If you had asked 15 years ago why my non-denominational church did not celebrate communion as all Catholics and many Protestants do, I would have given several reasons. First, Hebrews 9:27 teaches that Christ was “offered once to take away the sins of many” and sternly warns the church (Hebrews 6:6) against “recrucifying the Son of God for themselves and holding him up to contempt.” So why on earth should we speak of the bread of communion as a “holy and living sacrifice” of the literal “Body and Blood of Christ” as Catholics do? As for the old-style Protestant celebration of communion-as-memorial, it struck us as a mere clinging to Catholic forms which turned a blind eye to the truly spiritual nature of the gospel. For Jesus himself said, in the Bread of Life discourse, that “the Spirit gives life, while the flesh is of no avail” (John 6:63). So why ought we to waste time with a fleshly symbol instead of simply partaking, by the Spirit who inspires our prayers, in true communion with Christ who accomplished our redemption for us 2,000 years ago? Isn’t it clear from this passage that the essence of Christianity spiritual and not physical?
This was why we did not celebrate communion. We were “Spirit-filled” and believed (rightly) that what mattered most to God was the attitude of the heart, not mere outward show. Thus, rather than engage in some sort of physical ritual we focused intensely on prayer of the heart and the spirit. Such prayer took many forms, and one popular form was what is commonly referred to as “pleading the Blood.” Pleading the Blood is a common prayer of repentance and grace in many nondenominational and Evangelical circles. Essentially, it is a prayer which asks God to cover us with the blood of His Son Jesus when we are in need of protection from temptation or cleansing from sin. It is a powerful use of scriptural imagery such as that found in Hebrews 9:14: “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God.” The form of prayer was pretty much what the name implies: the believer would confess his sin and plead before God that the shed blood of Christ which has washed us of sin be applied here and now to this sin and that he would be set free so as never to commit that sin again, nor have it counted against him in the judgment. Such prayer was a wonderful way to enter into the mystery of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. It seemed to me, for many years, to be a much more direct way of encountering the grace of God than any physical mumbo-jumbo involving sacraments.
However, I eventually came to change my mind. Why?
Really there were a number of factors, of which I will give just a few. First, it occurred to me to ask myself one day, “In what sense is the Blood of Christ spiritual?” If only that which is non-physical is “truly spiritual” then what on earth was I to make of Jesus’ blood–His real, wet, red, sticky blood shed on the Cross? Was it therefore “not really spiritual”?
This stopped me in my tracks. That couldn’t be right. Such a notion set its face dead against a vast ocean of New Testament Scripture which insists that the Word became flesh and that God reconciled us to himself and each other, not by the sacrifice of Christ’s spirit on the cross, but by “his fleshly body through his death” (Col. 1:22). As I thought about my church’s teachings, it began to occur to me that if what is physical isn’t spiritual then even Christ’s physical body–his body which bore the bloody, violent, and excruciatingly physical death of thorn, nail and lash–isn’t spiritual either.
Somewhere along the line I’d made a big mistake. And (it did not escape my notice) I had lost one major underpinning for our church’s argument against communion. For if the physical and the spiritual can be united in the flesh and blood of Jesus of Nazareth as they obviously were, it was meaningless for us to say that the mere fact that communion was physical meant it was necessarily “unspiritual.”
“But,” taught my church, ” Scripture still says that Christ’s body cannot be sacrificed again. We avoid this Catholic error of re-sacrificing Christ by keeping communion purely non-physical: a communion of prayer, not sacraments. For all that remains for the Christian to do is appropriate by prayer the one and only sacrifice for sin there ever has been or ever will be. None of this nonsense about the re-sacrifice of the Mass.” This made sense to me. After all, the point about not re-sacrificing Christ was a good one. Thus, such practices as pleading the blood seemed to me to be good since they very clearly meant that we applied the one sacrifice of Christ in the present by prayer, rather than sacrificing Him again and again. By pleading the Blood we were not recrucifying Christ, only using our minds and spirits to participate, in the here and now, in the one eternal reality that broke into our world on a Judean hilltop 2,000 years ago.
However, as I researched the question, I found that this perfectly good theology behind our form of prayer did little to show that Catholics were wrong in celebrating Mass. For, as I discovered, this description of pleading the Blood as a participation in the one sacrifice of Christ was exactly like what Catholics say about the Mass. Consider, for example, the Catholic Catechism of Fr. John Hardon, S.J. on what Catholic mean by the Sacrifice of the Mass:
The re-presentation means that on the cross, Jesus offered himself and all his suffering to God by an immolation of himself that brought on his physical death, but an immolation that he freely offered to his heavenly Father. On the altar, by reason of the glorified stated of his human, “death has no more power over him” (Rm 6:9) Consequently the shedding of his blood is impossible. Nevertheless, according to the plan of divine providence, the continued sacrifice of Christ is manifested by external signs that are symbols of his death. How so? “By the transubstantiation of bread into the body of Christ and of wine into his blood, his body and blood are both really present.”
In short, I found that the Catholic Church taught that “the shedding of his blood [i.e., re-sacrifice of Christ] is impossible,” just as my church taught. Moreover, the Catholic Church taught that we today can participate in that one sacrifice, just as my church taught. The only difference between us and the Catholics in this area was that we participated verbally by pleading the Blood and Catholics participated physically, by drinking the Blood.
Of course, many questions remained, not least of which was “Do Catholics indeed drink the real blood of Christ?” Suffice it to say that I did answer these questions to my satisfaction and go on to become a member of the Catholic Church as a result. But I never forgot the curious way in which my own Evangelical beliefs strangely foreshadowed and confirmed Catholic doctrine. Nor did I forget the way in which Catholic doctrine supplied what was deficient in my church’s theology. My encounter with the Catholic faith here was one in a long string of instances which would eventually show me that our critiques of the Faith were based on either misunderstanding or self-contradiction, while the Catholic Faith, in contrast, was well able to both affirm ours where it was right and correct ours where it was wrong. Thus, the Church’s theology never showed a hint of rebuking the practice of pleading the Blood; it only rebuked the unbiblical equation of the term “spiritual” with the term “non-physical.” Likewise, the Catholic Church never scorned the idea that, by prayer, we could have access to the graces won on Calvary; it only corrected our mistaken notion that such graces could only be accessed by verbal means.
This is what I tell my Evangelical brothers and sisters who still have my former misgivings about the Sacrifice of the Mass. Admittedly, this does not allay all worries for them, but it does allay this one, especially when the connection is made to their own experience of pleading the Blood. For the simple fact is, Catholics, according to their own catechisms and dogmatic decrees, are merely doing physically what we Evangelicals did verbally: not re-sacrificing anybody but merely participating in the very same sacrifice as the one on Calvary. Catholics do not bake new bread or make strange offerings of new wine, they eat of the only Loaf and drink from the only Cup there ever was or will be. Like Evangelicals, Catholics plead the Blood in memory of Him. But better than Evangelicalism, the Catholic Faith offers–here and now–the true Body and Blood of Christ.