The other day a co-worker said to me, “Todd, we Catholics are all cannibals. We eat the body of Christ at every mass.”
I smiled and humoured him, but didn’t make any correction. I knew he was wrong. But I had two lousy reasons. First, I’m always uncomfortable discussing religion in public. Second, I knew that he was wrong and I kinda knew why, but just barely. I wouldn’t be able to explain it.
Others were listening though and provided an answer. “Don’t worry. It is just a sign of God’s presence. It isn’t really flesh.” That pretty much ended the conversation and everyone went back to work. But, wow, that answer is even more wrong then the original statement.
I really should have sucked it up and at least tried to correct some misconceptions.
Other than guilty what stuck with me was how little Catholics seem to know about their faith. Here is what I thought. The Eucharist is, generally, the first sacrament we introduce children to after Baptism, but it might also be the most complicated. Maybe that portion of education should wait until they are a bit older than 6 or 7. Then perhaps they might carry that into adulthood.
See. I can be just as wrongheaded as anyone. That is also a horrible idea.
But the idea stuck with me. As children introduced to Christianity we focus on God’s love. His love for us, our love for him and expressing that as love for others. But the Eucharist is a deep mystery and trying to comprehend it invokes most of the other deep mysteries of our faith. Hmm. Let’s see. Sacrifice and salvation. The Trinity. Christ’s human and divine nature (I once took an entire university course on this one. Big words like homoousios.). Transubstantiation. And an understanding of the Church.
And these are all mysteries too. At some level they can’t be understood through reason, but rely on comprehension through faith. (They can be better understood through reason than I know though. )
Eh. As I said before though, ultimately that is a bad way of looking at it.
Conveniently the next mass I attended was the feast of Corpus Christi. An entire service focused on a deepening of our faith in the body and blood of Jesus. As Father started his sermon he told a story about the early days of the church. A Roman Emperor had heard that early Christians were eating the flesh and blood of their god at their ceremonies. An early writer (St. Justin) provided a response.
“Great timing,” I thought.
But the answer was more about the entire ceremony of the mass than what actually happens during Communion. So I had to go and do my own research.
Let’s quickly try and have me resolve the errors I’ve outlined above and get out of here before I cause too much damage.
What is Holy Communion anyway? It is one of the two central parts of Mass. The other is the Liturgy. A lot happens, but through prayer we look to God’s greatest expression of his love for us – the sacrifice of Jesus for our salvation and his resurrection and establishment of a new covenant. At its end we consume the living flesh and blood of Christ and in doing so enter into communion with God. We are not just historians recalling an event or people praying and praising God. In consuming God, we accept him and become part of God. We become part of his body – the Church.
There is more to it than that. But that is a start. Hopefully it doesn’t contain too many inadvertent heresies.
Why is it wrong to withhold it from children until they can better understand? First it is a mistake to assume that children can’t develop complex understandings through either reason or faith due to their age. They are much better equipped for learning than older people are. Secondly, the nature of the sacrament doesn’t depend on our understanding. After all at its heart it is a mystery and can’t be fully understood. Rather through the Eucharist is God working in us. Obviously, that can work at any age. Why deny anyone that gift due to their age?
Why isn’t the bread and wine just symbolic of Christ? This is pretty wonderful. As Catholics we believe that this miracle takes place at every mass. The bread and wine offered by the priest become the body and blood of Christ. Each host contains God in entirety. Body and reason. Soul and spirit. Why? Well, go read my first answer. We can’t accept God into us and become part of him with just a symbol.
Why aren’t we cannibals? Normally we eat dead flesh. Normally not human flesh, but animal when we consume meat. We break that down into its components and it is made into part of us. Communion basically is the opposite of that. We consume the living flesh and blood of God. Not dead flesh. It can’t be broken down since it is God in his entirety – not just a portion. And finally it’s action isn’t that it becomes part of us, but rather that we become part of God.
At least that is what I comprehend today.