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Lent, the Last Supper and real presence

This Lent has turned out to be an extraordinary season of deprivation. After years of self-selected or church-designated days of fast and abstinence, we have found ourselves faced not only with the closure of schools and businesses but also of our places of worship. It is an imposed deprivation that no one would have expected. For Catholics, watching live-streamed or televised or YouTube Masses is something ordinarily reserved for the homebound or hospitalized. In those cases, there usually are chaplains or ministers of the Eucharist who pray with the afflicted person and family and bring Holy Communion to them. This Lent has given a whole new meaning to a centuries-old Catholic custom — the making of what is called a “spiritual communion” in the absence of the Eucharist. It is a devotional way of expressing love of the Lord, a desire to receive him in his fullness and a regret that it is not possible in current circumstances.

The lament of the season for Catholics includes but has also exceeded our usual focus on the Paschal Mystery: reflection on the meaning of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. It has become, because of Covid-19, a lament that we are missing the full realization of the real presence of Christ in the elements of the Eucharist. Unless our churches are able to reopen for Holy Week, this Holy Thursday will be a very strange one. It will be rather like viewing a newborn through glass in a neonatal unit. We can look but not touch.

Catholics make the celebration of the Lord’s Supper a lavish event. We light many more candles than on most days and dazzle our churches with bright interior light. Priests and deacons wear gorgeous vestments, choirs and full organ and other instruments provide rich music and sing the Gloria (which has gone missing for most of Lent). There are flowers galore and, after a procession, the Blessed Sacrament (a large host exposed in a gold vessel) is placed on a specially appointed altar of repose so that adoration can continue until midnight after the evening’s Mass has concluded.

When we read and pray through the narrative of the Last Supper, we draw a number of conclusions and act on them. We repeat what Jesus did and what his lessons in servanthood, self-emptying and divine love mean for us. Our liturgy includes Scripture readings recalling the Passover meal recounted in Exodus, Psalm 116 where it speaks of the cup of salvation, three verses from 1 Corinthians 11 in which Paul speaks of eating the bread and drinking the cup until the Lord comes and the story of Jesus washing the feet of the apostles recorded in the John’s Gospel. The priest celebrates a foot-washing after the homily and then the Liturgy of the Eucharist proceeds. The celebration of Mass on Holy Thursday recalls for us key segments of salvation history, but it is also more than a memorial of the events that preceded Jesus’ wrenching prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his arrest and torture and his crucifixion.

For Catholics, it is a timeless and ever-repeated call to enter into his sacrifice in a now unbloody way. It is a strengthening over time that converts us into fuller participation in his life by taking his person into us. It is our dramatic understanding of Paul’s “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19-20). Thus we talk about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

For Catholics, belief in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is both literal and symbolic. We believe that every Eucharist, potentially consecrated every day but Good Friday (when we can partake of the Eucharist reserved after the Mass of the Lord’s Supper) and Holy Saturday morning, entails a change of the elements of bread and wine into the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ. We, members of the body receiving Communion, take Christ’s being into our own. That is how we interpret what the Savior meant and intended, as we read the Synoptic accounts of the Last Supper, the Bread of Life sermon in John 6 and St. Paul’s comments on the Eucharist.

The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist means that our oneness with the Lord is intimate, entailing a mysterious and world-changing interchange of our beings, and persistent. So we reserve the hosts that remain after the celebration of Mass in tabernacles. We celebrate rituals like Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament to honor that ongoing presence of Christ and have hours or daily periods of adoration where the Blessed Sacrament is displayed in a vessel called a monstrance. At these events, we pray with the understanding that Christ is present there in a unique and remarkable way.

All of this makes sense, though, only if one can believe in miracles in the first place. Our faith in the Incarnation of Christ, the Son of God and in his bodily Resurrection require a sense that the Creator of the Universe can transcend the laws of nature. That is really the only way we can trust that a real change takes place in unleavened bread and grape wine as a priest consecrates them. Perhaps that is why our Eucharistic belief is such a stretch for a number of Christians and why beliefs about Communion vary among us. There is another aspect to consider, though, when it comes to real presence. These are the reasons we don’t simply “take communion” on our own.

One of the things on which the Second Vatican Council insisted was that the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist includes more than the change of the substance of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (what we call “transubstantiation”). The council reminded us that there is a four-fold presence of Christ when we gather for our Masses. Christ is present in the Word of God, proclaimed and preached. Christ is present in the bread and wine consecrated in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Christ is present in the priest who celebrates in persona Christi (in the person of Christ). And Christ is present, too, in the assembly of the faithful.

That is something that we Catholics sometimes miss. The priest reverences the book of the Gospels and all of us bow or genuflect to reverence the Eucharistic Christ present in our churches. We sinful folks, priests and people, don’t always recall or reflect our belief that Christ is present in one another. We speak of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, the union of the people of God with God’s own self and with one another. But, because of our brokenness and the ongoing tug between sin and grace in our lives, we tend to forget to treat one another as temples of our loving God.

This year, if our restrictions continue, we will realize how much we need and miss the presence of not only the elements of the Eucharist but also our physical presence to one another. We know that God, the Three-in-One, is present everywhere and throughout all of time. But we need the tangible.

Sister Pamela Smith, SS.C.M., serves as director of ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the Catholic Diocese of Charleston. She holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Duquesne University and is the author of 14 books, with two additional forthcoming in 2020. If you have a question you might like to see addressed in a future column, please let us know — email Associate Editor Prioleau Alexander at

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