Epigraph: He (Allah) is the First and the Last, and the Manifest and the Hidden, and He knows all things full well. (Al Quran 57:4)
Eyes cannot reach Him (Allah) but He reaches the eyes. And He is the Incomprehensible, the All-Aware. (Al Quran 6:104)
- Pope Francis giving a Eucharist to a girl
Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
Since mid-July, Pope Francis has been using Communion wafers made by an Argentine prisoner in the daily Mass he celebrates at the Vatican’s Santa Marta residence.
The Eucharist also called Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper is a rite considered by most Christian churches to be a sacrament. According to some New Testament books, it was instituted by Jesus Christ during his Last Supper. Giving his disciples bread and wine during the Passover meal, Jesus commanded his followers to “do this in memory of me,” while referring to the bread as “my body” and the wine as “my blood.”
Christians generally recognize a special presence of Christ in this rite, though they differ about exactly how, where, and when Christ is present. While all agree that there is no perceptible change in the elements, some believe that they actually become the body and blood of Christ, others believe the true Body and Blood of Christ are really present in, with, and under the bread and wine, others believe in a “real” but merely spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and still others take the act to be only a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper.
- The word Eucharist may refer not only to the rite but also to the Communion wafer or the consecrated bread (leavened or unleavened) and wine (unfermented grape juice in some Protestant denominations, water in the LDS church) used in the rite. In this sense, communicants (that is, those who partake of the communion elements) may speak of “receiving the Eucharist,” as well as “celebrating the Eucharist.”
The international media has learnt that the wafers that the Pope is using are made by Gabriela Caballero, a 38-year-old woman who is serving a seven-year jail term in the San Martin Penitentiary outside Buenos Aires.
Her story was revealed by the Argentine news agency NOVA and picked up by Il Sismografo, a blog with close connections to the Vatican.
Caballero gave the hosts, together with a long letter to the pope, to Bishop Oscar Ojea of San Isidro, who regularly visits the prison. Ojea, in turn, delivered the hosts to the pope on July 16 during a visit to the Vatican.
The Huffington Post reported that Pope Francis began using the hosts on July 18; the day after he wrote back to Caballero, thanking her for the gift.
“From tomorrow on I will celebrate Mass with these hosts and I can tell you it’s very touching for me,” Francis wrote.
We appreciate the Pope’s compassion and empathy towards prisoners, in using these wafers, but, it would be unfortunate for human rationality and the Christian history and religion, if in decades to come Eucharist or wafers come to symbolize empathy, rather than the body of Jesus that these wafers have represented for centuries.
“Just reading ‘Dear Gabriela’ was a shock for me, as I’m in a place where I am deprived of my freedom,” she told the NOVA interviewer as she showed the pope’s handwritten note.
“In the middle of this darkness … I am proud to know that one can reach the Vatican even from prison,” she added.
This is all well and good but we are also reminded of the celebrated words of George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
To set the future generations on the right track, I want to set the historical record straight and reiterate some of the historic teachings about Eucharist, briefly in this article.
There has never been consensus among the Christians about the teachings and meanings of Eucharist. The differences exists even in the canonical Gospels and a unified picture does not emerge, even on an issue of such grave concern to the Christian theology.
The synoptic gospels, Mark 14:22-25, Matthew 26:26-29, Luke 22:13-20, depict Jesus as presiding over the Last Supper. References to Jesus’ body and blood foreshadow his crucifixion, and he identifies them as a new covenant. In the gospel of John, the account of the Last Supper has no mention of Jesus taking bread and “the cup” and speaking of them as his body and blood; instead it recounts his humble act of washing the disciples’ feet, the prophecy of the betrayal, which set in motion the events that would lead to the Jesus being put on the cross.
The Catholic Church teaches that once consecrated in the Eucharist, the elements cease to be bread and wine and actually become the body and blood of Christ, each of which is accompanied by the other and by Christ’s soul and divinity. The empirical appearance and physical properties are not changed, but for Catholics, the reality is. The consecration of the bread (known as the host) and wine represents the separation of Jesus’ body from his blood at Calvary. However, since he has risen, the Church teaches that his body and blood can no longer be truly separated. Where one is, the other must be. Therefore, although the priest (or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion) says, “The body of Christ”, when administering the host, and, “The blood of Christ”, when presenting the chalice, the communicant who receives either one receives Christ, whole and entire.
“Someone once told the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor that it is more open-minded to think that the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is a great, wonderful, powerful symbol. Her response was, “If it’s only a symbol, to hell with it.” The Catholics do take Eucharist literally, at least until now. It may change in decades or centuries to come.
The Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 had spoken of “Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine; the bread being changed (transsubstantiatis) by divine power into the body, and the wine into the blood.”[note 8]The attempt by some twentieth-century Catholic theologians to present the Eucharistic change as an alteration of significance (transignification rather than transubstantiation) was rejected by Pope Paul VI in his 1965 encyclical letter Mysterium fidei In his 1968 Credo of the People of God, he reiterated that any theological explanation of the doctrine must hold to the twofold claim that, after the consecration, 1) Christ’s body and blood are really present; and 2) bread and wine are really absent; and this presence and absence is real and not merely something in the mind of the believer.
On entering a church, Latin Church Catholics genuflect to the consecrated host in the tabernacle that holds the consecrated host, in order to acknowledge respectfully the presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, a presence to which a votive candle or sanctuary lamp kept burning close to such a tabernacle draws attention.
In 1551 the Council of Trent definitively declared: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread,[Jn. 6:51] it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”
The Reformed and Presbyterian view derives from the teachings of John Calvin: Christ is not present literally in the elements, but he is spiritually present. In other words John Calvin and his followers believe that it is still a wafer, no matter what it symbolizes.
Those who receive the elements with faith can receive the actual body and blood of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit which works through the sacrament, a view sometimes known as Receptionism, they allege.
Acknowledging these differences CS Lewis, a famous Christian apologist, remarked:
… the very last thing I want to do is to unsettle in the mind of any Christian, whatever his denomination, the concepts — for him traditional — by which he finds it profitable to represent to himself what is happening when he receives the bread and wine. I could wish that no definitions had ever been felt to be necessary; and, still more, that none had been allowed to make divisions between churches.
Many other groups (e.g. the Baptists) refer to the Eucharist as the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion and deny any form of physical or spiritual presence of Christ in the bread and wine. Rather, the Lord’s supper is a remembrance of Christ’s suffering and a reminder of his power to overcome sin and death. This view derives from the teachings of the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli and is commonly known as Memorialism.
The Anglican and Methodist Churches have a wide variety of views on this subject.
Quakers do not practice any observance of the Eucharist.
It is not the business of any Christian writer or preacher to dilute Christianity to suit the general educated public. The doctrine of the incarnation was to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, and so will it always be, for the doctrine not only transcends reason; it the paradox par excellence; and it can be affirmed only by faith, with passionate inwardness and interest. The substitution of reason for faith means the death of Christianity.
It seems that historically the Orthodox church has taken this idea, best articulated by Kierkegaard seriously.
The Orthodox church accepts the Eucharist as a Sacrament (though it uses the term ‘Mystery’ instead of ‘Sacrament’) and also accepts the doctrines of the Real Presence and the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist. However, it does not make any attempt to explain how the change occurs, preferring to regard it as a divine mystery.
Some additional details are also interesting in this regard.
Among the Oriental Orthodox, a variety of anaphoras (Eucharistic prayer) are used, but all are similar in structure to those of the Constantinopolitan Rite, in which the Anaphora of Saint John Chrysostom is used most days of the year; Saint Basil’s is offered on the Sundays of Great Lent, the eves of Christmas and Theophany, Holy Thursday, Holy Saturday, and upon his feast day (1 January). At the conclusion of the Anaphora the bread and wine are held to be the Body and Blood of Christ. Unlike the Church of Rome, the Eastern Orthodox Church uses leavened bread, with the leaven symbolizing the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Conventionally this change in the elements is understood to be accomplished at the Epiclesis (Greek: “invocation”) by which the Holy Spirit is invoked and the consecration of the bread and wine as the true and genuine Body and Blood of Christ is specifically requested, but since the anaphora as a whole is considered a unitary (albeit lengthy) prayer, no one moment within it can be readily singled out.
Given these differences, but, the shared belief in Jesus’ divinity among the Trinitarians, sometimes some of the Protestants wonder, if the Catholic practice of adoration is idolatry – as they are worshiping the Eucharist and not God, in the specific moment?
The Muslims also adore and cherish Kaaba, but only as a Sign of God, never as God Himself. The former is the highest form of Monotheism, a belief in Transcendent God as outlined in the Sura Hajj and else where in the Holy Quran and the latter would be idolatry, worshiping a stone building.
I also have magical powers and can change water into wine and into grape juice or apple juice, if you like, but, not into blood. As I am not a violent person. I believe in non-violence like Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
Changing bread into meat, I did only once and as the vegetarians objected, I stopped.
On a more serious note, God of Judaism and Islam is Transcendent, beyond time, space and matter. The third Commandment in the Ten Commandments is:
You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:4-6)
Is Eucharist a violation of this commandment. You be the judge!
Islamic teaching is very profound on this issue. God is always completely Transcendent, beyond time, space and matter and is completely hidden from human eyes. He may reveal Himself to His Prophets, but, He is never a part of this world. As that is what is idolatry or Polytheism! It was to highlight this fundamental idea of Islamic theology that I quoted two verses of the Holy Quran as epigraph and I repeat those here:
He (Allah) is the First and the Last, and the Manifest and the Hidden, and He knows all things full well. (Al Quran 57:4)
Eyes cannot reach Him (Allah) but He reaches the eyes. And He is the Incomprehensible, the All-Aware. (Al Quran 6:104)
Almost half of the European population is agnostic or atheist and a quarter of Canadian and USA population may fit that description, at least in the younger generations. They are a very perceptive group on many counts, but, when it comes to condemnation of religions, they paint them with the same brush.
Often they may even side with Christianity against Islam, given their childhood and present family and friends.
This is gross injustice as all religions are not created equal. Some call a wafer a wafer and believe in conservation of matter and principles of physics and chemistry, like Judaism, Unitarian Christianity and Islam and there is one religion and only one, which argues against chemistry every Sunday.
Some take off their garbs of reason and rationality, when they enter their temples and others do not.