"For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink." - John 6:55
Catholics believe that Jesus is with us, not only spiritually, but physically, in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist.
As with all Catholic doctrines, this belief comes from the teachings of our Savior Himself:
The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Jesus said to them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day." - John 6:52-54
Jesus promised to give us His flesh and blood to eat. How does He do this? Catholics have always believed it is through the Eucharist, the sacrament which Jesus instituted at the Last Supper:
Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me." And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you." - Luke 22:19-20
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which will be shed on behalf of many for the forgiveness of sins." - Matthew 26:26-28
When He said, "Do this in memory of me," He gave the Apostles the power to consecrate bread and wine as His body and blood. From that moment forward, the Apostles had a unique duty, a glorious responsibility: at their word, God would change bread and wine into the living flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.
This power was not restricted to the Apostles. It was passed down through the ages so that Jesus' ministry could continue. Peter and James, John and Philip, and all the other Apostles laid their hands on their successors and thus gave them the power which Jesus had given them. These successors, in turn, passed this power on their successors; and their successors passed it on to their successors; and so on, until the present day.
From the very first century, there has never been a time when Jesus was not physically present on earth.
He really meant it when He said, "Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." (Matthew 28:20)
So, the successors of the Apostles have the power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. But how does this work? When does it happen? The answer is this: at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
The Mass is the highest and most essential form of Catholic worship. It's what happens at a Catholic church every Sunday. At every Mass, unleavened bread (the host) and wine (in the chalice) are brought to the altar. The priest prays over these gifts, which are our offering to God, and then says the words of consecration: "This is my body," "This is my blood," just as Jesus told us to.
At the words "This is my body," spoken over the host, the bread changes into Jesus' living body, blood, soul, and divinity. At the words "This is my blood," spoken over the chalice, the same thing happens to the wine: it becomes Jesus' body, blood, soul, and divinity.
Now, no visible change comes over the host or the chalice. It still looks like bread and wine. it still smells like bread and wine. It still tastes like bread and wine. It still feels like bread and wine. If you took it into a laboratory and did scientific tests on it, it would still have all the properties of bread and wine.
Nevertheless, it is not bread and wine. It is Jesus. It has kept all the physical appearances of bread and wine, but its actual substance has changed.
This phenomenon - a change in something's nature without a change in appearance - is called transubstantiation. It's a mystery and a miracle, something that can't be explained or proven by science, but which must be believed by faith. I like to think of it as a change without the normal physical or chemical change that we're used to seeing in this world.
Catholics, then, believe that Jesus is present, not only in spirit, but in body. Not only can we talk to Him; we can reach out and touch Him. Not only can we take Him into our hearts spiritually; we can take Him into our stomachs physically - and we do, every time we receive Holy Communion.
It's an awesome thing to think about, isn't it? The humility and love of our great God knows no bounds. Not only does He become one of His own lowly creatures and suffer horrendous suffering and disgraceful death for their pitiful sakes - He takes on the appearance of the food they eat and dwells with them forever.
Once He took on our own nature; now He takes on the appearance of bread and wine.
Once He came to us as a little baby; now He comes to us as a tiny host.
Once he entered the cold discomfort of a stable; now He endures the continual cold indifference of a world that does not recognize His presence.
Once He lowered Himself to be wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger; now He lowers Himself to be taken into a pitiful human body.
His love knows no bounds! Who would have expected that after being beaten and spat upon and crucified, He would have anything left to offer the world? He already gave us everything; He already lavished upon us more than we ever could begin to deserve in a million eons.
And yet He has given us more.
He has given us more.
What one of you would die for a friend? Perhaps some, perhaps many, perhaps even all of you. But what one of you would be willing to hide yourself under the appearance of a piece of broccoli or a slice of pizza and enter that friend's body in order that they might grow closer to you? Would you be willing to rest on a human tongue, slide down a human throat, end up in a human stomach?
If any of you are willing to do that, then I am very, very impressed.
God has held nothing back. He has challenged the human concept of perfect love. He is willing to do anything and everything to bring His beloved human creatures closer to Him. And He has done anything and everything. He has made Himself available to each one of us in a personal, individual, physical way.
It's already more than awesome that we can talk to Him from our hearts anywhere and anytime and He will listen to us with a father's heart. But that we can reach out and touch Him? That we can take Him into our very bodies? That we can sit there in an adoration chapel and look with love on the very body that was pierced and bruised and slain for us?
We have no right to think for even a moment that God owes us such love, to suspect that He would consider making Himself available to such a crazy degree - and yet He does.
God's love transcends anything the human mind can conceive. It's more than mind-blowing.
That's why the doctrine of the Real Presence makes so much sense: it doesn't make sense. It's just the inexplicable, unbelievable sort of thing that God would do.
There's an explanation of the Real Presence - one of my favorite aspects of Catholicism. Any comments, questions, or concerns? Any ways I could make this feature better? Any suggestions for the next Catholicism Explained post?
Note: I will be out of town next Sunday, and thus there will be no Catholicism Explained feature next week. However, God willing, it will be back on Sunday, June 12. :)