Thoughts on the Eucharist

3:44 PM

I sat outside St. Anthony's by the dumpster. And there I formulated some concluding thoughts on Catholicism and Protestantism and the relationship between them. Why was I sitting outside a Catholic church by the dumpster while the tower bell struck 6 pm and the mass continued on without me?

I left because the priest diligently exhorted all Catholics to take the mass every week, that anyone who failed to take mass was out-of-touch with Christ. His homily faithfully presented the Catholic doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist -- "our first encounter with the resurrected Jesus." He threw in a few stories of jealous Episcopalians who longed for the unique Catholic ability to commune with Christ in such a way and added that many people convert to Catholicism because of their desire to experience the presence of Christ.

By this point I was crying in my pew surrounded by devout Catholics and several of my closest friends -- also Catholics. I was crying furious, hurt tears. I was crying because of the brazen belief that no Christians but Catholics experience Christ's presence. I was crying because I knew that was not true from personal experience. And I was crying because it was finals week and I was exhausted.

That's when I slipped out and ruminated by the dumpster -- less tears, more prayer, more thinking. I experienced God's presence sprawled out on a grassy hill by the dumpster more than I did inside the sanctioned church.

Don't think me anti-Catholic -- my best friend is Catholic. Every other student at my college is Catholic. I'm reading the Catholic catechism. My favorite professor/spiritual crisis counselor is a convert from Presbyterianism. I love theologians like Augustine and Cajetan more than I do many evangelical "theologians" today. I think the new pope is pretty awesome. I call many Catholics my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. I long and pray for the day when the entire church of Christ -- including numerous Catholics -- come together as one. I respect much about the Catholic church.

The doctrine of the Eucharist is not one.

Protestants often attack the Eucharist from a hermeneutical angle: "Jesus is clearly being figurative! He's no more bread and wine than He is a door or vine." That route's been exhausted, folks. It's barred up with every imaginable theological and exegetical defense and bolted shut with the ultimate answer, "Jesus said, 'This is my body.' Period." (Even Martin Luther camped out on that answer and refused to offer any other logical or theological explanation.) Arguing with color blind people on something as subjective as color is as productive as arguing the figuralness or literalness of communion. I leave you to decide which side is color blind.

To me, the entire argument is based on two false premises: (1) Who says we need Christ's presence? (2) Why must it be found solely or at all in the Eucharist?

Catholics sell their brand of Christianity based off Christ's presence in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the focal point of mass. It's the focal point of adoration. It's the focal point of the sacraments and thus the focal point of holy living. A couple of devout Catholic young men asked a friend of mine point blank, "Well, wouldn't you want to experience Christ's presence if you could?"

Duh. 

Every Christian longs to experience the bodily presence of the our risen Lord and Savior. This is our blessed hope! This is what keeps us going through trial and tribulation -- meeting Him face to face, standing in His actual presence. Scripture expresses this longing intensely and frequently because. . .Christ removed His bodily presence from us.

Instead of staying on earth, instead of comforting His disciples that they could experience Him through the Eucharist, Christ specifically tells us that He goes away and that it is better for them that He do so (John 16:7). Why? Because the Holy Spirit will come to guide them and indwell them in a way that His bodily presence cannot do.

My main concern with the Eucharist is that it boots out the importance of being filled with the Spirit. It replaces true "walking with the Spirit" with "eat this wafer and automatically experience Christ's presence." (Even unbelievers experience Christ's presence in the Eucharist if they partake, which is why Catholics rightly bar all non-Catholics from the table in order to preserve the sanctity of the Eucharist and the lives of all who eat and drink unworthily.) Christ walked this earth bodily and left bodily to allow His Spirit to indwell our souls. There is great significance in that. It now takes more than the outward exertion of following a bodily Jesus -- it requires the soul-purging, sin-squelching act of sanctification by walking in the Spirit. John's ritual baptism must be replaced by baptism of the Holy Spirit. Spiritual things can be discerned only by spiritual people. Communion with Christ is spiritual, not bodily (though indeed our bodily works glorify God through the Spirit!).

Further, the New Testament makes it pretty clear how Christ left His presence on earth -- the Church. The body of Christ. That is His body. We are His body. We commune with Christ when we walk in unity with other members of the body of Christ, unity which comes from the Spirit. If you want to experience the body of Christ and the presence of Christ, step into any thriving Christian community. Jesus promises to be present when two or three gather in order to lend His direct authority to their judgment. He offers His presence in and through the redeemed Bride of Christ -- including every Catholic and every Protestant whose name is written in the Book of Life.

While I greatly respect all my devoutly Catholic friends and the Catholic church as a whole, I do not see them possessing "the presence of Christ" in exclusion to all other Christians. Any communion we share with Christ is a result of the Spirit -- it's spiritual communion. And we all share in ONE Spirit -- the Spirit that searches both our hearts and the mind of Christ. His presence is the presence that Christ wants us to care about. The Catholic church can offer no true Christian anything more than helpful rituals, strong church structure, and solid catechesis which aid but cannot consist of individuals' spiritual walks. This is why I dislike the conversion wars between Catholics and Protestants. If a Catholic possesses the Spirit and true faith and finds great help and guidance in his rituals and traditions, by all means, remain Catholic! If a Protestant desires greater faith and more of the Spirit, he will find it no more in the Catholic church's traditions than in any other tradition grounded in the Gospel. He may need more structure and ritual to aid him in his faith. That is fine. But if he fails to encounter the Spirit in either the Catholic or a Protestant church, he will never experience the presence of Christ -- regardless of how many masses he attends.

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6 impressions

  1. A man cannot experience the presence of God outside of a building?

    Or were you going more along the lines of: A man cannot eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus, the Christ, outside the communion of the faithful brethren? (Communion of Saints)

    -Daniel Abbott

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  2. Neither. I'm not sure what part you're referring to.

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  3. "But if he fails to encounter the Spirit in either the Catholic or a Protestant church, he will never experience the presence of Christ -- regardless of how many masses he attends. "

    Last sentence, but in continuity with the whole post and specifically the last paragraph.

    What "presence of Christ" have you proscribed the man who does not encounter the Spirit within the Church?

    Is God only within the Church (visible)? Or could a man encounter God elsewhere, going about his daily business? Would Holy Communion be of less import to such a man?

    -Daniel Abbott

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  4. My point was that such a person is not saved. He will never experience the presence of Christ face-to-face in heaven (or at all) if he does not possess the Spirit.

    This post was emphasizing the importance of the presence of the Spirit -- THAT'S the presence we should be concerned about, because it's impossible to experience the presence of Christ without the presence of the Spirit.

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  5. Hello, Bailey. My name is Tinu, I live in Nigeria and I've followed your blog for about three years now ever since I literally stumbled on it (a post about 'heart-ward' Christianity). I think your posts are very deep and incisive.

    In particular, this post on the Eucharist is not only thought-provoking for me, I can relate to it very much. I was born and raised in a devout Catholic family, and I was a fanatic for years, until about three years ago. So, you can say I've been on both sides, somehow. Currently, I just like to call myself a 'Christian'. I think this post describes my thoughts on the Eucharist quite perfectly.

    I look forward to a day when all Christians will learn to put differences in denominations, we-are-the-only-ones-going-to-heaven, and doctrines aside, and be just 'believers in Jesus'.

    Well done, and please, keep writing!

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  6. Hi Bailey, I love your post. Could you give me your thoughts on this article? http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/06/christ-founded-a-visible-church/

    In the peace of Christ,
    Ian

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Hit me with your best thought! I'm very interested in your unique perspective. If you'd like to discuss things in private, feel free to email me! :)