A friend once told me, with a girlish smile, that when she receives Communion, she is so moved by the thought that our Lord gave his life for her, “Sometimes, I kiss him.”
I’ll admit: the idea of kissing the Eucharist struck me as a little… weird. Still, I envied my friend her intimacy with the Real Presence of Christ. My own feeling at taking Communion is closer to my feeling toward wave-particle duality theory. I don’t disbelieve; I don’t understand enough to disbelieve. I don’t get it at all.
It’s not as if the Church has ever had any doubts on where she stood. Writing around 150 AD, sainted convert Justin Martyr declared: “For not as common bread nor as common drink do we receive these; but… as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him… is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus.” (First Apology 66) Two hundred years later, St. Cyril echoed: “Since Christ himself has declared the bread to be his body, who can have any further doubt? Since he himself has said quite categorically, This is my blood, who would dare to question and say that it is not his blood?” (Catecheses, Lecture 22). The Council of Trent laid down the law in 1551: “If anyone denies that in the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist are contained truly, really and substantially the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ… let him be anathema.” In other words, a spiritual goner.
Intellectually, those arguments convince me. Yet as I stare at the monstrance during my weekly hour of Adoration at my parish, struggling to keep my mind on a spiritual plane, or as I listen to the words of the priest during Consecration… wave-particle duality theory. I don’t expect some inexplicable, rapturous, heart-melting revelation. No, what I’m looking for is a sodium chloride moment.
Sodium chloride. Table salt. A compound of two elements, sodium and chlorine. Left to its own devices, pure sodium is so reactive that it explodes on contact with oxygen. Likewise, chlorine unchaperoned is poison. Fortunately, nature never allows this to happen. Their atoms are so composed that each element is drawn to the other. And together they keep each other out of trouble, while forming a substance that is essential to life — and especially to warm french fries.
When I learned of their mutual attraction, I felt like laughing. I knew it was true. Not because scientists have told me so. Certainly not because I understand enough about chemistry to believe them. It’s so unlikely, so unexpected — who would make it up and expect to be taken seriously?
That’s the kind of genius worthy of a Being who’s fit to run the universe.
That the fate of the cosmos is in the hands of someone with that sense of irony is all right with me. It reassures me that the things that seem senseless now will someday make sense. It makes the mystery of why he does it that way more than acceptable; it makes it delightful.
The doctrine of the Real Presence might someday strike me the same way. If not, it’s hardly a dark night of the soul. I take the approach preached by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian who was hanged by the Nazis for joining a plot to assassinate Hitler. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer writes on the call to follow Jesus. He refers to Peter walking on the water at Jesus’ command and explains its importance to Peter’s growth in faith and that of every disciple:
“Peter had to leave the ship and risk his life on the sea, in order to learn both his own weakness and the almighty power of his Lord. If Peter had not taken the risk, he would never have learnt the meaning of faith. Before he can believe, the utterly impossible and ethically irresponsible situation on the waves of the sea must be displayed. The road to faith passes through obedience to the call of Jesus. Unless a definite step is demanded, the call vanishes into thin air, and if men imagine they can follow Jesus without taking this step, they are deluding themselves like fanatics.”
To me, that says if I want to believe in the spiritual reality, I must obey the earthly command that accompanies it: “Do this in memory of me.” This is the “definite step” that Bonhoeffer writes of. Not simply break the bread; be the bread — blessed, broken, given to all. Be as Jesus was: a living embodiment of his Father’s will, born to carry out his work on earth. Be the hands that hand out sandwiches at a soup kitchen, the ears that listen to the lonely in a nursing home, the arms that cradle the abused infant in a crisis nursery.
Sometimes I gaze at the people in the Communion line. The guy in ragged jeans and Panama Jack T-shirt; the reedy old lady tottering back to her pew; the young man being pushed in the wheelchair, head lolling uncontrolled; and me, a slightly gray, occasionally neurotic philosophizer. This is the body of Christ on earth? What kind of God would entrust the mission of bringing salvation to the world to a ragtag, hapless bunch like us?
Hey — I think I just had a sodium chloride moment.