Opening the Word: Truly incredible gift

Whenever I am asked, “Why did you become Catholic?” I respond, “The Eucharist.” Yes, there are other reasons, but that is first and foremost. As a fundamentalist, I believed in the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But I was taught that the weekly communion service we celebrated at our little Bible chapel was a “memorial” or reminder of Christ’s death on the cross.

And yet, I recognized how meaningful that service was for me. In fact, it was my favorite part of going to church. Two things stood out: first, the readings from accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels or from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians and, second, the sense that something more was necessary. There was a great emphasis on the historical reality of Christ’s saving death, but something was missing. We looked back to what had happened 2,000 years ago, but what about today? Were symbols really enough?

While in college, I realized how unusual it was that we had held a communion service nearly every Sunday. Many evangelical and fundamentalist groups do so only a few times a year. A church I attended in my early 20s never had any sort of communion service. Why not? Because, the pastor said, the work of Christ is finished and so there is no need to indulge in symbols and metaphors. That bothered me, in part because I knew the early Christians had “devoted themselves to the teachings of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

A turning point came when I read what St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, wrote in the early second century about the Docetists, an heretical sect that denied Jesus Christ ever had a body of flesh and blood. “They [the Docetists] abstain from the Eucharist and prayer,” wrote St. Ignatius, “because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, which the Father in his goodness raised up.” Then there was St. Justin Martyr, writing around AD 150: “For we do not receive [the Eucharist] as ordinary food or ordinary drink; but as by the word of God, Jesus Christ our Savior took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also, we are taught, the food blessed by the prayer of the word which we received from him, by which, through its transformation, our blood and flesh is nourished, this food is the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh.”

The two passages from the New Testament that I kept returning to were John 6 and today’s reading from 1 Corinthians 11. According to St. Paul, Christ did not say, “This bread represents my body,” or “This cup reminds you of my death.” Rather, he said, “This is my body …” and “This cup is the new covenant in my blood …” Like so many others, I tried to find a way over, around or under the plain, direct meaning of those words. But I could not.

Besides, it was becoming quite evident to me, as I read the writings of the early Fathers, that the first Christians understood what Jesus had said and what the Evangelists and apostles had written. In the words of St. Cyril of Alexandria (d. 444), “we celebrate the unbloody sacrifice in the churches, and we thus approach the spiritual blessings and are made holy, becoming partakers of the holy flesh and the precious blood of Christ, the Savior of us all.”

May we always be thankful for this incredible gift and grace! 

Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.