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Holy Thursday and the Eucharist

Today we celebrate the institution of the Eucharist. And what is the Eucharist again?

In response to some concerns from our readers, Fr. Keyes shares this clarification:

We do believe that Christ’s words of institution should be taken literally—that is, they are not merely symbolic or allegorical. The Eucharist really is his body and his blood. But a literal reading of the Scripture—taking the words at their face value, in other words—does not translate into using the term literal as an adequate description of the Church’s eucharistic theology. Indeed, the Church has taken great pains to avoid that kind of terminology.

“Literal” is a mode of scriptural interpretation. It is not a synonym for “real” in sacramental theology, partly because of those connotations with biblical interpretation. In Scripture, a “literal” reading focuses on the immediate meaning of the words themselves in their visible and sensible meaning. But sacramental realities exist beyond the visible and sensible and so cannot properly be termed “literal.”

Lest we take for granted the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist on this day of its institution, imagine with me the various ways that Christ did not choose to remain present with us.

He could have left us a large body of personal writing—a set of texts straight from his voice rather than through the voices of his followers. He could have left us just his followers, just a hierarchy who alone represent his spiritual and intellectual presence. He could have remained with us as a kind of active spirit or ghost who could be consulted in a certain place in a certain way. All of these are imaginable because we see them in other religious traditions. Finally, he could have remained with us in his historical physical form rather than ascending into heaven.

Instead, we have this sacrament, which is a wonder—and, for many, a scandal. The Good Shepherd has not abandoned his sheep. He has given his life for us. But rather than come to us in power and authority and visible majesty, he comes to us in the appearance of the most ordinary signs of human life: bread and wine.

Sometimes, in their enthusiasm to emphasize the Real Presence and the doctrine of transubstantiation, Catholics can be heard suggesting that the Eucharist is the “literal” body and blood of Christ, or something along those lines. But this is exactly the kind of misunderstanding that so provoked Protestants some five centuries ago. The Eucharist is in no meaningful way “literal.” “Literal” body and blood, “physical” body and blood, do not look like bread and wine. The fact that under this appearance lies the absolute reality of Christ’s living substance does not free us from the necessity of faith. The eyes of the body can no more behold the “substance” of the transformed eucharistic species than they can behold the “substance” of human nature. And yet, wonder of wonders, Holy Church proposes to us, following our Lord’s command, that in this visible thing, we do truly see what is invisible, just as, when we behold the human face of Jesus, we really touch, beyond all the senses, the invisible glory of the divine nature that is there joined.

One reason that we might glimpse, in the infinity of divine wisdom, for this particular gift of presence is that this presence is always more than a mere static given. It moves us. That is, it moves us, on the subjective level, intellectually and emotionally deeper into fellowship with God. On a more basic level, the structure of sacramental presence implies a movement from visible to invisible, a relationship that is unique in the order of creation. For it is no mere sign—like the dot on the map telling you that “you are here” or sign on the side of the road that points to the concept of people crossing the street. It is a sign that makes real what it signifies; it doesn’t merely point to something else, but brings us to that something else in truth. It is an engine of salvation, pushing and pulling us from our complacency and stasis to the unaccountable and unknowable God who has in Christ made himself known, who invites us further up and further in to the wonder and glory of his goodness and love.

“Where true charity is dwelling, God is present there.” Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. It’s an ancient antiphon linked closely with the “maundy,” the foot-washing, and it will be heard in many churches tonight as it has been for centuries. And, with the foot-washing, it reminds that Jesus calls us not servants, but friends, and that he came among us not to lord it over us, but to serve.

The symbolism of the rite varies a bit from age to age, but this lordship of service is at the heart of it. And this is not a different mystery from the priesthood or the Eucharist, but the same mystery in another form. Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est. God is present. He is present in our altars and in our tabernacles out of a supreme act of charity. He came among us not to lord it over us, but to give himself and his life for us.

At the heart of the Eucharist, and really of this whole paschal mystery that we begin to celebrate tonight, is God’s own vulnerability. What is more vulnerable than a piece of bread and a cup? He came to us as a child, helpless in his mother’s womb, yet somehow in the Eucharist he surpasses even that humility. We can lament and grieve over the ways that the Eucharist is despised and desecrated, yet we have to say that this vulnerability is part of God’s own providence and intention. For if the Eucharist is the ongoing memorial of the Lord’s Passion, we should not be surprised that the suffering of the Incarnate Son continues in his holy sacrament.

But God’s vulnerability is in fact his power. He can give himself to be killed, even to be eaten, yet he remains who he is, and his love can never be quenched or used up, now or even to the end of time.

Let us approach the altar of grace—which is also the altar of sacrifice—with the humility of those who are hungry and cannot feed themselves. Our need is fulfilled only at a cost. It is a cost that our Lord is willing to pay.

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