In the contemporary West, we’ve become used to a rather perverse and un-Scriptural idea: that real virtue depends on seeing ourselves democratically.
People of good-will, it’s thought, eschew the idea of privilege or advantage and something inherently unfair—an injustice to be rectified. When we adopt this perspective, however, we end in denying that our un-earned, undeserved Covenant with God really gives us anything unique. It’s offensive to modern sensibilities to think that Christians have been given something by God that other people can’t have—that you can’t be a Buddhist or a Muslim and still have this special thing. Christians who’ve adopted too egalitarian a perspective thus tend to feel a little bit embarrassed and ashamed to say, or even to think, that being Christian sets us apart from the rest of the world.
Now, I know, some people will think it enough to acknowledge that Christianity does indeed, involve a special blessing that’s unique to this covenantal life, but then also say that every religion has its own, unique blessedness to it, and that we can and should celebrate the different ways in which we, each in our own tradition, receive grace from God.
Why we can’t say that
That sounds nice on the surface, but it doesn’t really work, and for three reasons.
First, this thesis misses the obvious point that differences in religion hinge on mutually exclusive views of reality. In the end, it’s just not logically coherent to suggest that all religions are equal in their capacity to serve as channels of grace, different from one another but equally valid and equally sanctifying. We’d first have to agree on what sanctity is, and we don’t; or who God is, and we don’t; or what human life is for, and we don’t.
Second, however, this view is heresy from a Catholic point of view.
The reason it’s heresy is that . . . third . . . what it is that Christianity gives isn’t just one blessing among others but the greatest blessing there is: ontological unity with God—that is, unity with God through an interconnection of our respective modes of being.
I know. There are other religions in which people propose similar ideas to this, but remember that Christianity, from the very beginning, involved the affirmation that the way and means of this communion has been given to us by, and in the Person of, Jesus Christ. And for those of us in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, we can see clearly that there’s a concrete manifestation of this fact in the ritualism of Christianity considered as a religion.
The unique blessing of Christianity
Going back to the primitive Church, then, we should remember that one of the things we see from the very beginning, which defined Christians as a distinct cultic group, was their celebration of a special ritual meal associated with the Last Supper, seen as the culmination of the Passover meal. The New Testament authors make very clear that Jesus instructed the apostles to take this ritual action and, in and through that action, become present to him and in him, saying, “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my Body, which will be given up for you” (cf. Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24).
By the late 1st century, this ritual meal came to be known as “Eucharist.” That’s significant, because this word doesn’t just mean “thanksgiving,” as St. Justin Martyr explained it to his persecutors when they were gearing up to slaughter him and his companions on the charge of cannibalism. It literally means, “good blessing,” or “noble blessing.”
The Eucharist is, in itself, the ritualized reality of the supreme blessing Christians receive from God: namely, himself. In the Eucharist, we enter into flesh and blood union with the One whose very reality is Being, Goodness, Truth, Life, and Love. In the Eucharist, the one who descended from the bosom of the Father to enter into our finite and fallible mode of being, to meet us in our suffering and death and share in our condemnation, binds us to himself in a kind of spousal union, so that when he rises from death (which could never contain him) and ascends again to where he was before, he takes us with him, that we might share in the inner Life of God.
So, this isn’t just one avenue to God among many. It’s not just one way of receiving grace or of being blessed by God, different from but equal to, all the rest. The Eucharist is the action through which God brings to fulfillment the purpose of the Incarnation for humanity. And through the Eucharist, then, as witnessed by the Church’s constant practice of this ritual, from its earliest and simplest forms through its most complex, and in all the variety with which its rubrics have developed in the different rites of apostolic Christianity, we find presented to us the whole logic of the Incarnation and the mysterious answer to that question common to all men: Why are we here?
Don’t be ashamed of the gospel
We shouldn’t be fooled by the un-Scriptural and radically secularist view that no one in the world ought to have any privilege or advantage. Instead, we should stand firm in the conviction that we Christians do have something special that everyone ought to want, and we should share it with them with joy. We can’t do this by presenting it as just another interesting view to be appreciated for what it provides those who embrace it. We can’t do it by presenting Christianity as something they can look at from afar without it placing any demands on them. Rather, the only way, really, to present Christianity is to present it as the Catholic Gospel—the Good News and Good Blessing for the whole world: for everyone, everywhere, in every age.
So, don’t be ashamed to admit that you’ve received some special blessing from God that can’t be had in any other way or from any other source. Don’t be embarrassed to admit that you’re privileged. Rather, proclaim the fact, not for your own glory but for God’s, with a willingness to share that blessing with everyone you meet.