THE GIFT DIVINE pt 1 By The Rev. Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R. S.T.D.
I. THE BREAD OF LIFE
ONE day more than nineteen centuries ago a man was preaching to an attentive group in the Jewish synagogue at Capharnaum, a city situated near the Lake of Genesareth in Palestine. He was Jesus, well known to the people of that region as a prophet who taught sublime doctrines and a lofty code of morality, proclaiming them to be the revelations of God Himself. To support His claim, He performed wondrous deeds which evidently could be accomplished only with the miraculous assistance of the Almighty. Even now, as He was speaking, His listeners recalled that two days previously He had fed a multitude of five thousand persons with five barley loaves and two fishes, and some even knew that afterwards He had walked upon the waters of the storm-tossed sea to meet His disciples struggling in their tiny boat. With these thoughts in mind to persuade them that when a man exercised such extraordinary power it must be that the God of truth was attesting the correctness of His statements, the people listened to an astounding promise from the lips of Him whom Catholics acknowledge as the Son of God made man. “I am the bread of life; he that cometh to Me shall not hunger, and he that believeth in Me shall never thirst. . . . I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is My flesh, for the life of the world. . . . Amen, amen, I say unto you: Except you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood hath everlasting life, and I will raise him up in the last day. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood abideth in Me and I in him” (John vi. 35-57). Thus did Jesus Christ promise to give His flesh and blood to be the food and drink of men. Evidently His listeners on this occasion took His words literally, for they asked one another in astonishment: “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” And when Christ repeated His wondrous promise in even more explicit language, many who had been His followers up to that time complained: “This saying is hard, and who can hear it?” and departed from Him forever. Then our Lord turned to the little band of twelve chosen disciples, and put the pathetic question: “Will you also go away?” With unwavering faith the loyal Peter answered: “Lord to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have known that Thou art the Christ, the Son of God” (John vi. 53-70). A year rolled by, and the feast of the Pasch was at hand. Christ had expressed an ardent longing to eat the ceremonial banquet ushering in that feast with His Apostles. “With desire I have desired to eat this Pasch with you before I suffer” (Luke xxii. 15). Evidently, He intended to do or to say something of great importance on this occasion. What this was He revealed after the ritual supper was ended on that memorable Thursday evening. He then took bread, rendered thanks to God, and breaking the bread gave it to His disciples with the words: “Take ye and eat; this is My body.” Then taking a cup of wine, He gave it to them to drink, with the words: “Drink ye all of this. For this is My blood of the new testament which shall be shed for many unto remission of sins.” Finally our Lord commanded that the rite which He had performed should be continued in His Church, for He said: “Do this for a commemoration of Me” (Matthew xxvi. 26-28; Luke xxii. 19). Thus did Jesus Christ institute the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist—a sacrament venerated by Catholics as the greatest of the sacraments. Moreover, in most of the other Christian denominations a rite of this nature is administered, known among Protestants as the Lord‟s Supper or Holy Communion. However, there is a vast difference of belief between Catholics and the majority of Protestants as to what this sacrament really contains. The usual Protestant view is that the Eucharist is nothing more than bread and wine, symbolizing our Lord‟s body and blood. Catholics believe that this sacrament contains the living, physical flesh and blood of our Saviour; and this is known as the doctrine of the Real Presence. The Oriental churches separated from the Catholic Church such as the Greek Orthodox Church, also accept this doctrine, as do some Lutherans and Anglicans. Of course, the crucial point is the significance of Christ‟s words when He promised and when He instituted this sacrament. For, since He empowered His Apostles to do whatever He had done at the Last Supper, and since their power has been transmitted to their successors in the sacred ministry, it follows that if Christ promised to give, and later actually gave His real body and blood to the little group around the supper table, the Holy Eucharist consecrated by the bishops and priests who have inherited the powers of the Apostles also contains the living Christ. What reasons have Catholics for believing that our Saviour gave the Apostles His real body and blood? In the first place, we point to the undeniable fact that His words, both on the occasion of the promise and at the Last Supper, if taken literally, denote a true, and not a merely symbolic presence of Himself in the Holy Eucharist. He could not have expressed this more clearly or more forcibly than He did: “He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood hath everlasting life. . . . For My flesh is meat (food) indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. . . . This is My body…This is My blood.” Now, it is a universally accepted principle of interpretation that words are to be taken in their literal sense unless there are good reasons to the contrary. Are there any such reasons in the present instance? Those who deny the doctrine of the Real Presence do indeed adduce numerous arguments against the literal acceptance of Christ‟s statements, but an honest examination of these arguments will show that they all have one common basis—the difficulty of understanding how our Lord‟s real body and blood can be simultaneously present in thousands of places in a manner imperceptible to human senses. Now, this is only a repetition of the argument brought up by those who listened to Christ Himself at Capharnaum: “How can this man give us His flesh to eat? . . . This saying is hard, and who can hear it?” The weakness of this argument is that it measures divine power by human standards. He who has assured us that the Holy Eucharist contains His body and blood is the all-powerful, all-truthful God. Shall we twist His assertions to suit our ideas just because our puny intellects cannot understand how the miracle of the Real Presence takes place? Should we not rather exclaim with St. Peter: “Thou hast the words of eternal life,” and humbly acknowledge as divine truth the sublime doctrine which the Son of God has made known to us with His own lips? Secondly, the attitude of those who heard Christ‟s promise and His reaction furnish an argument for the Real Presence. It is very evident that they understood our Lord to be referring to His own body and blood, and not to a mere symbol. Now, from Christ‟s manner of acting on other occasions we can conclude that if they had interpreted Him wrongly He would have set them right. Thus, when the disciples understood literally His announcement: “Lazarus sleepeth,” He told them plainly: “Lazarus is dead.” Again, when He spoke of meat which He had to eat, and they thought He referred to material food, He told them: “My meat is to do the will of Him that sent me” (John xi. 11-14; iv. 32-34). But on the present occasion, when it was evident that His followers were accepting His words literally, He did not say: “I intend merely to give you bread and wine as a symbol of My body and blood.” On the contrary, He repeated His promise even more explicitly; and though He saw many departing from His company, He uttered not a single word implying that He had been speaking in figurative language. Thirdly, with His supernatural knowledge Christ foresaw that in the course of future ages millions of devout Christians, relying on His words, would accept the doctrine of the Real Presence, and adore Him as truly contained in the Holy Eucharist. With this realization before His mind, how could our Saviour have been free from the grossest deception if He did not intend His words to be taken literally and yet gave no further explanation? Indeed, if the Holy Eucharist contained nothing more than bread and wine, Christ would be responsible for innumerable sins of idolatry. From the earliest days of its existence the Catholic Church has firmly proclaimed the doctrine of the Real Presence, as is clearly attested by the writings of the first centuries. St. Justin, who wrote in the second century, said: “We receive (the Holy Eucharist) not as common bread or as common drink. We have been taught that this nourishment is the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus” (Apologia I, 66). Tertullian, writing in the third century, stated: “Our flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ, that our soul may be nourished by God” (De Resurrectione Carnis, 8). Such quotations from the early writers could be multiplied almost indefinitely.