Certainly one of the prominent differences between most Protestant denominations and Catholicism is the teaching on communion — the Eucharist. My experience growing up, especially since we attended many different denominations, was generally that communion was this thing that we do once in a while to remember Christ’s sacrifice for us. Communion was usually done once a month; and, at many churches, during the Sunday night service. The lack of frequency and prominence given to the ritual communicated to me — as a child and an adult — that it wasn’t that important; at least, it wasn’t important enough to be a central part of the Sunday morning worship experience. And given what these denominations believe about the substance of the bread and wine (juice), it is easy to see how the infrequent consumption and lack of prominence was established. Most Protestant denominations and churches think of the bread and wine purely as symbols of Christ’s body and blood, nothing more.
My husband has a humorous phrase he often uses to describe his previous experience with communion growing up — “Juicy Juice and hot dog buns.” Now, I’m not sure if any particular denomination or individual church actually uses these two products as the “bread” and “wine” in communion. I can’t say that I have seen anyone tearing up hot dog buns for the communion tray; but it certainly is accurate to say that the choice of bread and drink is rather indiscriminatory. I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of bread used. In fact, as a child (who kind of thought of communion as a once-a-month “snack time”), I was particularly interested in the selection. Some churches we were in would use crackers; others chose delicious soft artisan bread. I was definitely holding out hope for the yummy bread, and it was an extra bonus if you got to tear off a generous piece yourself. I remember the communion tray being passed down my aisle, and my siblings and I often paused too long, trying to select the largest piece. “The cup” was usually red grape juice; I don’t know if it was Juicy Juice brand, but what kid doesn’t like grape juice — especially in those fun plastic miniature cups? I sometimes would go around after service collecting them from the pews to wash and use for a “tea party” later.
Looking back, this experience seems so foreign to me, now knowing the significance of the Eucharist — the Sacrament of sacraments — and its centrality to our worship in the liturgy. For much of my pre-conversion adulthood, I had a growing inclination that Protestant communion lacked the prominence it should have; it certainly seemed like an afterthought in many denominations and churches I attended. My suspicion was that something was disconnected or missing in the way that we observed and received communion. When I started attending the Catholic mass I realized that the Eucharist was the central component of the liturgy, for which all other elements prepare us to receive. The richness of the Sacrament and the beauty of its placement in the liturgy seemed like a precious treasure uncovered, which I hadn’t know existed.
The liturgy of the mass is divided into two parts: the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. Both are Christ-centered, as Christ is “the Word” (John 1:1). In mass we are both hearing the Word proclaimed and consuming the Word in our bodies. We first listen to and participate in the readings from the Old and New Testaments as they unfold the Gospel narrative — Christ is the fulfillment of the law and the perfect sacrificial lamb by whom we are saved. After hearing the Word, and the homily’s reflection on the Gospel message, we then move our focus to the altar. There is Christ — his body and blood, His sacrificial gift to us in the bread and the wine. When the priest consecrates them they transform, through a mystery that we cannot fully comprehend, into the real presence of Christ. We come forward, in a posture of gratitude and reverence, to receive Him.
All of this is what was missing in my Protestant experience of communion. Among other things, there was sometimes a lack of reverence and sacredness; but the mystical was always absent. Every time I am in mass I am reminded in the Eucharist that these mysteries of faith are beyond my human capacity. They are gifts of grace, which now I experience in part; one day I will experience in full. Audrey Assad, Catholic singer and songwriter, describes it beautifully in her song “Receive”:
Holy Wisdom, God in Heaven
Here in human time
Humble Godhead bending low and
Touching bread and wine.
Faith is making plain the truth beneath the veil
Faith supplying where our feeble senses fail
To the Father, to the Son,
And to the Spirit be
Blessing, honour, glory, power,
Might, and majesty
It is God who we encounter,
It is God that we receive
From this altar we do believe.
Every time I am in mass I have the opportunity to receive Christ. I come into the liturgy offering the gift of worship, offering myself, and I leave with all the graces in the sacrament of the Eucharist. I have heard some Catholics say that many things could be falling apart in the Catholic Church and they would still stay for love of the Eucharist, because Christ is present there. I understand that sentiment, because for most of my life I took communion without the real presence of Christ; it was not a sacrament. It was commemorative. The Protestant Reformation certainly had valid critiques of the Church at the time, many of which the counter-reformation that happened within the Catholic Church afterward addressed. But there were also some grave losses. The breakdown and dismantling of the sacraments is the most significant one, especially the loss of the blessed Sacrament. I am most grateful to have rediscovered it for myself and for my family.