Transubstantiation: Bulwark Defending the 'Is' of Jesus
In the words of John Dryden's poem "The Hind and the Panther," the word transubstantiation "loosed the tongue," and with the tongue the human mind, "to explain," in the best human words available in the judgment of the Church, what our Catholic "forefathers meant by real presence in the sacrament."
Those words of promise came to reality when Jesus, at the Last Supper, uttered the words of Institution over the bread--"This is my body"--and over the wine--"This is my blood." (Matt. 26:26-28; see also Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20)
Two sets of four words: eight words in all. In his marvelous hymn Pange Lingua, St. Thomas caught the gist of this remarkable historical grace-event ushered in by eight simple words: se dat suis manibus, Jesus gave himself with his hands. This is pure St. Augustine: Jesus, Augustine says, "carried himself when he said, 'this is my Body.'" (Enarr. in Ps., 33.II)
St. Paul recognized the import of Jesus' words of Institution when wrote to the Corinthians that they eat and drink damnation to themselves if they eat and drink the "Lord's body and blood" unworthily, not recognizing or discerning the Lord's body in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. (1 Cor. 11:27-29)
There is no room for doubt that the early Church, maintaining the apostolic doctrine learned from none other than Jesus himself, understood that the bread and wine, after the words of Institution were uttered over them by the bishop or priest, became, in reality, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Francis Beckwith has called this belief by the early Church Eucharistic realism.
Witness, as just one example of myriads that could be cited of this Eucharistic realism, the yearning of St. Ignatius of Antioch in his Letter to the Romans written around 110 A.D. Though in chains and being taken to sure martyrdom, he desired to celebrate the Eucharist which he described thus: "I desire the Bread of God, the heavenly Bread, the Bread of Life, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, the Son of God . . . . I wish the drink of God, namely His blood, which is incorruptible love and eternal life."
Witness also the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (ca. 313-386 A.D.) to his catechumens, as he taught them that before the consecration there existed "simple bread and wine," but after the consecration the "bread becomes the Body of Christ, and the wine the Blood of Christ." After the consecration, he explained, the bread and the wine were not to be considered "bare elements, for they are, according to the Lord's declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ." He tells the catechumens not to judge by "sense," or by "taste," but to grasp the truth by "faith," and so be "fully assured without misgiving" of Christ's Real Presence under the veils of bread and wine. (Cat. Lects., 19.7; 22.6)
The witness of the Church Fathers which, when added to the clear message in the Scriptures, testify monolithically that the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is part of the oral and written "traditions" received by the apostles from Jesus, handed down by them, and part of the early Church's faith. (cf. 2 Thess. 2:15) It is revealed truth.
To be sure, the Real Presence is a mystery--the mysterium fidei--the mystery of faith, as it is frequently referred to. Simply put, it is the belief that, after the words of consecration, Jesus is really, substantially, ontologically, essentially and entirely present, Body and Soul, Humanity and Divinity under the species, or under the accidents, or "under the veil" in Cardinal Newman's words, of bread and wine which no longer have any substantive reality as bread or wine.
Christ's Real Presence has presented a stumbling block to those weak in faith, to those who rely on their senses or their reason alone to circumscribe God, and so seek to bind God to a lesser truth (their own), and thereby limit the power and presence and design of the Word of God.
The Church, however, loyal to the Word made flesh, recognizes like the poet John Dryden that some truths--mysteries of the Faith, in particular, of which the Real Presence is one--are truths beyond the senses and beyond reason, though without contradicting their witness. God is not confined to a box of sensory perception and human reason. If one can comprehend it with the senses and with reason, it is not God.
To limit God to what we learn from our senses and our reason is to make God a creature, to put God in a cage of sense and reason, to domesticate God. It is to naturalize the supernatural, to tame the Divine. It is also to emasculate faith, which is intended to take us way beyond human senses and human reason to another order altogether--the supernatural order. "Faith is the evidence of things not seen!" (Heb. 11:1)
But God, so wildly in love with us, will not be leashed by human weakness.
Can I my reason to my faith compel,
And shall my sight, and touch, and taste rebel?
Superior faculties are set aside;
Shall their subservient organs be my guide?
The Church answers Dryden's questions with an unequivocal "No!"
The Catholic Church takes the "is" in the words of the Lord, "This is my body" and "This is my blood," to mean, very simply, "is." In varying degrees, those who rely too much on senses, or whose faith is too rationalistic, or who are just plain misinformed or misguided and so reject the dogma of the Church parse words and equivocate like President Clinton in his notorious statement: "It depends upon what the meaning of the word 'is' is."
Sadly, those without the faith of the Church don't take Jesus at his word when he uses the word "is," but cavil, argue, quibble, wriggle, invoke nuance so as to have the word "is" mean anything else but "is." If sincere, they might be, like the Roman Catechism charitably puts it, "possibly . . . overwhelmed" by the "greatness" of this mystery.
But let us not belittle the gift of God! "If you knew the gift of God!" said Jesus to the Samaritan woman at the well, and, we might be sure, to those who deny the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. (John 4:10)
In responding over the centuries to efforts to "cavil, argue, quibble, wriggle, and invoke nuance" regarding the word "is," the word the Church ultimately selected to protect this very simple and unwavering belief that "is" means "is" and nothing less than "is," is "transubstantiation." It is therefore a word worth exploring in our series Tres Linguae Sacrae.
"Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread," the Church declared at the Council of Trent, "it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy council now again declares, that, by the consecration of the bread and wine, there takes a change of the whole substance of bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly named transubstantiation." (DS 1642)
The Council of Trent defended Catholic Eucharistic doctrine against the attacks of the Protestant reformers, but it drew from its patrimony when it used the word "transubstantiation," a word first used by theologians to description the faith of the fathers in earlier controversies, and later adopted by the Church as descriptive of what occurs when the bread and wine are consecrated as when used by Pope Innocent III (1208 A.D.), the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the Second Council of Lyons (1274), and the Council of Florence (1439). (DS 782, 802, 860, 1321)
The word transubstantiation therefore had a centuries-old pedigree by the time it was used in the Council of Trent, though the truth it encapsulated was there in Christ's simple evangelical word "is."
The "dogma of transubstantiation," as Pope Paul VI called it in his encyclical on the Eucharist, Mysterium Fidei, No. 10, is a "perennially valid teaching," says Blessed John Paul II in his Encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, No. 15. The word transubstantiation ought to be worn proudly, like a badge of fidelity to the Lord.
Section 1413 of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church insists on it as the means by which Jesus Christ "living and glorious" makes his appearance at Mass: "By the consecration the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ is brought about. Under the consecrated species of bread and wine, Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real, and substantial manner: his Body and Blood, with his soul and his divinity."
The word transubstantiation comes from Latin, transubstantiatio, a word formed by the prefix trans (meaning "across") and substantia (meaning "substance"). Literally, therefore, it means to undergo a change from one substance to another substance, which precisely describes the faith of the Church when it comes to her understanding of what happens at the words of consecration at Mass.
The concept of transubstantiation draws vaguely and loosely from Aristotelian metaphysics, but also absolutely revolutionizes Aristotle, since Aristotle had no notion of transubstantiation, only of the categories of substances and accidents. Aristotle, moreover, would never have even imagined that the accidents of bread and wine "continue without a subject," through the direct power of God, who as creator of "both substance and accident, can by His unlimited power preserve an accident in existence when the substance is withdrawn whereby it was preserved in existence," as St. Thomas Aquinas put it in his Summa Theologia. S.T. IIIa, q. 77, art. 1, c.
That the Church draws from where she can, including pagan philosophers if need be, to preserve or develop the faith ought not to bother us. This is not unlike the Church in other areas, for example, in its adoption of the word persona (Greek: prosopon) to describe the dogma of the Trinity, or in its elaboration of the natural moral law, which, based upon St. Paul's inspired lead in his letter to the Romans (Rom. 2:14), she selectively borrowed from the Stoic philosophers, but in taking it entirely transformed it.
Substance is one of Aristotle's ten categories (or praedicamenta), in fact the most fundamental category. A thing's substance (in Greek οὐσία or ousia) is the what it is (τὸ τί ἐστι or to ti esti), its essence, its most fundamental reality. The other nine categories were called accidents (in Greek συμβεβηκός or symbebēkos), relations or qualities or aspects of a substance that did not essentially change it or its reality, but that modified it. (See Categories 4, 1b25-2a4; Topics 1.9, 103b20-25)
Accidents are things that can be said of a substance. For example, a black dog and a brown dog, or a big dog and a small dog, share the same substance, but they differ in the accidental quality of color and/or the quantity of size. In Aristotle's view, accidents need a substance, and cannot exist on their own. There is no such reality as "big" or "brown" without reference to something big or something brown.
So, in Aristotelian terms but certainly way beyond even the wildest of Aristotelian imaginings, after the consecration, only the "accidents" of bread and wine remain; however, the "substance" is no longer bread and wine, but rather the entire Christ, Body and Soul, Humanity and Divinity.
The insights of Aristotle are not needed to understand transubstantiation. As Pope Paul VI described it in his Encyclical on the Eucharist Mysterium Fidei:
"As a result of transubstantiation, the species [what appears] of bread and wine . . . contain a new 'reality' which we can rightly call ontological [in other words, involves the order being, reality, essence]. For what now lies beneath the aforementioned species is not what was there before, but something completely different; and not just in the estimation of Church belief but in reality, since once the substance or nature of the bread and wine has been changed into the body and blood of Christ, nothing remains of the bread and the wine except for the species-beneath which Christ is present whole and entire in His physical 'reality,' corporeally present, although not in the manner in which bodies are in a place." Mysterium Fidei, No. 46.
There is not a whiff of Aristotle here; rather, there is nothing but fidelity to Jesus, a striving in faith to understand him without quibble when he chose that splendid and simple word "is" in those two splendid and simple four-word-phrases that have the power to change the world as they have the power to change bread and the power to change us: "This is my body," and "This is my blood."
In the words of John Dryden in his poem "The Hind and the Panther," the word transubstantiation "loosed the tongue," and with the tongue the human mind, "to explain," in the best human words available (and it does not matter where they came from), what our Catholic "forefathers meant by real presence in the sacrament."
What is absolutely crucial to understand is this: the dogma of transubstantiation is nothing less than what Jesus intended when he said those words--his dying declaration, his testament, his words of life--the night before he died: "This is my body." "This is my blood." To believe in the dogma of transubstantiation is to believe Christ. Knowingly to reject the dogma of transubstantiation is to deny him.
"This is a hard saying," some say. Perhaps. "Does this," the word transubstantiation and what it means, "offend you?" Jesus still asks. (Cf. John 6:61) Sadly, to some it does offend, and they have turned away. Happily, others respond like St. Peter: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68)
The dogma of transubstantiation helps us understand how something that looks, smells, tastes, and feels like bread and wine before the consecration as well as after the consecration can be--really, truly, substantially, essentially--something entirely and beautifully Other than it seems to our feeble senses and reason.
Yes. This mystery's greatness very possibly overwhelms. But it is precisely the overwhelming greatness of this mystery described by the dogma of transubstantiation that allows Saint Thérèse of Lisieux to say these beautiful and most simple words: "I cannot fear a God who made himself so small for me!"
There it is: the ineffability of the word "is" when used by the Lord, and the dogma of transubstantiation which forms a redoubt erected around the simple and defenseless word "is" so as to protect it from anyone, large or small, wise or foolish, rich or poor, sincere or insincere who dares contradict the Lord and make "is" anything less than "is." The omnipotent, overwhelming, omniscient, infinite, and eternal God makes Himself small, for you, and for me. That is why, if we approach the Eucharistic Lord worthily, we cannot fear Him.
Transubstantiation. This is a truth to live for. This is a truth to die for.
Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas. He is married with three children. He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum. You can contact Andrew at email@example.com.
Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for December 2013
General Intention: Victimized Children. That children who are victims of abandonment or violence may find the love and protection they need.
Missionary Intention: Prepare the Savior's Coming. That Christians, enlightened by the Word incarnate, may prepare humanity for the Savior's coming.
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