God Weeps When We Disregard the Holy Eucharist

SCRIPTURES & ART: When faced with the world’s indifference over the Holy Eucharist, a supremely appropriate illustration is, “Jesus wept.”

James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Wept”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Wept” (photo: Public Domain)

Jesus has taught about the Eucharist in the Sunday Gospels of roughly the last month. From his “sign” of multiplying the loaves and fishes through his Eucharistic Discourse taken from John 6, Jesus has uncompromisingly laid out the meaning of the Eucharist.

The reaction of his listeners was a mass defection. “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (v. 60). They were “offended” (v. 61). Jesus neither retracts his teaching nor offers them a safe space. “From that time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (v. 66).

Jesus again does not recant. He does not offer a “dialogue.” He simply asks the Apostles — the core group he began with — “want to go, too?”

Speaking on behalf of the Apostolic band, Peter declares their readiness to stay with Jesus, even if they didn’t understand everything. “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life” (v. 68).

From its very beginnings, faith in the Eucharist has been the minority’s position: the majority found it “hard.” It’s true of Jesus’ day, and it’s true of Christianity today: while Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have preserved faith in the Blessed Sacrament, Protestant groups long ago — within the first generation of their founders — abandoned the Eucharist. Some kept on celebrating it, though few with frequency, but none with the understanding that Jesus Christ is really and truly present, body and soul, humanity and divinity, in this sacrament. It has always struck me as an immense paradox that, to the degree that Protestant denominations became increasingly Scriptural literalists, they refused to read John 6 for what it plainly says.

It is never good that the Eucharist is misunderstood, but perhaps one should give some credit to the generation of Jesus’ day as well as to the generation of the Protestant Reformation: at least they refused to accept Jesus’ teaching and Catholic orthodoxy on the Eucharist. 

That is somewhat more honest than contemporary Catholics who apparently do not seem to understand and/or believe in the Real Presence. Jesus made belief in his Eucharistic Real Presence the sine qua non for his disciples, resulting in many leaving him. In some sense, that’s more honest than going through the motions of receiving Communion while not believing in what the Church teaches Communion is. 

I’ll concede that a good measure of this inconsistency is not the result of bad faith but bad (or no) teaching. Many of the faithful don’t know what the Church teaches because it has never been explained to them (at least perhaps not since First Communion). 

But other areas of our Eucharistic praxis also remain concerning. They can broadly be grouped around the term “Eucharistic coherence.”

To receive Communion means to be in Communion (oneness, cum unio) with Christ and his Church. We cannot be in union with Christ while being in serious sin, not because “it’s a rule” but because God is love — and charity cannot coexist with non-charity (i.e., mortal sin), any more than a shirt can be “clean” and “dirty” simultaneously. 

Contemporary Eucharistic incoherence is rooted in the dissociation of the sacrament of the Eucharist from the Christian call to holiness, expressed by living in a state of grace and striving to be “perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.” The striving will be constant until we die, but the choice for love or anti-love, charity or anti-charity, is the floor for our relationship with God. 

Already in the 1970s and 1980s, many observed the Eucharistic incoherence of frequent Communion and infrequent Confession, the practical universality of reception of the Eucharist and the practical abandonment of the sacrament of Penance. If the pendulum once swung towards scrupulosity, it has long ago swung towards laxity, if not sacrilege. When was the last time anybody was warned against “receiving Communion unworthily” or read St. Paul (1 Corinthians 11:27-31) on the subject?

It is no accident that the two prayers at Mass immediately preceding distribution of Holy Communion are the Agnus Dei (asking for mercy for “the sins of the world”) and Domine non sum dignus (acknowledging my unworthiness to receive him “’under my roof’”). Do they mean anything to us?

The debate over pro-abortion “Catholic” politicians receiving the Eucharist is not a “politicization” of the sacrament nor an attempt to wield Communion in defense of a certain public policy position. It is an effort at internal ecclesial Eucharistic coherence, in which “oneness” with Christ and God clashes with advocacy of a practice Vatican II called an “unspeakable crime” (Gaudium et spes, no. 51). It reaches back to an awareness of the relationship of the Eucharist to following Christ’s teaching ever more fully.

Even with reference to the Eucharist.

When Jesus asked for that, “many of his disciples” chose to refuse and left. While Jesus’ physical hunger relief plan had followers all over the mountainside, his plan for the Bread of Life to be instituted at the Last Supper “sifts” them significantly (see Luke 22:31).

It is hard to find an artistic representation of this moment, so I chose the 19th-century French painter James Tissot’s Jésus pleura (“Jesus Wept”). The work actually depicts Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). The walls of the Holy City are in the background.

Jesus is in the foreground, clearly the most important figure of the painting. His face is almost concealed by his hands (almost as the Host conceals his presence). The crowds swarming all over the hills in Tissot’s depiction of the multiplication of the loaves are now reduced to perhaps nine, none of whom appears particularly enthusiastic about the change in situation and all of whom seem impotent to console Christ. The dark colors of their garments contrast to Jesus, the only figure in pure white, practically like a Host. 

While the episode of Jesus weeping immediately follows his Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem and precedes his Passion (Luke­ 19:41-44), I chose it to illustrate today’s Gospel because it exemplifies the indifference to the Eucharist about which so many saints warn. As noted in previous columns, Protestant exegesis has largely turned John 6 on its head, displacing the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of Christian worship and turning it into the Real Absence.

Lax Catholic religious instruction has effected something of the same thing in terms of understanding the Real Presence, even while it seems many “eat the bread and drink the cup without recognizing the body …” (1 Corinthians 11:29). Is there no more appropriate illustration, today as back on that day in ancient Israel when Jesus finished his Eucharistic discourse, than “Jesus wept?”