There is no denying that there are many hard sayings within the Catholic faith—many beliefs radical in their nature which demand our faith.
And among these hard sayings, there is perhaps none more difficult than the Catholic teaching on the nature of the blessed sacrament, the eucharist. For we are taught and must confidently believe that, in the mass, the eucharist is substantially changed into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We must believe that when the priest utters the words of consecration, we no longer behold mere bread and wine, but quite literally the Ancient of Days, the King of Kings, the Alpha and the Omega, the Amen, the living and true God; and we must, with all the angels and saints, give him the honor due his name.
Now, this is our duty and our salvation, and yet it is difficult for at least two reasons, the first of which is that the Eucharistic elements simply don’t look any different. They appear to remain bread and wine. Indeed, they taste like bread and wine. And so, each Sunday, each mass, we are challenged like the Jews who witnessed Christ’s first coming, whether or not we will believe him at his word, or trust our own judgement.
The second reason is that there are no miraculous signs to attend this making-present of Christ. There are no lightnings, nor clouds, nor any fanfare. One would expect these things would attend the presence of Almighty God.
While it is not my purpose here to defend the validity of the doctrine of the eucharist, I will add that perhaps it was because Jesus knew that the eucharist would test our faith that he left so much evidence for it. For there are the explicit words of Jesus himself (My flesh is true food, my blood is true drink) among countless other Scriptures, and the unanimous witness of the early fathers of the church testifying to the true nature of the eucharist. And yet many still doubt.
That said, here is the point I would like to make: The eucharist is no more radical nor difficult to believe than the first coming and Incarnation of Christ. It demands no more faith, and no less.
For indeed, to the Jews who first encountered Christ, the ideas of God having a Son, and that Son having a body, were blasphemous in the extreme. It struck at the very heart of their understanding of God, for, to them, God was one in a way that made a Divine Son impossible and transcendent in a way that made it unthinkable for him to ever incarnate himself.
In short, the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation was as radical and possible to the Jewish and pagan minds. Even many of Jesus’ followers did not believe him to be speaking literally when he said, “I and the Father are one,” or, “Before Abraham was, I am.” How could he mean what he said? God does not have a body, nor a Son—much less this poor, unsightly carpenter from a disreputable neighborhood. He couldn’t possibly mean it, they thought. He must mean something else.
It was the Pharisees, the teachers and students of the law, who understood exactly what Jesus meant. After seeking clarifications again and again, Jesus left no doubt in their minds as to whom he claimed to be. He did not intend to. And this is why they hated him and sought to kill him.
No, the doctrine of the Incarnation has never been easy to believe. And that is why, from the beginning, there have been hordes of heresies seeking to deny it. It took all the weight and authority of the Church to clarify once and for all that orthodoxy consisted of believing that Jesus was true God and true man.
As I have said, to believe that Jesus can appear as bread and wine is no more blasphemous or radical than saying that Jesus is God or that God can take on a body. If we say otherwise, we betray that we do not understand that earth-shattering reality that is the Incarnation.
Simply, if one is impossible the other is impossible. If one is blasphemous the other is blasphemous. If you deny one, you must deny the other. For there is at least as much Scriptural and historical evidence for Jesus in the eucharist as there is for Jesus being the Son of God the Father, coequal and of one substance with him, eternally existent, consisting of two natures in one indivisible person, and all the details of the orthodox Christological creeds.
No, it is not for lack of evidence that some would deny the nature eucharist—it is rather discomfort and doubting.
In a sense, this discomfort and incredulity is understandable, for these are hard sayings. Yet, I maintain that all orthodox doctrines should make us uncomfortable and test our faith. If they do not, we do not truly understand Christianity. For Christianity was never meant to be a religion easily believed. Jesus did not intend to make it easy to follow him or believe in him.
And yet, the Church is never satisfied with anything less than the fullness of the Catholic and Apostolic faith. Far from denying it or seeking to soften it, she teaches it from age to age with authority, demanding our obedience and our allegiance. And she alone can confidently and joyfully believe the fullness of those words—not of symbol, but of sacrament and salvation—Lo, I am with you all days, even unto the consummation of the age.