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The Eucharist as Center of the Church

by Kenneth J. Howell

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    A former Protestant minister explains from Scripture how the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the essential center of the Church.
  • Larger Work:
    This Rock
  • Pages: 11-15
  • Publisher & Date:
    Catholic Answers, Inc., December 1996

THE Catholic Church has a deceptive appearance. From the outside it appears to be a large, imposing organization that is run from the top down. The clergy from pope to parish priest seems to be driven by the power of tradition through a controlling bureaucracy in Rome. From its Sunday worship to its standardized prayers (like the rosary), the Catholic Church looks to the outsider like a monolithic block of uniformity.

This appearance begins to change in the minds of inquirers when they get close to the Church and learn, much to their surprise, that there is a great diversity of devotions, prayers, practices, and even beliefs among members of the clergy and laity. The problem of an imposing uniformity gives way to consternation over which aspects of the Church to consider important.

In such bewilderment, those seeking communion with the Roman Catholic Church are likely to lose sight of what is central to the Catholic faith and to be caught up in peripheral issues that can only be understood in the light of the central truths of Catholicism. It is therefore essential to emphasize the center of the Catholic faith, the Eucharist. Why is the Eucharist the center of Catholic life and worship? The answer can be had in two words: Jesus Christ.

The Eucharist: Jesus Christ himself

The Eucharist is the center of the Catholic Church because Jesus Christ is the center of Catholic life and worship. The Church still professes, as it has for two millennia, that the Eucharist is nothing less than Jesus Christ himself. The Second Vatican Council called the Eucharist the center and the summit of the Christian life. How could these Catholic bishops be so bold in their affirmation? Does not such a statement show that the Catholic Church places too much emphasis on the Eucharist? Perhaps the Protestant criticisms of the Catholic insistence on the sacraments are valid. Maybe this sacramental system in fact chains the individual Christian to a hopeless conveyer belt of religiosity. Why this insistence on the centrality of the Eucharist?

The main reason for so great a confidence resides in the meaning of the Eucharist: Jesus Christ is here on earth again in the Eucharist, just as he was two thousand years ago. He is not just present in memory. He is not just spiritually present. He is on earth, body and blood, soul and divinity. The doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is more than a convenient belief; it is an absolute necessity. Why? Because the whole pattern of scriptural teaching demands it and because the Church could not continue in its life and work without the bodily presence of Jesus on earth today.

The Real Presence is at the heart of every Mass, but its roots go far back into the history of God's ancient people, the Jews. The sacrificial lamb at the annual Passover meant reenactment of the Exodus. The Passover liturgy used by the Jews for centuries places into the mouth of the eldest son the question: "Why is this night different from all others?"

The answer celebrates the Lord Yahweh who redeemed his chosen people from the darkness of Egypt on this night. The words and actions of the Eucharistic celebration also reenact the Last Supper of Jesus and celebrate the Messiah himself. Just as the lamb in each Jewish household symbolized the original offering of a lamb on the first night of Passover, so every Mass gives a converted Host that symbolizes Jesus' original offering of himself. The prophets of the Old Testament often pictured salvation in the messianic age as a second Exodus with the imagery of the pillar of fire and with the glory of God (kabod) dwelling in the midst of his people (see Isa. 4:5-6; Zech. 2:5).

The meaning of the original Passover and its renewal in the future days of the Messiah is summed up in the promise to Abraham, "I will be . . . a God to you and your descendants after you" (Gen. 17:7). This promise stands at the center of the Old Testament promise of salvation that we have inherited. Prophet after prophet reiterated it. Isaiah especially announced the Immanuel theme in 7:14 ("The virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and shall call his name Immanuel") and declared his supremacy in chapter 9 verses 6 and 7.

But the promise of God dwelling with his people pervaded the prophetic hope. Jeremiah a century later placed at the center of the new covenant this expectation: "I will be their God and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33). Within a few years, the exilic prophet Ezekiel promised a new heart and a new spirit for God's people. Again, the renewed relationship was at the heart of his message: "I will be your God and you will be my people" (Ezek. 36:22-32).

Former enemies now friends

Lest we think that this promise of God's presence and person living in and among his people was limited to the people of Israel, the prophets teach that in the day of God's renewed covenant the borders of God's love will be pushed back, and all nations will be invited to God's holy mountain (Isa. 2:1-5). The former enemies of God's people (Egypt, Assyria) will now be counted among God's holy people (Isa. 19:18-25). This dual background of expectations for the messianic age almost require the Real Presence and the catholic nature of the Church. The Church must be universal to fulfill the prophets' message, and God must really dwell among his people to satisfy all that was lacking in the first covenant.

The teaching of the New Testament builds on this Old Testament background with its emphasis on salvation as a new experience of the presence of God. The act of God's Son becoming a man shows at once his humility and his desire to be with his people. From the very beginning, in Matthew's account of Jesus' birth, the Immanuel theme of Isaiah pervades the story. The name Jesus, a Hellenization of the Hebrew name Joshua, means "the Lord is salvation," as the angel explains to Joseph (Matt. 2:21).

But salvation is explained further with the promise that God has come to be with his people. God, living with his beloved people, is salvation. Matthew's distinctive way of telling Jesus' life and ministry ends on the same theme of God's presence when Jesus tells the apostles, "I will be with you until the consummation of the age" (Matt. 28:20). Little wonder then that Jesus, in Matthew's account of the Last Supper, adds the words "with you" to his promise to drink the cup once again in the future fulfillment of God's kingdom (compare Mark 14:25 with Matt. 26:29). Jesus' ministry of salvation brought more than forgiveness of sins; he intended to give his own presence to his people as an eternal gift.

What form would that presence take? Would he leave them a book to read so they might remember him? Perhaps a letter would do? If they were careful and devout enough, they could probably muster enough strength and courage to remember his ministry and continue it. But Jesus did not leave the problem of his continuing presence to the fickle powers of his apostles. Nor did he leave them with a book or letter, though those would come in time.

Christ's understandable action

Rather, he gathered them together to do something each and every man could understand. He gathered them for a meal and fed them. But this meal meant more than a time of fellowship and far more than a simple occasion of thinking on Jesus. Jesus transformed ordinary bread into his body and everyday wine into his blood. The words from his sacred lips, "This is my body," assured them his own person would continue on with them in the tasks he had given them to do. He would not leave them orphans. He would be with them. Matthew's account of Jesus' life assures us that the Eucharist we celebrate today is nothing less than the presence of the same Jesus who first broke the bread that night long ago.

The Real (bodily) Presence of Jesus today is confirmed by the Greek word commonly translated "remembrance." The phrase "in remembrance of me" occurs only in Paul's (I Cor. 11:23-26) and Luke's (Luke 22:19) accounts of the institution of the Lord's Supper. It is likely that Paul passed this down to Luke, since they had close associations in ministry together.

Unfortunately, our English word "remember" cannot begin to do justice to the Greek anamnesis used by Paul and Luke. Our word "remembrance" suggests that we think about Jesus' life and death in our minds as an event that is in the past for us. There is no doubt that idea is included, but the Greek word means more. Anamnesis means that the thing to be "remembered" is an otherworldly reality that is made present to the one "remembering." The past events of Jesus' life are taken up into the heavenly realms and is now made real to the worshiping community.

Thus, when Jesus says, "Do this in remembrance of me," he is calling on his apostles to reenact the night and giving his assurance to them is that he will be with them in the future reenactment just as much as he was with them that first night. Anamnesis is not primarily a mental event on our part; it is a liturgical event on the part of Jesus' appointed representatives, the apostles and their successors. We remember Jesus in our minds because he is here again just as he was with the apostles—physically.

The physical presence of Jesus on the altar underlies Paul's rhetorical questions in I Corinthians 10:16, 17. These references to the Eucharist occur in a context of admonitions to avoid idolatry. Why should we avoid associations with false religions? Why should we not participate in pagan ritual? Paul's question in verse 16 assumes a powerful truth: "Isn't the cup of blessing that we bless a participation in the blood of Christ? Isn't the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?" The Corinthians already know the answer to this question. Yes! This meal is a real participation, a genuine communion in these heavenly realities—the body and blood of Christ. The union with the one Lord excludes participation in the rituals of other gods.

Paul explicitly confirms this: "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons" (10:21). Such strong language is based on the belief that Paul had already given to the Church at Corinth. This celebration that was so central to the life of the church involved a real communion with Christ. And not just with Christ in general, but with his body and his blood.

No wonder then that Paul emphasized that the Church is one body (see I Cor. 12:12-30). But how do the different people become one body? Chapter 10 verse 17 says that it's through partaking of the one body of Christ via the consecrated bread: "Since there is (only) one bread, we though many are actually one body because we all share in the one bread." How could bread make us one? Impossible! But the one body of Jesus Christ has the power to make us one.

We the Church are one body because we are the body of Jesus Christ in the world today. We are his body because we nourish ourselves on his body. That same underlying belief in the Real Presence is behind Paul's admonition not to partake unworthily. How could a person be guilty of the body and blood of Christ by eating and drinking unworthily if this bread and this cup were not in fact the body and blood of Christ?

The Center of liturgy: Jesus Christ

Consider the Catholic Mass. To many non-Catholics, especially low-church Protestants, the Catholic Mass seems to be an elaborate form of worship that bears little resemblance to the simplicity of New Testament worship. But what appears as a complicated series of liturgical movements is in fact a structure of worship that focuses primarily on Jesus Christ as the Redeemer of mankind. The Eucharistic celebration and the Communion which occurs at the end of every Mass is the culmination of an entire service that is built around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Church sees the events of Christ's life as saving events, occurrences in the life of our Redeemer that include us as his redeemed.

This belief explains why from the very beginning the Church has always included a reading from the Gospels in the liturgy. Whereas some churches may not read from the Gospels in worship for months, the Catholic Church requires its pastors to lay before Christ's sheep the saving stories recorded for us in one of the four Gospels at every Mass. More often than not, the events or words of Jesus' life are the direct subject of the homily. In this way, the attentive listener (or reader) cannot mistake the central theme of worship. The Church calls the faithful Christian to focus his attention on his Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. Why?

Because Catholicism teaches that these saving events in the life of our Lord are not simply dead events of the past that happen to be recorded in the Bible. They are historical realities that followed him into heaven and are again present to us on earth in the Gospel readings. When the Canaanite woman came to Jesus begging that her daughter be released from demonic influence, Jesus declared that her faith was great (Matt 15:21-28). This declaration is preceded by our Lord's apparent rebuke to the woman for attempting to cross social boundaries and to receive the promised salvation given to the Jews.

Knowing that Matthew was written for a Jewish-Christian audience, we can see clearly the Gospel writer's intention. Jesus Christ came for all people. He came to save even the despised of the world and to receive any who come to him in faith. Yet these truths are not ours simply by remembering what he did or said in the case of the Canaanite woman. They are present realities because Jesus still reaches out from heaven to all peoples of the earth and receives them when they come to him in faith.

If we, like the Canaanite woman, recognize our utter dependence on Jesus and we beg him for mercy that is so undeserved, we can be sure that he will say to us, "great is your faith." That of course is exactly what Communion in the Eucharist is all about, coming to Jesus.

The Church does not leave this totally up to us, either. It incorporates invitations to come to Jesus in faith within the structure of worship itself. When the priest kisses the altar upon entering the Church, we too are greeting Christ who is symbolized by the altar and inviting his presence into our lives. Then when we beg Christ for mercy in the penitential rite ("Christ have mercy"), we are exactly in the position of the Canaanite woman who saw Jesus as her daughter's only hope. Then in the Communion Rite proper, we also pray through our priest, "Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church."

Finally, when we are invited to receive the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, we respond with the words of another outsider, the centurion: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you but only say the words and I [my soul] shall be healed." Here we are begging the Lord Jesus to be merciful to us as he once was to the woman who was an outsider but who also had great faith.

The events that took place in ancient history are present again because Christ, through the word of God read and preached, is present again. That encounter with the foreign woman is an essential part of the heavenly reign of Christ and the truths this encounter embodies are ours by the liturgical reading and preaching. The proclamation of the word of God is the proclamation of the Word of God.

Jesus Christ in Word and Deed

Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, but he also demonstrated the reality of the message by his life. His deeds confirmed the truth of his words. The summaries of his ministry recorded in the Gospels are enlightening. He taught with authority (Matt. 7:28-29). Mark especially connects Jesus' teaching ministry with his power of exorcism (Mark 1:21ff).

When John the Baptist is dismayed at his arrest and begins to doubt that Jesus is indeed the coming one, Jesus response points to his deeds as proof of his being the Messiah (see Matt. 11:2ff). Other New Testament authors also confirm the importance of Jesus' ministry in word and deed (see Heb 2:1-4). The Acts of the Apostles says that Jesus was a man attested by God, powerful in words and deeds (cf. Acts 2:22).

The New Testament teaches that the Church must be like Christ, powerful in word and deed too. The early Church could not miss the message of Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats. Judgment will be based on good deeds done in his name (Matt. 25:31-46). They and we must preach the gospel to every creature, but we must also give a cup of cold water in the name of Christ (Matt. 10:42).

James is not at all strange in his insistence that a faith that has no works is a dead faith (Jas. 2:14-26); he is simply following the clear teaching of our Lord. It is he who does the will of God that will enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 7:21-26). Paul, too, commands the Christians at Colossae to be active in word and deed for the glory of God (Col. 3:17).

Following this pattern of word and deed, our Lord commanded his apostles to have a twofold ministry of teaching and sacraments, "Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep everything I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20). Ministry of the word (teaching) is complemented by a sacramental ministry in actions (baptism).

This pattern of word and deed accompanying and confirming each other also makes the Eucharist a necessary component in the fullness of worship because both are essential for the health of the Church. The Eucharist, as Augustine said, is the word made visible and the Word made visible. The Church can only fulfill its mission given by Jesus by verbal instruction joined to visible demonstration of the truths of the gospel. If preaching and teaching are a necessary part of the worship and work of the Church, the sacramental ministry of the Church is also necessary for the continuance of the body of Christ.

The Eucharist: an absolute necessity

The Eucharist becomes an absolute necessity for the Church and the individual Christian when seen in the light of its central meaning and the Church's task of bring all men into the unity of faith. By what other power can evangelization be accomplished and the Christian life lived than the body of the crucified and risen Lord? In Jesus Christ are not only all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3); he also has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18). Only he can bring unity to believers by his power and love.

The Church Fathers and the medieval doctors were so impressed with the unitive power of the Eucharist that they called this the "sacrament of Church unity." Ignatius of Antioch, within living memory of the apostles, stressed the common chalice as a symbol of the unity found in the blood of Christ.[1] In the middle of the third century, when the Church was being torn apart by schism and persecution, Cyprian insisted on the Eucharist as symbol and an instrument of unity: "When the Lord calls his body the bread which is made up of many grains joined together, he means by that the union of Christian people, which he contained within himself."[2] No wonder that Thomas Aquinas wrote, "In this sacrament the whole mystery of our salvation is held."[3] The Eucharist, more than any other sacrament, symbolizes the Church and each member of the body of Christ joined with one another.

We saw Paul teaching in I Corinthians 10:14-17 that the Eucharist is a real participation in the body and blood of Christ. In that same text he drew on the known celebration of the Eucharist as having only one loaf to underscore that the body of Christ (the Church) is only one. In the mystery of God's plan, this one (physical) body of Christ symbolically reminds us that Christ founded only one Church.

At the same time that physical body really unites us to the one mystical body. Christ draws together people from every nation into a new society of faith. Their continued growth in faith is a process of being ever more deeply ingrafted into the body of Christ by the body of Christ. The Eucharist is absolutely necessary because the unity of the Church is perfectly proclaimed in it and because it brings about that unity in an increasing degree until Christ comes again.

As a Protestant, I began to see clearly that the lack of Eucharistic faith and celebration in most Protestant churches was directly linked to endless schism and disunity. Without frequent Eucharist the most vivid reminder of unity is eliminated. Without a deep faith in the Real Presence of Christ's body, the most important instrument of unity is removed from the hearts and minds of the faithful.

Soon I began to bask in the warmth of God's provision. He did not leave the problem of disunity to a human creativity that can be so easily misguided. His provision unites the faithful into his body by giving us nothing less than himself. The Catholic Church has no choice but to emphasize the Eucharist, for it is Christ alone who can bring his lost sheep into the Church so that there will be one shepherd and one flock (John 10:16).

Kenneth J. Howell, a former Protestant minister and a recent convert to the Catholic faith, teaches at the University of Indiana and is associate director of The Coming Home Network.

Endnotes

1. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Phildelphians 4:1: "There is only one chalice that you may be united in the blood of Christ."

2. Cyprian of Carthage, Epistle 69, ch. 2.

3. Summa Theologiae, q. 83, a. 4.

© This Rock, Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177, (619) 541-1131.

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