It has to be one or the other
Let us praise him the more, since we cannot fathom him, for greater is he than all his works. Awful indeed is the Lord’s majesty, and wonderful is his power. Lift up your voices to glorify the Lord, though he is still beyond your power to praise. — Sirach 43:29-31
For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible. — Matthew 19:26
In most of the world, today is the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, but I happen to have spent Thursday in Portugal, where they celebrate the feast on its traditional day. Fatima, to be exact, where thousands of people came to spend the holy day with their Lord. And amid all the rosary-praying and souvenir-buying came something unusual, a practice that may not have been seen in some dioceses for decades.
A bunch of grown men put on silly robes to hold a canopy over another man. Thousands of people followed in procession, singing and reciting prayers, listening to the words of writers who’ve been dead for millennia. Some knelt on the side, some wept, most gazed in rapt adoration.
At a white wafer in a gold container.
This, they claim, is their God. A God who first became a man with a body as vulnerable as mine, and then allowed that body to become a corpse, and then transformed a piece of bread into that very body. A God who looks, smells, tastes, feels, and sounds like a cracker. It’s ridiculous.
Unless it’s true.
In a world where everything is supposed to be relative it’s very easy to smile knowingly at such a ridiculous pagan custom, to pride ourselves on being above superstition while allowing the Portuguese widows the right to follow “their reality.” Even if we agree with those worshiping masses, many of us acknowledge the Real Presence only because we refuse to think too hard about it. We don’t understand it and so we accept or reject it halfheartedly and move on to more stable ground.
But the Eucharist is either heinous blasphemy or the most wondrous thing on the planet. It’s either worshiping a cracker or profound intimacy with the divine. No halfway point makes sense. When Jesus introduced the Eucharist to his followers in John 6, most were scandalized. Others were moved to confess Jesus as the Messiah. Either is a reasonable reaction; what’s unreasonable is disinterest, mild skepticism, or moderate approval. We need to decide: is this the most beautiful gift left us by our God who stops at nothing to love us? Or is it idolatry?
Now, this article isn’t a defense of the Real Presence, though I’m always happy to make one. (For a thorough exploration of what the Eucharist really is, I highly recommend Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.) I’m convinced that when you read Scripture and the writings of early Christians about the Eucharist it becomes clear that Jesus meant what he said. But that doesn’t mean transubstantiation is easy to understand or to accept. It can’t be—one thing we know for sure about Christ’s teaching on the Eucharist is exactly that it was hard to accept. (John 6:60) But something being difficult or even impossible to understand doesn’t make it false. In fact, it seems to me that the things of God ought to be unfathomable.
This isn’t to say that God’s ways are unreasonable, just that they’re beyond reason. They’re coherent and simple but also more than what we can understand. After all, God’s ways are not our ways. (Isaiah 55:8) “There ought to be,” as C.S. Lewis says, “something in [the Church] opaque to our reason though not contrary to it.”
The mystery of God isn’t something to be lamented but to be rejoiced in. Sirach calls on us to praise him all the more because we cannot fathom him. For rational, post-Enlightenment minds, this is unsettling—we want to understand everything and what we don’t understand we disdain as untrue. But when it comes to deity, the only one worth worshiping would be a God beyond our understanding. If you understand him, then he can’t be omnipotent or omniscient or eternal. He would have to be finite, which doesn’t make for much of a God.
There’s something about the mystery of the Eucharist, the incomprehensible nature of this act of divine condescension, that begs not to be dissected but merely to be marveled at. Can bread become God? Certainly not. “But with God all things are possible.” If God can become man, can’t he make bread become his flesh? Is it any more wondrous that he hides in the accidents of bread than that he took on full humanity?
I could spend the rest of my life reading about the Eucharist, trying to analyze Thomas’ use of Aristotle in explaining transubstantiation, picking apart Eucharistic miracles, and demanding proof of the Real Presence. Or I can stand with Blaise Pascal (himself no intellectual lightweight) and say, “If the Gospel is true, if Jesus Christ is God, where is the difficulty?”
It’s hard to swallow, this idea that there is something I’m required to believe that I will never fully understand. And yet this mystery, as every divine mystery, is an invitation not to scrutinize but to enter in, to accept that God is beyond my understanding and to praise him who in his majesty deigns to come to me.
And while we’re praising him, perhaps we should check our local parishes to see if there’s a Eucharistic procession we can participate in, joining thousands of other Catholics worldwide in worshiping a God too good and too merciful and too wise for us to comprehend. Maybe he is “beyond our power to praise” but following him through the streets as the world looks on is a good way to start. Together “let us praise him the more since we cannot fathom him.”