When There Are Faces
Posted by Nick Milne on July 16, 2008
What follows was initially conceived of as a response to a good question asked by a commenter on the big Cook-Myers post. The question was as follows:
When the wafer becomes Christ, does that mean that Jesus is trapped there? I have been assuming that offense comes from the disrespect to a holy item, not from worry about what will happen to Jesus, because God can take care of Himself. But reading this makes me think I must have been wrong, or no one would be discussing the need to protect the Eucharist.
Is it that Jesus chooses to remain in the wafer no matter what happens to it? i.e., not trapped, but still vulnerable?
This got me thinking about how (and, more troublingly, if) I understand the Eucharist and the way in which it “works” in this sense. Reading and accepting the appropriate passages in the Catechism is one thing, but being able to articulate it in a way that might be accessible to someone else is another. As a young Catholic, I’m quite ready to simply be told things by the Church; the hows and whys will become more apparent as I learn and grow. But for those who are not involved in that growth in the Church and who would nevertheless like an answer, what could be said? How I could I put this for someone who wanted to be shown rather than told?
What follows, then, is risky. I will say at once that I fully expect to be corrected where I err, and will welcome it happily when it happens. I have no intention of being the kid who managed to become an heresiarch on his first day at work, so to speak.
When it comes to the question above, I think my correspondent comes very close to the answer in his final sentence. The Body and Blood of Christ are potent and divine; the Bread of Life and the sign of the New Convenant. They are these things fully and completely. However, as Jesus says (John 6:55), His flesh is true food indeed, and so also is His blood true drink. Fully one thing, and yet also fully another. Sounds familiar? This dual nature is functionally similar (and certainly connected) to what Christians describe as the hypostatic union, whereby, although Christ is one person, He subsists in two natures: fully human and fully divine.
In the case of the consecrated host, similarly, we have something that, although only one thing, subsists in the natures of the bread of earth, on the one hand, and the Living Bread, on the other. This dual nature has certain implications. To be both fully God and fully man is to be simultaneously invincible and vulnerable. The same is true for the Eucharist; in being both fully Bread of Life and fully bread of earth it is simultaneously something too high for us to reach and something that has been passed down to us.
In the consecrated host we are presented with Jesus as the Apostles knew Him, and in partaking of that Bread (“do this in memory of me,” He says; Luke 22:19) we come to meet Jesus in the same way as they once did: in the flesh, as it were, and face to face.
The title of this post is of course a reference to C.S. Lewis’ neglected masterpiece, Till We Have Faces (1956), in which the facelessness of humanity (our impatience, our dishonesty, or greed) prevents us from seeing the gods face to face. We cannot do that until we have faces of our own; until we have earned those faces, and until they have been granted to us. In both the Incarnation and the Eucharist (it is perhaps improper to speak of them separately), I see a similar but not identical state of affairs. It is not we who develop larger and more real faces with which to meet God, but rather God who takes on a smaller face of His own – the body of man – to meet us on our own pitiful level. This is the divine mercy.
If the assumption of a small face by the infinitely large is what allows us to meet that largeness as friends and children rather than being overwhelmed by it (or simply failing to recognize it altogether), it is also what allows the monstrous world to ride roughshoud over it. In the Eucharist we are presented with Jesus as He was on the cross: the Bread of Life and the sign of the New Covenant realized through sacrifice. Who could bear to see any further infamies added to His suffering? To see some kid from Florida using Golgotha as a bargaining chip while even the Romans look on in shock? To see some teacher from Minnesota seize the hammer from the guard and try to break our Lord’s legs anyway? These are not to be taken idly, by any means.
We may speak, as the commenter does, of Jesus being “trapped” in the consecrated host only so far as we may speak of Him being “arrested” by the guards, or “persecuted” by Pilate, or “crucified” on the cross. He was arrested, though he could have brought twelve legions of angels to his side with a word; he was persecuted by Pilate, though it was only by His consent that Pilate had any power over Him at all; He was crucified, though he could (as the spectators taunted) have leapt down from the cross and “proved” his power through power itself. But none of these things came to pass. He was arrested, and He was persecuted, and He was crucified. There is a reason and an order to how these things transpire, and from that reason and that order comes the simple reality that a God small enough to be met is also a God small enough to be hurt. God has paid many prices for us, and this is one of them.
All of this has no doubt sounded very abstract and symbolic, and in many cases that would certainly be right. However, to be Catholic is to think sacramentally, and to think sacramentally is to inhabit a world in which outward and visible signs – a disc of bread, a sprinkling of water, a dab of oil – are themselves the small faces of things more enormous than we can yet comprehend. If we are moved to action in defense of the Eucharist, it is not because we have forgotten that God is all-powerful and inviolate, but rather because we remember that to defend the small, the open, the kind and the vulnerable is the duty of all who can stir a limb to do so. It is a natural end of directing the faculties towards virtue.
I don’t know if I’ve managed to accomplish what I set out to do in either case. I doubt that this explanation (if it’s even halfway correct) would serve for someone interested enough to seek it, and I doubt still more, unfortunately, that I’ve been able to answer my commenter’s question. Input from readers is requested and appreciated.