The Episcopal Church web site speaks of a certain ambivalence towards the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the feast we celebrate today. The ambivalence is born from the differing points of view concerning the traditional focus of the feast, namely the Real Presence (capital “R,” capital “P”) of Jesus Christ in the sacrament. Real Presence refers to Jesus Christ is being really present in the consecrated bread and wine, and not present in some lesser way. But what do we mean by “really” present?
A scientific answer to this question would be “of course Jesus is present.” Jesus lived a very long time ago and during his 33 years was exhaling carbon dioxide and shedding skin all the time, so there’s an extremely high probability that some of Jesus’ atoms are in every piece of bread and drop of wine. As fascinating a fact as that is, though, it doesn’t really help us much since Jesus’ atoms are also in everything we breathe, eat and drink, consecrated by a priest or not. And, of course, our celebration of the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist predates our awareness of things like atoms and the carbon cycle.
In the history of the church there’s been a lot of theology and philosophy thrown at this question. Kinds of Real Presence have included transubstantiation which maintains that the basic substance of the bread and wine are completely transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ even though our senses still experience bread and wine. Then there’s consubstantiation, which maintains that after consecration the substance of the bread and wine are still bread and wine, and at the same time also equally and fully the substance of Jesus’ body and blood. There are also versions of Real Presence that say it’s a spiritual presence having to do with the experience of the person receiving the sacrament, or that the presence is simply the meaning we make of the sacrament, as a memorial for example.
Now, I’ve just scratched the surface here — the metaphysics of the competing theologies of Real Presence are mind-numbingly complex. And Anglicans and Episcopalians are a pretty diverse crowd, not everyone even subscribes to the notion or terminology of Real Presence. But, perhaps we could find some common ground by starting with the words we find in the catechism on the subject of sacraments: “…sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace…” What I like most about that definition is that it implies relationships on many levels: between the visible and spiritual, between the outward and inward, between us and God. And because our God is Love, an inward and spiritual grace of the Holy Eucharist might be understood as being fully present with, in full loving relationship with, Jesus Christ, God, and each other.
John Macquarrie, a theologian and Anglican priest writing on the sacrament of Holy Eucharist, suggested different types of presence including a relational one he called “personal presence.” “A personal presence,” he wrote, “is one in which communication takes place between two persons. It may be a communication in words or gestures or in subtler ways, even in the profound way that we call ‘communion’.”
Now, any true relationship is always mutual and reciprocal, and so it seems to me that while we’re spending time trying to figure out what the Real Presence of Jesus Christ means, our Beloved God, perhaps feeling a little left out and bored with all the theology talk, wants to turn that question around and ask us “are you really present? Are you truly here for me, for your neighbor, for yourself? ”
Earlier I said that the science trivia about how we’re breathing, eating, and drinking atoms of Jesus all the time wasn’t very helpful. Well, I’ve reconsidered. It can remind us that with each breath we take, and in every moment is an opportunity to surrender to the Holy One’s will and say “I am here for you.” It’s an opportunity to give thanks and invite the Eucharist, to die to ourselves and become the Eucharist, to be created anew and live the Eucharist. In this light, our participation in the Blessed Sacrament can be seen as practice, practice for giving God in each moment probably the only thing our Beloved truly desires, our real presence.
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