The Pontificator becomes the Ruminator

•31 October 2012 • Comments Off

After several years of self-imposed exile from the blogosphere, I have begun blogging again.  I have entitled my new blog Eclectic Orthodoxy.  It is different from what Pontifications used to be.  A lot of ruminating, much less pontificating.  Perhaps you may find it of interest. Visit Eclectic Orthodoxy and join in the conversation.

Communion Prayer of Philoxenus of Mabbug

•11 September 2009 • Comments Off

When you have extended your hands and taken the body, bow, and put your hands before your face, and worship the living Body whom you hold. Then speak with him in a low voice, and with your gaze resting upon him say to him:

I carry you, living God, who is incarnate in the bread, and I embrace you in my palms, Lord of the worlds whom no world has contained. You have circumscribed yourself in a fiery coal within a fleshly palm—you Lord, who with your palm measured out the dust of the earth. You are holy, God incarnate in my hands in a fiery coal which is a body. See, I hold you, although there is nothing that contains you; a bodily hand embraces you, Lord of natures whom a fleshly womb embraced. Within a womb you became a circumscribed body, and now within a hand you appear to me as a small morsel.

As you have made me worthy to approach you and receive you—and see, my hands embrace you confidently—make me worthy, Lord, to eat you in a holy manner and to taste the food of your body as a taste of your life. Instead of the stomach, the body’s member, may the womb of my intellect and the hand of my mind receive you. May you be conceived in me as you were in the womb of the Virgin. There you appeared as an infant, and your hidden self was revealed to the world as corporeal fruit; may you also appear in me here and be revealed from me in fruits that are spiritual works and just labors pleasing to your will.

And by your food may my desires be killed; and by the drinking of your cup may my passions be quenched. And instead of the members of my body, may my thoughts receive strength from the nourishment of your body. Like the manifest members of my body, may my hidden thoughts be engaged in exercise and in running and in works according to your living commands and your spiritual laws. From the food of your body and the drinking of your blood may I wax strong inwardly, and excel outwardly, and run diligently, and to attain to the full stature of an interior human being. May I become a perfect man, mature in the intelligence residing in all my spiritual members, my head being crowned with the crown of perfection of all of my behavior. May I be a royal diadem in your hands, as you promised me, O hidden God whose manifestness I embrace in the perfection of your body.

St Philoxenus of Mabbug

Is the Episcopal Church a Truly Catholic Church?

•29 July 2008 • Comments Off

Is the Episcopal Church a truly catholic Church? I ask this question in response to a series of blog articles and comments written by the Rev. Dr. Daniel K. Dunlap. I reference in particular the following: GAFCON—Initial Thoughts, Personal Reflections for Remaining in TEC, The Problem with Confessionalism, Why Anglican Confessionalism will Undermine the Anglican Catholic Position, Restating a Third Mill Catholic Prophecy, Response to Al Kimel, and “Anglicans and Orthodoxy” from the Land of Unlikeness Blog. Also see Dr Dunlap’s article “Why I ‘Migrated’ to the Episcopal Church.”

Fr Dunlap is a former minister in the Reformed Episcopal Church. He was confirmed in the Episcopal Church in 2004. Six months ago he was ordained in the Episcopal Diocese of Texas to the sacred order of priests. He is presently Vice President and Dean of the Faculty at the Houston Graduate School of Theology. He has also been blogging at Catholic in the Third Millenium since March 2006.

Fr Dunlap considers himself a catholic Anglican and is distressed by the emergence of GAFCON, which he sees, quite probably rightly, as an attempt to impose a Reformed confessionalism upon the Anglican Communion. He himself is content to remain within the Episcopal Church. While he acknowledges that preaching and teaching contrary to the Church’s credo is now occurring in parts of the Episcopal Church, this does not mean that the denomination as a whole has become heterodox:

In essence, I don’t believe that the simple “two gospels” dichotomy is an accurate working description of the way things really are in TEC or the Anglican Communion. Truth be told, people are all over the map. Only the most tenacious folks on the extreme wings are living into the reality of “two gospels” and believe it to be their divine calling to impose one or the other “gospel” on everyone else. That’s why the only thing that really matters at the end of the day is the Church’s credo, not our individual “credos,” and endeavoring to live into it.

As a new convert to the Episcopal Church, Dunlap can perhaps be excused for his benign assessment of the state of the Episcopal Church. Clearly his acquaintance with the denomination, and particularly with its seminaries, diocesan bureaucracies, and political and theological struggles of the past thirty years, is limited. Perhaps his direct experience of the Episcopal Church has been restricted to a few conservative southern dioceses. Perhaps he has never come face to face with a roomful of honest-to-God revisionist Episcopal clerics. Perhaps he really does not know that despite the presence of the Nicene Creed in the eucharistic liturgy, Nicene orthodoxy is truly optional in the Episcopal Church. It may well be true that Episcopalians are theologically “all over the map,” but this diversity conceals the depth of hostility that exists among both clergy and laity to the exclusive claims of traditional Christianity. Yes, Episcopalians still employ the vocabulary of the inherited faith, but the words are reinterpreted through the hermeneutics of personal experience. In the categories of George Lindbeck, Episcopalians are “experiential-expressivists” to the core. The essential identity of the Episcopal Church is well expressed in the oft-recited mantra: “There will be no outcasts in this church.” The Episcopal Church comprehends great diversity, but this diversity is both determined and limited by the dogma of radical inclusivity: to be “catholic” is to be inclusive, and to be inclusive is to be committed to the ultimate exclusion of the exclusive claims of the catholic faith. Philip Turner has accurately identified radical inclusivity as the working theology of the Episcopal Church.

In the early 70s the large majority of catholic Episcopalians firmly opposed the ordination of women to the presbyterate and episcopate, believing that it was contrary to the will of Christ and the ecumenical tradition of the Church. When the 1976 General Convention decided to permit the ordination of women to the priesthood, most Anglo-Catholics decided to remain within the Episcopal Church and to fight for a reversal of church policy. What happened? The older generation retired or died. The younger generation, including the present writer, eventually got with the national church program. Seminaries and bishops carefully weeded out the opponents of women’s ordination from the prospective ordinand pool. Thirty-five years later we find that a new orthodoxy has been successfully imposed and the opponents of women’s ordination marginalized. Twenty years ago one might have been forgiven for thinking that it was still possible to reverse this situation, but surely no one can persuasively argue this any longer. Something very similar is now happening on the question of the moral legitimacy of same-sex unions. The goodness of same-sex unions is now widely affirmed in the Episcopal Church. New ordinands are expected to support this policy and the doctrine underlying it. Perhaps freedom to oppose this policy is still allowed in some dioceses (presumably Texas); but the number of such dioceses declines each year. Within a decade or two Episcopal priests will no longer be permitted to teach the catholic understanding of Holy Matrimony nor to declare the immorality of same-sex unions. In the inclusive Church, even tolerance has its limits. The recent history of the Episcopal Church demonstrates the harsh truth of Neuhaus’s Law: “Wherever orthodoxy is optional, it sooner or later will be proscribed.”

Yet Fr Dunlap is committed to remaining within the Episcopal Church. I know many faithful believers who are likewise committed to remaining in the Episcopal Church. I certainly do not criticize Fr Dunlap for doing so, though I find his assessment of the state of the Episcopal Church to be deeply flawed. The Episcopal Church, Dunlap insists, remains a catholic Church, despite false teaching and practice. Hence he does not need “a reason or strategy” to stay in the Episcopal Church. Really? Is the catholicity of the Episcopal Church so apparent, so manifest, so self-evident, so primordial that it needs neither defense nor apology? What would the Episcopal Church need to do to move itself over into the category of heretical or schismatic Church? In Dunlap’s judgment, the decision to ordain women to the presbyterate and episcopate does not represent a church-dividing departure from catholic order, despite the contrary judgments of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. He notes that he made his peace with the innovation some time ago. But what about the popular embrace of the pan-sexual morality? What about the ritual blessing of same-sex unions? What about the Episcopal Church’s consistent refusal to assert the evil of abortion? What about denials by many Episcopal preachers that the salvation of humanity is accomplished through Christ and Christ alone? What about the refusal to discipline bishops and priests who deny the divinity of Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection? Are the historic episcopate, communion with the see of Canterbury, and liturgical use of the Nicene Creed really sufficient to secure the catholic identity of the Episcopal Church?

And so I ask Fr Dunlap: What is your breaking point? Where does the confessional rubber hit the road? At what point would conscience forbid you from summoning sinners into the communion of the Episcopal Church?

And to all others I ask: Is the Episcopal Church truly a catholic Church? What does it mean for the Episcopal Church to claim to be a branch of the Church catholic when it has departed so significantly from catholic norms in faith, morals, and order?

(To be continued)

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum.]

The Sacramentality of Sacraments

•6 April 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

One of my favorite books on the Holy Eucharist is Alexander Schmemann’s The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom. I read it shortly after it was published in the late ’80s and have re-read it a couple of times since. Always I learn something new. Always he takes me deeper into the experience and understanding of Eucharist.

I remember my initial perplexity upon reading his critique of Dom Anscar Vonier’s A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, which I had read and very much appreciated during my seminary days. Schmemann speaks of the estrangement of Latin scholasticism from the experience of the liturgy:

The chief source of this estrangement is the Latin doctrine’s denial and rejection of symbolism, which is inherent to the Christian perception of the world, man and all creation, and which forms the ontological basis of the sacraments. In this perspective, the Latin doctrine is the beginning of the disintegration and decomposition of the symbol. On the one hand, being “reduced” to “illustrative symbolism,” the symbol loses touch with reality; and, on the other, it ceases to be understood as a fundamental revelation about the world and creation. When Dom Vonier writes that “Neither in heaven nor on earth is there anything like the sacraments,” does he not indicate above all that, although the sacraments in any event depend on creation and its nature for their accomplishment, of this nature they do not reveal, witness or manifest anything?

This doctrine of the sacraments is alien to the Orthodox because in the Orthodox ecclesial experience and tradition a sacrament is understood primarily as a revelation of the genuine nature of creation, of the world, which, however much it has fallen as “this world,” will remain God’s world, awaiting salvation, redemption, healing and transfiguration in a new earth and a new heaven. In other words, in the Orthodox experience a sacrament is primarily a revelation of the sacramentality of creation itself, for the world was created and given to man for conversion of creaturely life into participation in divine life. If in baptism water can become a “laver of regeneration,” if our earthly food—bread and wine—can be transformed into partaking of the body and blood of Christ, if, to put it briefly, everything in the world can be identified, manifested and understood as a gift of God and participation in the new life, it is because all of creation was originally summoned and destined for the fulfilment of the divine economy—“then God will be all in all.” (pp. 33-34)

I will leave to the side the question whether Schmemann in fact speaks for the entire Eastern tradition at this point. A comparison between Schmemann and Cabasilas might prove particularly illuminating. I do wonder which of the Church Fathers would agree with Schmemann that the sacramental mysteries are to be understood primarily as revelations of the “genuine nature of creation.” Are we really confronted with a fundamental, unbridgeable difference between East and West? The Western tradition, even before the development of the theologies of symbol that we find in Rahner and Chauvet, is more than able to articulate an understanding of the sacramentality of creation.

But my concern here is whether Schmemann has done justice to the traditional sacramental teaching of the Western Church. Unlike Schmemann, Abbott Vonier, for example, does not speak of sacraments as revelations of creation. He does not address the iconicity of the world. His focus is different. For Vonier, as for Thomas Aquinas and most theologians in the Latin Catholic tradition, sacraments are first and foremost symbolic enactments of redemption. They are rooted in the sacred history of God’s work of salvation, beginning with Israel and culminating in the consummation of the kingdom. Just as the nation of Israel celebrated its faith in ritual and sacrament, so the people of the New Israel celebrate their faith in ritual and sacrament—but with a critical difference: the sacraments of the Old Law prefigured the coming of Christ and attested to the faith of Israel, but were not in themselves causes of grace; the sacraments of the New Law not only attest to the faith of the Church, but they make present the passion of Christ and effectively apply to believers its benefits. Every sacrament is a symbolic re-presentation of the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Herbert McCabe elaborates:

The sacraments … are revelations of God, but not everything which shows us God can be called sacramental in the sense in which I am using the term. Of course “sacrament” is one of those key terms of religion which can be interpreted at several different levels, but in its deepest sense it means not just any symbol of God but a symbol which reveals the achievement of God’s plan for human destiny. Many people have seen the world of nature as revealing the sacred—“the heavens show forth the glory of Yahweh”—and sometimes this is called having a sacramental view of the world. But the sacraments in our deeper sense are signs of the revelation which God has made of himself, signs of the Word of God in history. They are concerned not just with God’s creation but with his special plan for humanity. This they have in common with the Scriptures, and just as the Scriptures had to be written by God, so the sacraments had to be instituted by God. We can speak, and the Fathers of the Church constantly did speak, of the sacraments of the old law: that is, the signs, especially the cultic signs, which symbolized the workings of God’s plan in the Old Testament. The difference between these signs and the sacraments of the new law is just that God’s plan has now been realized in Christ. The sacraments of the new law are not simply looking forward to something which is not yet, they symbolize something actually present. (The People of God, pp. 31-32)

In his book Abbot Vonier seeks to expound what we might describe as the sacramentality of sacrament. Sacraments do not work by an impersonal or natural causality, nor are they unmediated acts of divine omnipotence. Sacraments work by ritual signification, and what they signify is Jesus Christ. Hence every sacrament symbolizes and represents the past, the present, and the future. Aquinas explains:

A sacrament, properly so-called, is a thing ordained to signify our sanctification; in which three phases may be taken into consideration, namely: the cause of our sanctification, which is the passion of Christ; the essence of our sanctification, which consists in grace and virtue; and then the ultimate goal of our sanctification, which is eternal life. Now all these are signified by the sacraments. Therefore a sacrament is a commemorative sign of what has gone before, in this case the passion of Christ, a demonstrative sign of what is being effected in us through the passion of Christ, that is grace, and a prognostic sign, foretelling our future glory. (ST 3a.60.3)

The symbolism of the sacrament is complex and multi-faceted. Every sacrament is a word-object event that recollects God’s saving acts in history, declares his sanctifying work in the present, and anticipates the consummation of his kingdom. A sacrament is able to do this, to comprehend and realize the mystery of time, precisely because it is a sign ordained by the incarnate Son and filled with divine power and spiritual reality:

Every sacrament, then, has something to declare: it recalls the past, it is the voice of the present, it reveals the future. If the sacrament did not fulfill its function of sign proclaiming something which is not seen, it would not be a sacrament at all. It can embrace heaven and earth, time and eternity, because it is a sign; were it only a grace it would be no more than the gift of the present hour; but being a sign the whole history of the spiritual world is reflected in it: “For as often as you shall eat this bread and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He comes.” What Saint Paul says of the Eucharist about its showing forth a past event is true in other ways of every other sacrament. … If my heart be touched by God’s grace, such a divine action, excellent and wonderful though it be, is not a sign of anything else; it is essentially a spiritual fact of the present moment, and ends, as it were, in itself. It has no relationship of signification to anything else, whether past, present or future. Such is not the case with the sacraments; through them it becomes possible to focus the distant past and future in the actual present; through them historic events of centuries ago are renewed, and we anticipate the future in a very real way. All this is possible only in virtue of the sacramental sign, which not only records the distant event, but, somewhat like the modern film, projects it upon the screen of the present. (Vonier, p. 14)

I suspect that Schmemann would object to this last sentence. Perhaps he was thinking of this sentence when he referred to the Western reduction of symbol to “illustrious symbolism.” But one should not make too much of the simile. Vonier is simply emphasizing the power and reality of sacrament according to Catholic understanding. Sacraments do not “image” or “picture” past events, as if one could watch the eucharistic liturgy and see the passion and death of Jesus; but they do nonetheless contain and make present the historic and spiritual realities they signify, and by faith believers participate in these realities.

Does this read like a “denial and rejection of symbolism”? Hardly. Vonier may hold a different understanding of symbol than Schmemann, but it is an understanding that is powerful, vital, and firmly rooted in the narrative of Holy Scripture. Schmemann sees the sacramental mysteries as manifestations of the true nature of the world as renewed in Jesus Christ, grounded in the symbolic nature of creation. Vonier, on the other hand, sees the sacramental mysteries as revelations of the mystery of God’s historic redemption in Jesus Christ. For Vonier and the Western tradition, the symbolic representation of sacred history in the sacraments of the Church is absolutely essential. God has accomplished the salvation of humanity in history, not in history in general but in the history of a specific people—and consummately in the history of a specific man, Jesus of Nazareth. The sacraments of the Church are the successors of the sacraments of Israel. Wielded by the risen Christ, they effectually make present the whole history of redemption and attach us to this history. Perhaps this is why Vonier does not seek to ground the sacraments in a general theory of the sacramentality of the cosmos. The act of washing with water may vaguely point, as it were, to spiritual cleaning; but only by divine institution and apostolic interpretation does it symbolize death and burial with Jesus. The sharing of loaf and cup may naturally point to communal fellowship and unity; but only by divine institution and apostolic interpretation does it symbolize the sacrificial oblation of the Nazarene. The natural symbolism of element and action is not denied; it is, rather, gathered into the new significance of the sacramental mystery.

Precisely because Vonier wishes to protect both the sacramentality and efficacy of the sacraments of Christ, he finds that he must speak of their newness and singular causality. I will give Vonier the final word:

“The sacramental world is a new world created by God, entirely different from the world of nature and even from the world of spirits. It would be poor theology to say that in the sacraments we have here on earth modes of spiritual realities which resemble the ways of the angels. We have nothing of the kind. Were we to speak with the tongues of angels it would not help us in the least to express the sacramental realities. Sacraments are a unique creation with entirely new laws. They belong to ‘the mystery which has been hidden from eternity in God who created all things: that the manifold wisdom of God may be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places through the church.’ The creative power of symbols, the productive efficacy of signs, the incredible potentialities of simple things in the hand of God to produce spiritual realities, nay even to reproduce them in their historic setting: all this belongs to the sacramental world and makes it profoundly unlike anything else in heaven or on the earth” (p. 23).

The Sacrifice of Transubstantiation

•25 March 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

In his Natural History of Religion, the 18th century philosopher David Hume famously derides the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, asserting that no tenet in paganism invites as much ridicule. “For it is so absurd,” he writes, “that it eludes the force of all argument.” In the course of his polemic, he relates the story of the young Turk Mustapha, who had been taken prisoner and persuaded to convert to the Christian faith. The day after his baptism and communion the catechist continued his instruction and asked the young man, “How many Gods are there?” The new Christian replied, “None at all.” “How! None at all!” cried the priest. “You have told me all along that there is but one God,” explained Mustapha: “And yesterday I eat him.”

Mustapha’s confusion brings a smile to the Catholic face. Who hasn’t stumbled trying to explain the scholastic theory of transubstantiation? More than one intelligent Catholic has found himself lost in its metaphysical thicket. Perhaps even Thomas Aquinas awakened in the middle of the night once or twice wondering, “Does it really make sense to separate substance and accidents?” It is not surprising, therefore, that some contemporary Catholic theologians have sought to articulate the eucharistic mystery in fresh conceptualities. I confess that I am one person, partially due to my own limited intelligence and partially due to my personal aversion to metaphysics, who finds the scholastic presentation beyond my sympathies. Is it not better to be content with simply affirming the sacramental gift of Christ’s body and blood, specifying the dogmatic boundaries excluding error but refraining to plumb the sacred mystery too deeply?

Yet a hasty dismissal of the scholastic analysis of the eucharistic presence is surely not the wise course. Transubstantiation is the fruit of the theological and philosophical reflection of some of the greatest minds of Western Christendom. One cannot read Aquinas’s analysis of the eucharistic conversion without being impressed by both its metaphysical subtlety and metaphysical audacity. The Trinitarian formulations of Gregory of Nyssa or Augustine are no less complex and challenging; but we do not dismiss them because we find them difficult to comprehend, nor are we surprised by their antinomies and paradoxes. We know that language must be broken if the ineffable mystery of God is to be faithfully stated. Transubstantiation also attempts to bring to speech a mystery that exceeds our comprehension and verbal expression. As Herbert McCabe acknowledges, “We do not know what we are talking about when we speak of transubstantiation” (God Matters, p. 149). We do not know what we are talking about, because we cannot grasp what it means for a change to occur at the fundamental level of existence itself. The scholastic separation of substance and accident may seem inconceivable, yet it is this breaking of language that brings illumination.

Discussion of transubstantiation inevitably focuses on the question of real presence and the consecrated elements, as if the Eucharist was given to us simply to confect the presence of Christ’s body and blood. But this focus abstracts the holy gifts from the liturgy and thus tends to distort a proper understanding of the sacrament. We forget that the Eucharist is a sacramental event in which the sacrifice of Calvary is presented to God, for the good of the Church and the world, for the living and the dead. As E. L. Mascall rightly reminds us:

It is important to remember that not only are the Eucharistic elements the effectual signs of the body and blood of Christ, but also that the Eucharistic action is the effectual sign of his redemptive act. The Real Presence is for the sake of the sacrifice, not vice versa. (Corpus Christi, p. 141n)

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26). The sacrifice of the incarnate Son is the very heart of the Holy Eucharist.

In his book Sacrifice and Community, Matthew Levering argues that the sacrificial dimension of the Eucharist is the driving force behind Thomas Aquinas’s formulation of transubstantiation. “The doctrine of transubstantiation,” he argues, “enables Christians to affirm the radical insertion of believers into Christ’s sacrifice” (pp. 116-117). The following passage from the Summa Theologiæ is illuminating:

We could never know by our senses that the real body of Christ and his blood are in this sacrament, but only by our faith which is based on the authority of God. For this reason Cyril, commenting on the text of Luke, this is my body which is given for you, says, do not doubt the truth of this, but take our Saviour’s word in faith: he is truth itself, he does not lie.

This is entirely in keeping, first of all with the perfection of the New Law. The sacrifices of the Old Law contained that true sacrifice which was the passion of Christ, only in a figurative way; as we read in Hebrews, the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities It was only right that the sacrifice of the New Law instituted by Christ should have something more, that it contain Christ himself who suffered for us, and contain him, not merely as by a sign or figure, but in actual reality as well. So it is that this sacrament which really contains Christ himself is, as Dionysius says, the fulfilment of all the other sacraments, in which a share of Christ’s power is to be found. (3a.71.1)

Israel rightly understood that community with the living God is established through sacrifice. The divine command to Abraham to immolate his son Isaac, the slaying and eating of the Passover lamb, the covenantal sacrifice at Mount Sinai, the sacrifices of Tabernacle and Temple—all witness to the necessity of sacrifice for vital relationship with God. This necessity is lived out and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the Messiah of Israel and incarnate Son of God. At his Last Supper, Messias gives to his disciples a sacramental meal by which they may enter into his sacrifice:

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying ‘Drink of it, all of you; this is is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matt 26:26-28 )

In the Holy Eucharist the people of the New Covenant re-present to God the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and feast upon the Lamb slain for the sins of the world. If the Eucharist is to be a true and effective sacrament of the sacrifice, the body and blood of the now living Christ must be really and substantially present—present to be offered, present to be eaten. “Bodily contact with Jesus is necessary,” explains Levering, “because ‘the perfection of the New Law’ requires a sharing of his sacrifice that goes beyond offering him up in faith—as was possible in Israel’s sacrifices—and achieves actual bodily sharing in his sacrifice, true offering up of Jesus in and with him. Such a sacrificial offering, the ‘sacrifice of the New Law,’ could not take place without the bodily presence of ‘Christ Himself crucified'” (p. 136).

Christ in his body and blood must be present in the Holy Eucharist, precisely because the sacrifice of Christ is the fulfillment and perfection of the sacrifices of Israel. As the old Israel was a community of sacrifice, so the new Israel is a community of sacrifice—but with this critical difference: whereas the sacrifices of Israel anticipated and prefigured the one sacrifice of Christ, the sacrifices of the Church commemorate, embody, and re-present the one sacrifice of Christ. A mere symbolic or spiritual offering would be equivalent to a return to the days before Christ; but worse, it would represent a denial of the necessity to be a sacrificing community.

Christ’s one sacrifice, and it alone, is the “sacrifice of the New Law,” the sacrifice that fulfills the Old Law by establishing perfect justice and reconciling human beings to God. The New Law in believers is our participation, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, in Christ’s fulfillment of the Old Law. The “perfection” of the New Law goes beyond that made possible by faith in his offering. Israel, according to Aquinas, displayed such faith in her divinely commanded offering of animal sacrifice, but the perfect sacrifice, as the letter to the Hebrews makes clear, is now here. The perfection of the New law means that believers, as the people of God (not merely as individuals), offer the perfect sacrifice to God. Israel offered animal sacrifices that prefigured Christ’s sacrifice. After Christ’s coming and his establishment of the New Law on the Cross, believers do not offer this sacrifice only spiritually, as Israel did. Rather the “perfection” of the New Law consists precisely in bodily offering Christ’s sacrifice in and with Christ. It is this offering of Christ’s sacrifice that constitutes the people of God as Christ’s Mystical Body. Offering in union with him the sacrifice of his body, believers become the sacrificial Body of their Head. Were Christ not bodily present, believers could not offer up Christ’s sacrificial body, and the New Law would not attain “perfection,” but would instead remain at the figural level, a level already attained through Israel’s sacrificial worship. To attain perfection means to share in Christ’s bodily sacrifice in and through which justice—true interpersonal communion—is attained. Such a “Law” constitutes a “perfect” community. Our “perfection” comes in sharing in this Law of love by sharing in its accomplishment. (pp. 136-137)

The soteriological and ecclesial intent of transubstantiation is now clear—to secure, according to the promises of Christ, both the expiatory reality of the Church’s sacramental oblation and our full bodily participation in the sacrifice of Calvary. The sacrifice of the Mass must be more real, more true, more effectual than the sacrifices of Israel. It must be nothing less than the full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the world. It must be the sacrifice of the body of God.

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum]

Internet Articles on Eucharist

•22 March 2008 • Comments Off

I recently found on the net the following articles that may be of interest:

Herbert McCabe, “Eucharistic Change

Terence Nichols, “‘This is my body': how to understand transubstantiation

Aidan Kavanagh, “The True Believer

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Eucharist, Communion and Solidarity

Also, my Pro Ecclesia article is now available for download: “Eating Christ

Is Transubstantiation Bodily Enough?

•17 March 2008 • Comments Off

by Fr Alvin Kimel

“The colour and shape of the host is not the colour and shape of Christ’s body; the location of the host, its being on the altar does not mean that Christ’s body is located on the altar; the fact that the host is moved about, say in procession, does not mean that Christ’s body is being moved about. When we do things to the host, such as eating it, we are not doing anything to Christ’s body. What we are doing is completing the significance of the signs” (Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters, p. 118).

If one did not know the author, and if one did not know well the teachings of St Thomas Aquinas on the Eucharist, one might well be excused for thinking that the above statement was written by a Protestant theologian, perhaps of Reformed or Anglican persuasion. Certainly this is not the horrid doctrine of transubstantiation condemned by the 39 Articles: “Transubstantiation … is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.” But the author in fact is a renowned Catholic theologian, and his statement would receive the approbation of no less than the Angelic Doctor himself.

As classically formulated by St Thomas Aquinas, the doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that the glorified Christ is present under the sacramental species in a non-local, non-spatial, non-circumscribable mode. The bodily presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is a presence that is proper to the sacrament:

The body of Christ is not in this sacrament in the way a body is in place. The dimensions of a body in place correspond with the dimensions of the place that contains it. Christ’s body is here in a special way that is proper to the sacrament. For this reason we say that the body of Christ is on different altars, not as in different places, but as in the sacrament. In saying this we do not mean that Christ is only symbolically there, although it is true that every sacrament is a sign, but we understand that Christ’s body is there, as we have said, in a way that is proper to the sacrament. (ST 3a.75.2)

Christ’s body is not in this sacrament in the normal way an extended body exists, but rather just as if it were purely and simply substance. Now every body that is in a place is in place precisely as it is an extended body, that is, it corresponds to the place that contains it according to its dimensions. It follows then that Christ’s body is in this sacrament not as in a place, but purely in the way that substance is, in the way that substance is contained by the dimensions. It is to the substance of the bread that the substance of Christ’s body succeeds in this sacrament. Hence, as the substance of the bread was not under its dimensions in the way an extended body is in a place, but in the way which is proper to substance to be under dimensions, so likewise the body of Christ is not under the dimensions of the bread locally.

Note also that the substance of Christ’s body is not the subject of the dimensions of the bread as the substance of the bread was. The bread by reason of the dimensions was localized in a place, because it was related to a place by dimensions that were its own. But the substance of Christ’s body is related to that place by dimensions that are not its own; and contrariwise, the dimensions of Christ’s own body are related to that place only in so far as the substance of his body is. But that is not the way in which a body is localized. Hence, Christ’s body in this sacrament is in no way localized. (ST 3a.76.5)

Now is is not the same thing for Christ to be, simply, and for him to be under the sacrament. Now, according to this mode of his being under the sacrament, Christ is not moved locally in any strict sense, but only after a fashion. Christ is not in this sacrament as if he were in a place, as we have already said; and what is not in a place is not moved locally, but is only said to be moved when that in which it is is moved. … Something after this fashion we say that Christ is moved indirectly, according to the mode of existence which is his in this sacrament, in which he does not exist as in a place. (ST 3a.76.7)

Now it cannot be that it is the actual body of Christ which is broken. First, it is outside all change and we can do nothing to it. Second, it is present in all its completeness under every part of the quantity, as we saw above, and that runs counter to the whole idea of being broken into parts. It remains then that the fraction takes place in the dimensive quantity of the bread, where all the other accidents also find their subject. … Whatever is eaten as under its natural form, is broken and chewed as under its natural form. But the body of Christ is not eaten as under its natural form, but as under the sacramental species. For this reason Augustine, commenting on the text of John, the flesh availeth nothing, says, understand this as spoken of the flesh in the way some people understand Christ carnally. They thought of eating his flesh as if it had been treated like butcher’s meat. The body of Christ in itself is not broken, but only in its sacramental appearance. And this is the sense in which we should understand Berengarius’s profession of faith; the fraction and the chewing with the teeth refer to the sacramental species, underneath which the body of Christ is really present. (ST 3a.77.8)

Exegesis of these passages is beyond my competence, but the general thrust of Aquinas seems clear: the presence of Christ in the sacrament is of such a kind that one may not attribute to the body of Christ the dimensive, spatial, and visible qualities of the bread and wine to it. This is the point of Aquinas’s separation of accidents and substance: the accidents of the bread and wine remain but their substance is converted into the substance of the Body and Blood, and substance can only be intellectually apprehended. We may locate Christ at the accidents, which now signify his presence—he is contained under them analogous to the way substance is ordinarily united to accidents—yet he is not the subject of the accidents. We may not say that he shares the color, size, or any other property of the elements; nor may we say that he is moved when the elements are moved or that he is broken when the Host is broken or that the communicants literally touch, eat, and drink him when they touch, eat, and drink the elements. His eucharistic presence is sacramental, non-local, intangible, spiritual. As Timothy McDermott writes:

For what Thomas makes clear is that Christ’s substance is not present in the way that bread’s substance was: underlying the dimensions and sensible properties of bread in such a way that those properties become Christ’s physical properties, or that Christ’s body is in physico-chemical and spatial contact with the environment. What he does not perhaps make equally clear is the way in which Christ’s substance is really present: as the new significance (to be grasped by faith) of what previously only signified bread. (Summa Theologiæ: A Concise Translation, p. 546)

My question is this: is the transubstantiated presence of Christ bodily enough? This is not an inappropriate question, since Aquinas contends that Christ intends to commune with us in the Eucharist in a bodily fashion:

It fits in perfectly with that charity of Christ which led him to take a real body having human nature and unite it to himself in order to save us. And because it is the very law of friendship that friends should live together, as Aristotle teaches, he promises us his bodily presence as a reward, in the text of Matthew, wherever the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together. In the meantime, however, he has not left us without his bodily presence in this our pilgrimage, but he joins us to himself in this sacrament in the reality of his body and blood. For this reason he says, he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him. Hence this sacrament, because it joins Christ so closely to us, is the sign of the extreme of his love and lifts our hope on high. (ST 3a.75.1)

This is a wonderful passage. It expresses something deep and true in the Catholic experience of the Eucharist. But the notion of “bodily presence” is a difficult one. How bodily can Christ truly said to be when we immediately qualify his presence by insisting upon its intangibility and illocality? It is made even more difficult if one holds, as most Western theologians have, that the glorified natural body of Christ is circumscriptively located in heaven: to be in one place is not to be in another place. Perhaps there’s a grain or two of truth in Hermann Sasse’s remark: “Yes, Thomas Aquinas was a Semi-Calvinist. He anticipated the ideas of the Swiss reformers which in time totally destroyed the Sacrament.”

But in fairness to Aquinas, I must note that most of his interpreters have understood Aquinas’s formulation of transubstantiation as securing the most intimate bodily presence. Thus William Barden, one of Aquinas’s English translators:

Under the appearances of bread and wine lie the body and the blood, as close to these appearances as was the substance of the bread and wine to the accidents before the change. It would be impossible to conceive a closer form of bodily presence. The accidents of the bread inhere in the bread and contain it. After the change they do not inhere in the body of Christ; but they contain it, just as really, just as closely, as they had contained the substance of the bread. There you have real presence at its fullest. And that is Christ’s gift to us in the Eucharist. All love is communion. Christ’s love must find expression in communion. Only a divine ingenuity could have devised that means of communion which is the real presence of the body and blood and of the whole Christ under the appearances of bread and wine, that we may get close to him in the bread of life and take it into our very hands and eat it. … True, we do not touch the Christ within the host; nor does he touch us, except at the time of sacramental eating. But our very local nearness to the host which is as close to him as accident is close to substance—a nearness which is most intimate at the moment of communion—is the ultimate expression of divine love in our regard. We eat him really, though not naturally—that would be horrible; we eat him really, but sacramentally. There could not be a closer sign of our being made one with him in love. (ST [Blackfriars edition], 58:206, 211)

The accidents/substance distinction thus allows Aquinas to insist upon a spiritual, non-carnal, non-physical presence of Christ but also to assert the real presence of Christ in such a way that we can speak, at least analogously, of his bodily presence, a bodily presence mediated by the species. But what does bodily presence mean here?

Herbert McCabe’s construal of body as a “mode of presence” certainly helps. McCabe avoids the language of substance and instead focuses on sacrament as communication-event, as language. Christ is personally present in his self-communication to us in the gospel and the sacramental life of the Church. I find myself assenting to the entirety of McCabe’s analysis, yet I remain dissatisfied. There is a loss here. It feels less corporeal than Aquinas’s version of transubstantiation, particularly as described by Barden. Perhaps it really isn’t, but it feels that way. I’m sure that McCabe would tell me to stop thinking of body in physical, material terms, and no doubt he would be right. I am no philosopher. Yet did not Jesus himself tell us that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood, and isn’t that what we we do in the Eucharist? Do we not undercut this evangelical assertion by McCabe’s (and Thomas’s) qualification that we do not actually eat the body of Christ with our teeth but only the sacramental sign? Precisely at this point the sacramental bodiliness of Jesus becomes almost ethereal.

A few years ago I offered some speculations on this topic in an article published in Pro Ecclesia (Winter 2004): “Eating Christ.” I proposed that the union between the sacramental signs and the Body and Blood must be understood in such a way that it makes sense for us to say that when we crush the bread with our teeth we crush Christ with our teeth. Yes, the eating is in a sacramental mode, for the body of Christ is presented to us in a sacramental mode. McCabe states that when we eat the host we fulfill the significance of the sign. And this is right. Bread is to be eaten and wine is to be drunk. Sacramental believing is not a disembodied event. We believe the eucharistic promises by eating and drinking; but what we eat and drink is Body and Blood, given to us as bread and wine. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).

My reflection since that article has not taken me much further. But reading Herbert McCabe over the past two months has directed me back to the writings of the Lutheran theologian, Robert W. Jenson. A conversation between Jenson and McCabe would seem particularly illuminating, for both share a common understanding of sacrament as communication. Jenson’s reflections on embodiment may provide the corporeality that McCabe’s formulation of eucharistic presence seems to lack. In his book Visible Words Jenson specifies several characteristics of body. The first characteristic in his list is particularly pertinent to our discussion: body is the object-presence of a person:

Personal presence occurs always as address, as the word-event by which one person enters the reality of another. This entrance may be destructive: it may initiate a mutual reality of lordship-and-slavery, and of struggle over who will be which. If it does not, it is because the address is such as to enable and solicit reply; i.e., because the one who enters grants himself as object also of the other’s intention. Contrary to much of what has been said on the matter, authentic personal mutuality depends precisely on mutual self- objectification. If I address you, I make you my object. If I do not seek to enslave you, I so address you as also to grant myself as your object. Of course, there is indeed the treating of the other “as a thing” which has been so often decried; but what this consists in, is that I seek so to make you my object as to withhold my own self-objectification.

The total of possibilities, that I grant myself as object for those I address, is “my body.” The body is the self, as the describable and so intendable object of an other self. The body is the available self. (pp. 21-22)

Our bodies, we might say, are our locatibility. Your body allows me to find you and address you. It allows me to direct my words to you quite specifically. By your body I recognize you to be you and can thus intend you in particular, as opposed to intending everyone or no one. And my body, in turn, enables you to locate me and address me in reply. My body is my availability to you, as yours is your availability to me. As Jenson succinctly states: “My body is myself, in my address and presence to you, insofar as I am available to you, locatable by you, there for you, addressable in turn by you. And it is the visibility of my address to you that constitutes such reciprocity” (Christian Dogmatics, II:304). If we do not seek to dominate each other, we will allow ourselves to be objects one to the other. We tend to think of objectification as destructive of personal relations, but Jenson sees it as necessary for personal freedom. Embodiment creates space for conversation, love, and mutual exchange. Only thus is community possible.

To confess the eucharistic real presence is to confess the embodiment of Christ as bread and cup. Here, I propose, is the weakness of McCabe’s presentation of transubstantiation. It feels too spiritual precisely because it eschews the language of object-presence. McCabe clearly identifies the consecrated elements as the body of Christ; yet his linguistic-symbolic formulation of transubstantiation, with all of its qualifications,  albeit necessary to clarify that the eucharistic conversion is not a chemical, material change, loses the density of the older tradition. Whatever else bread and wine are, they are objects, and they do not cease to be objects when they become the language of God. Is this not what the medievals were trying to say when they specified the consecrated bread and wine as both sacramentum and res et sacramentum—signs that contain the grace they signify, the Body and Blood of Christ, which in turn signify the communion of the baptized in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity? If the Body and Blood are to function as signs, then the Body and Blood must be there on the altar, placed in our hands and mouths, to be apprehended by faith. The loaf and cup mean the Body and Blood of Christ and thus are the Body and Blood. We hear the words “This is my body,” “this is my blood,” but we are confronted with what appears to be ordinary food to be eaten and drunk. Yet in faith we believe that here we encounter the king of the universe, present as sign and body, word and object. Jenson again:

To say that Christ’s body is present as the bread and cup is therefore to say that these indisputably available things, the bread and cup, are his availability: that where they are present he not only has us before him but allows us to have him before us, not only touches us but allows us to touch him, not only sees us but allows us to see him. It is to say that as these things he—in the language of the church—gives himself to us as an object of our experience. “Do you seek me?” he says, “Here is the place to look.” (A Large Catechism, p. 59)

We need not be hesitant to use the language of objects to speak of the eucharistic presence, for it is the risen and glorified Christ who objectifies himself as bread and cup. He makes himself locatable, visible, tangible, corporeal, edible. In a word, he makes himself sacramental.

[Join the discussion at De Cura Animarum]


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30 other followers