Easter Vigil, one year later

How could a reasonable person living in the 21st century actually believe that at the Catholic Mass, bread and wine are truly (like, not symbolically) changed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ?

This was one of my biggest stumbling blocks when considering Catholicism (notice that “Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist” was conspicuously absent from the “five Catholic teachings that just kinda made sense to me” list). When I first heard that the Church still believes that the Mass makes Christ’s one sacrifice at Calvary present here and now, that the bread and wine is seriously turned into the flesh and blood of God himself, I prayerfully thought: “Are you kidding me?” I thought I must be missing something. I’d never heard a more bold, audacious claim made by a modern religion.

There was a part of me that kept hoping I’d find that it was all a misunderstanding, that Catholics were only required to believe that the consecration of the Eucharist was a really, really, really important symbolic event, that all that crazy talk about drinking blood and eating flesh was just some old fashioned superstition that us enlightened modern folks weren’t required to believe. I was a lifelong atheist, after all. It was enough of a feat that I even came to believe in God in the first place. It was enough of a leap of faith for me to believe that some miracles might have happened a few times throughout history. But to ask a former militant atheist to believe that a miracle happens at every single Catholic Mass, that bread and wine are actually changed into the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ despite the fact that they look exactly the same…it seemed too much to ask.

It is surprising, then, that as I sit down to write my reflections for this Easter Vigil, when I think about all that has happened in this first year since my husband and I entered the Catholic Church, as I marvel at how different this year has been than any before, I find that there is really only one thing to talk about: the Eucharist.

For my one-year anniversary post I could try to pen a great ode proclaiming my joy at having come to know God on a level I never imagined possible for someone like me; I could write about the challenges we’ve faced, and the oasis that our newfound faith provided for us when we felt cast out into the desert; I could have my husband do a guest post about the transformation he’s seen in me (and in himself) in the past year; I could talk about how my role in Christ’s sacrifice is finally real to me; I could say something about how my life is unrecognizable from what it was only a few years ago. But when I started to write on each of those topics, I realized that each one of them — everything, really — comes back to the Eucharist.

Though God certainly could work in my life if I didn’t receive the Blessed Sacrament (as he did tremendously before I became Catholic), the way he’s slowly but steadily infiltrated my body and soul since I began to receive him physically at Communion is something new — I am united with him now in a way I was not before.

To be honest, I am surprised by this.

When I received my first Communion at Easter Vigil last year I had come to accept that the teaching on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is true. Or, perhaps more accurately, I was willing to accept on faith that it was not false. I was undoubtedly being led to the Catholic Church, and found its defense of this teaching to be solid and compelling, so I trusted that it was true in some mysterious way, even though I didn’t really get it. That was the best I could do, and I never expected to understand it any more than that. Even as the months have rolled by, after receiving Communion week after week, I still don’t know how it works. I don’t even have a visceral reaction when I first see the consecrated host held above the altar, and don’t think I ever felt the Holy Spirit hit me like a ton of bricks the moment the consecrated host was placed on my tongue. And yet, despite the lack of immediate emotions, despite the fact that I can’t tell you exactly how it all works…I believe now with all my heart that it is true. I know that I eat the flesh and drink the blood of God at the Mass, and that it is the source of my strength.

I know it for the same reason a baby knows that its mother’s milk is the source of its nourishment: the baby can’t tell you how the milk is created by the release of prolactin and the cells in the alveoli. He can’t tell you about the importance of immunoglobulin IgA and fat-to-water ratios. He couldn’t even begin to understand how and why the milk nourishes him if you tried to explain it. He just knows how very much he needs it. He knows that the mysterious substance that his mother gives him is the source of his strength as much as he knows anything at all in his little life. And so it is with me and the Eucharist.

This belief in and love of the Eucharist is the most surprising thing that’s ever happened to me. Never in my dreams would I have thought that I could believe such an incredible, outlandish claim. On some occasions I have even taken a step back to look at it all as objectively as possible, to set everything aside and honestly ask myself if this is all in my head, if perhaps I am eating bread and drinking wine at the Mass, but that its great symbolic value has led me to put myself in a different state of mind. And all I can come up with is this:

If this is a symbol, then I am insane.

It’s not Tolkien, but that’s about the best I can do. The way this Sacrament has slowly transformed my soul and given me a connection to God that I never knew before, the way I could easily move myself to tears at the thought of not being able to receive it, the strength I have drawn from having this direct communion with God…if these things are not real, then nothing is.

As I reflect back on this year and compare it to years past, the whole story of my life comes together in a very simple way: I realize now that my entire conversion process, really, my entire life, was one long search for the Eucharist.

Surrexit Dominus vere, alleluia!

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33 Responses to “Easter Vigil, one year later”
  1. Tausign says:

    He knows that the mysterious substance that his mother gives him is the source of his strength as much as he knows anything at all in his little life. And so it is with me and the Eucharist.

    [Mark 10.15] “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

    As I’ve said before, ‘I’m a sucker for conversion stories’. Thank you for your witnessing for it’s truly inspiring.

    He is Risen. Alleluia

  2. Beth says:

    Happy Anniversary! My daughter got baptized last Easter Sunday – she was 4 weeks old!

    I love the comparison of a mother’s milk to the Eucharist. That is beautiful :)

  3. Evan says:

    Happy Easter! Welcome back to comments.

  4. Laurel says:

    Wishing you a blessed Easter, Jen! I read your blog regularly, and link to it on occassion (as with this post)….God’s kingdom is richer with you in it!!

    I, too, am a convert, and also had trouble with this Catholic belief in the beginning. Years later, I am also filled with awe at the magnitude of His power and what He can do!

  5. Ginkgo100 says:

    You wrote, “I prayerfully thought: “Are you kidding me?'” John 6 is my favorite book in the whole Bible, and 6:53 my favorite verse, but 6:66 (interesting number, there) is pretty notable, too: A lot of Christ’s disciples thought “Are you kidding me?” You responded like Peter, in faith that whatever God says must be true, whether it seems to make sense or not.

    I think there’s symbolism in the Eucharist, but opposite of what you might think: the bread and wine are not a symbol of Christ — Christ is a symbol of bread and wine. Or something like that.

    I love the Eucharist. Different people have devotions to different things, and my particular devotion, if I have one, is the Eucharist. I’ve never been hit with a ton of bricks when I receive it, either. Sometimes I can sense (or think I can) the presence of God, sometimes not; and one of the things I most love about the faith is that even when I can’t sense or feel him, I KNOW God is there. I know he is constant no matter what my emotions or perceptions. And indeed, even sensing or perceiving God is a gift itself — which is something to remember when you feel like you’re in a spiritual dry spell.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Happy first anniversary!
    Linda

  7. Abigail says:

    Fantastic Post! Happy one year anniversary. (Today is my sixth!)

    I watched the RICA members line up for their first confession on Wednesday night during my choir practice. They looked so nervous. I felt so happy for them. I was just “bursting” at the seams and kept praying again and again for St. John of the
    Cross to lead them through their first sacrament.

    I just came back from Easter Vigil. Watching the baptisms made me cry. Watching the marriages get blessed made me cry. Watching them take their first communion made me really cry! I can’t believe how utterly changed my whole being is after just a short time as a Catholic. It made me appreciate how many graces and blessings were raining down on the new Catholics at that moment. Who knew Easter Vigil would be so much more meaningful to me than going to weddings!

    Have a blessed Easter Sunday!

  8. Margaret in Minnesota says:

    Happy Anniversary, Jen! Welcome home.

  9. elizabeth says:

    A very happy first anniversary and a Happy Easter. And, goodnight, Irene, am I glad comments are finally open. I have a WHOLE lot of commenting to comment upon. Posting one beautiful and provoking read after another and not letting us ask followup questions was just plain cruel. I certainly hope it benefited you during Lent, ’cause all it did was make me twitchy.

    I’ll get to my backlog of comments throughout the week (because I don’t want to bombard you all at once), but I have to know … if you were to ask your husband, what would he say are the changes he has seen in you the past year?

    I’m at that point where the initial rush of the conversion (well, for me it’s reversion) process has begun to wane and I’m flailing a bit. What should I be looking for now? What’s next? I hope you know what I mean.

  10. Myth says:

    Happy anniversary!

    The Eucharist was the hardest part for me to believe initially. I had accepted everything else, but nearly didn’t go through with it because I just couldn’t get the Eucharist. I finally decided to just go ahead with it, in hopes that if everything else made sense, I’d be able to accept that in time as well… and finally, after I was baptized (but before the other sacraments), realized I suddenly did believe in the Eucharist as well.

  11. Tune says:

    Thank you for the nice reflection. I found your blog from Sheila Liaugminas blog about a month ago. It has been a pleasure to read your stories and thank you so much for sharing this to the world! I, myself, am a convert, even though I got baptized 11 years ago. It is true that the “lembas” is the one that keeps me going to mass on my early age. Happy easter! As Pope JP II said, “We are easter people and alleluia is our song!”

  12. Daniel C. says:

    Happy Anniversary and Easter Jen!!

  13. rhinemouse says:

    Or to quote Flannnery O’Conoor–“If it’s just a symbol, then to hell with it.”

    Happy Easter!

  14. Skip says:

    Jennifer, I just discovered your site today; love it.

    The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist was my primary motivation to return “home to Rome.” Without doubt, it was a heart-thing that drew me home. As for understanding His Presence in the Eucharist, my head would have to wait. But happily my head began to “get” transubstantiation.

    Check out the context of Jesus’ wonderful “Bread of Life” discourse (John 6) that reveals what is going on in the Eucharist. It is set up by two miracles, (think Jesus was trying to make a point?!) the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water. My formerly protestant mind would just gloss over Jesus “showing off” with these preceding events, especially the more private one with His disciples on the water.

    But look at the same episode in Mark 6, especially the last verses, 52-53. These two verses are a mind-blower. The miracle on the water is linked to the miracle of the bread. The gospel says the disciples’ hearts were hardened. Again, my formerly protestant mind cannot process this bit of revelation because (like St. Thomas) my predisposed attitude said only seeing is believing. But Jesus walked on water to show them was he was Lord of matter. The water still looked like water on the surface, but underneath its usual appearance, its substance was changed to accomplish something beyond their wildest expectations.

    This “transubstantive miracle” was given for those of us who need a biblical precedent for the doctrine of transubstantiation. It wasn’t an invention of the middle ages, even though it took the Church over thousand years to come up with a label for the “how” of the Eucharistic miracle. It has always been true, regardless of our feeble intellects.

    Last little thought: God operates in dimensional realities beyond our senses. (Who can define the spirit?) So it is no big leap of faith to embrace the concept that the Lord who created the material universe “ex-nihilo” by His Word is capable of making some minor adjustments, according to that same Word.

    He is risen! Alleluia indeed!
    Grace and peace.

  15. Melora says:

    Happy Easter! Another wonderful post — thank you! There have been quite a few times over the Lenten season that I have wanted to thank you for the insights you’ve shared & for putting things so well. Now I can’t remember particulars, so I’ll just say thanks!
    Actually, I did want to tell you that I read My Life With the Saints and loved it!

  16. Barb says:

    Thank you all for your posts. And Jennifer!!!!! I have been waiting till today to officially meet you. I have loved reading your posts. It is funny, you and I come from opposite spectrums of the religious fields. You, from atheism and me from the religious system. Both of us are learning to love the Father…me from refraining from the institutional church and you by joining the biggest one. Wow. Only in the Father’s love could two people relate from such opposite spectrums. I have appreciated so many of your posts and wanted to comment so many times. I will continue to read and revel in the love you are finding in Him who loves us so completely.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Jen,
    I have to imagine that feasting on the comments to the post will be sort of like my 9 year old who might have been guzzling the coke that he gave up for lent. Surprisingly, he didn’t maybe because even to a 9 yo, coke at 6 am is just wrong. (That’s what time the kids woke up). I’m not sure I’ve commented before, I found your blog through another blog and am loving it. I’ll ruin any hope you had of the virtue of humility…you are a brilliant, gifted writer. I love your candor, humor and self…questioning. You inspire me. Happy Anniversary and God Bless. I’m embarassed to say that during my adult initiation (baptized Catholic-hadn’t received any other sacrament), it wasn’t emphasized that I was receiving the Real Presence in the Eucharist. I am horrified now at all the years that I was unaware of the gift and Grace I was receiving.

    Blessed Easter and Spring to your family. Do not underestimate the supreme gift of your dh converting and bring your partner in this faith journey. Currently, I am in constant prayer for the conversion of my dh. He is a good man-maybe the best person I know. He will surely go to Heaven. i just need his partnership and leadership leading our little ones to God.

  18. Pax Anima says:

    Happy Anniversary! Beautiful post.

  19. Denise says:

    You continue to give so much to think about and reflect upon! What a wonderful post—

    I’m so glad comments will be back open—it was a long Lent!

    A Blessed Easter to you!!

  20. Ria says:

    I have been thinking about copying, pasting, and printing out this post for my extended family.

    I’ll have a post on my blog about this. Today we were talking about this very thing.. and it was amazing to see how a even people who have been taught their whole lives about the real presence still have a hard time with it.

    It’s an article of faith. Certainly. But.. all I could think of.. was.. what’s the point, if it’s just a symbol.

    That Flannery O’Connor quote is totally going on my facebook.

    (http://undialogo.blogspot.com — only because my profile is hidden)

  21. Ebeth says:

    Jen,

    Congratulations and happy anniversary to you and your family! The Eucharist: The source and summit to everything that is love, life, and Jesus Christ!

    Easter Blessings!

    Hugs!
    Ebeth

  22. ashleyrae says:

    Hi Jen,

    Happy Anniversary! I, too, have been reading your blog through Lent and anxiously awaiting for the comments section to reopen.

    I am a cradle Catholic, never fell away from the Church (though I realized at one point how utterly uncatechized I was), and I still struggle with the concept of Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist. There are days when I think “are you kidding me?” – but I can’t not believe. I know that the Eucharist nourishes me, just as you described.

    I think it’s easy for me to sit on the fence with my faith because I was brought up in the Catholic church. That’s why I like reading your blog. You bring to light aspects of my faith that I take for granted, and your words make me stop and reconsider what a beautiful gift I have in a lifetime of Catholicism. Thank you!

  23. Jenny says:

    Yay, Jen is back and all is well in the blogosphere! He is risen!

  24. rebecca says:

    New reader to your blog, and I love it. While I’m not Catholic, I find great food for thought here.

    Wanted to comment on your post about the Pope baptising Magdi Allam, a former Muslim.

    The courage of these men is incredible. They have both put their lives in jeopardy for their Christian beliefs.

    That is faith I can believe in!

  25. Ann V.@HolyExperience says:

    Happy 1st anniversary, Jen…

    In Greek, “eucharist,” meaning thanksgiving, encapsulates also the word for grace, “charis,” and the word for joy, “chara.”

    So beats the heart of our faith in the eucharist.

    All is grace,
    Ann

  26. november says:

    Happy Anniversary, Jen!

    I myself just entered the Church during this year’s Easter Vigil! So you’re in a way my big sis!

    My journey to the Church was long and windy. I went to Catholic schools eight out of the 13, but never connected to the church during that time.

    I became a evangelical Protestant Christian in my 20s and didn’t give a second thought to the Catholic Church. Unexpected circumstances brought me back two years ago and my love of the Church has grown stronger and stronger since.

    It definitely was the Eucharist that sealed the deal for me. In all my years of schooling, I intellectually knew that Catholics believed that the Eucharist was the Real Presence of Jesus, but that truth didn’t sink into my soul until my recent re-examination of the church.

    On the day of the Vigil, it seemed like everything was aimed at frustrating me and distracting me from what was going to take place that evening. In fact, I can say that I became downright crabby at one point.

    I asked God for forgiveness (I definitely didn’t want to receive his Son in an unworthy fashion) and got my attitude together. However, I still found myself distracted during the service as my thoughts unfortunately tended to stray to my very Southern Baptist family who were present and their (dis)comfort with the service (they later told me,as expected, that they thought the Catholic mass is too “ceremonial”).

    Later, an event happened that would normally provoke a sinful response in me, but as I preparing to respond, a thought occurred to me, “You can’t do that; you now have Me in you.” I had never felt so palpably changed since I had become a Christian years before.

    It was then that I felt the gravity of the experience–and it’s all because of the Eucharist. When I had last-minute cold feet, it was the Eucharist that kept me. If nothing else, I believed that to be true and couldn’t imagine not partaking in it.

    Now, it feels like the room has shifted in my understanding the Catholic faith, like I see the same things I’ve seen time and time again since I was a school girl, but now I see them freshly, more clearly, in a completely new light. It’s like I get it now!

    Being on the inside is much more different (in a very positive way!) than I had ever imagined, and it’s all because of the Eucharist.

    All the best to you!

  27. Anna says:

    In case you’re interested, this is a post I wrote about my own understanding of the “how” of the Eucharist (or at least one aspect of it).

    (And in case you never saw it, I responded to a comment you left on my blog by writing this.)

    Happy Easter!

  28. happy appy wife says:

    Jen, I am a cradle Catholic rediscovering my faith after a 20-yr hiatus. Your blog inspires me in so many ways. Thank you for being humble, open, honest, reflective, and sincere about your journey. Many blessings. Smiles.

  29. Tomcatholic says:

    This is an incredibly beautiful post. From one convert to another, happy homecoming anniversary.

  30. Judith says:

    Jen, thank you for your posts, and a happy Easter to you and yours.

    I’m Lutheran and thus “catholic”, though not Catholic …. if you know what I mean! ….. but there are many of us Lutherans who, too, treasure the presence of Christ in his Eucharist, and rejoice that He meets us there week after week.
    I was raised in the church and have always “known” the wondrous presence of Christ in our worship, but truly, as I grow older in the faith, it deepens and grows more important to me year by year.
    Blessings are prayed for you and for all your readers, whom I count as sisters and brothers in Him.

  31. karen says:

    Hi my 14 year old daughter is finially making her First holy communion at easter vigil this year with the little kids in the class of 2013.She has been a part of the class and most of the little girls looked up her and she helped them out and was like a ‘big sister’ to some of them.It didnt surprise me when she told me she wanted to wear the same communion outfit they wear so she could be a part of them and make her first communion as a 7 year old.She picked out a cute poofy communion dress with the matching veil and got white gloves and white lace anklets and found the white mary jane shoes in her size.She told me she is going to wear the same white cloth communion diaper and white plastic pants[rubber pants] and under shirt under her dress the same as the littls girls will be wearing.Isewed cloth baby diapers together to make one diaper and got her teen size rubber pants and the under shirt.she has tried the out fit on and it all fits perfectly and i am looking forward to dresiing her in the oufit and having her in it for the day.

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