Sacraments: The Eucharist – Presence
When thinking about the Eucharist it is important to be clear from the very beginning that we are dealing with a mystery. God is not some ‘thing’ that we will ever get our thoughts around, not some thing we will ever get our language around; the infinite God exceeds our finite mind’s capacity to understand. We ought, then, to be suspicious of any attempt to ‘explain’ the real presence of Christ among us in the Eucharist. In the end, an understanding of how bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ will be beyond us; it is not something we can demonstrate or prove but a truth revealed by God that must be accepted on faith. Nevertheless, if we are to remain faithful to this revelation, faithful to the tradition we have received, and in our turn to hand it on to others, then we must be sure that what we are preaching is the true faith and not nonsense. Catholicism is not contrary to reason, the mysteries of God are not truths that we can say nothing about; they are simply truths that we cannot say everything about.
The first thing we can say about the Eucharist is, of course, that it is a sacrament. Sacraments, in essence, are signs that make real what they symbolize. They are not just symbols, but signs which God institutes and uses to speak and act in human history through and in his Son. Christ is present in the other six sacraments in a relative manner because each is a real cause of grace. In the Eucharist, however, Christ dwells absolutely. This absolute presence is a sacramental presence. When we speak about the Eucharist we must always hold together symbol and reality. The bread and wine are significant: Jesus used this matter as a sign of his sacrifice and so his sacrifice becomes really present in a single sacramental event. When we speak of the Eucharist as being the Body and Blood of Christ, then, we are not referring to the natural body of Christ during the time of his public ministry on Earth, and we are not referring to the bread and wine in a symbolic way only. The bread and wine really do become the Body and Blood of Christ; Christ’s passion is re-presented or made present via these signs, this sacrament of bread and wine, that Jesus instituted at the last supper: the signs instituted by Christ make real what they symbolize.
Traditionally, the Church has used language borrowed from Aristotelian philosophy in an attempt to describe, but importantly not explain, this Eucharistic change. The key distinction here is between what the Ancient and Medieval world called ‘substance’, by which they meant not some kind of chemical but the very being of a thing, what it is fundamentally; and ‘accidents’, that is, features which are not essential to the being of a thing but can change or disappear without changing what something is. A cat, for instance, has the ‘substance’ of ‘catness’. In contrast, the colour of the cat’s fur is accidental; it does not need to have a particular colour of fur to be a cat, the colour of the cat’s fur could be changed, added to, or lost but the cat would remain a cat, it would not lose its ‘catness’.
Every day we observe natural causes changing the substance and the accidents of things. For example, if a cat dies then a substantial change takes place, the substance of ‘cat’, as the ancients and medievals understood that term, becomes the substance of ‘dead cat’ and the causes of this change can be known by us. Similarly, if I get my hair cut, then I have undergone an accidental change. Something about me has changed, the cause of this change can be identified, but it does not influence who or what I am. Clearly, the Eucharistic change clearly cannot be explained in the same way as these natural changes. The Eucharist is an act of God, who as the Creator of all things has the power to change the very being of a thing, what it is, so that bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, yet the accidents of bread and wine remain. The Eucharistic change is not, then, a transformation. It is not simply a re-organization, re-shaping, or re-branding of what is already present – it is better described as a change in the very being of what is on the altar, a transubstantiation: the substance changes but the accidents remain.
Transubstantiation then, on the one hand, is not a natural change. On the other hand neither is it an act of creation simply speaking. Creation, theologically understood, is the act by which God creates and sustains the universe out of nothing. Strictly speaking, then, creation is not a change. Transubstantiation cannot therefore be an act of creation since in the Eucharist it is bread and wine that becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. The change is not ex nihilo, from nothing, but from something: bread and wine. The Eucharistic change, therefore, must be distinguished from both natural changes and the act of creation. It has common features with both, but is neither. This, in the end, is why the Church settled on transubstantiation as an appropriate technical term for describing this change whereby the accidents of bread and wine remain but the substance, what we are actually dealing with, has changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Aquinas puts it like this:
The complete substance of the bread is converted into the complete substance of Christ’s body, and the complete substance of the wine into the complete substance of Christ’s blood. The Eucharistic change is not a formal change but a substantial one. It does not belong to natural kinds of change, and therefore must be called by a name proper to itself such as transubstantiation (Summa Theologiae 3a.75.4 res).
Aquinas goes on to remind us that we cannot know by our natural reason that the Body and Blood of Christ is present at Mass. There are no changes knowable by reason comparable to transubstantiation. We simply have to be told what is going on; the Church understands Jesus to have done just this at the last supper when he said ‘This is my body, this is the cup of my blood’ (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14: 22-24; Luke 22: 19-20; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; Summa Theologiae 3a.75.1 res).