We sold our house in Iowa last summer. After working on it for months, getting it into shape, we decided it was ready to put on the market. Surprisingly, it sold in a single day. A couple came to look at the house the evening it was listed, and they immediately put down an offer. Joy and panic ensued.
Over the decades, like all good Americans, we had accumulated a vast amount of junk. Well, not all of it was actual junk, but we tend to hang onto objects just for the sake of hanging onto them. In the month between selling and vacating that house, I drove back and forth between Amana and Cedar Rapids over and over.
Some stuff we donated. Other stuff we threw away. The rest went into storage.
On those late afternoon trips, heading back to the RV park, I usually listened to audiobooks or lectures. But once, I had wrongly estimated the remaining time and was left with silence. While searching through the FM radio dial for something worth listening to, I came upon two radio stations.
The first was a protestant evangelical station. The minister was telling his audience that Christians should spend as much time as possible every day reading the Bible. It is the word of God, he explained, and you can’t make any better use of your time than being in the presence of the word of God.
I flipped to a frequency nearby, which turned out to be a Catholic station. We apparently have a significant population of Roman Catholics in the area, enough to warrant a station devoted to Catholicism. I’ve driven all over the Midwest, and I can’t recall ever stumbling upon a Catholic station until I lived in Cedar Rapids.
The speaker on the Catholic channel said that if Christians could manage it, they should spend a part of every day in the presence of Christ, that is to say, taking the Eucharist. Imagine living every day in the body of Christ, partaking of his love and sacrifice to humankind. What could be better?
It struck me that I had accidentally found — minutes apart — an explanation of the greatest divide between the two branches of Christianity. One focuses on the “Word of God,” while the other focuses on the “Body of Christ.” For Protestants, the Bible tells them the good news that Christ died for them. But for Catholics, the Bible is a supporting pillar of the faith, but neither the end goal nor the vehicle to salvation.
We Protestants and ex-Protestants tend to know very little about other faiths, especially the one we grew out of (or broke away from). My ministers and Sunday School teachers told me that Catholicism was bound up in ritual and had lost sight of the true nature of salvation. True forgiveness, they explained, came from a personal relationship with God.
I would argue the Catholic belief in the Eucharist as the “sacrament of sacraments,” with the understanding, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, that “all the other sacraments are ordered to it as to their end,” helps explain the origins and spread of Christianity. People like me who grew up in the Protestant tradition tend to place too much emphasis on the Gospels and other writings as the building blocks of Christianity.
When Bart Ehrman talks about people sharing stories of Jesus, his words and deeds, and about belief in him spreading like wildfire across the Mediterranean basin via word of mouth, I think he’s suffering from a largely Protestant delusion about how religions spread. Christianity was less a set of beliefs about the past maintained in tradition than it was a package of communal rituals tied to a framework of beliefs. Meeting together, singing, praying, and listening to the local church leaders speak — all of these parts of Christian fellowship played a role. However, what cemented one’s place in the community of Christians were the two essential rituals: baptism and participation in the Eucharist.
I suppose we could mark it down as a sign of Christianity’s amazing resiliency that the Protestant Reformation managed to remove the role of priests completely as a conduit between God and man, to take away the need for priests to transform the bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ, and to push Holy Communion off to the side as “something we do from time to time.” Recently, while reading some detailed histories of the Crusades, I couldn’t help notice how great a role the Eucharist played in people’s lives at the time. Of course, thorny issues arising from indulgences and purgatory would follow. And the corruption surrounding them would eventually help lead to schism and continental war.
In order to understand the origins and history of Christianity, amateur and professional historians alike would do well to remember that the religion practiced in most Protestant churches today is far different from the one to which Constantine converted. In the first millenium of the common era, the symbols of the Christian juggernaut were not the cross and the Bible, but rather the crucifix and the chalice.
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