The Word Encountered
“I am the vine, you are the branches.” (Jn 15:5)
“Have you accepted Christ as your personal savior?” How do you respond to that question? Uneasily, if you are like me for much of my life. The question had seemed far too direct and intense. It also struck me as being a bit overdone on the emotional side. A little extreme.
“Personal savior” talk suggested the kind of display, seen in Billy Graham’s crusades, that sometimes makes other Christians, especially Catholics, rather uncomfortable. “Come forward as a witness that you are claiming Christ as your redeemer.” Then the long lines of men and women, coursing through the aisles like blood through arteries, drain down to the stage to make public their dependency on the Lord.
Lately it has become evident to me that such uneasiness is paradoxical. After all, Catholics are a people who have made a Sunday, if not a daily, ritual of leaving their pews, proceeding to the altar, and receiving the body and blood of Christ.
Perhaps we have gotten too familiar with it, but our sacramental Eucharist, our holy Communion, is a most radical, direct, and intense expression of the conviction that Christ is our personal savior. It is easy to overlook how extreme our dogma and ritual appear to others. Just look at the facts.
We have been so steadfast and insistent on the “real presence” in our traditions that this has often divided us from our brothers and sisters in faith who do not agree with the metaphysical category of transubstantiation. We cling to it because it is our way of saying that our Savior is most fully and truly found in the Eucharist.
Catholics believe that Jesus Christ, body and blood, soul and divinity, is really present under the appearances of bread and wine. We believe it is more than fellowship that we celebrate. It is more than commemoration and remembrance. Something far greater than our prayer and action is taking place.
We profess that we re-enact the saving mystery of the passion and death of Jesus, and this very mystery becomes our food. By receiving Communion we profess that Christ’s saving of us is our sustenance. We could not live or survive without it.
If we believe in the real presence, what then do we actually think takes place in the Eucharist? We hold that the full reality of Jesus Christ enters our body. He is our food. He actually becomes part of us and we a part of him. We are thereby reenacting the central story of our redemption: that the eternal Word would take human flesh and dwell among us. The One who sent the Word now looks upon us and sees within us the real presence of Jesus. Thereby we are saved. We, in turn, look upon each other, even the least, and see the face of Christ. Thereby we are sent.
Now that is intense. That is radical.
The reception of Communion makes no sense if we do not intend it to affirm that Christ is our personal savior. What could be more personal, more intense, than to say, “You are my food and drink, you are my own very flesh and blood”?
In our approach to the altar, our coming forward to receive the body and blood of Christ, we sacramentally embody Billy Graham’s procession of witnesses. When we acknowledge that Christ is our way, truth, and life, our savior and redeemer, our sustenance, we are united not only with our fellow believers who do not share our communion, but also with Paul, so wholly given to the mystery of his ransom by Christ, and with the school of John, sustained by the belief that God is in them and Christ’s Spirit is with them.
If the sacrament of Eucharist is not taken intensely, personally, and radically, it does not make much sense at all. But if we take it seriously, even our scripture takes on deeper meaning. In the fourth Gospel’s account of the Last Supper, we find an ever-intensifying invitation by Jesus to root our lives totally in him. He seeks a full union with us, “so that where I am you may be too” (Jn 14:3). He promises us that we will live in him, and he will live in us, just as he lives in unity with the Father.
“I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.” (Jn 17:22-23). In the midst of this prayer for total identification with us, the image of the vine and branches is presented as an extended portrayal of our living in Christ for sustenance and fruitfulness.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15:5) This is not a tame claim. It is a bold assertion that we have no being, no life, apart from Christ. “Live on in me, as I do in you.”
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University