A colleague of mine, Canon Glenn Davis, recently posted an article on his blog entitled “The Error of Eucharistic Adoration.” A few of his statements piqued my interest and prompted me to respond. The good canon concludes his article by stating, “Eucharistic adoration as a belief and practice is erroneous: it does not reflect the teaching of the Bible or life of worship found in the Ancient Church. The practice is not promoted in the Orthodox East and is not consistent with full and complete participation in the Holy Eucharist.” I fear his conclusion overreaches his premises. Here is why:
As his article begins, Canon Davis gives a clear and concise explanation of the Roman-Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation and correctly attributes the language of the doctrine to Aristotle rather than the Bible. As clear and concise as it may be, it is a bit of a red herring. The veracity or erroneousness of the Roman-Catholic doctrine is merely tangential to the Biblical teaching. In each of the Synoptic Gospels, Our Lord, at the Last Supper, declares, “This is My body.” (St. Matthew 26:26; St. Mark 14:22; and St. Luke 22:19) Furthermore, St. Paul reiterates those words in his discussion of the significance of the Eucharist to the Corinthians (I Corinthians 11). While St. John omits the precise wording of the Synoptic Gospels, the Evangelist chooses instead to include a lengthy discourse from Our Lord on the necessity of partaking of His body. Some of the most challenging statements in that chapter include Our Lord proclaiming, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world,” (v. 51) and “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (v. 53) Note that in none of these passage do the words “symbolically,” “metaphorically,” or “allegorically” appear. Along those same lines, those disciples who had followed Jesus and seen His miraculous works did not turn away and walk with Him no longer over a misconstrued metaphor. (v. 66)
These Scriptures form the basis for the doctrine of the Real Presence. This doctrine teaches that Our Lord is really and truly present in the Holy Eucharist. This is a doctrine which he Charismatic Episcopal Church affirms when it states: “At the center of worship is the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist (Holy Communion) in which we believe is the real presence of Christ.” Transubstantiation is a Roman-Catholic attempt to rationalize and explain a miracle. Whether their explanation is right or wrong makes no bearing on the miracle itself. The miracle remains whether they explain it accurately or not.
To be certain, Canon Davis is correct when he asserts that the modern practice we see in many churches today began in the High Middle Ages. He then leans upon the Vincentian Canon to assert that since Eucharistic Adoration cannot pass the Vincentian litmus test it lack “Genuine Catholicity” and thus is at least heterodox in not fully heretical and even idolatrous. Let us examine this claim more carefully. The Vincentian Canon is a name given to a test of Catholic orthodoxy derived from writings of St. Vincent of Lerins. In his work the Comonitoria, St. Vincent wrote, “Care must especially be had that that be held which was believed everywhere (ubique), always (semper), and by all (ab omnibus).”
This is a preposterously high standard by which nothing may really stand under scrutiny. Everywhere? Always? By everyone? That excludes even the Nicene Creed? It was not written until 323 and not finished until 381. Even at that, Eastern and Western Christians proclaim significantly different versions of the Creed. If one holds the Vincentian Canon as the be all and end all of Catholicity, then nothing stands and those who proclaim the Nicene Creed are themselves heterodox!
Do the Eastern Orthodox practice Eucharistic Adoration? No, they do not. However, they do believe in the doctrine of the Real Presence. At the Synod of Jerusalem (1672), a great gathering of Eastern Orthodox prelates assembled to consecrate the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. While there assembled, they took the opportunity to refute several points of Calvinism and specifically declared,
“We believe the Lord Jesus Christ to be present, not typically, nor figuratively, nor by superabundant grace, as in the other Mysteries, … but truly and really, so that after the consecration of the bread and of the wine, the bread is transmuted, transubstantiated, converted and transformed into the true Body Itself of the Lord, Which was born in Bethlehem of the ever-Virgin Mary, was baptised in the Jordan, suffered, was buried, rose again, was received up, sitteth at the right hand of the God and Father, and is to come again in the clouds of Heaven; and the wine is converted and transubstantiated into the true Blood Itself of the Lord, Which, as He hung upon the Cross, was poured out for the life of the world.” (Canon XVII)
As the Protestant reformers specifically rejected the doctrine of the Real Presence–a doctrine found in Holy Scripture and held by both the Roman-Catholic in the West and Eastern Orthodox int he East–according to the Vincentian Canon, one might allege that it was the reformers who were teaching something apart from the Faith Catholic.
Eucharistic Adoration is a pious practice which springs directly from the entirely orthodox doctrine of the Real Presence. When the priest stands at the altar and prays the epiclesis he holds his hands over the bread and wine and asks the Lord to “Sanctify them by Your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son, the holy food and drink of new and unending life in Him.” This is why, when presenting the Eucharist to the people of God, we proclaim and declare, “This is the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” and “This is the Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.” No fingers are crossed. There are neither winks nor nods regarding symbols or metaphors. This is why, at the aforementioned Marburg Colloquy (1529), Martin Luther pounded his fist on the table in defiance of Zwingli and proclaimed, “Hoc est enim corpus meum!” (“This is My body!”)
This is also why the priest and other servers go to such care with the Sacraments after Holy Communion has been served. “Leftovers” are not simply tossed in the trash like stale Doritos; they are fully consumed. The Sacred Vessels are not washed in a normal sink that drains into the sewer, but in a special sink that drains into a garden. Why is this if not for the acknowledgement that it is not fitting for Our Lord to be in the trash and sewer? He may descend there on His own to rescue a sinner, but far be it from us to send Him their on our own!
Treating the Blessed Sacrament with its due respect is not idolatry. Quite the contrary, it is an acknowledgement of not one but two miracles! First, the Real Presence in the Holy Eucharist acknowledges the Mystery of the Incarnation wherein, as St. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (1:14) Secondly, venerating the Blessed Sacrament acknowledges that Our Lord not only became flesh, but gave us His flesh perpetually through the Holy Eucharist. We are not, like some, left to live our lives with one experience with the Divine. We have the opportunity to partake our our God’s very Body and Blood on a daily basis. This is not idolatry. Rather, the farthest thing from it, accepting the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, is celebrating, yes, even reveling in the glorious deeds of Christ wrought on our behalf!
What of the Christian who is unable to partake of the Sacrament on a given day? What if they are prevented from finding him against whom they hold aught and repenting, as Our Lord suggests? (St. Matthew 5:23-25) Should they leave their church lest they behold the Blessed Sacrament without consuming Him? Do they gain nothing from being there at the consecration when they do not receive? Of course, they most certainly do, whether they consume the Body and Blood of Jesus or not! There is a grace of being present among the believers and among the Real Presence in recalling the saving work God did for us.
Most certainly, there are Christian who abuse this gift. Some, no doubt, begin to think of the wafer not as the presence of God, but as God Himself. Surely this is “putting God in a box,” or a monstrance, as the case may be. But this is not what the faithful are taught. They are taught to behold the presence of God and marvel at the inconceivable love required that God who is universally powerful would condescend to inhabit some miniscule wafer on our behalf. They are taught to sit in awe and contemplate a Divinity who would give His own flesh to be consumed by those who despised Him at His death. They are taught that when face to face with the humility of the God who would do all this for us, the only proper response is… Adoration.