First communion in the Catholic tradition is an event in which little seven-year olds get to receive the consecrated host for the first time. They have had several months of education bringing them to this moment where they learn that Jesus is truly coming to them in what adults call, ‘the Real Presence’, the Body of Christ. (Adults who convert to the faith also have their first communion usually during the Easter Vigil Mass in which their conversion is recognized and sealed.) Today, however, I am in a packed church where a fairly large class of first communicants, their parents, and legions of family and friends invited for the occasion are chattering and taking pictures before Mass begins. During Mass the first communicants sit with their parents in the front pews, right before the altar, and the rest of the congregation swells behind them, some straining to see an individual communicant and all of them noticeably happy to be there.
I am here for my grand-niece but in truth I am here with and for everyone else, if the theology of Eucharist, the Body of Christ, is believed. As Mass continues and we have made it past children reading aloud from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and then the Gospel proclaimed and a sermon preached, a growing hush falls over the congregation nearing consecration time. A thought comes to mind that I had recently read: some 60 percent of Catholics do not believe in the Real Presence. Most believe ‘something’ occurs but ‘Real Presence?’ Heads are bowed in this assembly; even the children do not squirm or move. I’m wondering how many adults are asking a favor of our God, a favor to guide their children correctly, to heal broken relationships in family or marriage, to do better at work, to help aging parents. The list goes on. But snug between each pair of well-intentioned and struggling parents is a very young human offspring who today is the essence of what it means to be a faith-filled person despite prevailing weaknesses.
How best to explain the Real Presence? I certainly cannot do it and especially in this space. But let me take two popular questions surrounding it and try to apply some thoughts about them.
What is the Real Presence? Also called the Eucharist, the Real Presence is in the host consecrated at Mass. We acknowledge it is a ‘mystery’ but our belief cannot stop there. We need to recognize as theologians tell us and Father Richard Rohr states clearly, “The bread and wine are stand-ins for the very elements of the universe which also enjoy and communicate the incarnate presence.” In other words, Christ is everywhere and in everything; all the universe is sanctified with His presence. And, further, to make his Presence known, Jesus becomes one with the person receiving Him in communion. Jesus didn’t say at the Last Supper – as Rohr points out – “Stare at this,” or “Worship this.” Instead he said, “Eat this!’’ I am then the Body of Christ! I am nourished by His Presence within me.
What is meant by communion? When I take the Body of Christ, I am communicating my desire to be united to Him, to become Him for myself and others. This call to communion, though, includes the support and common intention of all who receive with me. Even though I may not know all who are with me at the time, the fullness of our communion with Him and each other at this moment creates the Body of Christ. We reverently know that what we take is the Body of Christ becoming whole among us. This is the reason why we partake of Eucharist with others, during our parish community Mass.
Forgive me if this is a bit deep today, but I was so taken with the example of the people in attendance at this Mass for First Communicants. I was taken with their serenity, their obvious posture of prayer, their humility to become the Body of Christ for their child who will always remember that they were with them on this day and shared communion with them. The point of the Eucharist is that we do not have to understand it; we need only accept it in faith. Our knowledge and understanding of it will grow in time. Grace grows within us even if it has to struggle through weeds and rocks to come to full bloom. We need only to think of the centurion who begged Jesus to cure his servant. We bow our heads and say those same words before we receive the Eucharist, “Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Say but the word and your servant shall be healed.” (Matt 8:8) He will come and you will be made whole.
During this month of First Communions, you might find it helpful to reflect on the words of Jesus during the Last Supper when He instituted the Eucharist. Try and make it a center of your faith to partake of the Real Presence based on prayer and faith. Do not try to parse it or debate it. The Eucharist is not magic. It does not become real through the priest raising it. It becomes real through his words and our partaking of it.
Quotes from Father Rohr are taken from his book, The Universal Christ.
Enjoy the springtime. I love the promise it holds for the days to come. And Happy Mother’s Day to all my readers who are mothers. Yours is such a noble vocation.