By James R. A. Merrick, Ph.D.
They taught me to pursue a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ. They said I had to avoid the use of lifeless objects like crucifixes, statues, and even the Eucharist. If these objects were not overtly idolatrous, to my Protestant parents and pastors they were problematically impersonal and phony. Such objects would make Jesus seem distant, strange, and mute and would prompt me to be unnecessarily formal and withdrawn in relation to Christ. My spiritual mentors said that the authentically personal was free from formality and formula. They said I needed to encounter Jesus within the privacy and intimacy of my own heart, talking to him casually anywhere, anytime, about anything.
As a kid who indulged several imaginary friends, this approach had a natural appeal. When I learned of people praying with a Rosary or statue or even in a church, I felt sad, regretting that they only ever heard the rattling of beads or empty silence and missed out on that great conversation of Christ with the soul.
It wasn’t until college that I experienced a slight change of heart. During study in England and Scotland, I toured the monumental medieval Salisbury Cathedral. I was awestruck. I heard the guide explain that the building represented architecturally the theology of the medieval Church. Through chiseled stone, soaring ceiling, and flying buttress, they gave occupants the sense that God is majestic and mysterious, luminous and lovely, almighty and all-wise. This experience implanted in me a tiny seed of the theology of grace, by which God is understood to be present not only through internal words and ideas, but through external objects like art and architecture, bread and wine.
Again in Britain, on the cusp of becoming Catholic, another conversion occurred, one that enabled me to see the Eucharist as the event in which Christ is most intimately and personally present. In another medieval church – this time Pluscarden Abbey in Elgin, Scotland – I attended Compline with the Benedictine monks. It included a Holy Hour and Benediction, the most intense, consoling hour of my whole life. As candlelight danced on cold, stone walls amidst whispers of incense, I found the Blessed Sacrament was anything but lifeless and mute. It was alive, full of the presence of Jesus Christ. It was pulsing with his Sacred Heart. I discovered that if I really wanted a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I needed to partake of his Body, Soul, Blood, and Divinity given therein.
It was there and then I encountered Jesus’ unique personality and presence. For so long, I had seen Jesus only through the lens of myself – my fears, my frustrations, my worries, my needs, my dreams. His voice could have been an alter ego. But in the Eucharist, I discovered his preferences, his tastes, if you will. I discovered the place in which he was most at home, most comfortable and communicative. I discovered the company he liked to keep in his ministers and faithful who adored him.
If I would have just listened to the early Church Fathers, I would have learned this lesson much earlier. The earliest Christians clung to the Eucharist as lovingly as the Apostles clung to the resurrected Body of Christ. When Jesus no longer walked the earth after His Ascension, the early Christians talked as though he was no less physically present to them through the Eucharist. Let us look at two striking representatives who were both martyred for their Christian faith in the second century: St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35 – 110) and St. Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165).
Ignatius was taught by the Apostle John and John’s disciple, the martyr St. Polycarp. He became the leader of the Church in Antioch, which was started by the Apostle Peter – the rock upon whom Jesus built His Church (Matthew 16:18). During the persecution of the Church under Emperor Trajan, he was seized and taken to Rome for execution. He wrote letters to the churches along the way, to encourage them and exhort them not to succumb to the major heresy plaguing the Church at the time, the heresy of Gnosticism.
These letters are not musings of a mind looking to entertain itself with lofty thoughts. Rather, they are the last words of a man whose mind was sharpened by the recognition that he would soon see the Lord about whom he was writing. Ignatius wanted to protect Christians from Gnosticism (from the Greek word for knowledge, gnosis). This religious philosophy taught that the goal of life was to leave the cruel, physical world and return to the purer, spiritual world. Salvation consisted of being liberated from one’s physical body and becoming a pure spirit. This freedom was gained by filling the soul with secret, spiritual knowledge.
In this way, Gnosticism was the opposite of Christianity. Whereas Christianity taught that God created the earth, Gnosticism taught it was the devil. Whereas Christianity argued that the body was good while the human soul was corrupted by sin, Gnosticism taught that the soul was pure but held back by the impure body. Whereas Christianity taught that Jesus Christ was the spiritual Word made flesh, Gnostics denied the incarnation, saying Jesus only appeared to have a human body. And, of course, while the Eucharist was central to Christian worship, the Gnostics did not attach any spiritual value to physical food and drink.
In countering Gnosticism, Ignatius stressed not only the reality of Christ’s humanity but also the reality of His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, the consumption of which he identified as the principal practice of Christians. Writing to the Ephesians, Ignatius exhorted his readers to come together frequently in unity with the bishop in order to “break one Bread which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ.”[i] The Eucharist is the “medicine of immortality” because, as Ignatius wrote in his “Letter to the Smyrnaeans,” it is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. He warned against the heretics who “abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead.”[ii]
There is another second century martyr who similarly saw the Eucharist as truly Christ’s Body and Blood. St. Justin Martyr was a well-educated pagan philosopher who converted to Christianity. He, too, wrote a series of letters, but these were addressed to the opponents of Christianity, the Jews and the Romans.
In his “Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew,” Justin urged Jews to see Christianity as the fulfillment of the Jewish religion. He argued that the Jewish sacrifices of the Old Testament in the Temple anticipated the sacrifice that would be offered by the Gentiles in every place, namely, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ offered through the Eucharist. Key to this claim is the assumption that the sacrifice of Christ is truly present in the Eucharist.
Justin also wanted to convince the Roman persecutors of the Church that Christians were not threats to Rome. In his “First Apology” addressed to the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, Justin gave one of the earliest descriptions of Christian worship. He explained how those who were baptized, had assented to Church teaching, and were living a moral life could receive the Eucharist.
This is because it is not ordinary bread or ordinary drink. Rather “just as, through the word of God, our Savior Jesus Christ became Incarnate and took upon Himself flesh and blood for our salvation, so, we have been taught, the food which has been made the Eucharist by the prayer of His word, and which nourishes our flesh and blood by assimilation, is both the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”[iii]
These two fathers and martyrs of the Church represent the early Church’s conviction that the reality of the Eucharist is a consequence of the reality of the Incarnation. That the Son of God became a human being meant that He intended to dwell with His people in human flesh, a dwelling perpetuated through the Eucharist, which is his Body and Blood feeding our body and blood. It is in the Eucharist that the earliest Christians experienced Christ most intimately and personally. If you are looking for a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ, there’s no better place to start than with the Sacrament that gives us Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, the Holy Eucharist.
[i]Gerald G. Walsh, “The Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 1, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1947), 95.
[ii]Gerald G. Walsh, “The Letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch,” in The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Francis X. Glimm, Joseph M.-F. Marique, and Gerald G. Walsh, vol. 1, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: TheCatholic University of America Press, 1947), 121.
[iii]Thomas B. Falls with Justin Martyr, The First Apology, The Second Apology, Dialogue with Trypho, Exhortation to the Greeks, Discourse to the Greeks, The Monarchy or The Rule of God, vol. 6, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1948), 105–106.
James R. A. Merrick, Ph.D. is Director of Emmaus Academic at the Saint Paul Center for Biblical Theology and Lecturer in the theology department at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He also writes for Ascension Press, the National Catholic Register, and Angelus News.