The most central truth of our faith is that Jesus is the Son of God. And the most central lived reality of our faith is that Jesus Christ is present among us today, even after ascending to the Father.
Jesus is present in many ways. He is present in the Bible; he is present when the church prays; he is present "where two or three are gathered in my name" (Matthew 18:20); he is present in the poor, sick and imprisoned; he is present in the sacraments; he is present when the church preaches.
He is present in other ways too. Pope Paul VI remarked that "The mind boggles at these different ways in which Christ is present; they confront the church with a mystery ever to be pondered" (Mystery of Faith).
But the Catholic Church has always held Christ is present in a most special and full way in the Holy Eucharist. In his encyclical, Pope Paul went on to write, "The presence is called 'real' . . . because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, the God-Man, is wholly and entirely present." Christ has not left us orphaned; he has remained with us under the appearance of bread and wine.
For the first 1,000 years of the church's history, no one doubted this. The Scriptural evidence for this belief is so clear and its truth so central to the living-out of the faith that no one seriously questioned it. In the next 500 years, very, very few people doubted it.
At the Reformation, ambiguous statements about the nature of the real presence surfaced. Soon, the Protestant world rejected the belief in Christ's real presence. Today, many Catholics also do not accept it. It was because of the spread of false teachings within the church and the growing number of Catholics who denied or ignored the real presence that Pope Paul felt compelled to write Mystery of Faith in 1965.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised about a decline in belief in the real presence. Jesus himself met strong opposition when he said, "The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh" (John 6:51). People wanted him to give them more loaves and fishes to eat; they were not interested in the bread of eternal life, especially if it meant eating his flesh.
Even his disciples began to leave him because of this hard teaching. And when he saw them going, Jesus did not call them back and say, "Sorry, guys! You misunderstood. I was only speaking symbolically. You don't really need to eat my body and drink my blood." He let them go because the words he spoke were literally true.
We, however, shouldn't be surprised that Christ remains with us in a physical form. God loves the material world. He created it. And when the goodness of creation was broken by our sin, God sent his Son to restore that wholeness by taking on a human, material body. God wants "creation itself (to) be set free from its bondage to decay" (Romans 8:21).
So if we turn our backs on Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, we are turning our backs on God's work of restoring the material world to wholeness. Such a rejection leads to increasing abuse of "the flesh." As devotion to the Eucharist withers, environmental devastation, pornography, sexual sins, greed, gluttony and offences against human life grow.
As these ills take root, they spawn further distortions -- broken families, psychological dis-ease, concentration of economic power and the build-up of weaponry. The world is out of whack primarily because it does not adore Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
To many, drawing these sorts of connections will seem bizarre. But it only seems bizarre because we do not appreciate the Incarnation. We do not appreciate what God has done and is doing to redeem the material world. We do not take seriously the notion that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and the body which has consumed the body and blood of Christ is on fire with God's love. The person who turns his or her back on Christ's real presence in the Eucharist is going to suffer and perpetrate many forms of "physical abuse."
What is our hope? Our hope is in the Lord who made heaven and earth. It lies in rejecting the skepticism which believes in Jesus but which separates the physical from the spiritual. It is to approach the Eucharist with the eyes of faith, rather than the eyes of sense. And once one sees with those eyes of faith, one can say as did St. Thomas Aquinas:
Here beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things, to sense forbidden;
Signs, not things, are all we see:
Flesh from bread and blood from wine,
Yet is Christ in either sign,
All entire, confessed to be.
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