We begin with what we understand the Eucharist to be. Christ is really present in the Eucharist – as present as He was to the disciples in the upper room after the crucifixion on Easter Sunday night (cf. John 20:19). This is admittedly difficult, since what we see with our eyes still looks like bread and wine. That’s why in the early 13th century the Church attempted to clarify what it meant to say by Christ’s “Real Presence:” although the accidents, or appearances, of bread and wine remain, the substance, or reality, is now the body and blood of Christ. Yes, it still looks like bread and wine, but Christ is truly present there.
This belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, not merely “spiritually” - but really - has animated the Church from the very beginning - so much so that early pagans accused Christians of cannibalism.
Indeed, the faith of the Church is that Christ is even more intimately present to us than we would be to each other in the same room, since Christ is not only “out here” but “inside” us, with the power to transform us in ways that the presence of a fellow Catholic, although good, never can.
However, affirmation of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is based on another affirmation: belief that Christ was really present – present bodily – in the upper room following His Resurrection, as present as He was to the disciples during His earthly life before the Crucifixion.
This is also difficult to conceive of. The Gospel accounts make clear that it was difficult for the disciples as well. The doors and windows were closed and locked, but then He was there. So, naturally, they thought, “It’s a ghost!” But then the Gospels go out of their way to affirm that He wasn’t a ghost. He was there bodily. They touched Him; He asked for something to eat (cf. Luke 24:36-43). But then, all of sudden, He was gone again.
He was there bodily, but with a body that did not suffer the same limitations as ours; His physicality was transformed in the Resurrection. It is admittedly strange - unless, of course, He is truly God incarnate.
So this is our third factor to consider. God, the Creator of All Reality, became incarnate as a true, human person named Jesus at a certain moment in history. To be frank, this Christian affirmation is the most difficult for members of other religions to accept or respect. The transcendent God, they believe, simply can’t bring Himself so low as to become one, single human being who lived in a certain place at a certain moment in history. Something that big can’t become that small, they think. Something that powerful wouldn’t make Himself that weak. If the ancient world knew one thing, it was that gods can’t die. Claiming that your God showed His power by allowing Himself to be crucified is foolishness (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23). When people looked at Him, what they saw was just another human being.
But Christians believe that God was really present - fully - in Him.
All that we have considered so far is based on what is perhaps the most radical claim of all: the One who is Creator of All Reality loves us, and loves us so much that He gave Himself fully and selflessly to us to restore and renew our sin-damaged humanity.
That, I surmise, is the root of the problem. It is hard enough to believe that there is a God who created the vastness and complexity of the universe, but to believe that He actually knows and cares for us is, for many people, simply too much to wrap their heads around.
There is no argument for the Eucharist here. These statements are simply meant to help clarify our current situation. Is the problem really belief in Christ’s Real pResence in the Eucharist, or do the doubts and difficulties start much earlier and go much deeper? It would make sense if they did.
But once you accept the fact that God loves us so much that He became incarnate as an actual human person with an actual, vulnerable, mortal human body, and died on a cross, then the possibility that He could change bread and wine would into Himself seems to be rather easy to accept. If God creates all of reality out of nothing (cf. Genesis 1); if He changes water into wine (cf. John 2:9), why is it so difficult for Him to change wine into blood (cf. Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; Matthew 26:26-28; John 6:53-56)?
Perhaps these are the real questions we’re facing: Is the universe empty? Does anyone care? Is there any meaning in life, especially in the face of death? Let us commit, then, each in our own way within our particular spheres of influence, to give witness to the reality of the love of the Creator-God who became a human person, dying, and rising from the dead, for us. Then a revivification of belief, or belief for the first time, will be had in the Real Presence.
David J. Conrad