The Eucharist: Who, When, What, Why, and Where? Part 1

Authored by Peter Kreeft in Issue #5.1 of The Catechetical Review

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Photo of Eucharist in a monstrance

Socrates and Plato and Aristotle and Buddha and Confucius and Lao Tzu all gave us their minds; Christ gave us his body. They all tried to save the world from ignorance by their philosophies; Christ saved the world from sin and death and hell by his body and blood—both on the cross and in the Eucharist. Christ said, “Come unto me.” Buddha said, “Look not to me, look to my dharma, my teaching.” The others said, “I teach the truth,” but Christ said, “I AM the truth.” When we receive the Eucharist, we eat the Truth. Christ is the meaning of life. When we receive him, we receive the meaning of life into our bodies, not just into our minds.

The Gospel is a series of events, culminating in a marriage. The bridegroom, Christ, and his bride the Church (us) both come a long way to meet and marry each other. He comes from eternity to time, from heaven to earth, from spirit to matter, from perfection to a world full of sin and into lives full of sin. He brings us from absolute nothingness into being by creation and, eventually, our birth; and then into his Church, into his Body, by the sacraments, beginning with baptism, which is our second birth. These are dramatic events, good news, gospel. Since our religion is essentially the Good News, it is proper to ask the same five questions a news reporter would: who, when, what, why, and where? These are the five questions I set myself to answer in this series about our meeting with Christ in the Eucharist. We’ll address the first two questions in this issue.

Who?

Christ and the Eucharist: that they are one thing, not two. That is my simple answer to the first question: Who? Our entire life and everything in it are Christ’s gift to us. The whole universe is Christ’s gift to us. The Eucharist, however, is not just Christ’s gift to us. It is the Giver, it is Christ himself in person, the whole person, who is both divine and human—within the human, both body and soul and within the body, both flesh and blood. These three doubles (divinity and humanity, soul and body, flesh and blood) are all singles, for it is a single person, it is the same Christ. The oneness of the Eucharist is the oneness of the skinniest and simplest word in our language, the word “I.” For the Gospel is not just a “what,” it is a “Who.”

In the first few centuries, Christianity’s pagan enemies accused Christians of being cannibals because they claimed that they actually ate the body of Christ. The charge was false, but it was also true. The Catholic claim about the Eucharist is barely believable; it’s incredible and astonishing! Almighty God lets us eat his Body and drink his Blood!

This startling Catholic claim is either true or false. If it is false that the Eucharist is Christ himself but instead only a symbol of Christ or a ceremony established by Christ, then Catholics are the most shamefully sacrilegious and idiotic idolaters in history, bowing down to bread and worshipping wine, confusing chemicals with God. If, on the other hand, the Catholic claim is true, then our Eucharistic tryst with Christ is to life what sexual intercourse is to marriage. It is what the Catechism calls it: the source and summit of our whole Christian life. Non-Catholics, though they may have faith, hope, and charity and saving grace in their souls, and even though they may be living wonderfully saintly lives, are missing out on the most perfect, total, intimate union that is possible in this life with their Lord and Savior, their Creator and Redeemer. This is a union that is in fact, if not in feeling, even more complete and perfect than mystical experience.

There is no middle position about the Eucharist; it is an absolute either/or. Both the “either” and the “or” are startling, uncomfortable, controversial, and divisive: four consequences we usually fear and avoid, though Christ did not. He was the most startling, uncomfortable, controversial, and divisive person who ever lived.

Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist is like three other foundational things we believe in a similarly divisive and uncomfortable way: the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, and the authority of the Church. Let’s look briefly at these three things.

First, if God does not exist, then believers are not just mistaken but insane, for they rest their whole lives on an illusion and place at the absolute center and summit of all human life a being that simply does not exist. They are adults who behave like little children playing with an invisible imaginary friend. But if God does exist, the atheists are insane. They are like college students going home for Thanksgiving or Christmas and never acknowledging the existence of their parents, never talking to them, never looking at them, never thanking them for their food and their presents, acting as if they were alone. The one thing that cannot possibly be true is that both atheists and theists can be wise and intelligent people who are quite sane because they are both living in the real world. That is the one thing that is logically impossible.

Second, if Christ is not divine, as he claimed to be at many times and ways in the Gospels, then the one and only thing he could not possibly be is just a very good and wise man. He must be either infinitely more or infinitely less than that. For if his claim is true, then he is infinitely more than a good man. He is exactly what Doubting Thomas confessed him to be, “My Lord and My God.” And if it is false, then he is infinitely less than a good man. In fact, he is the worst man who ever lived, either intellectually the worst or morally the worst. For if he sincerely believes he is God when he is not, that is the greatest possible insanity; and if he knows he is not God but claims that he is and asks us to worship him and to put our souls and our salvation into his hands, then he is the greatest blasphemer and liar in history. The one thing he could not possibly be is what almost every non-Christian in the world believes he is, a good and wise man, but not God.

Third, if the Catholic Church is not the one visible authoritative voice of Christ himself; if Christ did not really say to his apostles, “He who hears you, hears me,”—or did not really mean it when he said it—then the Church that claims to be the recipient of that promise is not just one of the many thousands of fallible churches or denominations in the world but the one that is by far the most arrogant, egotistical, idolatrous, blasphemous, and sacrilegious. But if she is what she claims to be, then she is unique and alone in both making that claim and in the objective truth of the claim: because she alone is the one, holy, catholic, universal, apostolic Church, the Bride of Christ. There can’t be many churches, for Christ will not marry a harem when he comes again; and his one true Church can’t be simply the invisible Church, because his Church is his Body and his Bride, not his ghost or his haunted house.

So, the one thing the Catholic Church cannot possibly be is what most non-Catholic Christians believe she is: just one of many good but fallible Christian denominations.

Similarly, the Eucharist is either to be worshipped as God, as the extension of the lncarnation, or denounced as the most blasphemous and ridiculous idolatry in history. The one thing it cannot possibly be is something comfortable, and compromising, something non-divine and therefore non­divisive, merely a holy symbol or ceremony.

As God divides mankind into believers and unbelievers, and ultimately into the heaven-bound and the hell-bound; and as Christ came not to unite all mankind but to divide mankind into two opposing camps, to bring not peace but a sword of division, as he himself said; and as the Catholic Church is among institutions what Christ is among men: the one that is both loved and hated far more than any other because she makes the most uncompromising claims; so with the Eucharist. It is either everything or nothing, either divinely adorable or demonically idolatrous.

These four controversial claims are logically related: if God does not exist, Christ cannot be God; and if Christ is not God, the Church he established cannot have divine authority; and if the Church does not have divine authority, it cannot confect and administer the Eucharist. Obviously, nothing merely human could possibly transubstantiate bread and wine into Christ’s Body and Blood! God, Christ, Church, and Eucharist are four connected links in the same chain. The connection can also be put in the reversed way: our reason for our belief in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist is the authority of the Church, which teaches it; and the reason for our belief in the Church’s authority is that she has been established and given authority by Christ; and the reason for our belief in everything Christ says, no matter how incredible it seems, is that he is divine, not just human.

That is my first answer to the question of the “Who?” in the Eucharist.

There is, of course, another “who” in our understanding of the Eucharist, and that is ourselves, both individually and collectively, as the Church, Christ’s mystical Body.

For the sake of this Eucharistic union between ourselves and Christ, this spiritual wedding, this tryst, how far did he bring us and how far did he come himself?

He brought us from absolute nothingness into being:

  • by creating the universe, the sum total of all matter, out of nothing in what scientists call the “Big Bang”;
  • then gradually forming our bodies out of that matter, out of “star stuff,” over a time of 13.8 billion years through the powers and processes he had created and designed in nature, including evolution;
  • then creating each of our immortal souls out of nothing as soon as our parents procreated our bodies out of their bodies and genetic material;
  • then providentially molding and folding our souls like origami through the mysterious interplay of his divine providence and our free choices throughout our lives, his invisible hands of divine providence directing every event in our lives like the conductor of an orchestra.

He brought us that far for the moment of our communion with him in the Eucharist.

And how far did he come himself? As we were brought up from the nothingness of nonexistence, he came from the timeless fullness of existence down into time and matter and history and our fallen race and into the worst torture the world had ever invented, crucifixion, and the very worst sin the world had ever committed, the sin of deicide, the murder of God; and then down into death and the grave and the underworld; and then back up through the resurrection and the ascension; and then, in his Spirit, down again in Pentecost and again in every Eucharistic consecration (for the miracle of transubstantiation happens only by the invocation of the Holy Spirit, the epiklesis, together with the priest’s words of consecration); and then down into our mouth, our tongue, our esophagus, our stomach, the very cells of our body. We enter into the heights of his divine life by his entering into the depths of our human life—our very literal biological life, not just our “lifestyle.” It is an amazing story, this double drama, this cosmic and super-cosmic romance, and it is the exact opposite of what it seems to be, for when we seem to eat this bread and transform it into us, he is really transforming us into him. We seem to be bringing his fullness into our emptiness, our empty mouths and stomachs, but he is really bringing our emptiness into his fullness. What seems to be the humanization of divinity is really the divinization of humanity. That’s who’s who in the Eucharist.

When?

When do we meet him? In three ways: when we participate in the Mass, or receive the Eucharist, or participate in Eucharistic adoration.

But there is also something even more mysterious about the “when”: time itself. This is going to require some very hard thinking. Jesus is the eternal God, and he does not lose his divine and eternal nature when he assumes a human and temporal nature in the Incarnation. Because of that, he can do what merely temporal creatures cannot do: he can transcend time even while he is in time. This means that what he did 2000 years ago, he is doing now, for all times are “now” to him who is eternal. He comes across time to us. The Eucharist is the closest thing we have to a time machine.

And so, the eternal One, whom we meet in the Eucharist, continues in his unending present to do to us today all the things he already did in our past time, as recorded in Scripture. He also does now what he will do in our future time, as prophesied in Scripture’s last book.

When we meet him in the Eucharist, he creates us, gives us being. He did not create us and our universe at a certain moment IN time; he created time itself, he created all at once the whole of history, including this moment. He is creating us now. He is loving us into existence. If he stopped loving us, we would cease to exist; we would return to that out of which we were made, namely nothing.

He is incarnating himself now, out of his eternal love for us, becoming one of us; sharing our gradual growth, education, and limitations in time; loving and obeying his family; loving his Father’s house even at age twelve; loving his mother so much that he conforms his will to hers, as he did at Cana, because she conformed her will so perfectly to his. He is now doing all the things prophesied for the Messiah: forgiving all our iniquities, healing all our diseases, redeeming our lives from destruction, crowning us with loving kindness and tender mercies so that our youth is renewed like the eagle’s. He is raising our Lazarus from the dead and raising our Martha-like faith from the dead too, from her mere faith in the future (“I know that my brother will rise in the resurrection at the last day”) to faith in the present (“I AM the resurrection and the life”).

Now he is sending his Spirit again in a trillion more Pentecosts. He is doing to us what his angel promised to do to Mary, when he said that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and therefore that holy thing to be born in you will be the Son of God.” He who is born in Mary’s body is also born in our souls when we are reborn by faith and baptism, and in our bodies too by the Eucharist.

Now he is ascending to heaven with trophies and loot from his victorious battle with the devil. We are his trophies and loot. We are on the first stages of our way to heaven, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder.

In the eternal present, even now, he is saying, “Time is up. Come home, my child, and I will judge you by my love and truth. I will judge you truly as who you are, as one of my children, and I will share with you the joy that is far too big to enter into you, though you can enter into it.”

Nothing is more difficult for us temporal creatures to understand than his eternity; but we can understand it at least a little better if we remember that eternity means not just infinite time or immortality but also transcending time, transcending pastness and futureness and being all presentness. All that is dead past or unborn future to us is living present to him, therefore, to us insofar as we are in him. Nothing is lost forever, except in hell.

Let’s try just a little more hard thinking about time and eternity. God is eternal because he is totally real, wholly actual, not composed of actuality and potentiality, as all creatures are. Time does not divide his being, as it divides ours into past and future. He does not lack whatever we lack as being dead past or unborn future; it is all there for him in his present. Our past and future is there for us in our present only mentally, in our memory and anticipation. But it is all there really in him. What is past for us is dead, but for him it is alive. What is future for us is not yet, but for him it is already. That is why he says in the Song of Songs to us, his bride, his Church: “You are all fair, my love; there is no flaw in you” (Song of Songs 4:7. He says that to us because he sees us as we will be in heaven, after our pre-death and post-death purgatories are finished.

God is not in time because he is purely actual. St. Thomas distinguishes two meanings of actuality: “first act,” which is existence, and “second act,” which is action or activity. Whatever exists, acts in some way. God is always actual; therefore, he is always acting. He is always doing something. He is acting now, in this very present moment of time and in this place.

But how does he act in time and in our world? We saw him acting during Christ’s 33-year-long Incarnation. Though we no longer see him, he is still acting. Wherever he is, he acts; he is everywhere, therefore he is acting everywhere—not just existing but acting, not just first act but second act, not just actuality but activity.

What activity is he performing in the Eucharist? That is the “what” question, our next question, addressed in the second part of this series.

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Boston College. He loves his five grandchildren, four children, one wife, one cat, and one God. His 75 books include Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Christianity for Modern Pagans, and Fundamentals of the Faith.

This article originally appeared on pages 6-9 of the print edition. 

Photo credit: public domain image from Pxhere.com


This article is from The Catechetical Review (Online Edition ISSN 2379-6324) and may be copied for catechetical purposes only. It may not be reprinted in another published work without the permission of The Catechetical Review by contacting editor@catechetics.com

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