Reflections on Life
By Melvin Arrington
In observance of the National Eucharistic Revival, I offer these reflections on how I came to understand what Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen meant when he said: “The greatest love story of all time is contained in a tiny white Host.”
When I was growing up in the Baptist Church, the observance of the Lord’s Supper was always a special occasion, partly because it was observed so infrequently, but also because of its solemnity. Children knew they had better not be caught whispering or passing notes during this service. Church members believed the bread and grape juice they consumed merely symbolized the Body and Blood of Christ because the service was only a remembrance rather than a re-enactment. Nevertheless, we were always warned not to partake if we knew ourselves to be unworthy.
My first exposure to the Catholic Church was in graduate school when I started attending Mass with Terry, my future wife. It quickly became obvious to me that the focal point of the Mass was always the same thing week after week: the priest would consecrate the bread and wine and repeat the words Jesus spoke at the Last Supper. Then the people would come forward and receive communion.
One day, after having attended Mass several times, I asked Terry, a cradle Catholic, if she had ever gotten tired of repeating the same ritual every Sunday. She replied simply, “No.” But she said it with a slight, almost imperceptible, smile while looking off in the distance, as if contemplating something beautiful. This was more than 50 years ago, and I still remember that conversation. Needless to say, her answer made a deep and permanent impression on me. Now, as a Catholic, I can appreciate why this sacrament is the essential element of the Mass. After all, the one thing Christ asked his disciples to remember was His sacrificial death.
After we were married, we tried to focus on those doctrines baptized Christians hold in common. Unfortunately, belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist wasn’t one I shared with her. But after praying, studying and attending Mass for many years, I finally came to accept this teaching and found my way into the Catholic Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, the writings of Archbishop Sheen, and Terry’s wonderful example of faith.
During this journey I learned that the first-century Christians believed Christ was actually present in the Eucharist. This was not just a symbol for them. Jesus said when we gather to worship He is in our midst. (Matt. 18:20) So, from the very beginning when the first Christians met in homes for prayer and the “breaking of the bread,” they sincerely believed what they were receiving was the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord.
The church has maintained a firm belief in the Real Presence throughout its history. The early Church Fathers taught this, and the teaching largely remained unchallenged until the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Of course, Protestants to this day hold to a symbolic interpretation. But it’s important to keep in mind that during the church’s first 1500 years (75% of its 2000 year history), all Christians believed Christ was truly present in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Growing up, I had learned to interpret the Lord’s Supper symbolically, but the first-century Christians didn’t understand it that way, for one reason because they were able to distinguish between literal and figurative language. For example, when Jesus said, “I am the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11), they realized He was speaking metaphorically because He wasn’t really a shepherd; He was a carpenter turned teacher/preacher. They knew Jesus was using this expression to show how He watched over and cared for his own.
In like manner, when Jesus told Peter and Andrew He would make them fishers of men (Matt. 4:19), He didn’t mean these two fishermen would literally be snaring people in their nets. They must have instantly grasped the metaphorical significance of His remark – that they were being called to lead men and women to follow Jesus – because upon hearing those words the two men left their boats without hesitation and went along with Him.
However, when we come to John chapter six Jesus speaks literally, leaving no room for ambiguity: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life … For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (vv. 54-55) How do we know that? We know because when He explained this pronouncement in greater detail and they understood He meant it literally, many left Him, claiming this teaching was too hard. Even the persecutors of the early Christians took these words at face value because one of the charges they leveled at Jesus’ followers was cannibalism.
Toward the end of this passage Jesus stated, “There are some of you who do not believe.” (John 6:64) We still have scoffers with us today. In fact, surveys show that seventy percent of Catholics in this country don’t believe in the Real Presence. Despite this sad fact, the church’s teachings have not changed. We, like those in Jesus’ day, should take His words in the “Bread of Life” discourse literally. There is no other option. What Jesus said is true because He said it, and He is Truth itself.
As Christoph Cardinal Schönborn has commented, the people do not kneel and the priest does not genuflect “in front of a mere symbol.” He goes on to explain, “No one genuflects in front of a piece of bread. I bow down before God in person.”
The Eucharist, like other “mysteries of faith” (e.g. the Trinity), is difficult to explain, but it’s not necessary to comprehend something fully in order to believe it. Without understanding how gravity works or how light can travel at 186,000 miles per second, I still accept these things as true.
When we approach the altar with bread and wine, two of the basic elements that sustain life, we are bringing gifts that represent our own sacrificial offering. Bread and wine are most appropriate because, as Archbishop Sheen explains, “no two substances have to undergo more to become what they are than do wheat and grapes. One passes through the Gethsemane of a mill, the other through the Calvary of the winepress before they can be presented to the Beloved on the altar.”
In contemplating this “holy and living sacrifice,” I’m reminded of a weekly feature than used to run in a local entertainment paper. The feature asked selected individuals to answer a single question. One week the editors, probably thinking of celebrity sightings, asked: “When have you ever been in the presence of greatness?” One of our parishioners was among those questioned. He gave the best response imaginable: “Every Sunday.”
Like Coca-Cola’s advertising slogan of the 1970s, “It’s the Real Thing,” we, in turn, boldly proclaim that the Eucharist is really and truly the “Real Thing.” It is sacred reality – Jesus in our midst, offering us intimate participation in His Divine Life. And that’s a love story for all time.
(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of St. John Oxford.)