I attended my first Evangelical communion service at a Christian youth conference when I was 18. After a weekend of high-energy shenanigans, we began to wind down to hear the sermon of the night. The youth pastor brought forth a few loaves of Wonder Bread and hundreds of plastic shot glasses of grape juice. He stretched his hand and prayed over them before distributing it to the crowd of rowdy teens, including myself.
At that time I had been debating on leaving the Catholic faith to become Protestant. Ever since a former friend from summer camp gave me a series of anti-Catholic bible tracts from Chick Publications, I had been wrestling with whether or not the Catholic mass was a form of idolatry. What perplexed me was the idea of transubstantiation — the bread and wine transforming into the literal body and blood of Jesus.
Only a Symbol?
I remember the speaker at this youth conference proclaiming, “There’s no magic to communion! By eating this bread and drinking this cup, you are partaking in merely a symbol of what Jesus has done for you!”
“A symbol. That is all, right?” I thought to myself. “Why would it be anything more than that? If it was, wouldn’t that be some kind of cannibalism?“
As someone who was new to faith in Jesus, my whole worldview had been turned upside down. I’ve heard of the possibility of material objects having the ability to possess evil spirits, even as a cradle-Catholic. The mindset that was fed to me during my youth group years was that behind every idol hides a demon. As a result, everything to do with crucifixes, statues, rosaries or even the Eucharist itself scared the hell out of me – pun intended.
It took me years to wrap my mind around the biblical evidences supporting God being present in material objects. For example, how He talked to Moses through a burning bush (Exodus 3:2) and Paul blessing handkerchiefs and distributing them to heal the sick (Acts 19:11-12). As Christians, we are quick to accept that it happened in ancient times because the Bible said so. Nowadays it’s easy to assume that anything appearing as mildly supernatural in material form should be automatically dismissed as demonic.
Not By Bread Alone?
Over the years I had developed a complicated relationship with communion. I eventually found myself withdrawing out of feeling unworthy to partake in it. This was largely influenced by my Catholic upbringing. If I knew I was struggling with sin in my life, I didn’t want to receive it in an abusive manner (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). On the flip side, I had also developed a lazy mindset that refraining from churchy activities wasn’t going to affect my salvation whatsoever. Wrestling with the issues of faith versus good deeds eventually led me to completely reject the doctrine of justification by faith alone (Sola Fide).
The other Bible verses that came into mind were that we aren’t to live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4, Luke 4:4). Many people I know have used these verses to try and invalidate the Catholic Mass. But it doesn’t imply that we live strictly off reading the Bible without nourishing our bodies with physical food. Similarly, faith and works ought to go hand in hand and not one without the other (James 2:14-24). They are both important for our relationship with God!
If communion is reduced to just a symbol then what’s the point? When proclaiming the Lord’s death by accepting communion strictly as a ‘memorial’, are we neglecting to acknowledge that Jesus rose again and is truly alive? Does not everything we do have spiritual implications? Is God not present in communion (John 6:55-56)? Are we not called to become members of the Body by being in communion with one another (1 Corinthians 10:16-17)?
Is God Truly Present in Communion?
A friend of mine quoted it hilariously simple (please pardon my language),
“God does weird s***. He created the world in 6 days, talked through a burning bush and was born out of a virgin. Why is transubstantiation completely taboo?”
I’ve toyed with the idea of consubstantiation, meaning God is present in communion spiritually, but not in physical form. But I’ve found it difficult to reconcile these theological issues with my personal experiences. Either God truly gave himself to actually become the consecrated bread and wine we consume, or He is nothing more than a symbol made of Wonder Bread and McCain’s grape juice. If the latter is the case, then why do we even bother with communion at all?
I guess the questions I have would be: what is Christianity if there is no God in communion? Is reducing God to merely a symbol a subtle way of removing Him from our churches altogether?
I’m not a theologian by any means, but it’s food for thought.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.”
– John 6:53-58 RSV