January 01, 2011

Spirit and the Real Presence

In the story of his conversion, former Presbyterian theological virtuoso Dr. Scott Hahn recounts the first time he attended Mass and saw the Eucharist held aloft by a priest.

My God, it's you! It's really you!!!

Christ tells us point blank that the Eucharist is a mystery of faith; that the Eucharist is something our human senses can never perceive and which our human intellect can never fully comprehend. Some non-Catholic Churches seem to ignore Christ's teaching about the supernatural nature of the Eucharist as they go about their regular practice of symbolic communion while members of other non-Catholic Churches misunderstand Jesus' teaching about the mystery of the Eucharist at it's most fundamental (a-hem) level.

It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63)

See, Jesus was speaking spiritually. Jesus was only speaking symbolically. It's a memorial.... mere bread. "the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit" Its the classic denial of the Eucharist. And it is not only dead wrong but is exactly the opposite of what Christ actually said.
Jesus very clearly states that his words (about the Eucharist) are "Spirit and life." The English word spirit comes from the Latin word spiritus which literally means breath.

The word "Spirit" appears in 58 books, 288 chapters, 509 verses and a total of 556 times in the New American Bible. I've read every one of them. You can read them here if you want, or if you prefer, you can use the Revised Standard Version here. Nowhere in scripture is the word "Spirit" used as a synonym for the word "Symbolic."

In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless wasteland, and darkness covered the abyss, while a mighty wind swept over the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2, NAB)

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2, RSV)

The New American Bible renders the passage "Mighty Wind" while the Revised Standard Version renders the passage "Spirit of God." Two different translations are given to illustrate the synonymous nature moving air (mighty wind) and the Spirit of God.

...the LORD God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

In the second creation account, God breathes "The breath of life" into man who becomes "A living being." There is an undeniable causational relationship between the "breath" of the divine being and life in man; God's breath - the blowing of air into man's nostrils - is that which causes man to live. In the very first book of the Bible we see the movement of air, God's breath, his Spirit, the "Might wind" hovering over the waters, not only giving man his very life as it is breathed into his nostrils but being the catalyst for the creation of the entire universe in which man lives.

Jesus answered, "Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of flesh is flesh and what is born of spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you, 'You must be born from above.' The wind blows where it wills, and you can hear the sound it makes, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)

Jesus compares the nature of wind with the action of the Holy Spirit in man as he converses with Nicodemus the Pharisee. The context of the conversation is the strict requirement that one be "Born of water and spirit" in order to enter heaven. Catholics know this passage as a reference to the beginning of a Christians spiritual life through baptism. Through baptism we are adopted into new life as members of the Body of Christ. If you have the chance to witness a baptism any time soon, please do so, and watch for the part where the priest of deacon breathes on the candidate three times in the shape of a cross.

When the time for Pentecost was fulfilled, they were all in one place together. And suddenly there came from the sky a noise like a strong driving wind, and it filled the entire house in which they were. Then there appeared to them tongues as of fire, which parted and came to rest on each one of them. And they were all filled with the holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim. (Acts 2:1-4)

Yet more wind, this time breathing life into and giving birth to the Church, filling the Church with the Holy Spirit. Need we go on? Oh, just one more...

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, "Peace be with you." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. (Jesus) said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit." Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained." (John 20:19-23)

The Word of God which became flesh literally breathes the Holy Spirit into the Apostles. Note that the gift of the Holy Spirit which is given to the Apostles at this particular time allows them to forgive sins and thereby bring others back to spiritual life (to a state of sanctifying grace).

It is the spirit that gives life, while the flesh is of no avail. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and life. (John 6:63)

Throughout the Bible, the word "Spirit" is used to signify the very breath of God, the Holy Spirit, and spiritual life. And Jesus' words at the end of the Bread of Life discourse are no different. Jesus is not speaking of symbolism and spirituality; he is speaking of new life, a participation in the Body of Christ!

The argument that John 6:63 renders communion as symbolic collapses under the weight of scriptural evidence - exactly the opposite is in fact the case. Jesus says:
  • I am the bread of life (twice)
  • I am the living bread that came down from heaven
  • The bread that I will give is my flesh
  • Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life
  • My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink
  • Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me
  • The one who feeds on me will have life
And then Jesus tells us not that his words are symbolic or spiritual, but that his words are "Spirit and life"; that which breathes a new spiritual life - the very life of God - into his followers!

In spite of Christs warning, some of his disciples chose to walk away. Christ's warning is no less clear today. Your flesh is of no avail! Your eyes will see bread. Your tongue will taste wine. Your nose will smell the alcohol.  Your intellect cannot grasp what I am about to fully reveal on the night before I am to die for your sins, when I take bread in my sacred hands and break it so that you may always have me present. Your faculties of reason cannot understand the miracle - the turning of bread and wine into my flesh and blood - that will be performed in every nation, from the rising of the sun to its setting, at the hands of my priests until I come again in glory.