“You know it’s just bread, right?”
My Baptist high school classmate Sarah and I often enjoyed discussing the beliefs we held in common as Christians, but also exploring the beliefs we did not share. The Eucharist, of course, was a big one in the “did not share” category.
“No,” I told Sarah. “It still looks like bread, but it’s Jesus, really present in the Eucharist.”
I could see by her expression she wasn’t buying it.
And she is not alone in not believing in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. Even many Catholics struggle with this teaching. In a recent Pew Research survey, “69% of all self-identified Catholics said they believed the bread and wine used at Mass are not Jesus, but instead ‘symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’”
Many of Jesus’ disciples also had trouble accepting the reality of the Eucharist. In the Gospel of John, however, Jesus’ words are very clear:
“Jesus said to them, ‘Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:53-55)
Some of Jesus’ followers rejected this teaching altogether. “This saying is hard;” they said, “Who can accept it?” (John 6:60)
This is a hard teaching not only because it’s hard to grasp the idea of a God who is all-powerful and yet who comes to us in the humble form of bread and wine. It’s also hard to understand the kind of deep and personal love God has for His children that He should want to be physically present in the world, even entering into our bodies in the form of food. Until, that is, we remember that this is exactly what nursing mothers have always done—given their very bodies as nourishment for their children.
So, perhaps, the Eucharist is not such an unfathomable gift after all. It is, if you will, the mother’s milk that sustains and grows our souls.
This year, we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ, on June 16. The day before this feast, however, is the feast of St. Alice of Schaerbeek, a saint who had a special devotion to the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. This saint, also known as Alice the Leper, was born at Schaerbeek, near Brussels, in 1220. As a young girl, she went to be educated at the Cistercian Abbey of La Cambra, where she eventually became a lay sister.
At the age of 20, Alice contracted leprosy. She became paralyzed and went blind, but she offered up her sufferings to Christ and found great consolation in receiving the Eucharist. She could only receive the Eucharist in the form of bread, for fear of contaminating the cup of wine with her disease, but it is said that Jesus appeared to her and assured her that receiving under one species was sufficient.
Like Alice of Schaerbeek, Elizabeth Seton is another great saint who was nourished by the Eucharist. Though she was raised an Episcopalian, Elizabeth felt an enormous attraction to the Real Presence. When she stayed with Catholic friends and business partners, the Filicchis, in Italy, she visited many churches with them and began to learn more about the Eucharist.
Elizabeth wrote to her sister-in-law: “How happy we would be if we believed what these dear souls believe, that they possess God in the sacrament and that he remains in their churches and is carried to them when they are sick.”
It was not long after that she witnessed a Eucharistic procession and was deeply moved. “I fell on my knees without thinking,” she recalled, “and cried in an agony to God to bless me if he was there, that my whole soul desired only him.”
God did indeed bless St. Elizabeth Ann, as her strong attraction to the Real Presence was instrumental in her conversion to the Catholic Church, where at last she could receive the Body and Blood of Jesus.
As it was for Alice of Schaerbeek, the Eucharist became a beautiful and necessary source of spiritual nourishment and consolation for Elizabeth. She described the Eucharist as, “Heavenly bread of the angels” that “removes my pains, my cares – warms, cheers, soothes, contents, and renews my whole being.”
When we read the life stories of great saints like Alice of Schaerbeek and Elizabeth Seton and their great devotion to the Eucharist, we might consider how many times we have taken the gift of the Eucharist for granted.
May we all fall to our knees and be moved toward greater appreciation for the gift of God Himself who comes to us in the Eucharist. May we all find nourishment, contentment, consolation, and renewal in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. St. Alice of Schaerbeek and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, pray for us!
DANIELLE BEAN is the brand manager for CatholicMom.com and former publisher and editor-in-chief of Catholic Digest. Danielle is author of several books for women including Momnipotent, You’re Worth It! and her newest book, You Are Enough. She is also creator and host of the Girlfriends podcast and a popular speaker on a variety of subjects related to Catholic family life, parenting, marriage, and the spirituality of motherhood. Learn more at DanielleBean.com.
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