How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
Writing this column often means walking a tightrope, and I probably fall off of said tightrope more often than not (which is okay, because it’s usually funnier that way). I’m acutely aware that this site is read by all sorts of Christians (and non-Christians), and we all have our own idiosyncratic understandings of the faith. Writing about the weirdest things in Christian history, though, often requires me to engage with all sorts of understandings that I know won’t be popular. And, of course, I’m aware that no matter what I say, I’m going to annoy someone.
I also try to walk a tightrope between objectivity and injecting my own views into the pieces. On the one hand, I don’t want this column to be “Luke shoves his opinions down your throats every week,” but on the other, I don’t want it to be a completely bland, lifeless reporting of facts, either. For the purposes of this week’s column, though, I may as well lay all my cards on the table: I believe Jesus is really, physically present in the Eucharist.The miracle I’m talking about occurred in the A.D. 800s in the coastal Italian town of Lanciano, and, appropriately, is called the “Miracle of Lanciano,” mostly because “Holy crap, we have bleeding human remains on the altar” isn’t particularly catchy.
I know Christians are divided on this. Or, at least, low-church Protestants are divided from everybody else on this—and often unaware that they are. I was reminded of this the other day, when an Anglican priest friend posted a photo on Facebook of the notes from the Christian Standard Bible. The note on Mark 14:22 simply read, “‘This is my body’ is metaphorical”—no discussion of the controversy, no argument or explanation. And if that’s you—if you’re the sort of person who sees that and nods along, just know that a lot of Christians disagree with you. Like, the vast majority of them. Catholics, Lutherans, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, most Anglicans, some Methodists, and even the Reformed, in their own weird way.
I can already hear the objections: “But Jesus spoke in metaphors all the time! How do we know he wasn’t doing that exact thing here?” And, well, there are good reasons not to think so (for instance, basically all the Church Fathers, including the ones who knew the Apostles personally, seem to take the Real Presence for granted), but I’m not here to convince you of things, so let me give you a terrible reason instead: the bread and wine, at least at one point in history, have literally, visibly, transformed into human flesh and blood. I mean, what more do you need?
And no, I’m not talking about the “miracle” we traditional Christians like to talk about where, nah man, it’s flesh and blood, it just looks like bread and wine; I’m talking about the priest suddenly holding human remains in his hands in the middle of a mass. I’m talking about certifiable “Ew, either a miracle just happened or the priest is a psychopath (or both, I guess)” stuff.
The miracle I’m talking about occurred in the A.D. 800s in the coastal Italian town of Lanciano, and, appropriately, is called the “Miracle of Lanciano,” mostly because “Holy crap, we have bleeding human remains on the altar” isn’t particularly catchy. The story goes that, in a local Basilian monastery, there was a hieromonk (which is a sort of priest-monk hybrid that sounds like it would be really useful for my D&D party) had trouble buying the whole “This is my body, this is my blood” thing. (Y’know, like a lot of Protestants do.) (I kid ’cause I love.) Said hieromonk’s name has been lost to history, which seems awfully convenient for the people who believe in this miracle, but there it is.
Anyway, the nameless hieromonk was saying his first mass, and as he raised the bread toward the heavens, it was visibly transformed, right before his hieromonky eyes, into human flesh. And when he raised the wine goblet (because he was a real go-getter, and the first transformation wasn’t enough to distract him from the task at hand), five drops fell out and turned into blood, which quickly clotted. And before you can say, “Ew, that’s the most disgusting thing I’ve encountered today since that week-old KFC Double Down I ate for breakfast,” the town of Lanciano had a miracle on its hands, and the pilgrimages started.
Supposedly, the miracle was investigated immediately and found to be authentic, but no records of the investigation have survived to the present day, which, again, is pretty convenient. Still, the disc of human flesh and the five blood globules remain to this day and are on public display, and they’ve been investigated periodically since the miracle occurred. The earliest investigation that we have a primary record of was conducted in A.D. 1574 by Archbishop Gaspar Rodríguez, and it confirmed one of the most striking and mystical properties of the blood globules: Each one weighs exactly the same as the others, or as all of them combined(!), or as any combination of them(!). I guess because you get the same amount of Jesus, no matter how big a gulp of wine you take. I mean, I assume that’s the lesson here. If not, it’s just kind of weird.
The most recent scientific investigation was conducted in 1971 by anatomist Dr. Odoardo Linoli, who, in addition to having a name that would have been perfect for a Bond villain, published his findings in the medical journal Quaderni Sclavo di Diagnostica Clinica e di Laboratori. He found the flesh to be human cardiac tissue, of blood type AB, possibly of someone of Middle Eastern descent (so, if anyone ever asks you what Jesus’ blood type is/was, you have an answer, I guess). Meanwhile, the blood globules appeared to be surprisingly fresh, which is unusual for blood alleged to be more than a thousand years old.
If you’re not predisposed to believe in miracles like this, you’re already shooting this story full of holes: Anyone could cut a piece of cardiac tissue the same size and shape as one of those big Communion wafers. Anyone can steal someone’s blood and clot it. (I mean, I assume. I have no idea how to do it, but I’m sure you could find out how on whatever the ninth-century equivalent of Google was.) And of course it’s entirely possible the whole thing is a big, grisly hoax—and if it is, it doesn’t really contradict anything we know about human nature: people are terrible. (The Christianese word for this is sinful, although millennia of overuse have taken away a lot of that word’s punch.)
But—and I’m just putting this out there—if the miracle is legit, it also doesn’t contradict anything we know about Jesus. The guy is king of all creation. He can do whatever he wants. If he wants to appear, visibly, in a cracker and some wine, he can do that. If he wants to remind us, in the loudest way possible, that he took on human flesh in order to make human flesh holy, he can do that, too. If he wants to give us every bit of himself, he can do that.
And even if the miracle isn’t real, what it points to is. Human flesh has been made holy—and soon, it will be made immortal.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
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