The Sacrifice of Transubstantiation
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.
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