out by the time the sermon was over. But that didn’t matter, as long as I followed the Words and teachings of Christ, that was what mattered, and I could mentally coast for the rest of the service. It was like a cloud would descend on my consciousness, that allowed my mind to be occupied with my own thoughts while I could just mechanically say the words of prayer without being consciously present to it. Similar, in many ways, to how I seemed to say and respond to the rosary in the past 12 years. It’s almost like a mental superpower of a cradle Catholic: the ability to mumble prayers while being in a totally different mental space.
Was I really missing the most important part of Mass? More importantly, was the reason why I was not paying attention because I did not believe that miracle was occurring right before me: Christ was descending onto the earth with the consecration of the Eucharist.
I had been complaining for more than a few years that my all encompassing faith as a child had become quite anaemic. Was it because I merely thought of the bread and wine as mere symbols of Christ’s body and blood rather than the real thing?
The following are three experiences that have led me to believe that the Eucharist is no mere symbol. And has led me to enter a Church looking first for the tabernacle, and upon seeing it, to then smile, kneel, and mentally say, “My Lord and my God.”
All the powers of the universe stuffed into that teeny, tiny space
Last year, I had been at the Youth 2000 retreat in Walsingham, and the Blessed Sacrament was exposed for the most part of that retreat, in the middle of the main tent. I remember seeing so many people in the tent react in a sincere way to the Eucharist: with real reverence and worship. People smiled, sang, raised their hands to Him, or sat in silence contemplating Him.
I genuinely wanted to know what I was missing. I could not get around the mental block that all I was seeing was a wafer enclosed in a flaming metal sun.
I hoped that I would have some kind of experience by spending some more time in His presence. I volunteered on the first night to spend some hours with Him, and the second night, I pretty much spent my whole night with Him. That morning was my birthday, so I was hoping God would give me the birthday present of removing any and all mental blocks that kept me from believing He was there, in the Blessed Sacrament. I couldn’t stop myself from falling asleep many times, truth be told.
Frustrated, on the last day of the retreat, I caught up with one of the Franciscan nuns and asked her the question that had been bugging me the most. “Sister, am I really expected to believe that God, God, THE GOD, who had created all of the things in the universe, from all galaxies to all those weird and wonderful creatures shown in David Attenborough’s documentaries, THAT GOD, with all His powers, would confine Himself to be in that teeny, tiny piece of bread?”
She gave me the best answer anyone could give me. She asked, “If you had seen God, GOD, with all the powers of the Universe as you described, do you really think you would be able to look Him in the eye? Even Moses went face-first to the ground when He saw the flaming bush and heard the voice of God. Instead, God, knowing how scary it would be for us to see Him face-to-face, humbles Himself to appear to us in the only form that no one is scared of: bread.”
To which I quipped, “Unless you are on the Atkins diet.” But I got her point.
And the more I thought about it, the more delighted I became in God. That God would love me so much that He would not want to scare me, to intimidate me. Instead, He would humble Himself by manifesting Himself in a rather fragile piece of bread, a fluid drink of wine. To be honest, that idea pretty much won me over. The humility of God.
“You do not want to leave too, do you?” (John 6:67)
I had already accepted from Matthew’s Gospel (26:17-30) the scriptural basis for the institution of the Eucharist.
But had I grasped the full significance that I needed to truly believe that I needed to eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ to have eternal life with the Father?
Out of all the things explained in that series, the focus of John 6: 25-69 was the game changer for me. If you are unfamiliar with these passages, or it has been a long time, I suggest sitting with it and reading it for yourself – perhaps doing lectio divina (a form of imaginative contemplation of the bible passage).
Lectio divina was important for me in these sets of passages, as I imagined being one in the 5,000 crowd that had been fed by Jesus in the miracle of multiplying the fish and loaves, and had followed Him, eager to see if He could do it again (John 6:1-14).
John 6: 25-58 is known as the ‘Bread of Life’ discourse. Jesus states in no unequivocal terms that He is the Bread of Life and if anyone wants to have eternal life must eat His flesh and drink His blood in John 6: 35, 48, 51, and in case we missed the very literal sense of what he means, Jesus becomes a lot more explicit in John 6: 53-58.
But Jesus being explicit was not what truly turned me. I was struggling with accepting that I was eating the flesh and blood of Christ. I imagined being amongst the followers of Christ, saying:
“This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”John 6:60
I imagined His response to my struggle:
61 Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.”John 6:61-64
I almost felt Jesus was contradicting Himself with John 6: 63 – which actually gave me some hope that I did not have to be seen as crazy for thinking I was really eating His flesh and blood. Almost like He was finally giving me the get out clause to think that He was referring to spirit as being the most important thing, and not the flesh.
But His emphasis on the words He had spoken in John 6: 63 – well, we can debate which words He is exactly referring to, but the whole passage is not about eating anyone’s flesh, but His words about eating His flesh and His blood, which are full of Spirit and Life. Another way to read this same passage is reflecting on how the Institution of the Eucharist occurs. When the bread and wine are raised, it is the priest’s words which are Jesus’s words: “This is my body” and “This is my blood”, combined with the descent of the Holy Spirit when the bread and wine are raised, that changes their substance into Jesus’s flesh and blood. This change in substance only happens after the descent of the Holy Spirit, which gives eternal life.
But the other clue Jesus gives us that He challenges us to believe is His Ascenscion into Heaven. His Ascenscion was not just Christ’s spirit that was lifted to Heaven. The Apostles did not see His ghost ascend. It was Christ, in the spirit and the flesh, that ascended into Heaven. Just like it was Christ’s spirit and body that was nailed to the Cross. It was Christ’s spirit and body that descended into Hell, and it was His spirt and body that was raised from Death. It was not a spirit form that Mary Magdalene and the disciples saw when He appeared to them. It was in Jesus’s bodily wounds that the Apostle Thomas put his fingers in. If I am willing to believe that Jesus appears to us in the spirit and the flesh, not just over 2000 years ago, would it be so difficult for me to believe that He appears to us in the spirit and the flesh through the consecrated host?
Again, I still could not fully wrap my head around His words when reading the passage for the first time. I could see Jesus saying to me:
“64Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”John 6:64-65
And what was the response of most of the follower:
“From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”John 6:66
So many of his followers, despite seeing His many miracles, would not believe Him in this…Again, I cannot blame them, because the idea of eating human flesh, human blood – it is unfathomable. But in my imaginative contemplation, I thought, would I go too? I imagined Jesus saying to me:
“You do not want to leave too, do you?”John 6:67
It is this question that I believe every Catholic is called to answer when it comes to believing in Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. Do we believe, or do we want to leave Jesus too?
I would not have had such an elegant answer as Peter did to Jesus’s question (John 6:68). But in my imaginative contemplation, I knew that no matter how difficult it was for me to understand, I knew I did not want to leave Jesus just because I did not understand Him. I knew this wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last time, His words would befuddle and trouble me. But that wouldn’t stop me in believing in Him, and trusting in Him. I would not ask Him to bend reality so that it would suit what I was comfortable with – just like I cannot break the rules of gravity no matter how many times I want to fly when I jump into the air. Nor, quite frankly, would Jesus do that for me.
That’s the difficult things about believing Jesus’s words that we must eat His flesh and blood to have eternal life with Him. If we are to accept Jesus when He says,
“I am the way, the truth, and the life”(John 14:6)
Then we cannot pick and choose what parts of His truth we want to believe and accept. It means taking a leap of faith to accept what He says is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but that truth…So help me, God.
So even though I cannot materially explain it, if Jesus has asked me to believe that I must consume His Flesh and Blood to have eternal life, then I will. I can only thank Him for making His Flesh and Blood so beautiful, so simple, so easy to consume. Perhaps that is what makes His flesh and blood different to ours – it is divine.
Resting in His Presence
A few months ago, a friend of mine who was living and working in St Patrick’s Church (Soho) asked if I was interested in staying with the Blessed Sacrament all night as part of an on-going vigil. I was hesitant, but because I was emotionally wrestling with so many things, I thought: Perhaps God would free my from these chains.
In fact, that was what I was thinking as I cycled over to the Church: Lord, help me to let go of this pain, resentment, and anxiety so I can rest in your Presence. And amazingly, when I sat in that little chapel with the Blessed Sacrament exposed, all the mental and emotional worries left. It was almost like I could not mentally go into that dark abyss.
Instead, as I sat, and eventually lay down, in front of the Blessed Sacrament, I couldn’t help but feel His very real presence in there. I cannot explain it, except to say the air was very still, and that stillness was caused by a very real presence that stilled all the atoms in that room, so that not even sound could disturb it. And because that very REAL PRESENCE brought peace – this wonderful, glorious peace, I knew, within my whole being, that I was being held by God.
I left that morning carrying that sense of peace with me for more than a few days. It did eventually dissipate but I remember feeling His presence. And I remember feeling a layer of anxiety lift from my soul.
I understand why Christ asks us to see Him often, at least once every Sunday. I understand now why He asks us to consume Him, so He can enter into our very being. I also understand why it is so important to go to Confession so we are cleansed of our sins. Imagine asking Jesus to come inside a messed up home. But I also understand that He can also Heal us in our brokenness.
God longs to bring us peace – to free us from the chains that bind us to sin, and keep us from Him. He longs to be part of us – literally part of us. He comes to give us eternal life. Not just in the end of time, but each and every day, in each and every Mass. How beautiful is the Eucharist then: Jesus did not just appear 2,000 years ago. He is accessible to us now, He can be with us now, we can go to Him now. Any tabernacle, any consecrated host: we can keep God company now.
While I still cannot explain transubstantiation, I know the Eucharist is no longer a mere symbol to me. To say so would be the equivalent of saying that Christ is a mere symbol, and everything He is to us, and does for us, including the crucifixion and resurrection of His body, have mere symbolic meaning with regards to giving us eternal life. Quite frankly, that would be a more tough idea to swallow: Christ reduced to being a mere symbol, rather than Our very real Lord and Saviour.
Therefore, I am now a lot more sincere when I say:
“Lord, I am not worthy to receive You. But only say the words, and my soul shall be healed.”
Resources that helped me reflect
- John 6: 25 – 69
- Scott Hahn’s lecture on “Enkindle your love for the Eucharist!” (Part 1) (video)
- Scott Hahn’s lecture on “The Eucharist in Scripture: The Lamb’s Supper” (Part 2) (video)
- Stacy Trasancos lecture that provides historical timelines and recent scientific analysis on the Eucharistic miracles (video)
- Robert Southwell’s poem “Of the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar” (text)