I was thinking of the Eucharist not long after capsizing my little sailboat in the Potomac River in high winds last Sunday. Attempting unsuccessfully to right a boat after the cabin has filled with water, and while hanging on to its upturned side in a three-foot chop, tends to make you appreciate more than just the neglected fundamentals of sound seamanship.
Lots of things come to mind—wife, children, God. Granted, this mishap probably wasn’t life threatening, though the thought crossed my mind. I always wear my life jacket when single-handing, I was sailing not far from a popular local fishing tournament, I was only a quarter-mile offshore, and I’m in reasonably good shape (for the shape that I’m in). But it was rough, unpleasant, cold, frustrating, very bad for the boat and, yes, I swallowed a little water and I got a little scared. Forty years ago I would have come away thrilled. Sunday, I came away acutely conscious of my mortality.
So when I went to Mass on Monday morning, the wonder of the Eucharist struck me with renewed force, and what hit me hardest was how wildly improbable the Eucharist is. It is not improbable in the sense of being unlikely, given what we know about how it came to be, but it is most improbable in the sense of being totally unpredictable. It is highly doubtful that any human person would or even could make up a religion with the Eucharist at its heart.
Here we have God in what appears to be a piece of bread, or a sip of wine. The improbability is staggering, yet this is believed by millions upon millions of well-educated, modern, sophisitcated people—as unprejudiced and self-conscious as modern criticism can make them. Moreover, people have believed it for nearly two thousand years. Every conceivable human regime has, at one time or another in that long history, tried to make people stop believing it. Yet they still believe. Nearly every one of these believers has had a doubt or two about it at one time or another. Yet they believe again and more strongly.
Paradoxically, one of the greatest motives of credibility for Catholicism is its sheer untamed, unfathomable incredibility. God becomes man, starting out in the womb like everybody else. For the most part, he lives a humble and obscure life. Toward the end, he preaches a number of doctrines, some of which make his listeners fear he is insane or possessed. He says he is going to give himself up to death, and he claims to offer his body in bread and his blood in wine as a perpetual memorial. Then he allows himself to be executed.
Millions of people believe in this perpetual memorial. More importantly, I believe in it. Most readers know why, but this is not the time to talk about why. Rather, this is the time simply to appreciate again what is—to receive it fresh, to let it seep in a little deeper. There is a season for everything. There is a season for meditative theology, and a season for reasoned apologetics. There is a season for fiery preaching, and a season for evangelization. But there is also this particular season: the season for astonishment, the season for gratitude, the season for joy.
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