The Eucharist

One of my Catholic friends asked me a question some time ago, and has been waiting patiently for an answer.

Regarding the Eucharist, did you (a) once believe and then stop believing, or, (b) never believe in the first place?   Bonus question:  if (a), what caused you to stop believing?

I’ve been thinking about this for quite a while, wondering how I would respond. It isn’t a simple question, because there are many facets to Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. Influenced by postmodernism as I am, I’m going to have to couch my response in narrative form.

(Some of this first section I’m copying from something I wrote in 2007.)

My earliest childhood memories of communion services in the Seventh-day Adventist churches in which I was raised recall a somber affair.  Men and women would separate for the washing of feet, after which we returned to the sanctuary. The pastor and elders sat on one side of the communion table, upon which the elements were covered with a white cloth. The deacons sat in the front pew, facing them. The deaconesses, wearing black dresses with hats and white gloves, entered silently and removed the cloth, slowly and carefully folding it like a color guard folding a flag. The pastor gave a short exhortation, then read 1 Cor. 11:23-24. An elder offered a prayer of blessing. The pastor passed the plates of bread to the elders, who passed them to the deacons, who passed them to us. When we all had a piece the pastor said, “Let us all eat together.” We did so in solemn silence. Then the pastor read 1 Cor. 11:25-26, an elder blessed the unfermented wine, and the deacons passed the trays of cups to us. We all drank together.

It was a somber occasion. It was a remembrance of the death of Jesus. It was a Good Friday experience.

What Thou, my Lord, has suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Saviour!
‘Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

It was, dare I say, a sort of “funeral service for Jesus.” I remember one elder in particular who invariably would get choked up as he ate and tears would come to his eyes.

Seventh-day Adventists haven’t spent much ink debating the nature of the Lord’s Supper , focusing instead on simply following Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me,” and making sure that we fulfill all that entails: breaking of bread, sharing of the cup, and washing of feet. And yet Adventists have written much that is contrary to the practice I knew as a child. Two sentences leap out from the 1980 Statement of Fundamental Beliefs as being at variance with my early experiences of how we did it:

In this experience of communion Christ is present to meet and strengthen His people. As we partake, we joyfully proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again.

This is to be a joyful experience, not one of funereal somberness. The Jesus whose death we proclaim has risen, is now “present to meet and strengthen His people,” and will come again. We come to his table having confessed our sins to one another, having washed each other’s feet, now to declare through our eating and drinking the good news in which we place our trust. We share here a foretaste of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

When that statement was approved in 1980 I was about to begin my theology studies at Atlantic Union College. But it didn’t sink in. Neither did Ellen White’s emphasis of these same points from Desire of Ages. I don’t recall the subject being presented in this way in my classes on theology or pastoral ministry. I had to discover the joy of the Eucharistic presence of Jesus in other ways.

I think it was Christmas 1983 that I went with my mother and my sister to the midnight service at Trinity Church (Episcopal) on the New Haven Green. It was a traditional Anglican liturgy with all stops pulled out. What Ellen White said of Catholic liturgy in The Great Controversy certainly fit what I saw there:

The religious service of the Roman Church is a most impressive ceremonial. Its gorgeous display and solemn rites fascinate the senses of the people and silence the voice of reason and of conscience. The eye is charmed. Magnificent churches, imposing processions, golden altars, jeweled shrines, choice paintings, and exquisite sculpture appeal to the love of beauty. The ear also is captivated. The music is unsurpassed. The rich notes of the deep-toned organ, blending with the melody of many voices as it swells through the lofty domes and pillared aisles of her grand cathedrals, cannot fail to impress the mind with awe and reverence.

But it was the Eucharist itself that most impacted me. It was celebrated in joy, not in sorrow! It was celebrated as a feast with a friend (indeed, in that context, as the birthday of a king), not as his funeral. And the liturgy itself gave me a sense of connection to Christians of prior ages.

That was the time in which I was making my break from Adventism. I was searching for a new faith home, and settled on Lutheranism, partly for its historic emphasis on justification by faith, but partly for its liturgical life as well. Luther emphasized Augustine’s definition of the Eucharist as a “visible word”–a visible embodiment of the good news. It isn’t enough for us to hear that we are forgiven; we also need to have that broken bread, and the specific words, “This is my body, broken for you … for the forgiveness of sins.” My appreciation deepened during my years at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary and as a pastor.

I had questions in seminary, however. How could Jesus’ physical body be here, “in, with and under” this bread, if he was also in heaven? Luther’s idea of the ubiquity (omnipresence) of Christ’s body didn’t satisfy. Instead, I accepted Luther’s main emphasis that we simply cling to the word of Christ, “This is my body,” and trust him, even if our senses and our reason would lead us elsewhere.

The Eucharist was critical to my entry into the Catholic church–not just as a belief in the real presence, but in the connection it made to the “communion of saints” of all ages.  I had a longing for this connection, and this intensified whenever I visited other churches. And then I joined John Michael Talbot’s ecumenical (at the time) Franciscan community, the Little Brothers and Sisters of Charity. And I went to conferences for priests, deacons, and seminarians at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. And in these places I longed for communion–but was kept from it because I was not in union with the Catholic church. And I wept with my brothers and sisters.

That’s what the Eucharist meant for me on the road to Catholicism–connection to others, past and present. This emotional need for connection was particularly strong, I can understand in retrospect, because I was still grieving my separation from the Adventist church in which I was raised–and from my wife.

Of course, the closer I was drawn to Catholicism emotionally, the more I had to grapple with Catholic teaching about the Eucharist. And this came gradually. Here, too, the emotional impact was strong, especially regarding the question of the perduring presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is the basis for Catholic devotion to the Eucharist outside of mass, including the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle (primarily to take it to the sick), and worship of the Eucharist in the form of Exposition and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and Corpus Christi processions. My first experience of this was at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. When I was a student at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary, we were encouraged to take classes at other seminaries in the Washington area. We would go down in a van, and we would meet at the end of the day at the National Shrine, a prominent landmark on the campus of Catholic University of America. I wandered its crypt and many chapels, and always was drawn by the silence and beauty of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, where I would kneel and pray. Then, as a pastor attending those Steubenville Conferences, I went to Holy Hour for the first time–and that emotional experience pushed aside all questions and debate. I accepted what a priest friend said: “When God gives a gift, he doesn’t take it back.”

As a Catholic, these Eucharistic devotions were a core part of my devotional life; I encouraged them in my ministries to young adults and college students.

Let me step back from the personal narrative now to consider several key points that distinguish the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist from the Protestant.

First is the belief in Transubstantiation, that the substance of bread and wine are fully changed into the substance of the Body and Blood of Jesus, while retaining the accidents of bread and wine (appearance, smell, taste, etc.). While the affirmation in Christ’s presence can be argued on the basis of Scripture (as Lutherans and Calvinists do), this cannot. This definition, explained using terms of Aristotelian philosophy, goes beyond Scripture. I accepted it as a Catholic because I accepted the Catholic Church as mater et magistra, mother and teacher.

Second is the belief that the Eucharist is a sacrifice that can be offered for the living and the dead (the payment of a stipend–usually set at $5 or so–is encouraged when requesting a “mass intention”). While early Christians spoke of the Eucharist as sacrifice, I think they were using the term in an analogous fashion at first … but they came to adopt a pagan understanding. In the Middle Ages most of the abuses centered on this understanding of the Eucharist, as something that could be bought and sold and offered up in place of simple faith in Christ. Again, there is no Scriptural basis for this–it is rooted solely in Catholic tradition. As a Catholic, I accepted the Church as a teacher, as I’ve said, and so acceptance of this followed.

Third, the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist entails a specific understanding of ordination. It becomes a means by which a man is imbued with the power to confect the Eucharist. Without this power, there can be no Eucharist. So if a group of Christians were exiled on an island with no priest, they could not just designate one of them a priest (as Luther argued), but must be forever without the Eucharist. Giving the priests this power also sets them apart ontologically, through an “indelible character,” from the laity, and is the root of clericalism.

Fourth, I’ve already discussed Eucharistic Devotions, including the Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament and its worship. I was drawn to Catholicism in part through this–and then found myself in campus ministry, where many of my fellow campus ministers considered these devotions as relics of the days before Vatican 2. While working at the  Catholic campus ministry at UCSB, I had to seek out other Catholic churches in the area to find what is really a basic of Catholic life. When I came to Houston, I found that I was working for a bishop who appreciated and encouraged these devotions. But I also experienced extremes, especially through LifeTeen and the Youth 2000 movement. For these groups, Eucharistic exposition was at times accompanied by unrestrained emotional enthusiasm–weeping and shouting and falling on the ground. But this happened only when the Eucharist was in the monstrance, and you could see it. When it was moved 20 feet away to the tabernacle, the youth passed by oblivious. They were caught up in an emotional moment, but they had not thought through the theology so that their practice was consistent. I began to be aware of how much emotionalism had played into my own attraction to these devotions.

Another element of Catholic teaching, rooted in “private revelations,” is the “Eucharistic Reign of Christ.” This is the idea that before Christ physically returns there will be a period of peace in which Christ will reign on earth through the Eucharist. This is the idea behind the spread of perpetual adoration, in which churches set up chapels where the Eucharist is exposed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and constantly attended by worshipers. A critical point will be reached where Christ is worshiped and adored throughout the world (and there will be supernatural manifestations, signs in the heavens, days of darkness, perhaps also including bodily apparitions of Christ), and the world will be transformed; Catholic teaching will guide society, and evil will gradually disappear. This is not Catholic dogma; Catholics do not have to accept this. But no pope has ever cautioned against it, or the practice of perpetual adoration, or the excessive Marian devotion that is wrapped up with it. This is something I never accepted–indeed, it frightened me–and still does. Scripture speaks of Satan being transformed into an angel of light, and of false Christs in the end time. Here’s a way that could easily happen. Yet Jesus himself warned, “If they say he is here or there, or in a secret place, don’t go.”

As I’ve noted several times, these teachings are not based in Scripture, but are rooted in either the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic church or, in the case of the last mentioned item, in private revelations (which are optional). When I came to the point that I no longer accepted the teaching authority of the Catholic church, then these teachings based on that teaching authority simply collapsed.

I also became increasingly aware of how the emphasis on the physical presence of Christ here and now detracts from two clear Scriptural teachings–Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary (the Book of Hebrews) and Christ’s return in glory. Scripture teaches that Christ, having been sacrificed once, sat down at the Father’s right hand and now intercedes for us. We are to direct our faith heavenward, “within the veil,” not to anything or any “manifestation” or “presence” on earth. We are not to look forward to a slowly manifesting Eucharistic presence, but to the disruption of history when Jesus comes in the clouds–that is the only event that will destroy evil and usher in peace.

I had a longing for connection with Christians of all ages. I still do. But instead of linking that with an emotional experience of the Eucharist, I link it to our common faith in the Risen Jesus, and our common baptism into one Spirit.

At the time I became Catholic, I accepted the position of Richard John Neuhaus that the battles of the Reformation era over Justification by Faith alone were resolved. I believed that the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification of 1999, and earlier agreements, had rendered it a moot point. Or, put a better way, that one could lift up the Reformation doctrine within Catholicism today. But as I restudied that Joint Declaration in recent years I saw that it really resolved nothing. It was not proclaimed within Catholicism after 1999–it was set on a shelf as a past achievement, and nothing in Catholic practice was examined in its light. And justification by faith must call into question today, as it did 500 years ago, the Catholic practices of indulgences and Eucharistic sacrifice. I’ve written about that here.

John Dunne (The Way of All the Earth: Experiments in Truth and Religion) compared inter-religious dialogue to the hero’s mythic journey, “passing over” into another tradition, learning from within its framework, and then “coming home,” enriched. I did come home changed.  Likewise, Ewert Cousins (Christ of the 21st Century) said that when we encounter an experience in another tradition that resonates with an experience we have had, we may discover aspects of our own tradition that we have overlooked or neglected. The inter-religious encounter then becomes a mirror against which we may come to appreciate aspects of our tradition that had never before made sense to us.

I returned home enriched by my experiences in Lutheranism and Catholicism. I came to see that I had overlooked teachings in my own tradition, notably the affirmation of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and the joy that should characterize this celebration. Here’s the full statement of Adventist belief:

The Lord’s Supper is a participation in the emblems of the body and blood of Jesus as an expression of faith in Him, our Lord and Saviour. In this experience of communion Christ is present to meet and strengthen His people. As we partake, we joyfully proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again. Preparation for the Supper includes self-examination, repentance, and confession. The Master ordained the service of foot washing to signify renewed cleansing, to express a willingness to serve one another in Christlike humility, and to unite our hearts in love. The communion service is open to all believing Christians. (1 Cor. 10:16, 17; 11:23-30; Matt. 26:17-30; Rev. 3:20; John 6:48-63; 13:1-17.)

Though some have said Adventists share a Zwinglian belief that the Lord’s Supper is a mere memorial, I think this clearly expresses Calvin’s belief that “Christ is present to meet and strengthen His people.” And I think this is clearly affirmed by Scripture. Do we need to explain it by recourse to pagan philosophy? No. Do we need to invent categories like “ubiquity” or “transubstantiation”? No. We can simply take Christ at his word. He is present–but it is not a physical presence. He has ascended to heaven. He is “within the veil.” He is present now, every day, and in every circumstance, but especially in his supper, through his Holy Spirit (John 14). It is this Spirit that connects all who are baptized in his name in one body (1 Cor 12-14). It is this Spirit that calls us to cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Let me conclude for now with a quotation from Ellen White, The Desire of Ages (pp. 658ff). Not as a dogmatic proof–but for the benefit of my fellow Adventists to show that what I’m describing is not unknown within Adventism.

Christ by the Holy Spirit is there to set the seal to His own ordinance. He is there to convict and soften the heart. Not a look, not a thought of contrition, escapes His notice. For the repentant, brokenhearted one He is waiting. All things are ready for that soul’s reception. He who washed the feet of Judas longs to wash every heart from the stain of sin.

None should exclude themselves from the Communion because some who are unworthy may be present. Every disciple is called upon to participate publicly, and thus bear witness that he accepts Christ as a personal Saviour. It is at these, His own appointments, that Christ meets His people, and energizes them by His presence. Hearts and hands that are unworthy may even administer the ordinance, yet Christ is there to minister to His children. All who come with their faith fixed upon Him will be greatly blessed. All who neglect these seasons of divine privilege will suffer loss. Of them it may appropriately be said, “Ye are not all clean.”

In partaking with His disciples of the bread and wine, Christ pledged Himself to them as their Redeemer. He committed to them the new covenant, by which all who receive Him become children of God, and joint heirs with Christ. By this covenant every blessing that heaven could bestow for this life and the life to come was theirs. This covenant deed was to be ratified with the blood of Christ. And the administration of the Sacrament was to keep before the disciples the infinite sacrifice made for each of them individually as a part of the great whole of fallen humanity.

But the Communion service was not to be a season of sorrowing. This was not its purpose. As the Lord’s disciples gather about His table, they are not to remember and lament their shortcomings. They are not to dwell upon their past religious experience, whether that experience has been elevating or depressing. They are not to recall the differences between them and their brethren. The preparatory service has embraced all this. The self-examination, the confession of sin, the reconciling of differences, has all been done. Now they come to meet with Christ. They are not to stand in the shadow of the cross, but in its saving light. They are to open the soul to the bright beams of the Sun of Righteousness. With hearts cleansed by Christ’s most precious blood, in full consciousness of His presence, although unseen, they are to hear His words, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” John 14:27.

Our Lord says, Under conviction of sin, remember that I died for you. When oppressed and persecuted and afflicted for My sake and the gospel’s, remember My love, so great that for you I gave My life. When your duties appear stern and severe, and your burdens too heavy to bear, remember that for your sake I endured the cross, despising the shame. When your heart shrinks from the trying ordeal, remember that your Redeemer liveth to make intercession for you.

The Communion service points to Christ’s second coming. It was designed to keep this hope vivid in the minds of the disciples. Whenever they met together to commemorate His death, they recounted how “He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” In their tribulation they found comfort in the hope of their Lord’s return. Unspeakably precious to them was the thought, “As often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord’s death till He come.” 1 Cor. 11:26.

3 thoughts on “The Eucharist

  1. I am overwhelmed at the clarity and passion of this message. Just to review your personal journey was a gripping experience for me. You have revealed amazing theological insights that resonate with me, although I never have had the journey you describe. This message should be published in the Advent Review or Ministry as soon as possible. Cheers, Herb

    • Eucharist as commodity–the more you pay, the more you offer, the greater the benefit. Paying a priest to offer the sacrifice to improve your chances in a business deal, to get a loved one out of purgatory. Gregorian masses, paying to have masses said daily for 30 days, out of the superstitious belief that this will get the person out of purgatory. Turning monasteries into sacramental factories, with priests saying multiple masses through the day … simultaneously at the various altars around the church. All of this is completely pagan, with no Biblical foundation.

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