by Charles Bobertz
A faithful Catholic woman recently gave witness in Commonweal to why she stays in the Church. As with many Catholics her focus is on transubstantiation. And while I am happy she is staying in the Church, my sense is we Catholics could do a better job of grasping this central celebration of our faith. Here’s what she said:
It was somewhere in the process of explaining transubstantiation to my skeptical seven-year-old that I taught her the phrase “Go big or go home.”
I hadn’t intended to bring up transubstantiation, or religion, or anything at all—we were just trying to make it through a rare sit-down post-church brunch (we usually do more of a perching coffee and pastries), helping the two-year-old balance scrambled eggs on her spoon, when my older kid asked, pretty much out of nowhere, “The cracker and the wine…they’re not really the body and the blood of Jesus, right?”
Even though my husband attended Catholic school for five years and has sat through more theology classes than I have, I’m the actual Catholic, so I was fielding this one.
I grabbed the moment as best I could to explain that yes, well, actually, the craziness of that idea was the point. The whole idea that something could literally transform before our eyes. That we could, daily if we wanted to, eat the body and drink the blood of a two-thousand-year-old man, alongside a billion other people across the globe. She raised her magnificent eyebrows. “Okaaaaaay.”[
Now I have no doubt that the story here resonates with millions of Catholics that have indeed decided to stay within the Church. But it does not have to be this hard. We consider the reality of the Eucharist and we immediately go into machinations about how this could in fact be real. We might even pull out a dusty volume of Thomas Aquinas and explore philosophical notions of substance and accident. Really folks, it does not have to be this hard.
The earliest Christians, consider the Gospel of Mark for example, focused on the fact that the bread and wine were eaten in a meal where slaves and free people, men and women, rich and poor, Jews and Gentiles, were actually eating together in a place – an ordinary house – that enacted the reality of what humanity should be in real community. The bread and the wine were the manifestation of the resurrected Body of Christ and the resurrected Body of Christ was the real restoration of what creation and community should be, what God had always intended for the world at the Genesis creation.
God restored the creation, the body, and the human community in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The earliest Christians believed that this creation and community were made real in the eating and drinking of real food with real people in a real place. This may be hard to believe, not because we have to figure out transubstantiation, but because there is so much in our world that would cause us to deny that the Eucharist could – in fact – be real.
I don’t stay in the Church because faith is somehow absurd. I stay because what God did in restoring the creation and community in the resurrected Body of Christ is worth both believing and living toward.
Dr. Charles Bobertz teaches Scripture and patristics at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary in Collegeville, MN