The Real Presence

by Luke Benning




The feast of Corpus Christi is the Solemnity celebrating the Real Presence of the body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ in the elements of the Eucharist. The essence of real presence can appear odd to non-Catholics and even some practicing Catholics alike.


The biblical grounds for the conviction are however multiple, but perhaps the clearest warrant can be found in the sixth chapter of the Gospel of St John, in the bread of life discourse that Jesus pronounced at the synagogue at Capernaum. When Christ spoke of his flesh as the living bread come down from Heaven and urged his listeners to eat of it to attain everlasting life, many of his audience balked. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"


Their reticence has to be understood against the background of the strong Old Testament prohibition against the consuming of animal flesh along with the blood. To suggest that a man’s flesh should be eaten would have struck Jesus’s audience as not only revolting but theologically repugnant as well. Given, therefore, every opportunity to explain his language in a more metaphorical terms, to soften its literalism – as he did for example when the phrase 'born again' was countered by Nicodemus’s objections- Jesus instead intensified his statement. "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you."


The Greek word behind the word 'eat' is not the customary phagein but rather trogein a word used to designate the way that animals would eat. Something like 'gnaw' or 'munch' would carry the sense of it in English. Thus if they were bothered by the gross realism of language, Jesus endeavoured to bother them further! And in case they missed the point, he insisted "My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed". So dismayed were they by this uncompromising language that many in the crowd left him, a reaction that would be hard to understand if they were taking his words in a merely metaphorical or symbolic sense. But Jesus did not pander to them. Instead, he asked his intimate disciples whether they would leave him too, anticipating, it would seems, the decisive and divisive role that the Eucharistic doctrine would play in the ensuing history of the church.


Though none of the church fathers wrote a treatise exclusively on the Eucharistic mystery, there are numerous references to the sacrament sprinkled throughout their writings. One of the most basic motifs is that of the Eucharist as 'food for eternal life'. Origen, Chrysostom, Irenaeus, Ambrose and Augustine all comment that the body and blood of Jesus are the means by which the believer becomes adapted to the heavenly mode of existence, quite literally 'eternalized'. Once again, it would be very difficult to make sense of such language if the fathers were construing the Eucharistic presence in a straightforwardly symbolic manner, for no contrivance of ours, however powerful or evocative, could possibly carry such a supernatuarlizing virtue. In fact, the fathers, both east and west, typically relied upon the intensely organic language of John and Paul when articulating the Eucharistic mystery. They saw is it as a real koinonia and participation in the life of Jesus, a means of living in the Lord.


In the eleventh century in the Western church, the question of the real presence emerged with special force, due to the speculations of Berengarius of Tours. This philosophically minded monk made the commonsenical observation that, since the body of Jesus now in a glorified state in heaven exists that heavenly reality. Though intellectually attractive and clear, Berengarius’ theory inspired in some prominent theologians a strong negative response and the church was compelled to intervene in the controversy. It eventually condemned Berengaruis’ approach as crucially inadequate to the dense reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. In the wake of this contretemps, some theologians (and eventually the magisterium) began to use language borrowed from the natural philosophy of Aristotle, namely, the categories of substance and accident. The chief advantage of this usage was that it allowed one to speak of the objective reality of the Eucharistic presence without falling into a crude physicalism or literalism. In 1215, the fourth Lateran Council used the term transubstantiation, though it did so in subordinate clause and without providing anything even approaching a definition of the word.


It is in the writings of the great thirteenth century Dominican master Thomas Aquinas that the doctrine of transubstantiation received its richest articulation. It is important to note that the Eucharist was central to the spiritual life of St. Thomas. He would both celebrate and assist at a second Mass every day and it was said that he rarely got through the liturgy without weeping, so conscious was he of his participation in Christ’s passion. His socius Reginald of Piperno reported that when Aquinas was wrestling with a particularly thorny intellectual problem, he would retire to the chapel and pray, frequently resting his head on the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament reposed.


Thomas’s most concentrated treatment of the Eucharist takes place in questions 73-83 of the third part of the Summa theologiae; in question 75,he broaches directly the issues of real presence and transubstantiation. He comments that figurative or merely symbolic language is inadequate in regard to Christ’s Eucharistic presence precisely because there must be aliquid plus (something more) in the Eucharistic than in the rituals and signs of the Old covenant. If the Eucharistic bread and wine are symbols of holy realities, then they are no more powerful or evocative than the Passover meal, the Jerusalem temple, or the paschal lamb of sacrifice. He also observes that the 'real' presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is a function of Christ’s friendship with his people, for there is no higher sign of intimacy than a desire to be with one’s friends. Such intimacy would hardly be signalled by a mere figurative presence.


Now how does Thomas endeavour to explain this distinctiveness? He does so through recourse to the inherited language of substance and accident. Though much of the sacramental theology of the twentieth century dismiss Thomas’s usage of reputedly 'naïve' Aristotelian physics, this critique is, in fact, wide of the mark. By employing this terminology, Aquinas was by no means trying the church’s doctrine to a particular scientific or philosophical theory; rather, he was using the intellectual argot of the day to articulate an essential truth concerning that doctrine. A very fair rendering of 'Substance and accident' would be simply 'reality and appearance'. Practically every major philosophy, both ancient and modern, makes a distinction between these two categories, for though reality and appearance customarily cohere, there are numerous cases when they decidedly do not.


Do you ever remember as a child sitting in the back seat of a car being driven through the countryside on a clear night and noticing that the moon was travelling along with the car, making its way through the branches of the trees that lined the road? Remarking this to an adult we are told that it just looks that way. When you gaze up into the starry sky, you see what to all appearances are the myriad stars and planets. But any astronomer will tell you that you are in fact looking into the distant past, for the light from those bodies has had to pass through oceans of time before reaching your eye. Or you meet someone who makes a very bad first impression and you remark to a friend that that person is arrogant and self-preoccupied. But your friend, who knows the person in question much better says to you, "I know he seems that way, but he really isn’t." In all these cases, appearance is deceptive and the testimony of an authority is required to reveal the deepest truth.


Thomas Aquinas says that in the Eucharistic transformation, the deepest reality of the bread and wine is changed into the body and blood of Christ, even as the appearances of bread and wine remain unchanged. The same divine power that brings reality into existence from nothing is capable of effecting this unique transfiguration. How can the accidents of bread and wine exist apart from their proper substances? The creative cause of the whole of the universe can suspend secondary causality when it suits his purpose. Pope Benedict XVI in an essay written in the1970’s said that transubstantiation is the act by which the creator grasps the bread and wine by the very roots of their being and transforms them into pure signs, that is to say ,into pure bearers of the presence of Jesus ,so that they no longer speak of themselves or refer to themselves, but only to Christ. How is this change brought about? Echoing Aquinas, the Council of Trent said, "Vi verborum," by the power of the words of consecration, which are nothing other than the words of Jesus.


This simple observation gives us a most important key to understanding the real presence. In his How to Do Things with Words, the twentieth century philosopher of language J.L.Austin observes that language has much more than a descriptive purpose, for at times it can be used to change and affect reality. If a Police Officer holding the office of Constable says to somebody "You are under arrest," you are whether you like it or not, in fact under arrest. The officer’s words have changed reality. If a referee or umpire during your favourite sport says "You’re out" even though by the smallest of margins you have made it in, unfortunately whether you like it or not in point of fact you are out. The ref or umpire’s words can, quite literally change the course of a game. Now consider the case of the divine word. God’s word is not simply descriptive but is rather, in the most powerful sense of the term, creative. God says, "Let there be light," and there is light; God says "Let us make man in our own image and after our likeness," and so it happened. The prophet Isiah reminds us that the divine word goes forth and does not return without accomplishing the purpose for which it was sent. Now Jesus is not one interesting religious figure among many, not merely a sage or prophet, but rather as St. John put it, the word made flesh, Yahweh’s Dabar in person. Therefore, what Jesus says, is. When he said, "Little girl, get up," she got up; when he said, "Lazarus, come out," the dead man came out; when he said, "My son, your sins are forgiven," they were indeed forgiven.


The night before he died, Jesus took bread and gave thanks, and then he said, "Take this all of you and eat it; this is my body." In a similar way, after the meal, he took a cup filled with wine and said, "Take this, all of you, and drink from it; this is the cup of my blood." The divine word, which creates the universe can change reality in the most fundamental way. By the power of the words, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist – along with creation itself is the most concentrated instance of a divine word event, and it is for this reason that the church has always insisted on the dense reality of what happens in the Eucharistic change.


The doctrine of the real presence signals the transformative efficacy of the sacrificial meal and it thereby guarantees that our participation in it amounts to an authentic Christfication. The Eucharist fully appreciated is the source and summit of Christian life, that spiritual food without which we would starve to death.

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