“And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”
— Matthew 28:20
O changing wheaten wafer, that veils the changeless One.
— From The Pilgrim Pavement, by Margaret Ridgeley Partridge
To write about Jesus Christ’s constant presence in the Eucharist brings us into deep waters. The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls the Eucharist “the source and summit of the Christian life.”¹ This doctrine is also a point of division among Christians. Yet the waters, deep as they are, are not unnavigable. Nor are they so wide that the waters cannot be crossed by non-Catholic Christians.
Not Just for Catholics
Note that this is not an exclusively Catholic Christian belief. Anglicans believe similarly, hence Margaret Ridgeley Partridge’s text, The Pilgrim Pavement.² Similarly, many Lutherans believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The LCMS Lutheran church my wife and I attended for several years in California placed gentle reminders into the hymnbook rack, asking those who did not believe in Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist to refrain from taking communion.
Not Just a Belief
Yet Christ’s ongoing presence with us in the Eucharist is not simply a belief. In our postmodern world, some of your friends and mine imagine that they can believe one thing, and you or I can believe another—but all those “beliefs” can be true.
No. Christ’s Real Presence can be believed or rejected. But it cannot be dismissed with “Well, I’m sure that’s true for you.” His body, blood, soul, and divinity are either present in the bread and wine or they are not. And if they are, if He is really present in the Eucharist, then this fact becomes the third door³ into the most compelling possible story.
Not a Complete Explanation
It would be tempting to continue here with an explanation of the Eucharist, how it is celebrated in the liturgy of the Church, and even why—if Christ is really present—the bread still looks and tastes like bread; the wine still looks and tastes like wine.
But these topics are explained elsewhere. See this FAQ on the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website. Or read the Catechism of the Catholic Church for this stunningly beautiful and much more complete explanation.
It would also be tempting, if Christianity Richly were a theological textbook rather than a celebration of Christ’s riches, to address the opinions of some who reject the Real Presence (e.g., John Calvin and Charles Hodges, whose views shaped much of my Christian experience before I entered the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church).
But rather than conclude this post with explanations that can be found elsewhere, I want to share something I witnessed that helped me link all three parts of the Gospel account, the compelling story of God’s creating love, the His caring intervention, and Jesus Christ’s constant presence with us in the Eucharist.
A Touching Illustration
A Catholic Christian expresses the truth of the Real Presence in the Eucharist by bowing deeply or genuflecting to Christ before being seated, when entering the pew. Similarly, Catholic Christians kneel to honor and worship Christ in the Eucharist at times separate from liturgical worship. Such times are called “Adoration.”
So what illustration of Christ’s constant presence did I witness?
One day when I was at Adoration in a small chapel, a parish priest entered and removed several of the consecrated hosts—Christ present with us. He probably was going to take the Eucharistic Christ to the sick of the parish. However, whatever his reason, the speed with which he entered and departed struck me as inconsistent with the solemnity of adoring the Lord of the universe.
Then the realization hit me:
No, no! The priest’s entrance, the gathering of the Eucharistic Bread, and his departure were exactly right.
As St. John explained, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled . . . ” (1 John 1:1).
When God came into the world as the babe we adore at Christmastime, he was touched and handled by His mother—to bathe, to change, to embrace in love, the same way the priest entered the chapel and handled Christ in the Eucharist.
When Christ’s cousins and friends roughhoused with Him during His childhood, as all boys do, His divinity was veiled. He was touched and handled in a way that was completely inconsistent with the fact He was (and is) the Second Person of the Trinity.
When Christ was seized by the chief priests, officers, and elders of the temple in the Garden of Gethsemane, He was handled in a way that was much more than rough. And when He was scourged and nailed to a cross as a human criminal, the God of the universe permitted Himself to be handled as if He were even less than a mere man.
The Changeless God, Veiled
In all of this, Christ was “veiled,” as Margaret Ridgeley Partridge’s wonderful hymn text says: O changing wheaten wafer, that veils the changeless One.
- He was veiled in the womb of The Blessed Virgin Mary
- He was veiled as a newborn child in the manger
- He was veiled in his youth, recognized simply as Joseph’s son
- He was veiled during His public ministry and teaching
- He was veiled to those who did not believe, and paradoxically at times, seemingly even to His own followers
- He was veiled as He was seized by the mob, taken before Pilate, scourged, and crucified
- He is veiled in us today when we fall into sin, or division, or “casual Christianity”
At any point, the Second Person of the eternal Triune God could burst forth with more power than a nuclear bomb. Yet He did not. He remained veiled; hidden to human eyes, revealed only to the eye of faith that saw the reality beneath the veil of humanity.
Is it so difficult, then, to see His Real Presence veiled in the Eucharist? He gives Himself to us (John 6:53, Matthew 26:26-28) in the Eucharist and remains truly with us— not just “spiritually” or abstractly but Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity veiled in bread and wine—until the end of the age.
This is a compelling, electrifying story! This is Christianity Richly.
¹ Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶ 1324.
² The Pilgrim Pavement. The copyright holder for this work is uncertain, but the complete text (not reproduced here), along with Vaughan Williams musical setting, is available on Chandos Records, Vaughan Williams: Symphony #5. This text served as the basis for a post on Christ’s Real Presence four years ago, here, where you will find a shorter meditation.
³ See Evangelical Catholicism, near the end of the post, for an explanation of how the elements of the Gospel record—which are most compelling to us—become “doors” into that story.