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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Real Presence

Over the years, as a student of liturgy and Catholic thought, I have come across a few metaphors that help to demystify the idea of "real presence," that is, that Christ can be really present to us in the appearance of bread and wine. Now, there's a sense in which we just feel that Christ, as God, can do anything he wants to do. Bart Simpson wonders, Can God make a burrito so hot that he can't eat it? Our thoughts about God go off the rails (and greater minds than Bart's have posed similar ones) because of the way we think of power. Suffice it to say that the Christian definition of power, the notion that flows from the gospel of Christ, is that power is shared life, flowing from kenotic love and the invitation to follow and be disciple, and demonstrated by service to others, especially those who cannot (like the poor) or will not (like enemies) reciprocate. So, in the hope that writing these down will help both of us, here are the insights to which I've been made aware over the years. They're not my own, but I've internalized them. Maybe they will work for you, too.


1. Transubstantiation: Food transformed by presence. Consider a scenario like this one. In a certain family, a brother and a sister have grown up very close. After college, the brother goes into the armed forces. The sister gets engaged to be married, but it so happens that her brother, whom she loves very much, cannot get leave, let's say he is, in fact, overseas and involved in war. The wedding goes on, but the brother is missed. When, at the festivities of the reception, he is remembered by his sister, some tears are shed, and when the cake is cut, she instructs her friends to carefully wrap one of the first pieces, and they take it to the family home, and put it in the freezer. 
Months later, the brother returns, and when the family gathers for a thanksgiving reunion, his sister has removed the wedding cake and prepared it for him, and she gives it to him after his dinner, with a word of affection, telling him that everyone at the reception had remembered him on the day of her wedding.
I suspect that her brother ate the best cake of his life at that moment! Would any of us, in such a circumstance, think that we had eaten "just cake"? Is it only flour, sugar, butter, and baking powder that he's ingesting? Of course not! He's eating a day and a time, memory, laughter, tears, love, the hope of the human race. He's consuming and becoming a part of, as it becomes a part of him, everyone who gathered around that cake on his sister's wedding day. 
I would say, if human presence can thus transform food so completely, how much more can divine presence transform it? We might say the wedding cake was changed in its meaning, but it has not been changed completely. Divine presence, however, must be able to utterly transform a thing, make it a new creation! It might still appear to be food, but it has been changed by divine presence into something utterly other.
2. This is my body, this is my blood. Sometimes we think of these words in the consecration, echoing the words of the last supper, as magical, that by saying these words Jesus changed the supper food into his own life. The incantation hocus pocus actually reinforces that claim, as those words are a corruption of the Latin hoc est enim corpus meum, the words "for this is my body" in Latin, spoken in the mass. To any student of eucharistic theology, the story of the eucharist is not confined to the last supper; its origins are in the table ministry of the messiah as well as in the post-resurrection narratives, taken in the context of the Last Supper, with all its overtones of Sabbath and Passover. It is a complex, richly layered origin.
But even this is not incomprehensible to us as human beings. Again, I think that it's our duty to take faith out of the realm of magic and put it into the realm of experience, so that it can be truly human.
Food doesn't fall out of heaven into our cupboards and refrigerators, at least it hasn't since the time of manna. Even with the advent of "Peapod" and similar internet services where we can press a few buttons and a few hours later a man appears on our doorstep with groceries, we know that there's more exchanged than hope and electrons. The food in our homes, the food that sustains us and our families, the  food that makes our living possible and sustains us in our work and play, all this has to be paid for. Money is required. Some has to come from us, and go to someone else. This part is obvious. But what is that money, really? 
For most of us, money is life-time. We only get so much of it, only so many years. Only so many weeks in those years, days in those weeks, hours in those days. Money comes  from trading our time for it. We work at our jobs, we get money to buy groceries. We buy food with our lives. We can't trade it back in, either. You can't buy back the forty hours you traded for your paycheck, it's gone. What we have is a symbol of life spent. 
So we take that paycheck, and we go buy groceries. And we bring them home, fire up the stove and oven, and start preparing a meal. We gather our kids, our families, our friends, whomever. We take the food we've bought and prepared, we arrange it as festively as we can, or informally, on the table. We say a blessing. We pass it around.
Can you see how, as your mother, or sister, or son or daughter or friend, asks for the bread, you could be thinking as you pass it with love, "this is my body, this is my blood"? You've spent your life for it. All that's left is your intention. Can we learn to intentionally give our lives in our work, in all we do, as an act of love for others, so that even the act of sharing our tables becomes a eucharistic act that can be connected to the great eucharistic act of Christ? Life lived in love, given away, even in and maybe especially in the simple, intentional act of sharing a meal with others is an icon of divine life. Sharing food at table is sharing life.

3. Real Presence of Whom? We Proclaim the Death of the Lord. It's really a discussion for another time, another book, in fact, but it needs to be said here too. Since we are talking about being invited to a table to dine with the Lord, we need to ask, "Whose "real presence" are we consuming? 

In the Eucharist, the Holy Spirit, the "Lord and Giver of life," enters into the gifts of bread and wine to transform them into the presence of Christ, so that the body of Christ, the gathered assembly, can be nourished for the mission of God upon which it was sent by baptism and confirmation. "Receive the Holy Spirit," Jesus said, "as the Father sent me, so I send you." What is that mission? It is the mission of the moshiach (messiah, anointed one), or as the Greeks called him, Christos, the Christ. There is one Spirit. The same Spirit that anointed Jesus anoints us for the same mission, to announce the gospel to the poor, liberty to captives, joy to those in sorrow. "Turn away from sin (the empire built by violence and greed) and believe in the good news." That good news is the real presence, in Christ, and now in us, of the empire/reign of God, to be built by self-sacrificing love for the peace and equal good of all people.

What's the catch? Well, the empire of sin isn't going away easily. It had no trouble disposing of Jesus by the machinery of capital punishment for treason: the cross. But God raised Jesus from death, never to die again, to bear witness forever to the triumph, however slow to appear, however fragile its peaceful, relentless strategy may be, of abundant life. "When we eat this bread and drink this cup," said St. Paul, writing about the meal that is the sign of the new creation, the sign of Christ's risen, living body, the church, "we proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes." All who follow the master in holding up the absolute equality of the daughters and sons of Abba, who announce that God is for everyone, regardless of their past, their parentage, nationality, or even creed, are destined for the cross. There is no other path to the resurrection. 

Holy food for holy people. The Holy Spirit makes the Eucharist for us, so that we can be made more fully, week by week, Sunday by Sunday, into the likeness of Christ. So St. Augustine, in one of his sermons, told his people in the city of Hippo:
“If you therefore are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! Be a member of Christ’s body then, so that your ‘Amen’ may ring true! Be what you see; receive what you are!”
To demystify doesn't suggest that the mystery is taken away, only that what appears magical before enters the realm of mystery for us now. Mystery does not suggest unintelligibility. It suggests the impossibility of definition. It suggests a reality that defies circumlocution. Once we can connect with what happens around our tables and in our own lives, how food shared is life shared, we can see more clearly why Jesus used food in the first place and commanded us to remember him, and dwell on the mystery from a place of ownership and belonging. It is our own mystery that we receive! Knowing this, we can listen for that echo in our own life, day by day, of the promise he has made to be with us always. Trusting that promise, we live to keep the same promise to each other.