by Alvin Kimel


It is remarkable that for hundreds of years the Church did not find it necessary to formally dogmatize a particular definition of the Holy Eucharist. Despite real differences of expression, significant conflict between theologians and churches did not arise. The one Church was able to comprehend Ambrose, John Chrysostom, and Gregory Nyssen, as well as Tertullian, Origen, and Augustine. At the deep level of liturgy and prayer, the Church was united in a common confession and enactment of the sacramental promises of Christ: “This is my body. This is my blood.” That is to say, the Church was united in the real identification of the consecrated bread and wine with the body and blood of the Savior. It is this sacramental identification that serves as the eucharistic dogma of the Church catholic. Through the supernatural power of consecration, the eucharistic bread and wine not only represent and symbolize the body and blood, they not only convey and communicate the body and blood, but they are, mystically and ineffably, the body and blood. The mystery of eucharistic identity is, as Francis J. Hall writes, “the ultimate affirmation of catholic doctrine in every age.”

The dogma of real identification must be distinguished from the doctrine of the real presence. The latter is often expounded as if it were the revealed premise of the Holy Eucharist. But as Hall explains, “Our Lord did not say, ‘My body is present in, with and under this,’ but ‘This is My body.'” The real presence is an inference from the eucharistic dogma. The risen Christ is present in the Eucharist because his body and blood are present, and his body and blood are present because the consecrated bread and wine are his body and blood. “Christ is in that Sacrament,” affirms St Ambrose, “because it is the Body of Christ.”

In the Eastern Church the mystery of real identification came to dogmatic expression at the Second Council of Nicaea (787). The council was convened to address the heresy of iconoclasm—the denial that images of Jesus and the saints may be properly venerated and reverenced. The iconoclasts argued that a true icon is identical (homoousios) with its prototype. In Scripture and the theological tradition, Jesus Christ is named the image of the Father. Jesus is able to serve as the perfect image of the Father because he is consubstantial with the Father. Only thus may he be given the worship, adoration, and devotion that is properly given to the Almighty Creator. A painting of Jesus, on the other hand, does not and cannot enjoy a oneness of being with the object it depicts. It will always be inadequate. The iconoclasts did recognize one proper image of the incarnate Son, however—the image instituted by the Son himself, his eucharistic body and blood. The Eucharist perfectly images Christ because it is identical in essence with Christ and is therefore worthy of worship and reverence.

The iconodules did not take issue with the iconoclastic claim that the Holy Gifts are homoousios with the body and blood of the risen Christ. The iconodules and iconoclasts shared a common liturgy and a common understanding of the eucharistic presence. But clearly the iconodules could not allow the iconoclasts to appropriate the Eucharist as an icon, the one legitimate icon, of Christ. At Nicaea II the deacon Epiphanius read a document that was gladly received by the orthodox bishops:

Thus, it has been clearly demonstrated that nowhere did either the Lord, or the Apostles, or the Fathers call the bloodless sacrifice, offered through the priest, “an icon,” but rather “this very body” and “this very blood.”… These noble ones, however, in their desire to abolish the sight of the venerable icons, have introduced indirectly another icon-which is not an icon but body and blood…. Afterwards, leaving aside falsehood, they touch for a moment upon the truth, saying that the bread does become the divine body. But, if the bread is an icon of the body, it is impossible for it to be the divine body itself.

To speak of the Eucharist as icon implies a distinction between the sacramental forms and Christ’s glorified body, a distinction between image and prototype. But the two are not distinct. The Eucharist is the flesh of Christ. “These we do not understand [as being] two,” St Nicephorus explained, “but we believe that they become one and the same [body of Christ].” With the dogmatic assertion that the consecrated elements simply are the body and blood, the use of symbol, figure, and image to characterize the Holy Gifts virtually disappears in Byzantine Christianity.

In the Latin West the dogma of real identification was clarified via a more complicated route. Through the writings of St Augustine it had become firmly established to speak of the consecrated elements as signs through which we are given access to spiritual realities. What is unclear, however, is whether Augustine’s symbolic approach allows for a direct, realistic affirmation of identity between the sanctified bread and wine and the body and blood of the Lord. The Western dogmatic definition of the Eucharist, culminating in the Council of Trent, might well be understood as the Church liberating itself from the inadequacy of Augustine’s eucharistic formulations.

The Tridentine eucharistic dogma is summarily expressed in the statement that “through the Consecration of the bread and wine a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the Body of Christ Our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his Blood” (Chapter III). Precisely what did Trent define? Contemporary interpreters generally agree that Trent did not formally impose Aristotelian philosophy. Colman O’Neill, for example, asserts that the Tridentine understanding of “substance” should be interpreted pre-philosophically. At the level of commonsense, substance answers the question “What is that thing?” Thus: What is the wafer before the consecration? Bread. What is it after the consecration? The body of Christ. “By her dogmatic statement,” O’Neill writes, “the Church makes clear the sense in which she reads the scriptural report of Christ’s words at the Last Supper: the word ‘is’ indicates, as a result of Christ’s power, real identity between what lay on the table and his body.” When the Council declares that the whole substance of the bread is converted into the whole substance of the body of Christ, it is simply insisting that the bread has become the body of Christ. It is reiterating, in a more sophisticated fashion, the eucharistic dogma as held by the Church since the Apostles, the dogma of real identification.

However, we must also note, as we observed earlier, the frequent use of the preposition under in the decrees: The body and blood are contained “under the appearances of bread and wine.” In Chapter III alone this phrase is found ten times. The Western explication of the eucharistic dogma is constructed on an opposition between external appearances and invisible reality, precisely at the point where they can be separated. Christopher Conn has recently argued that Trent does not teach sacramental identification. It is metaphysically impossible for a piece of bread to become “identical with a distinct, pre-existing substance (the body of Christ).” The substances of bread and wine must be replaced by the substances of body and blood. A fundamental dualism is therefore integral to the Tridentine definitions. After the consecration there is the bread and wine, or more specifically, their appearances, and there is the body and blood of the Lord—and these realities are separate. Yet must this dualism be given dogmatic status?

In the early twentieth century a little known debate on this question occurred among Greek Orthodox theologians. Chrestos Androutsos defined the Eucharist as “that divinely instituted sacrament in which Jesus Christ is present actually and really under the forms of bread and wine.” Constantine Dyobouniotes attacked this formulation:

This expression … is based on the Roman doctrine … of transubstantiation, and cannot be accepted in the Eastern Church, whose Fathers teach that the bread and wine are changed (converted), into the Body and Blood of Christ … (Our Lord) said: “Take eat, this is my body,” not “under this is my body”…. The Eastern Church does not recognize that the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ while the accidents remain, under which the Body and Blood of Christ exist, but simply says that the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ by the descent of the Holy Spirit, through whom these things surpassing reason and understanding are achieved…. All of the bread and wine is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, and not only a part of them.

It is evident that Dyobouniotes is seeking here to expound a nondualistic understanding of the real identity, an understanding that is not dependent on the separation of accident and substance. The body and blood of Christ do not exist “in” or “under” the consecrated elements. “Each particle of bread and wine,” he states, “is Christ.” This affirmation recalls the Greek fathers who envisioned the eucharistic transmutation as a cultic and sacramental incarnation of Christ. Bread and wine are appropriated by the Spirit and changed, in their totality, into the body and blood. Dyobouniotes’ contemporaries, however, sided with Androutsos and reaffirmed the language of transubstantiation to describe the eucharistic presence. I think it would be accurate to say that Orthodox theologians today would be more sympathetic to the concerns of Dyobouniotes, as they seek to restate the doctrine of the Eucharist apart from traditional Western categories. But surely both Catholic and Orthodox theologians would agree on the fundamental dogmatic assertion: The eucharistic gifts are, in truth and reality, the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is clear from the above that I believe that the churches of the Reformation, including Anglicanism but perhaps excluding historic Lutheranism, have departed significantly from the catholic dogma of the real identification. For the past one hundred and fifty years, Anglo-Catholics have sought to recall Anglicanism to the Eucharistic dogma; but despite all of our liturgical revision, we remain a communion that basically teaches one or more variants of Calvinism.

15 April 2004


When I consider the meaning of a dogma of the Church, I first ask two questions: (1) What errors does this dogma exclude? and (2) How does this dogma grammatically norm the proclamation and discourse of the Church? Let’s apply these two questions to the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, as defined by the Council of Trent.

What errors does the dogma of transubstantiation exclude? The answer, at least in the presumptuous judgment of this non-Catholic Pontificator, is clear. It excludes any opinion that does not or cannot affirm that the consecrated elements are, really and truly, the body and blood of the risen Jesus Christ. This is a down-to-earth interpretation of the dogma and does not require an elaborate scholastic metaphysic. Indeed, contemporary Catholic theologians are clear that no council can impose on the Church a particular school or system of philosophy. Thus Aidan Nichols:

It may be said at once that the Church’s teaching office has no authority to impose a philosophical system, such as Aristotelian Thomism (essentially, a Platonized Aristotelianism modified by the introduction of the notion of creation), on all Catholic divines…. We must distinguish, then, between, on the one hand, the vital systematic philosophical exposition of a natural truth vital to revelation, and that natural truth itself—apprehended, we might say, spontaneously and pre-philosophically by human beings in various cultures or situations. (The Holy Eucharist, pp. 114-115)

In other words, the dogmatic definition of Trent only requires a commonsense, pre-philosophical ontology. In this context substance answers the question, What is that object? What was the bread and wine before the consecration? Bread and wine. After the consecration? Body and blood. The dogma says no more and no less than this.

Catholic theologians are also clear that the Tridentine dogma does not seek to explain the “how” of the eucharistic transformation. Thus the 1971 ARCIC agreement on the Eucharist:

The word transubstantiation is commonly used in the Roman Catholic Church to indicate that God acting in the eucharist effects a change in the inner reality of the elements. The term should be seen as affirming the fact of Christ’s presence and of the mysterious and radical change which takes place. In contemporary Roman Catholic theology it is not understood as explaining how the change takes place.

Let me propose a practical test on whether a proposed eucharistic opinion satisfies the Catholic dogma: May the Christian direct his adoration to the Blessed Sacrament? Or to put it bluntly, may he pray to that object on the altar that appears to be bread?

(I am assuming, of course, that wafers do qualify, by some stretch of the imagination, as bread. My children spent their early years receiving the body of our Lord under the form of pita bread. When we moved to a new congregation that only used wafers, they were shocked and confused. Those wafers sure didn’t taste like Jesus! The Orthodox are blessed not to have this problem.)

If the answer to the question of eucharistic adoration is no—presumably because bread is a creature and therefore the adorer would be guilty of idolatry—then the eucharistic theory violates the dogma of transubstantiation. I think it is safe to say that most Protestant opinions on the real presence are therefore excluded by the Tridentine dogma. We Anglo-Catholics pass the test (whew, what a relief), as do high church Lutherans. But Calvinists don’t (sorry).

At this point, may I make a request of my Orthodox brethren. Please drop the polemic against transubstantiation. You guys never had to respond to the popular symbolic views of a Berengar or Zwingli and thus were never faced with the necessity of dogmatizing on eucharistic identification. If you had been so forced, you would have used whatever philosophical categories and systems that were available to you at the time, just as the Fathers did in the fourth century when they combatted Arianism.

But I need to qualify what I just wrote. In the 16th century, Orthodoxy did confront Calvinism in the person of one of its own, Cyril of Lucar, Patriarch of Constantinople. The 1672 Synod of Jerusalem responded by adopting the Confession of Dositheus, Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Synod was also responding to Calvinist preacher Jean Claude, who claimed that the Eastern Church supported his assertion that transubstantiation was a modern invention. Decree XVII is worth citing in full:

We believe the All-holy Mystery of the Sacred Eucharist, which we have enumerated above, fourth in order, to be that which our Lord delivered in the night wherein He gave Himself up for the life of the world. For taking bread, and blessing, He gave to His Holy Disciples and Apostles, saying: “Take, eat ye; This is My Body.” And taking the chalice, and giving thanks, He said: “Drink ye all of It; This is My Blood, which for you is being poured out, for the remission of sins.” In the celebration whereof we believe the Lord Jesus Christ to be present, not typically, nor figuratively, nor by superabundant grace, as in the other Mysteries, nor by a bare presence, as some of the Fathers have said concerning Baptism, or by impanation, so that the Divinity of the Word is united to the set forth bread of the Eucharist hypostatically, as the followers of Luther most ignorantly and wretchedly suppose, but truly and really, so that after the consecration of the bread and of the wine, the bread is transmuted, transubstantiated, converted and transformed into the true Body Itself of the Lord, Which was born in Bethlehem of the ever-Virgin {Mary ELC}, was baptised in the Jordan, suffered, was buried, rose again, was received up, sitteth at the right hand of the God and Father, and is to come again in the clouds of Heaven; and the wine is converted and transubstantiated into the true Blood Itself of the Lord, Which as He hung upon the Cross, was poured out for the life of the world.

Further [we believe] that after the consecration of the bread and of the wine, there no longer remaineth the substance of the bread and of the wine, but the Body Itself and the Blood of the Lord, under the species and form of bread and wine; that is to say, under the accidents of the bread.

Further, that the all-pure Body Itself, and Blood of the Lord is imparted, and entereth into the mouths and stomachs of the communicants, whether pious or impious. Nevertheless, they convey to the pious and worthy remission of sins and life eternal; but to the impious and unworthy involve condemnation and eternal punishment.

Further, that the Body and Blood of the Lord are severed and divided by the hands and teeth, though in accident only, that is, in the accidents of the bread and of the wine, under which they are visible and tangible, we do acknowledge; but in themselves to remain entirely unsevered and undivided. Wherefore the Catholic Church also saith: “Broken and distributed is He That is broken, yet not severed; Which is ever eaten, yet never consumed, but sanctifying those that partake,” that is worthily.

Further, that in every part, or the smallest division of the transmuted bread and wine there is not a part of the Body and Blood of the Lord—for to say so were blasphemous and wicked—but the entire whole Lord Christ substantially, that is, with His Soul and Divinity, or perfect God and perfect man. So that though there may be many celebrations in the world at one and the same hour, there are not many Christs, or Bodies of Christ, but it is one and the same Christ that is truly and really present; and His one Body and His Blood is in all the several Churches of the Faithful; and this not because the Body of the Lord that is in the Heavens descendeth upon the Altars; but because the bread of the Prothesis set forth in all the several Churches, being changed and transubstantiated, becometh, and is, after consecration, one and the same with That in the Heavens. For it is one Body of the Lord in many places, and not many; and therefore this Mystery is the greatest, and is spoken of as wonderful, and comprehensible by faith only, and not by the sophistries of man’s wisdom; whose vain and foolish curiosity in divine things our pious and God-delivered religion rejecteth.

Further, that the Body Itself of the Lord and the Blood That are in the Mystery of the Eucharist ought to be honoured in the highest manner, and adored with latria. For one is the adoration of the Holy Trinity, and of the Body and Blood of the Lord. Further, that it is a true and propitiatory Sacrifice offered for all Orthodox, living and dead; and for the benefit of all, as is set forth expressly in the prayers of the Mystery delivered to the Church by the Apostles, in accordance with the command they received of the Lord.

Further, that before Its use, immediately after the consecration, and after Its use, What is reserved in the Sacred Pixes for the communion of those that are about to depart [i.e. the dying] is the true Body of the Lord, and not in the least different therefrom; so that before Its use after the consecration, in Its use, and after Its use, It is in all respects the true Body of the Lord.

Further, we believe that by the word “transubstantiation” the manner is not explained, by which the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord,–for that is altogether incomprehensible and impossible, except by God Himself, and those who imagine to do so are involved in ignorance and impiety,—but that the bread and the wine are after the consecration, not typically, nor figuratively, nor by superabundant grace, nor by the communication or the presence of the Divinity alone of the Only-begotten, transmuted into the Body and Blood of the Lord; neither is any accident of the bread, or of the wine, by any conversion or alteration, changed into any accident of the Body and Blood of Christ, but truly, and really, and substantially, doth the bread become the true Body Itself of the Lord, and the wine the Blood Itself of the Lord, as is said above. Further, that this Mystery of the Sacred Eucharist can be performed by none other, except only by an Orthodox Priest, who hath received his priesthood from an Orthodox and Canonical Bishop, in accordance with the teaching of the Eastern Church. This is compendiously the doctrine, and true confession, and most ancient tradition of the Catholic Church concerning this Mystery; which must not be departed from in any way by such as would be Orthodox, and who reject the novelties and profane vanities of heretics; but necessarily the tradition of the institution must be kept whole and unimpaired. For those that transgress the Catholic Church of Christ rejecteth and anathematiseth.

The Orthodox patriarchs apparently did not have a problem employing the distinctions and language of Trent, while at the same time insisting that they were not seeking to explain the mystery of the eucharistic transformation. Up until very recently Russian and Greek theologians continued to describe the transformation as a “change of essence” (metousiosis). In his Dogmatics of the Eastern Church (1961), the distinguished Greek theologian Panagiotes Trembelas writes: “We are in accord in this with the Roman Catholics in believing that in this marvellous transformation although the exterior phenomena and the accidents of bread and wine remain, all their substance however is changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord.” And similar statements can be found in Michael Pomazansky’s Orthodox Dogmatic Theology:

In the Mystery of the Eucharist, at the time when the priest, invoking the Holy Spirit upon the offered Gifts, blesses them with the prayer to God the Father: “Make this bread the precious Body of Thy Christ; and that which is in this cup, the precious Blood of Thy Christ; changing them by Thy Holy Spirit”—the bread and wine actually are changed into the Body and Blood by the coming down of the Holy Spirit. After this moment, although our eyes see bread and wine on the Holy Table, in their very essence, invisibly for sensual eyes, this is the true Body and true Blood of the Lord Jesus, only under the “forms” of bread and wine.

In other words, for four hundred years Orthodoxy affirmed the real identification of Christ in language very similar to Roman Catholicism and did not find it necessary to distance itself from Catholicism on this point. I find it strange, therefore, that contemporary Orthodox theologians and apologists now reject transubstantiation as a Western aberration at the very time when Catholic theologians are telling us that the dogma only seeks to state what catholic Christianity has always confessed—namely, that the consecrated bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus.

18 June 2004


How does the dogma of transubstantiation grammatically norm the proclamation and discourse of the Church?

It was George Lindbeck, in his book The Nature of Doctrine, who brought to the attention of the contemporary Church the grammatical function of dogma. The best example is the dogma of Chalcedon: When you speak about Jesus the incarnate Son, attribute to him both divine and human attributes.

What then is the grammatical function of the transubstantiation dogma? I have tried to address this in my essay Eating Christ (Pro Ecclesia [Winter 2004]), with respect to reappropriating “carnal” language to speak of our eucharistic eating and drinking. In this article I’d like to discuss what I believe to be one of the crucial grammatical rules of transubstantiation: The words bread and wine may not be be used literally to identify or describe the consecrated elements. When Christians speak of the consecrated elements as bread and wine, they are speaking metaphorically, not literally; conversely, when Christians speak of the consecrated elements as the body and blood of Christ, they are speaking literally, not figuratively.

As we have seen, this rule is not a peculiarly Roman rule. The Orthodox recently invoked it in their ecumenical discussions with the Lutherans. Similarly, the 17th century Confession of Dositheus declared:

Further [we believe] that after the consecration of the bread and of the wine, there no longer remaineth the substance of the bread and of the wine, but the Body Itself and the Blood of the Lord, under the species and form of bread and wine; that is to say, under the accidents of the bread.

This rule boggles the mind! The eucharistic bread looks like bread, tastes and feels like bread. A chemical analysis would reveal that the bread has not changed in any way. The molecular structure of consecrated bread is identical to the molecular structure of non-consecrated bread. Transubstantiation does not effect any material alteration of the elements. By all normal criteria, the bread remains bread, the wine wine. And yet the transubstantiation dogma says we cannot call the consecrated elements bread and wine, except figuratively. What in the world is going on?

And the answer is: Nothing in the world is going on. Transubstantiation is not any kind of worldly change. As Thomist Herbert McCabe writes: “It is not that the bread has become a new kind of thing in this world; it now belongs to a new world.”

The change that transubstantiation effects is completely imperceptible because it does not occur at any natural level of our world. It can only be described as supernatural, transcendent, metaphysical, eschatological. In fact, St Thomas insists that transubstantiation does not effect any change at all, for change as we know it is a re-ordering or re-adjustment of our world, as when one thing becomes something else. If we allow grape juice to ferment, it becomes wine. If we fire up some wood, it becomes a pile of ash. If the alchemist properly follows his arcane ritual, lead becomes gold. These are all changes within our world; this is not the kind of change of which transubstantiation speaks. In this respect transubstantiation is analogous to the divine act of creation. Just as it makes no sense, within our finite perspective, to speak of the transition from non-being to being, so it makes no sense to speak of the transition from bread to glorified body of Christ. Both are inconceivable, and yet the Church confesses both. McCabe elaborates:

The consecrated host exists at a level of reality at which the question of whether it is bread cannot relevantly be asked; our language breaks down when we try to speak of it, just as it does in the case of God. What happens at the consecration is not that the proper description of the host shifts within our language (from “bread” to “Body of Christ”) but that it no longer becomes possible to give an account of it within our language at all.

Thus the popular critique of transubstantiation as Aristotelian, speculative, and scholastic misses the point completely. Aristotle could not have made any more sense of transubstantiation than he could have made sense out of the creatio ex nihilo. Transubstantiation, McCabe observes, “is not a notion that can be accomodated within the concepts of Aristotelian philosophy, it represents the breakdown of these concepts in the face of a mystery.” For the Church to continue to speak of the Holy Gifts as bread and wine would be to misdescribe what in fact now exists. Transubstantiation does not explain the eucharistic mystery; it states it!

The consecrated Host retains all the physical properties of bread. In every respect it appears to be bread; but these appearances, the Church confesses, no longer function as the appearances of bread. They are not the appearances of any thing within our fallen world. This object that the priest puts into our hands simply is the resurrected flesh of the risen Lord: “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven.”

The eucharistic body and blood are not worldly substances at all. The glorified Christ transcends the structures and conditions of mortal existence. In the miracle of transubstantiation God effects a “change” that is deeper and more profound than anything that can be be experienced at the level of sense perception. God does not deceive our senses. This not uncommon misunderstanding was recently advanced by Fr Regis Scanlon:

Thus, when the priest says the words of consecration over the bread (and wine), the physical bread outside the mind of the priest and congregation ceases to exist, but the “appearance” of the bread (i.e., the color, shape, feel, and taste) continues to exist in the minds of the priest and congregation. It is important to realize that, prior to the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest, the appearance of the bread was being impressed upon the senses and mind of the priest and congregation by the bread upon the altar. After the consecration, however, the appearance of the bread (tan or white, round, doughy, and wheat-like taste) emanates from the mind of the priest and congregation and not at all from the Host upon the altar. For that which is on the altar is no longer bread but Jesus Christ in the flesh. Obviously, Jesus Christ is not white or tan, round, doughy, and wheat-like in taste. Jesus did not turn Himself into bread, but rather He turned bread into Himself. Thus, our Lord permits Himself to be recognized, approached and received bodily by the ones He loves without fear in a most pleasant way under the appearance of bread and wine.

Fr Scanlon wishes to strongly affirm the reality of the eucharistic change (I agree); but he then posits a physical miracle by which God prevents us, as it were, from perceiving what is truly there, maintaining in our minds the appearances of bread and wine. This is certainly not how St Thomas understood the eucharistic change and presence. For an example of a similar error in an Orthodox context, see this Dialogue between an Orthodox and an Ecumenist. If our senses are “deceived,” it is only in the sense that we cannot sensibly apprehend the profound, transcendent change that has now taken place. The eucharistic presence can only be discerned by faith.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

Returning to our grammatical rule, what is pastorally at stake in dogmatically declaring that the eucharistic elements are no longer to be named bread and wine, except figuratively? One important practice immediately comes to mind—eucharistic adoration and prayer. If bread and wine are still present on the altar after the consecration, then any prayer directed to the elements is idolatry. Thus Aquinas: “Because it would be opposed to the veneration of this sacrament, if any substance were there, which could not be adored with adoration of latria” (ST 3a.75.2). The eucharistic experience of the Church has taught Catholics and Orthodox that adoration is properly directed to the Holy Gifts; and it is this practice, I believe, that has driven the Church to affirm the dogma of transubstantiation. This is also, I believe, the decisive response to those who, like my friend Bill Witt, interpret the eucharistic presence within a Chalcedonian/consubstantiation model. Consubstantiation or co-presence still involves the Church in idolatry. At this point, the worship and prayer of the Church must be allowed to determine our theological reflection.


After reviewing some of the history of Western reflection on the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist in his essay “The Eucharistic Dogma,” Sergius Bulgakov comments, “Orthodoxy has not yet said its word here.” I think it is fair to say that in this essay Orthodoxy, through Bulgakov, has spoken a powerful and creative word. “The Eucharistic Dogma” is one of the most satisfying discussions of the eucharistic transformation that I have come across, even though Bulgakov appears to misunderstand both the Catholic and Lutheran understandings of the Eucharist. But regardless, his substantive presentation is insightful, fertile, provocative, compelling. And despite his criticism of transubstantiation, his view of the eucharistic transmutation actually shares much in common with the Catholic dogma, at least when properly formulated. In my judgment Bulgakov offers a way of understanding the eucharistic presence that is superior to most Western, and Eastern, presentations.

The central problem of Western reflection, asserts Bulgakov, is a materialistic understanding of Christ’s risen body. Since the Middle Ages Western theologians have understood Jesus in his glorified corporeality as occupying space somewhere in heaven. As a result, Western reflection has been trapped in a cosmic immanentism.

The ascended body of the Christ, Bulgakov declares, is properly understood as supraspatial, supraphysical, supramundane, supracosmic. It would be distorting to employ the categories of substance and accident to elucidate this spiritual body that has been so radically transformed through resurrection. The ascension is an elevation to a new quality of existence. In his deified body the Lord enjoys “total mastery over corporeality.” Christ is not locatable in any place, for he in fact transcends all places, is above all places; but he now has the supernatural capacity to make himself present at any time and site of his choosing. He has departed from the material world, but his departure is not an abandonment of the world but rather the means by which he can now enter into new forms of relationship with the world.

Bulgakov speculates creatively (perhaps at points too creatively) on the nature of Christ’s ascended body; but for our purposes it is sufficient to concentrate on his assertion that the glorified Christ is not an object within the universe. Christ no longer exists on the same ontological plane as the objects of bread and wine that are offered in the Holy Eucharist. Here is the solution to the Western problematic. Precisely because his sacred humanity now transcends the world, precisely because it and the objects of the world belong to two different realms of being, Jesus Christ can identify himself with and become an object in the world, without compromising the being of either within its own ontological realm. In other words, the replacement of creaturely substance, as posited in the doctrine of transubstantiation, is unnecessary. In his transcendent existence Christ Jesus can now objectify himself in creaturely reality and at the very same time maintain both the integrity of his supramundane body and the integrity of the finite objects in which he has materialized himself.

In the eucharistic transmutation, the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ. This is not, of course, a physical or chemical transformation; for there in fact is no thing or matter in this world for them to become. The transfigured humanity of Christ abides outside of this world; and the transmutation does not resolve, abolish, or contradict this difference. Indeed, if any such physical change were to happen, the transmutation would be annulled and the power of the sacrament undone. But the entire being of the bread and wine, substance and accidents, is nonetheless converted into body and blood. The transmuted elements stop being themselves, Bulgakov says. They now belong to another world, for they have been assimilated to the body of Jesus—yet they do not lose their “thingness” in the world. All of their physical properties remain unchanged. Bulgakov writes:

The body of Christ, being manifested in the bread and wine, does not cease being a spiritual body, abiding above this world. And in becoming Christ’s body and blood, which now belong to His supramundane, glorified corporeality, the bread and wine do not lose their being in this world….

Thus, the transmutation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ signifies not the tabernacling of the heavenly Christ substantialiter into these accidents, which are then viewed as a kind of unchanging shell, but their direct conversion without any limitation and remainder into the body and blood of Christ—a true transmutation. The fact that the body and blood in their earthly nature remain what they were has no significance here. As such, they have become other than themselves; they no longer have independent existence as things of this world but belong to the body of Jesus, in the same way that the bread and fish that He ate in the presence of his disciples belonged to his body. The Lord, who in His spiritual and glorified body abides at the right hand of God the Father, creates, in the transmutation, a body for Himself from the bread, matter of this world, and animates it with His blood….

As a result of this transmutation, the bread and wine with all their properties stop being matter of this world, stop belonging to the world, but become the true body and blood of Christ. This transmutation is accomplished through their unification with the Lord’s spiritual and glorified body that ascended from the world but now appears in them on earth. In the capacity of earthly matter, the eucharistic elements remain bread and wine for the world, whereas, in being transmuted, they already belong to the body of Christ, which is found outside and above the world. And the elements are thereby raised to the metacosmic being of this body and manifest in themselves the corporeality of Christ on earth.

The transmutation, therefore, can only be understood as a radical metaphysical change, a true transcensus. In the transmutation the glorified Christ identifies himself with the material objects of bread and wine. Two separate worlds, two separate domains of being are united. Bulgakov describes it as an antinomic miracle—“an identity of things that are different and a differentiation of things that are identical.” Thus we must say both that the consecrated bread and wine truly are the body and blood of Christ and that the body and blood of Christ are the eucharistized bread and wine.

Bulgakov turns to St Gregory of Nyssa and St John of Damascus for help in understanding the eucharistic transmutation. Both theologians note that throughout his earthly life Jesus was nourished by eating various kinds of food and drink, which were assimilated into Jesus’ deified body and, because of the indivisible union between the divine and human natures, became his deified body. Bulgakov describes this as a “natural transubstantiation.” Food and drink are consumed by the body and become the body and soul of the Word of God. Through the process of eating and assimilation, Jesus enters into communion with the world and the world with Jesus. Here we see revealed the depth, meaning, and power of the Incarnation. The eternal Son incorporates himself into the organic universe and becomes part of its cyclical metabolism.

At the last supper Jesus short-circuited this process in a miraculous instant. The bread and wine that would have become his body and blood through eating and digestion became, through divine omnipotence, his body and blood outside of his body, independently of the act of eating. The end result was supernaturally projected back to the moment that Jesus spoke the words of consecration. Bread that was destined to become his body became his body; wine that was destined to become his blood became his blood—but not by a physical change of the elements, not by their physical absorption into Jesus’ body through natural processes, but through a miracle of transmutation. It’s as if Jesus extended his corporeality beyond the determinate body that sat before the disciples. Thus Christ was able to give himself to them as food and drink, thereby uniting them to himself in intimate communion and completing the process of corporal assimilation. And so the disciples ate the Lord’s body and drank his blood and were united to him in his deified body.

Through the descent of the Holy Spirit, this transmutation occurs at every Holy Eucharist, but with one difference. Christ Jesus has been crucified, buried, and raised by God into a new mode of physical existence. His body has been utterly transfigured and by ascent into the heavens above all heavens has been eternalized in the triune life of the Godhead. In his glorified body Christ now exists outside of the world, yet he has abandoned neither the world nor his body. He demonstrates his commitment and connection to the world by breaking bread and eating fish with his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:30; 24:41-43). He ate not for purposes of nutrition but to demonstrate his corporeal identity with the Crucified. Through the Eucharist the transcendent Lord establishes a new union with the things of this world. Just as he desired at the last supper to give himself as food and drink to his disciples, so he accomplishes this same purpose in the Eucharist of the Church until the recreation of the cosmos and his return in glory.

Christ makes himself present in the Eucharist for communion. He desires to unite the baptized to his spiritual, glorified body, and he effects this end by making “material His body and blood for us in the sacrament.” It is thus necessary for the consecrated elements to retain their natural properties as food and drink because Christ desires to give himself to his people as food and drink. “By eating the eucharistic matter, the bread and wine,” Bulgakov explains, “one partakes of Christ’s spiritual body, which has received them into itself and has identified itself with them in this sense.”

Is there a conflict between Bulgakov’s presentation of the eucharistic presence and the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation? Not when the Catholic dogma is interpreted commonsensically as a defensive dogma to protect the mystery and as grammatical instruction on how to properly speak of this mystery. Bulgakov is clear that the eucharistic are the body and blood of the risen Christ. To refer to these elements as “bread” and “wine” would in fact misdescribe their new eschatological being, even though they retain their physical integrity within the world.

19 June 2004


In its recent press release, the International Movement We Are Church (IMWAC) sharply criticizes the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation. They assert that transubstantiation promotes “a magical, materialistic, and legalistic mentality, in which Jesus is seen descending on the altar at the time the priest pronounces the words ‘This is my body, this is my blood…’.” They then go on to express their disapproval of the practice of eucharistic adoration: “We are more than puzzled by every form of devotion, which is usual in the Eucharistic cult (for example, Eucharistic adoration, processions, etc.) in which the sacralization of Eucharist has a plain role, making an idol of the Eucharist. Many theologians and ministers share this discomfort.”

I want to suggest that it is this latter concern for idolatry, combined with an understanding of deity ultimately incompatible with the gospel (finitum non capax infiniti), that in fact is driving the rejection of transubstantiation, just as it drove the rejection of transubstantiation in the Swiss and English Reformations. The idea of actually kneeling before that little piece of bread and worshipping “it”—and no matter how one slices it, that’s what Catholics do—is too horrifying. “What idolatry could be more odious?” declared John Wycliffe two hundred years before the Reformation. For Wycliffe, eucharistic adoration violates the fundamental sensibility of true religion. God is God and creatures are creatures. Only God is to be worshipped. It is shocking, says Wycliffe, to think that the priest carries God in bodily form on the tips of his fingers! John Calvin would later utter similar sentiments:

The abominable Idolatry, when bread is pretended to assume Divinity, and raised aloft as God, and worshipped by all present! The thing is so atrocious and insulting, that without being seen it can scarcely be believed … A little bit of Bread, I say, is displayed, adored, and invoked. In short, it is believed to be God, a thing which even the Gentiles never believed of any of their statues! And let no one here object that it is not the Bread that is adored, but Christ who becomes substituted for the Bread the moment it has been legitimately consecrated….

At last, behold the Idol (puny, indeed, in bodily appearance, and white in colour, but by far the foulest and most pestiferous of all Idols!) lifted up to affect the minds of the beholders with superstition. While all prostrate themselves in stupid amazement … What effrontery must ours be, if we deny that any one of the things delivered in Scripture against Idolatry is inapplicable to the Idolatry here detected and proved! What! is this Idol in any respect different from that which the Second Commandment of the Law forbids us to worship? But if it is not, why should the worship of it be regarded as less a sin than the worship of the Statue at Babylon? … how can it be lawful to keep rolling about in such a sink of pollution and sacrilege as here manifestly exists?…

Away, then, with those who, on the view of a missal-god of wafer, bend their knees in hypocritical adoration, and allege that they sin the less because they worship an idol under the name of God! As if the Lord were not doubly mocked by that nefarious use of his Name, when, in a manner abandoning Him, men run to an idol, and he himself is represented as passing into bread, because enchanted by a kind of dull and magical murmur! (On Shunning the Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly, and Preserving the Purity of the Christian Religion [1537])

Calvin was no less scathing in his criticism of the eucharistic theology of the Wittinberg reformers: “In their madness they even drew idolatry after them. For what else is the adorable sacrament of Luther but an idol set up in the temple of God?”

And what Anglican can forget this sardonic comment of Thomas Cranmer:

What made the people to run from their seats to the altar, and from altar to altar, and from sacring (as they call it) to sacring, peeping, tooting and gazing at that thing which the priest held up in his hands, if they thought not to honour the thing which they saw? What moved the priests to lift up the sacrament so high over their heads? or the people to say to the priest “Hold up! Hold up!”; or one man to say to another “Stoop down before”; or to say “This day I have seen my Master”; and “I cannot be quiet unless I see my master once a day”? What was the cause of all these, and that as well the priest and the people so devoutly did knock and kneel at every sight of the sacrament, but that they worshipped that visible thing which they saw with their eyes and took it for very God!”

The simple question is, Is it proper to worship that piece of bread on the altar? Is it God or not? I would suggest that this is the true basis of all scholastic reflection on the eucharistic transformation, for if the Host is not God, then eucharistic adoration in any form is an idolatrous act. If eucharistic adoration is permissible, then the object we adore cannot be a creature. As St Thomas states: “Because it would be opposed to the veneration of this sacrament, if any substance were there, which could not be adored with adoration of latria” (ST 3a.75.2). And lest anyone think this is only a Catholic concern, I remind you that in the international dialogue with the Lutheran Churches the Orthodox participants stated their understanding of the eucharistic transformation thusly:

With regard to the holy eucharist, Lutherans and Orthodox converge in their insistence on the reality of the body and blood of Christ given and received in the eucharistic elements. In this respect, Orthodox speak of the change (metabole) in the elements of the eucharist such that after the invocation of the Holy Spirit (epiclesis) there is no longer “bread” and “wine” but the real body and blood of Christ.

Or as the Synod of Jersusalem affirmed in 1672: “The Body Itself of the Lord and the Blood that are in the Mystery of the Eucharist ought to be honoured in the highest manner, and adored with latria.”

Needless to say, no one is speaking here of a chemical or material change, yet change—a profound change, an ontological change, an eschatological change—there must be if it is proper and right to worship the Holy Gifts.

22 October 2005


On 13 October 1551 the Council of Trent published its Decree on the Holy Eucharist. Chapter IV of the decree defined the dogma of transubstantiation:

And because that Christ, our Redeemer, declared that which He offered under the species of bread to be truly His own body, therefore has it ever been a firm belief in the Church of God, and this holy Synod doth now declare it anew, that, by the consecration of the bread and of the wine, a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood; which conversion is, by the holy Catholic Church, suitably and properly called Transubstantiation.

The first two canons of the decree established the boundaries for future dogmatic reflection:

Canon 1. If any one denieth, that, in the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist, are contained truly, really, and substantially, the body and blood together with the soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and consequently the whole Christ; but saith that He is only therein as in a sign, or in figure, or virtue; let him be anathema.

Canon 2. If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.

A person who seeks to understand the Catholic understanding of transubstantiation must begin with this Tridentine definition, just as a person who wishes to understand the Catholic understanding of the Holy Trinity must begin with the definitions of Nicaea and I Constantinople. The dogma of the Church must always be distinguished from the theological speculations of any given theologian. As interesting and compelling as the views of St Thomas Aquinas on transubstantiation may be, they are not the dogma. As interesting and compelling as the views of Edward Schillebeeckx on transubstantiation may be, they are not the dogma. When it comes to transubstantiation, Catholics begin with the Council of Trent.

What does the Tridentine dogma say? Perhaps the best place to begin is with the canons. Canon 1 condemns a symbolist construal of the real presence and eucharistic conversion. Canon 2 condemns a consubstantiation construal of the real presence and eucharistic conversion. These two the canons set the boundary for the dogma. On the one hand, the real presence is more real, more substantial, more objective than the symbolic presence taught by theologians like Berengar (perhaps) or Ulrich Zwingli. On the other hand, the eucharistic conversion is more comprehensive, more total, more radical than the co-presence taught by William of Ockham or Martin Luther (perhaps).

Positively, to what does the dogma commit the Catholic Church? Here’s my amateurish reading: By the consecration the offered bread and wine are truly changed by God. This change is comprehensive, supernatural, and ontological. The bread and wine cease to be bread and wine. They become the Body and Blood of Christ. The physical qualities of the elements, however, remain intact; the elements still “appear” to be bread and wine. Under the forms of bread and wine, the Incarnate Son, in the fullness of his glorified human nature and his divine nature, is now present.

The Tridentine dogma of transubstantiation does not seek to explain the eucharistic mystery so much as to state it. It asserts the mystery over against the false teachings of the day. A change takes place in the elements, the Tridentine Fathers declare is properly described as substantial. Before the consecration, the elements are bread and wine, just as they appear to be; after the consecration, the elements are the Body and Blood of Christ, despite what they appear to be.

The whole substance of the bread is changed into the substance of the Sacred Body; the whole substance of the wine is changed into the substance of the Precious Blood. How shall we understand “substance” in this context? Substance is popularly explained as an invisible some “thing” that exists under the phenomena, what Robert Sokolowski calls the pin-cushion understanding of substance; but this view of substance apparently originated with John Locke, not with Aristotle and Aquinas. Anthony Kenny explains:

To an Aristotelian, the natural meaning of the decree of Trent which states that the substance of bread and wine turns into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, is not that some part of the bread and wine turns into some part of the body and blood, but simply that the bread and wine turns into the body and blood. Following Aquinas (in 1 Cor 11:24), the Fathers of Trent used “the substance of Christ’s body” and “Christ’s body” as interchangeable terms. According to scholastic theory, substance is not an imperceptible part of a particular individual. It is not a part of an individual; it is that individual. (“The Use of Logical Analysis in Theology,” in Theology and the University [1964], p. 232)

It is often stated today that the Tridentine dogma is so distorted by Aristotelian metaphysics and scholastic speculation that it is useless for modern catechesis. I do not see that to be the case. It all seems commonsensical and easily translated into contemporary English (or whatever language). Substance answers the question, What is it? Trent gives a direct and simple answer: the Body and Blood of Christ. The council even avoided the word “accidents,” preferring instead the traditional word species (appearances). Trent was concerned to set the boundaries of orthodox belief and to assert the eucharistic change and presence. But it did not canonize a particular explanation of how the bread and wine become the Body and Blood. No doubt most of the council Fathers believed that St Thomas Aquinas had provided a definitive explanation of transubstantiation in his Summa Theologiae, but there were also others who preferred the explanations of Bonaventure and Duns Scotus. The Council did not decide between them. At least theoretically, theologians were given the freedom to speculate on the eucharistic change, as long as they stayed within the boundaries of the dogma and respected its central assertions. Until the past fifty years, this speculation pretty much stayed within the conceptuality and terminology of scholasticism. Like all dogmas, the Tridentine definition is not the final word, though it is a dogmatically definitive word, on the mystery of the eucharistic change; and like all dogmas, it invites further reflection.

A superficial reading of Trent might lead one to believe that the council is asserting a natural change in the elements, only disguised by the continuance of the empirical properties of the bread and wine. Robert Sokolowski explains that the eucharistic change does not occur within the natural order:

The bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of the Lord, but they become specifically his resurrected and glorified body and blood. Transubstantiation should not be taken as a mere substantial change in the natural order of things. It is not as though we were to claim that a tree became a leopard but continued to look and react like a tree, or that a piece of cloth became a cat but still seemed to be cloth. I think some of the objections to Transubstantiation come from an implicit belief that such a worldly change of substance is what is being claimed. Rather, it is not simply the worldly substance of the body and blood of the Lord that are present in the Eucharist, but his glorified body and blood, which share in the eternity of the celestial Eucharist. The bread and wine are now vehicles for the presence of the eternal Christ, the eternal Son who became incarnate for us, died and rose from the dead, and is eternally present to the Father. The ontology of the Holy Trinity is part of the Church’s faith in Transubstantiation. (“The Eucharist and Transubstantiation,” Communio 24 [1997], p. 870)

How then shall we understand this change. In the fifties and sixties several Catholic theologians developed theories of of the eucharistic change under the names transignification and transfinalization. I hope to briefly discuss these theories in a subsequent post; but I will say that I have never found them adequate. Specifically, they are not theological enough. They seek to ground the Church’s understanding of transubstantiation in a particular anthropological understanding of human being as symbol-maker. Their persuasive power therefore is dependent on the persuasiveness of their anthropological and phenomenological theories. This can’t be right. On the other hand, I agree that the scholastic rendering of transubstantiation fails to express something very important and is easily misinterpreted. Philosopher Michael Dummett, in his critique of Aquinas’s formulation of transubstantiation, has identified what appears to me to be a critical weakness:

The theory has now rendered the connection between the consecrated elements and Christ’s Body and Blood exceedingly tenuous. Aquinas is extremely cautious in treating the question of whether the Body of Christ is in the place in which the consecrated Host is located. He does not wish to deny outright that it is in that place, for to do so would be to reject any belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; but he is equally chary of affirming it outright. Christ’s Body may be said to be there, but it is not there after the manner of a body which occupies a space in virtue of its proper dimensions. Now anyone who adopts a ‘realistic’ interpretation of the Eucharist must tread warily in answering this particular question; but Aquinas is especially constricted by the theory he has propounded. According to that theory, the accidents of the bread and wine persist, and attach to certain regions of space, in the sense explained, as their quasi-subjects. And, as a quite separate fact, the Body and Blood of Christ are in some special sense present, though not exactly as occupying those regions of space. On this account, there is no connection between the two. The consecrated elements are, as it were, merely the discarded husk of the bread and wine earlier present, and have no more intimate connection with the Body and Blood of Christ than that. It is as if the bread and wine have stepped aside to make room for Christ’s Body and Blood, which could not otherwise be present, and in so stepping aside, have, so to speak, left their mortal remains behind. Aquinas’s words read very impressively; but, as soon as we pause to reflect upon the theory he is actually advancing, we cannot but conclude that the conception it embodies must have gone astray. (“The Intelligibility of Eucharistic Doctrine,” in Rationality and Religious Belief [1987], pp. 246-247)

No doubt a good Thomist can offer a rebuttal to Dummett’s criticism, but I think it is at least true that transubstantiation is popularly presented in a way that suggests that the bread and wine are simply empty husks or creaturely disguises for what lies underneath. As I argue in my essay “Eating Christ,” we need to find ways to overcome the dualism present in traditional construals of transubstantiation.

A way forward, I believe, has been suggested by Pope Benedict XVI. In his article “The Presence of the Lord in the Sacrament” (originally published in 1978), the Pope writes:

What has always mattered to the Church is that a real transformation takes place here. Something genuinely happens in the Eucharist. There is something new there that was not before. Knowing about a transformation is part of the most basic eucharistic faith. Therefore it cannot be the case that the Body of Christ comes to add itself to the bread, as if bread and Body were two similar things that could exist as two “substances,” in the same way, side by side. Whenever the Body of Christ, that is, the risen and bodily Christ, comes, he is greater than the bread, other, not of the same order. The transformation happens, which affects the gifts we bring by taking them up into a higher order and changes them, even if we cannot measure what happens. When material things are taken into our body as nourishment, or for that matter whenever any material becomes part of a living organism, it remains the same, and yet as part of a new whole it is itself changed. Something similar happens here. The Lord takes possession of the bread and the wine; he lifts them up, as it were, out of the setting of their normal existence into a new order; even if, from a purely physical point of view, they remain the same, they have become profoundly different. (God is Near Us [2001], pp. 85-86)

The Holy Father suggests that we understand the eucharistic conversion as an incorporation into the glorified human nature of Christ. By this incorporation the bread and wine cease to enjoy the metaphysical status of substance and become the Son of God’s sacramental embodiment in the world. They truly are Christ.

In his essay “Transubstantiation and Eucharistic Presence” (Pro Ecclesia XI [Winter 2002]), Terence Nichols seeks to develop Benedict’s suggestion. Consider a molecule of water. By scholastic criteria, it is a substance. It enjoys an independent existence; it subsists in itself. But consider what happens to it when it is inserted into a human body. It still retains its physical properties, but it has been incorporated into a larger substance and now exists in relation to that whole. It has become a “subsidiary entity.” By scholastic criteria, it has ceased to be a substance, for it no longer enjoys the independence necessary for substantial existence:

My proposal is that what happens in transubstantiation is analogous to the incorporation of atoms or molecules into the body. If I ingest a mineral (say calcium) or amino acids (in the form of protein), these molecules are built into my cells and become part of a larger substantial whole, my body. But they do not cease to be calcium or amino acids: if they did, they could not nourish the body. What changes is that they are no longer independent substances existing per se, in themselves, rather, they exist in another. Similarly, the bread and wine do not cease being what they are—their chemical structure and form remain the same, else they could not function as food—but they cease to be independently existing substances and become incorporated into another substance, the Body and Blood of the Lord, as subsidiary entities. Now this comparison of transubstantiation to the incorporation of minerals or protein into the body is analogous; the two situations are similar but not identical. For the Body and Blood of Christ are the glorified body and blood, not the body and blood as they existed on earth. But the analogy seems to be a strong one.

Thus it is possible, on this model, to say that the whole substance, that is, the independent substantiality of the bread and wine, is changed into the whole substance of the body and blood of Christ. But at the same time the bread does not cease being bread (or the wine wine); it ceases only to be a separate substance. Instead of existing in itself, per se, it exists in another…. This, I think, satisfies the requirements of Tridentine orthodoxy. (pp. 70-71)

Thus reinterpreted, transubstantiation ceases to be understood as the destruction of the bread and wine but as their elevation. Retaining their original physical properties, the bread and wine have been incorporated into a higher level of reality; they have become the bread of heaven and the wine of everlasting salvation, the Body and Blood of the eternal Word of God. The bread and wine do not hide Christ who lurks underneath them; they are Christ, Christ in his glorified humanity given to us in a sacramental mode. To describe the consecrated elements as bread and wine would therefore be a gross misdescription of what in fact now truly exists. As Herbert McCabe notes, the consecration is God’s public declaration that the usual criteria for identifying things do not apply. The consecrated elements now exist at a level of existence at which it is no longer appropriate or relevant to ask the questions “Is it bread?” and “Is it wine?” (see Herbert McCabe, “Transubstantiation,” New Blackfriars 53 [1972], pp. 552-553).

Nichols’s theory avoids some of the metaphysical conundrums of the scholastic renderings of transubstantiation. For one thing, it is no longer necessary to posit a metaphysical miracle to account for the continuance of the accidents. The theory also accords with the general Catholic principle: grace perfects nature; it does not destroy it. And unlike the competing theories of transignification and transfinalization, the incorporation construal of transubstantiation provides the objectivity of the eucharistic presence that Catholic faith demands. I might also point out that Nichols’s theory bears some resemblance to the interpretations of the eucharistic transformation advanced by Sergius Bulgakov and Paul Evdokimov.

27 October 2005


I learned about transignification back in seminary, mediated through the writings of theologians like Edward Schillebeeckx and John Macquarrie. And since transignification represented the opinion of both my systematics and liturgics professors, I accepted it. (As an Episcopalian, I did not have to worry about the criticisms offered by Pope Paul VI in Mysterium Fidei.) But my attachment to transignification did not last very long, thanks principally to the writings of the Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson. Here was a brilliant non-Catholic, well versed in contemporary theology, pushing the objective real presence more strongly than any Pope.

It is beyond my present competence to accurately describe the transignification theories. I re-read Schillebeeckx’s book The Eucharist a few years ago and found it helpful. Unlike Regis Scanlon, I do not believe the transignificationists (at least the ones I have read) to be blatantly heretical. Schillebeeckx & Company are seeking to express the faith of the Catholic Church but in modern, personalist categories. On the other hand, I find transignification to be inadequate as an interpretation of Catholic dogma. In my judgment, it lacks “ontological density”; it does not provide the objectivity that the eucharistic faith of the Church requires. Critiquing the transignification theory of Luchesius Smits, Colman O’Neill suggests that the theory does not offer a radical enough understanding of the eucharistic change:

It would seem obvious that the new Eucharistic theory posits a purely anthropological change—one, that is, which depends solely on the use that man makes of things. For though, indeed, Fr. Smits will speak of transubstantiation only in the case where the one who expresses himself in the gift of bread and wine is the God-man, it is clear from his explanation that the saving will of God is made relevant to the bread and wine simply through the human symbol-making of Christ. Here the level of God’s creative action, however it may be conceived, has certainly not been reached. (New Approaches to the Eucharist [1967], p. 114.)

Transignification authorizes us to say that through the signs of bread and wine Christ graciously offers us communion and fellowship. But does it give us Christ himself? To be blunt, what is that Host that is placed into our hands? The Church Catholic has always given the simple answer, “That is the Body of Christ.” Does transignification allow us to give that same answer? Is the eucharistic presence, according to the theory, real and objective enough to sanction our adoration and prayer to the Host? At this point, transignification advocates typically demur or equivocate.

I stated above that the transignification theory lacks ontological density. Perhaps a better way of stating my concern: it just doesn’t feel corporeal enough. This may seem an odd criticism, as the theory is based on the bodily extension of human beings through their symbol-making. Christ, we are told, is present in the Eucharist as a person, not as a thing, not as an object. Ironically, this insistence on the non-objective personal presence of Christ in the Eucharist has been a traditional dividing point between Protestants and Catholics, which no doubt accounts for Protestant, and especially Anglican, enthusiasm for transignification.

In his Summa Theologiae (3a.75.1), St Thomas addresses the question whether Christ is really and truly present in the sacrament or “only in a figurative way or as in a sign.” He replies that Christ is truly present and suggests that this is appropriate because of our Lord’s desire to maintain friendship with us:

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.

This is a lovely passage. Friends and lovers cherish each other’s bodily presence. Our bodies are the very means of our communion. But are not bodies things?

In his book Unbaptized God Robert W. Jenson surveys the ecumenical dialogues and notes that Protestant theologians consistently object to the Catholic position on Real Presence because it allegedly reduces the presence of Christ to that a thing and therefore violates the dynamic nature of the Eucharist. The eucharistic food and drink is given to us precisely to be eaten and drunk, not to be gazed upon and carried about (Article XXV). As the Leuenberg Concord’s chief drafter explained, “The real presence is understood personalistically. ‘In the Lord’s Supper, we do not have to do with a something, but with a someone.'”

Yet there remains that moment, between consecration and communion, during which the consecrated objects are identified as the Body and Blood; and in churches where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, this moment is extended throughout the day, throughout the week. How are we to understand these objects? Whatever else they may be, the eucharistic bread and wine must undoubtedly be considered as things. Jenson writes:

But is not Christ’s real presence as the consecrated bread and wine after all “thing-like,” in that the bread and wine are obviously things? If Christ is never present in a thing-like manner, what exactly is the sense of “as” in the previous sentence? If the proposition that the objects bread and wine are the person of Christ does not imply that Christ is on this occasion personally an object, what is the meaning of “are” in the proposition?…

Plainly the difficulty is about what constitutes a person. Is a “someone” indeed not a “something”? Can a person be present where no body is present? And if the necessary embodiment of personhood be granted, can there by a body that is not somehow an object, a something? That is not at all static or thing-like? But if the Lord is indeed present in the Eucharist, and if for a person to be present a body must be present, and if a body must somehow be an object, do not the biblical texts specify the bread and cup as this object?…

Protestant hesitation to affirm the thing-like presence of Christ as the objects bread and cup derives from a spiritualizing conception of personhood that might be explicitly disavowed also by those who trade upon it. Protestant thought has dwelt too exclusively on the “I” and the “thou” of personal communion, and has not integrated the “it” that each person must be for the other, precisely in order that the other may address him or her as “thou.” (Unbaptized God [1992], pp. 29-30, 32)

Personal presence has two aspects—speech and bodily availability. First, I am present to you in the event of communication: I address you. I speak to you. By my speech I intrude into your life and affect you, for good or ill, just as I am doing right now in this article. My communication may be destructive, as when I tell you: “I hate you.” “Go to hell.” “You are worthless.” It can be innocuous: “Nice weather we’re having.” “This sure is a boring article.” “Nice sermon, padre.” Or it can be liberating: “I love you.” “You’re beautiful.” “The Redskins just beat the Cowboys!” In that I address you, in that I speak to you, I am present to you and with you and your life is changed.

Second, personal presence involves bodily availability. By my body I make myself available to you. I am corporeally present to you. You see me, you touch me, you speak to me. You possess me as an object; but this possession does not enslave me, for you in your turn make yourself available to me as object, thus giving me the ability to respond to you, to argue with you, to ignore you, to embrace you, to love you or to hate you. In our mutual communication and shared embodiment, we are brought into relationship and personal communion. Love is the bodily availability and surrender of two people to each other. Surely the most intimate expression of human love is the sexual union of husband and wife. Lover and beloved join themselves to each other in body and soul and enter into the depths of mutual knowledge and ecstasy. This is why the physical absence of one’s lover is felt so keenly. It’s as if one is dying.

The eucharistic presence is the verbal address and bodily availability of the Risen Christ. The Son of God does not withhold himself from us in his infinite transcendence but surrenders himself to us as bread and wine. As offensive and incredible as it might seem, we can actually locate our God. We can point to him and identify him. We know where he speaks, where he is present with us and for us. The bread and cup are his visible, bodily words. “This is my body. This is my blood. Here I am for you. I love you. I have died for you. I forgive you. I fill you with my Spirit. I give you eternal life. Come, come feast upon me. I am the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation.” It is here in the Holy Eucharist that the Church weekly renews her faith and life. It is here that our Lord manifests himself and gives himself to us as food and drink. It is here that we, the Body of Christ, encounter the source of our life and salvation. St. John Chrysostom declared, “Christ granted to those who are desirous not only that they should see him, but also that they should touch him, eat him, sink their teeth into his flesh, being united with him, and thus satisfy all desires.” Our Lord does not leave us wondering where in the world we can find him. He does not send us on a quest to track down the hidden Christ, nor does he abandon us to an endless waiting, hoping against hope that the Risen One will deign to make an appearance. No, in the Sacrament the Lord Jesus comes to us and gives himself to us in grace and love. He places himself into our hands, and we eat him; he gives himself to us in the chalice, and we drink him. Here is our communion with our Savior and friend. That the risen Christ objectifies himself for us is our salvation.

But there is an important difference between this sacramental eating and drinking and normal ingestion. When we eat ordinary food, that food enters us and is changed into us. But not so with the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. In the Eucharist we are the ones who are assimilated into Christ. We are the ones who become part of his body. In the Confessions of St. Augustine, the risen Jesus speaks: “You will not change me into you as happens with bodily food; rather, you will be changed into me.” Christ becomes part of us and we become part of Christ. We are purified, sanctified, deified, christified. We are reborn into our Lord’s very body; we are regenerated in his sacred humanity; we are filled with his Holy Spirit. Hence the sacrament of friendship is also the sacrament of communion. We eat the body of Christ and drink his blood, and thus we are united to Christ and become one with him. As Chrysostom so poetically wrote: “Jesus, for the burning love He bore us, wished to unite Himself so closely to us that we should become one and the same with Him, for such is the dream of true lovers.”

30 October 2005


The oblations of bread and wine are placed on the altar. The celebrant offers the prayer of thanksgiving. The Holy Spirit is invoked. The narrative of institution is recited. The Holy Gifts are distributed, and to each communicant is spoken the remarkable words of the gospel: “the body of Christ,” “the blood of Christ.”

But what do these words mean? What has happened to the bread and wine? What is now the relationship between the consecrated elements and the Body and Blood of Christ? In response to these questions the Western theologians of the Catholic Church proposed the doctrine of transubstantiation. The most influential formulation of this doctrine has been that of St Thomas Aquinas. Yet as influential as Thomas’s formulation has been, the best Catholic theologians have never been content simply to repeat the views of the Angelic Doctor. Always there is the challenge of penetrating through the formulation and restating the doctrine for a new generation of believers. During the past forty years British theologian Herbert McCabe, a translator and student of Aquinas, has been particularly helpful and creative in articulating the eucharistic presence of Christ.

All Catholic presentations of the doctrine of transubstantiation must navigate, says McCabe, between two errors—between symbolic memorialism and chemical transformation. The symbolic view asserts that the bread and wine are mere signs or tokens that remind us of Christ and form a focus for our faith in him. The bread and wine are not ontologically changed. They are not different from ordinary food and drink but have assumed a specific role and meaning within the ritual of the Supper. Just as a bottle of wine is just a bottle of wine but becomes a symbol of friendship when given as a gift, so the bread and wine become symbols of our unity in Christ when shared in the ritual meal of the Lord’s Supper. The chemical transformation view, on the other hand, asserts that the bread and wine have ceased to be food and drink and have literally become the physical Body and Blood of Christ, though now hidden from us. The Body and Blood are, we might say, disguised as food and drink, perhaps to make their consumption more palatable. A chemical analysis might well reveal the material change; if not, this is only because God is supernaturally preventing us from seeing what in fact now exists. The role of faith is to believe that the communicant partakes of Christ, despite contrary appearances.

Against these two errors Catholic doctrine asserts the radical transformation of the bread and wine at the deepest level of existence. The bread and wine have indeed become the Body and Blood of Christ. The consecrated elements are thus no longer literally described as bread and wine, not because they have ceased to be food and drink but because they are now food and drink in the most profound sense possible. They are now the food of the kingdom. We must distinguish, suggests McCabe, two questions: If we ask “How is Christ present in the Eucharist?” then we must answer, he is present because the bread and wine have become his body. If we ask “How is Christ’s body present?” then we must answer, his body is present to us sacramentally. Thus McCabe: “‘This is the body of Christ’ says how Christ is present to us. ‘This is the sacrament of Christ’s body’ says how his body is present to us” (God Matters, p. 117). The risen Christ becomes truly present to us in our present reality, but he does so not by changing the bread and wine into a different kind of stuff but by changing the bread and wine into the effective symbols of his eschatological reality. The eucharistic bread and wine have become the language of God.

Aquinas is often accused of Aristotelianizing the eucharistic transformation. On the contrary, responds McCabe. Aristotle could not have made any more sense of the doctrine of transubstantiation than he could have made sense of the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo—and for approximately the same reason. In the thought of Aristotle, to make is to actualize the potentialities of something. It always makes sense to ask what something is made of or what something is made out of. A person might make something by changing its accidental properties (I can paint my car a different color but it still remains a car), or he might make something by effecting an alteration of substance (I can chop down a tree, cut up the wood and fashion it into a cabinet). Within this understanding it makes no sense at all to speak of the divine Creator making the universe from out of nothing, for there is nothing from which or out of which the universe may be made. “If God created the world he operated at a different level, or in a different dimension, from making as we understand it,” McCabe explains. “To bring it about, in this sense, that something should exist is not to make any difference to it or to anything else, it is not to change it in any way. It is just for this reason that Aquinas denies that creation is a change (Ia, 45, 2, ad 2). But what sense can we make of a making that does not change anything” (p. 147). The creation of the universe does not make a difference to anything. At this point the philosophy of Aristotle explodes:

So Aristotle gives us an interesting analysis of coming into existence by substantial change, but had no notion of creation. St Thomas, however, believing in creation, believed in a new and different kind of bringing into existence. He thought there was a kind of cause which did not merely give a new form to the matter of already existing perishable things, but simply brought things into being when there was nothing there before. The creative act of God does not just deal in the forms of things—making one kind of thing into an individual of another kind with a different form. It gives sheer existence to the whole thing. Causes within nature give things the form by which they have existence; God gives things existence itself. God is the reason why there is a world of natural causality; and every natural cause can only give existence because it is an instrument of the Creator, the source of all existence. (God Still Matters, p. 119).

According to St Thomas, transubstantiation involves something analogous to the creatio ex nihilo. It is a changing that occurs at a radically deeper level than that of accident or substance; it is a re-creation that occurs at the level of existence itself:

The bread does not turn into the body by acquiring a new form in its matter; the whole existence of the bread becomes the existence of the living body of Christ. The body is not made out of the bread, as ashes are made out of paper by burning it (a chemical change). Something has happened as profoundly different from chemical change as creation is. It is not that the bread has become a new kind of thing in this world; it now belongs to a new world. As far as this world is concerned, nothing seems to have happened, but in fact what we have is not part of this world. It is the kingdom impinging on our history and showing itself not by appearing in the world but by signs speaking to it. … The change is so tremendous that it is quite imperceptible. In fact, St Thomas says it is not a change (mutatio) at all, for such a change means a re-adjustment of our world—as when one thing is altered or changes into something else. This clearly makes a perceptible difference. But transubstantiation is not a change, just as creation is not a change. What the bread has become is the body of Christ, which is to say the kingdom itself—for Christ does not inhabit the kingdom, he, his body, his human way of communicating with other humans, is the kingdom of God. Now the kingdom, the glorified body of Christ, is not something that could be seen within our world as part of our world; if it is to be manifest among us it can only be by signs, by sacramental signs. And this is just what the Eucharist is. (God Still Matters, pp. 119-120).

A change that is no change. A change that makes no difference. Aquinas employs the language of Aristotle to speak of divine creation and transubstantiation, but in both cases he breaks the language to speak of things of which our language cannot speak. We are confronted with mystery that transcends human comprehension. Hence McCabe acknowledges that traditional formulations of the eucharistic conversion as “substantial change” can be misleading. The change that occurs is not, according to Aristotelian categories, a substantial change at all. It is a change that occurs at a deeper metaphysical level:

The Eucharist is not a question of the substance of bread becoming the substance of a human body (this kind of substantial change is familiar enough and takes place whenever we eat a slice of bread); it is a miraculous transformation at a deeper level, which Aquinas compares to creation, in which the esse (the existence) of this piece of bread and this cup of wine becomes the esse of Christ. This transformation of a substance into another particular existent, as distinct from a different kind of thing (as in ordinary substantial change) would have been completely unintelligible to Aristotle as, of course, was the notion of creation and, indeed, the whole notion of esse in Aquinas’s sense. (pp. 125-126)

Aquinas famously analyzed the eucharistic conversion in terms of substance and accidents, and the Council of Trent appropriated his analysis in its Decree on the Holy Eucharist. The Council declared that under the appearances (species) of bread and wine Christ truly offers his Body and Blood. To make sense of this teaching it is helpful, suggests McCabe, to understand the difference between appearances and signs. The appearances of something are the accidental properties and characteristics by which we recognize things as what they are—size, color, taste, shape, and so on. Appearances show us things; signs tell us things. Appearances, in themselves, never deceive. People may exploit appearances to deceive, or we may deceive ourselves by drawing false inferences; but the way an object appears to us never deceives. It simply is. Signs, on the other hand, are part of language. They speak to us; they communicate to us; they tell us things about things. And signs can be employed to deceive. This is called lying.

When St Thomas declares that by consecration the accidents of the bread and wine have ceased to be the appearances of bread and wine, this does not mean that they have become the appearances of something else. They have ceased, rather, to function as appearances at all. Here, McCabe believes, is where many people misunderstand the doctrine of transubstantiation. When folks hear the Church declaring that the substance of the bread and wine has been converted into the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood, while leaving the accidents intact, they draw the conclusion that the accidents have now become the deceptive appearances of the Body and Blood. But the critical point is that the accidents no longer operate and exist in the way they used to:

There is, then, a lot of difference between the appearance which simply shows you a thing and signs which are part of telling you something about it. I labour this point because it is an important part of St Thomas’s teaching on the Eucharist that the accidents of bread and wine cease to be the appearances of bread and wine, but this is not because they become the misleading appearances of something else. They cease to function as appearances at all, they have become signs, sacramental signs through which what is signified is made real.

Before the consecration the appearances were there because the bread was there; they were just the appearances of the bread. After the consecration it is the other way around; the body of Christ is sacramentally there because what were the appearances of bread (and are now sacramental signs), are there. So with unconsecrated bread the accidents can remain (and vary) so long as the bread still exists: how very bizarre if they were to stay on (like the Cheshire cat’s grin) when what they are accidents of isn’t there. But after the consecration the Body of Christ is sacramentally present just as long as the signs are there. The important consequence of this is that these signs are not the appearances of Christ’s body: they are no longer the appearances of anything. 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. For bread and wine are meant to be eaten and drunk, to be our food; and food, eating, and drinking together is, even in our secular lives, a sign expressing friendship and unity. This is why Jesus chose it to be the sign which would tell us of the real sacramental presence of his body given for us and his blood poured out for us—the body of Christ which is more deeply our food, our “bread and wine,” than is the ordinary bread and wine with which we began. (p. 118)

This change from appearance to sacramental sign must not be considered as merely conventional, as if we, the Church, have assigned a different role and meaning to the bread and wine. As we observed above, the eucharistic change occurs at the deepest level of existence. When God deems the eucharistic objects as his Body and Blood, then they indeed become and are his Body and Blood. “The notion of transubstantiation,” McCabe writes, “depends on the idea that there can be a kind of transformation in what it means to exist which is not simply a change in what it is that exists” (God Matters, p. 150).

And this brings us to the most controversial assertion of the doctrine of transubstantiation, namely, the assertion that the bread and wine no longer exist as bread and wine. What can this mean? After all, the objects have not experienced any physical, chemical, or material changes. When the Church declares, “this is not bread,” she is not saying that it is now zinc or disguised human flesh. By all normal criteria, the consecrated bread is no different than unconsecrated bread. But the critical point is that the normal criteria are no longer relevant to the proper determination of the identity of the Holy Gifts. Something has happened which can be neither humanly understood nor adequately expressed in human language:

It is not that God tricks us—so that while all our criteria for decision make us think that it is bread, he has secretly switched the ‘inner reality’ to make it zinc or flesh. On the contrary the consecration is God’s quite public announcement that there these criteria no longer apply. It makes no more sense to ask whether this is bread than to ask whether God is bread—of course both these questions could be asked within the realm of metaphor. It appears that we have here a fit subject for our ordinary criteria. It is only because we have faith in the consecrating word of God that we know the criteria cannot sensibly be applied. If we did not know this we would make the mistake of applying them (as the unbeliever does) and then naturally we would say that this is bread and not anything else.

I am suggesting that the consecrated host exists at a level of reality at which the questions of whether it is bread cannot relevantly be asked; our language breaks down when we try to speak of it, just as it does in the case of God. What happens at the consecration is not that the proper description of the host shifts within our language (from “bread” to “Body of Christ”) but that it no longer becomes possible to give an account of it within our language at all. (p. 152)

To continue to describe the eucharistic elements as literally bread and wine is to fail to recognize the radical change that has occurred. It is to misdescribe them. It is to treat “the appearances as accidents of bread when really they are the divine sacramental signs of Christ’s body” (God Still Matters, p. 121). We may and will, of course, continue to speak metaphorically of the Holy Gifts as “bread” and “wine,” just as Scripture and liturgy do; but the doctrine of transubstantiation reminds us of the peculiar use of our language at this point.

Is this the best way to speak of the eucharistic mystery? Fr McCabe readily acknowledges that future theologians may well offer superior analyses and presentations. But he avers that all such analyses must respect the following rule: “Anything which seems to take the scandal or mystery out of the Eucharist must be wrong, whether it be couched in terms of substance or meaning” ( p. 117).

28 February 2008


“Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ The Jews therefore said, ‘It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body.”

“So it is with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.”

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.”

“Take and eat; this is my body.”

“And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

We know that body is mysteriously at the heart of the gift of salvation. We confess that God the Son took to himself a human body in the Incarnation. We confess that God the Son offered his body in sufferings and death for the sins of the world. We confess that God the Son rose from the dead in a new and glorified body and in this body ascended to the right hand of the Father. And we confess that we share in the salvation and future of God the Son through the communication of his body. But what is body?

Fr Herbert McCabe reflects on the meaning of body—the body of the historical Christ, the body of the risen Christ, the body of the eucharistic Christ—in several of his essays. I cannot pretend that I have yet really grasped his reflections on the body; but I find his thoughts suggestive and stimulating.

Imagine St Peter in Galilee one day pointing to Jesus in the days before his death and saying, “This is the body of Jesus.” While he might mean many things in saying this, one thing he undoubtedly would mean is “This is the way Jesus is present to us.” The body of Jesus is his mode of presence and communication. To touch the body of Jesus is to touch Jesus himself and enter into communion with him. “If I touch even his garments,” the hemorrhaging woman thought to herself, “I will be made well” (Mark 5:28). She yearned to touch our Lord’s body, his clothes being an extension of his bodily presence. Families and friends know the importance of bodily communication. Children need the presence and care of their parents. Parents miss their children when they grow up and move away. Families are renewed when they gather for holidays. Lovers especially know the necessity of physical intimacy. To be separated from one’s lover, from her bodily presence and touch, is agony. Letters, email, telephone conversations—all are insufficient. We must be with the body of the other. Body is the human mode of presence.

It is a characteristic of our historical finitude that our bodies are also modes of absence. If I am presently living in New Jersey, then I cannot be present in Maryland. My bodily communion with others is necessarily limited to those who can come within a certain distance to my body. To overcome these limitations, we thus seek in various ways to extend our bodiliness into the world. We create media of communication—writing, telephones, pens and pencils, fax machines, text-messaging, Christmas gifts, clothes, crafts, paintings and sculpture. But all such media are extensions of the human body; their source is the body itself. The body is not in this sense a means of communication, says McCabe, “because we have to have a body to use such means” (God Matters, p. 121). Human communication is essentially bodily communication. Through our bodies we take our place in the business of life and share with others a common world.

We tend to think of bodies in impersonal terms. Bodies are objects that interact and collide with other objects. Our bodies thus become that objective, impersonal, material part of ourselves, with our true selves located in our souls or spirits. McCabe believes this is the wrong way to think of bodies. Consider a telephone. It sits on a desk. We can see it. We can move it around. It is simply an object. But then it rings. We pick it up and begin a conversation with someone. At this point the telephone disappears as object. It has become a medium of communication, and our attention is now focused on that person at the other end of the line. But with human bodies, McCabe suggests, the reverse is the case:

A telephone is most of the time a thing, an object before you, but just sometimes it becomes a medium of communication with the rest of the world. Your body, on the contrary, is normally experienced as a medium of communication and is just occasionally treated as an object, a part of the world. The ordinary way in which you are conscious of being bodily, conscious of “having a body,” is being conscious of it as your way of being present to the world. Your body is first of all a means of communication. Telephones and books and satellites are only media of communication in so far as they are used by human bodies. Nothing uses the body, except in the sense that we may speak of one part of it being used by the whole—“He used his left hand to twist the knob.” It is because the body is the source of communication that we say it is alive, that it has a soul. The body that communicates by conventional signs, by symbols it has not just inherited but created, by language, is humanly alive, it has a human soul. (p. 111)

Death typically brings the destruction of body and therefore the conclusion of personal communication. Yet not so with Jesus. By his resurrection the bodiliness of Jesus became more intense, more powerful, more available. “The risen Christ,” states McCabe, “has lost many of the characteristics we think of as bodily but in fact is more bodily than ever” (p. 125). Standing on this side of the kingdom, we cannot comprehend this new form of our Lord’s bodiliness, yet we can see that our Lord’s resurrection has made him available not to just a few in Palestine but to all humanity in all places.

Christians have read the stories of the resurrection appearances of Christ for clues as to the nature of glorified bodies, but McCabe cautions we need to be careful, for it is all too easy to reduce the eschatological bodiliness of Christ to the terms of the pre-resurrection world:

I think that in these appearances Christ was more bodily than he allowed himself to appear. In himself he was the risen man, his body was that of the future to which we are summoned, the future beyond the ultimate revolution, but in order to show himself to his followers he appeared more or less as a body of our own time, a body of this world—it is true that he passed through closed doors and appeared and disappeared and so on, but generally speaking he wished to emphasize that he was a body and not a ghost. “‘See my hands and feet that it is I myself; handle me and see; for a ghost has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them: ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate before them.” The emphasis in this as in the other stories of post-resurrection appearances is on the bodily reality of the risen Christ, but we are not to suppose that his bodiliness is restricted to the bodiliness of this era.

For our present purposes the interest of this point is that in these appearances Jesus presents an intersection of future and present. He is the future world, the body in whom our bodies are to find unity and final humanity, the medium of communication in which mankind is ultimately to realise itself, he is the future world but he appears as a body of the present world. … Although in fact he has surpassed the present and belongs not to this world but to the world of the future, he is presenting himself amongst men of this world and he can only be recognised by them in terms of a part of his biography that he has surpassed. (pp. 125-126)

The Holy Eucharist also enjoys this conjunction of future and present. The risen Christ manifests and communicates himself within the conditions of the old world. In the Supper the language of meal becomes the language of the kingdom. Food and drink are fundamental to human society. By eating together human beings, perhaps indeed all animals, share a common world. This is not accidental to our humanity but is rooted in our bodies. “Food is a medium in which we communicate, come together,” McCabe elaborates. “It is for this reason that Christ can say that he is the true bread that comes down from heaven; since he is the medium in which we finally meet each other, in which we are finally able to communicate ourselves to each other, he is more intensely food than meat and drink can be. We may say that all eating and drinking is an attempt to reach towards the communication we will only finally find in Christ” (p. 127). Christ has a better right to be our food and drink than bread and wine. The doctrine of transubstantiation, at least as interpreted by McCabe, declares that the eucharistic bread and wine have not become something “else”; they have become food and drink in the most radical way conceivable. Perhaps we might even say that they are fulfilled in Christ. As McCabe likes to enigmatically phrase the matter, “our language has become his body” (p. 117).

In the Eucharist, then, we have an intersection of future and present, we have what is ostensibly language of the present, of this world, of this body, but which in fact is language of the future, of the world to come, of the risen body. This does not involve any disguise or deceit for what the bread and wine have become is not something different from food and drink, they have become food and drink in a deeper sense than we can imagine. We cannot say that the body of Christ is disguised as bread and wine any more than we can say that the risen Christ was disguised as a man of six feet high who ate broiled fish. (p. 127)

Our language has become the body of Christ. Christ appears to us, not in his transfigured reality—this side of resurrection, the kingdom cannot be seen within the world as part of the world—but in sign and symbol. Our Lord’s bodily presence amongst us, therefore, is precisely sacramental. As Jesus was the eternal Word in the flesh of this world, so the sacraments are the language of the future in the language of this world. McCabe even coins a word for this—translinguification. I am reminded at this point of the provocative statement of Abbot Vonier: “If the priest at the altar brought down Christ from heaven in His natural state as a full-grown man, this would not be a sacrament at all, for the event would lack the very essence of the sacrament, representative signification” (A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, p. 21). Sacraments work by signifying. In the words of E. L. Mascall: “Sacramental signs do not make present the realities which they signify by spatially enclosing them, in the way in which a gas-cylinder may contain hydrogen, or by being instruments by which they are manufactured, as a sausage machine produces sausages, or by being channels through which they are communicated, as a water-pipe delivers water, but by being divinely-ordained efficacious signs of them” (Corpus Christi, p. 220). Here, suggests McCabe, is the real reason why the risen Christ may be present in many Eucharists celebrated simultaneously around the world: in the Mass his body is present to us in the mode of language, “as meaning is present to a word” (p. 118).

As the Apostle Peter might have pointed to the Galilean Jew and declared, “This is the body of Christ,” so we today may point at the eucharistic bread and cup and make the same declaration. But who is closer to Christ, Peter touching the corporeal body of Jesus before his crucifixion or we ourselves when we take the sacramental body of Christ into our mouths? McCabe offers this answer:

In one way Peter is in closer contact, he actually touches the body of Jesus, they can share a common bodily life—a better example, of course, would be Mary who actually gave birth to Jesus, whose body gave life to his—on the other hand when they were in contact with his body it was not risen and was thus a less total communication of Jesus than is the risen body with whom we make a sacramental contact in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a mere foretaste of the world to come when we shall have it both ways, we shall be present to the risen body of Christ as intimately as Mary was present to Jesus in his birth. (p. 118)

During his historical life, Jesus gathered to himself a community of disciples and friends, to which he was so present that they felt utterly loved and forgiven, thus becoming themselves capable of loving and forgiving others. But this bodily presence of Jesus was restricted to the few, to those who were privileged to hear his words and share his fellowship. But after Easter Christ becomes capable of reaching out to all of humanity. Liberated from the bonds of mortality and the limitations of historical existence, the glorified Jesus is more bodily now than when he walked the roads of Galilee and ate and drank with his disciples. He is alive and present, present in his body, present in the life and communion of the Church. Yet this presence remains hidden, sacramental, known and experienced only by faith. The risen Jesus is no longer physically and locally present as he was during his historical life. He manifests himself to us not in glory, not in his accidents, but in the mode of human language. We experience both presence and absence. “Christ is present but ambiguously present,” McCabe remarks; “what we see, the presence we experience, is the presence of each other” (p. 112). Our hearts thus cry out for that perfect realization of bodily communion that two lovers know in the embrace of ecstasy. But one day our future in Christ will be gloriously achieved and we will speak fluently the language of the kingdom. The Church will be gathered up into the Trinitarian life of God. There will be no sacraments, no rituals, no faith, “only the immediate presence of our risen bodies to the risen body of Christ. Then it will no longer be a question of media of communication which are separate from ourselves (although extensions of our bodies) becoming the body of Christ, but we ourselves will be taken up into the body of Christ which is the incarnate word of the Father” (p. 129).

Come, Lord Jesus, come!

14 March 2008


“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.

17 March 2008


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.

25 March 2008


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 cease 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).

6 April 2008

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