What really happens to us when we receive Holy Communion? Why do we call the eucharistic presence “real," and how does it make a difference in our lives?
What do we mean by “presence"?
In its most general sense, presence means being with another. We all experience presence in several familiar ways. It might be local, when we are in the same physical place as another. It can also be temporal, when we are with another at the same time. Local and temporal presence usually go together, but sometimes we can be temporally present to another without being physically with them, for example when talking over the phone or via the Internet. A third kind of presence might be called personal — how we experience “being with" another person — even when that person is not physically with us but is with us through our memory, imagination, or emotions.
Why is God present to us?
The only explanation is that God loves us and wants to be in a relationship with us. Like every personal relationship, the partners freely choose not just to be present locally or temporally, but also to open up their inner selves to one another through communication that leads to deeper communion. God chooses to be with us so that we can participate in God’s own life and so live beyond our death in an eternal life of loving relationship. By sharing in the intimate communion of Christ in the Eucharist, we nourish ourselves and become united to God for eternal life.
How do the sacraments reveal God’s presence?
The sacraments are ritual celebrations through which we actually experience the power of God present with us. Through the sacramental words and actions, God acting in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit actually brings about what the signs represent. The sacraments are not only signs of our salvation but bring about the realities they symbolize.
Can you explain how God is present with us in the Eucharist?
No. Explaining how God is present to us is impossible for it is a theological mystery, in the strict sense. The idea of mystery, as used by theologians, identifies a reality that we affirm through faith to be true but which we cannot adequately explain. The Christian mysteries of faith identify such realities as the Trinity (one divine reality that is at once three distinct persons), the Incarnation (Jesus who is truly both divine and human), and Jesus’ Real Presence with us as the eucharistic bread and wine.
But don’t we have doctrines that explain these mysteries?
Not really. Doctrines do not really explain these mysteries — nothing can explain them completely. But doctrines offer theological guidelines for thinking and talking about these unique mysteries of faith.
But aren’t these doctrines the basis of our faith?
No, the basis of our faith is the mystery itself. The doctrines help us to understand and talk about the mystery, but they are not the mystery. Doctrine about the Real Presence concerns how best to think and talk about this mystery.