Corpus Christi. Body and blood. Real presence.
When I was growing up and attending Lutheran Sunday school (until age 9), these terms were very unfamiliar to me, as I suspect they would be to most non-Catholic children. In my Sunday school classroom, I learned about the good works Jesus did on this earth, how he healed the sick and the lame, about how Jesus was so unfairly crucified and then so miraculously rose to live again, about how Jesus lives forever.
And, although I stopped attending church before my teens, I accepted Jesus Christ as real and present in my life, and his teachings as principles to guide me through life’s challenges. That was the foundation for my decision, two decades later, to become a Catholic.
But as I neared my first Communion at age 31, preparing to receive the Eucharist — Jesus’ body and blood — was not easy for me. There is, let’s face it, something at least initially jarring about the words, “Eat my flesh, drink my blood.”
So, to really appreciate and accept the full meaning of receiving the Eucharist, I had to separate myself from more “earthly” meanings and connotations, to better understand what “eat my flesh, drink my blood” means. Through spiritual reading, reflection and prayer, this is what I realized:
By consuming his flesh and blood, we do not make Jesus less whole; we make ourselves more whole. By receiving Jesus, we do not destroy him; we make ourselves stronger, we make Jesus’ presence more real in our lives and we bring that presence to one another. And that makes Jesus stronger and more real in our world.
Receiving Jesus is a life-giving action, for us and for Jesus. Scripture is clear on this: “Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me” (Jn 6:57).
Of course, receiving his body and blood is one of various way Christ enters my life. Jesus comes to all of us, lives with us, appears to us in other ways at our eucharistic celebrations. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy tells us that Jesus appears to us in various ways.
Jesus is present to us in sacred Scripture, in the word of God proclaimed — broken open and shared. Jesus is present to us in the person of the priest who presides at these celebrations, in the one who consecrates the Eucharist in preparation for this holy banquet. Jesus is present in the assembly gathered to celebrate the Eucharist. Again, Scripture is clear: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).
Through signs of Jesus’ presence, those of us who believe have the opportunity to accept and receive Jesus into our lives.
But it starts with receiving the Eucharist, the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, for the Eucharist gives us the strength to hear, to see, to believe, to act in Jesus’ name. Pope Paul VI, in his 1965 encyclical “Mysterium Fidei” on the Eucharist, acknowledges the various ways Jesus is present to us, but calls his presence in the Eucharist “a more consoling source of devotion, a lovelier object of contemplation and holier in what it contains than all the other sacraments; for it contains Christ himself.”
“This presence,” the pope continued, “is called ‘real,’ not to exclude the idea that the others are ‘real’ too, but rather to indicate presence par excellence, because it is substantial and through it Christ becomes present whole and entire, God and man.”
Whole and entire. God and man. Body and blood. Life-giving. After 30 years, the more I reflect on this, the more I believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.