This week’s scripture begins a series of Eucharistic controversies that will haunt the Gospels over the next four weeks. I wonder if it is a strategic gift of providence.
A few years ago the New York Times reported that almost two-thirds of American Catholics believed the consecrated bread and wine to be “symbolic reminders” rather than the body and blood of Christ. This seems a little startling, even if it was unclear what the respondents actually meant by “symbolic reminder” or “body and blood.”
For some people, the word “symbol” can indicate the most sacred of realities. For others, “body and blood” has to mean actual physical properties. Even this year, for example, I encountered a young Catholic who thought the sacred host, if cut, should bleed.
Regardless of the exact interpretation of the questionnaire I think the Times-CBS poll does reveal a challenge to contemporary faith.
There certainly seems to be a lack of reverence, now and then, for the reality taking place at the liturgy. A university student, intelligent and gifted in leadership, observes that he wished fellow students would give as much attention to their dress and appearance for Mass as they do for a date or job interview. An old priest, after a Mass in the infirmary, thanks me for genuflecting before the Eucharist. After a high school Eucharist, one of the theology teachers advises me to put consecrated hosts into a bin to be consecrated again the next time.
The problem of reverence, however, is nothing new. In the pre-Vatican II church, there were at least some priests who gave Communion as if it were a fast-food option. It is also not merely an American phenomenon. Perhaps the most unreverential distribution of the Eucharist I have been a part of was in Rome, where the hosts were delivered rapid-fire like bullets from a rifle.
We naturalists and materialists are ill-fitted for miracles and transcendence. We seem unable to handle much more than appearances and style. Deeper realities are suspect. But if this is so, not only will real presence and transubstantiation seem improbable to us. Creation, redemption, resurrection, sin, and grace will seem so as well.
It is wonderful that our Eucharists have become more immediate, understandable, and participatory since Vatican II. But perhaps the cost of making it understandable has been the embarrassing realization that the Mass, if we actually believe what it proclaims, is uncomfortably miraculous.
If Christ really has given us the Eucharist, he is doing something far greater in our midst than Elisha’s feeding of two hundred with twenty barley loaves or even Jesus’ own stupendous feeding of five thousand (Gospel). What we will find in the subsequent passages of John’s Gospel is Christ’s promise to become our very bread. In faith we hold that this promise is not some mere human symbolic projection. No, we are witnessing the holy of holies in our very midst.
Many may still be skeptical. For those who believe it, awe is only appropriate.