Friday, December 16, 2005

The Real Presence is Real

Nothing is more complex than explaining transubstantiation – the Catholic belief that communion bread and wine actually changes into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ during the Eucharist. This notion of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is perhaps the single most misunderstood tenet of the Catholic faith, and the one for which we are most often ridiculed by others. The purpose of this exercise is to (hopefully) establish the truth of this mystery by appealing mainly to reason, not faith or scripture. With apologies for the extreme hubris of that stated intention, let us proceed to at least make the attempt.

For the benefit of non-Catholics, we believe that when the priest celebrates mass and pronounces the words of consecration over the gifts (“This is my body”, “This is the cup of my blood”), the gifts are changed into the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. This differs substantially from Protestant denominations which see communion merely as being “representative” of the last supper – a sort of theatrical re-enactment.

Of course, this Catholic belief appears absurd on its face: How can a piece of bread turn into human flesh? How can wine be changed into blood? The lack of any apparent change to the gifts themselves supports this initial incredulity. The traditional way of explaining how transubstantiation works is a bit heavy, but basically boils down to identifying bread and wine in two distinct ways: by substance and accident, the former changing and the latter being retained. “Substance” means what a thing actually is, while “accident” refers to a thing’s physical characteristics. The entire dry-as-dust explanation is here and here. To understand it from an entirely different perspective, however, we need to consider a few important points.

First, we need to talk about the bread and wine themselves. According to the Code of Canon Law, the bread “must be wheaten only, and recently made, so that there is no danger of corruption” and is usually a thin, round wafer cooked to a hard disk that will not crumble. It tastes like cardboard, but dissolves readily in the mouth. The wine “must be natural, made from grapes of the vine, and not corrupt”; it tastes sweet. Next, we need to be clear that after consecration, the gifts retain all the appearances of bread and wine – they look, smell, taste and feel just as they did before consecration.

So, how can Catholics claim a belief in transubstantiation? To answer that clearly (i.e. in a non-Aquinan way), consider the following examples based on common, shared experiences:

A person is much more than the sum of their parts: they exist not just as a body with discernable appearances and characteristics, but as a person – a husband or wife, a labourer or accountant, a mother, a friend and so on. The body can be seen, heard, touched, smelled and yes, even tasted. The true substance or essence of the person cannot be seen by use of the five human senses or scientific methods. Nonetheless, we do not deny the existence of a person within the body, simply because we cannot measure them in any physical sense.

The substance of the person and the physical person can be changed in different ways. The body can gain weight, become disfigured, change hair colour but the person inside does not automatically change as well. Likewise, the person can change – they can love, hate, despair, desire – all the time retaining the same outward appearance. The point of this analogy is not to distract you, but to prove that two different kinds of change are possible – only one of which is physically discernable.

Consider another example: when a woman becomes a mother, she changes (a father too, certainly!). She no longer exists just for her own sake, or the sake of her husband, but for the sake of a family – the centre of which is her new child. What woman would say she “is the same person now” as before she gave birth? She may not be able to articulate it, but she knows – as everyone close to her knows – that she is not the same person she was before the birth. The substance of who the person was is gone, and is replaced by a new person – the mother of a child. This change has two defining characteristics: it could not be discerned merely by use of the five human senses, and it is real.

A final example: death. Juxtapose the instant before death with the instant following it; the former involves a body inhabited by a person while the latter is just a body. The body immediately prior to death has an identical appearance to the one immediately after the soul has departed, yet we know – we just understand at a fundamental level – that the two are completely different. The former is a person – someone with a name, a family, hopes, dreams, sufferings, regrets and everything else of substance that defines who that person is. The latter is just a corpse – there is no substance present. The accidents, if you will, are retained while the substance has fled.

Which brings us full circle to the bread and wine used in the Eucharist, a sacrament of the Catholic Church. A recent post on North Western Winds puts it this way:
“The sacraments are concrete gestures, that make use of materials signs. The sign is always visible, but is always a sign of something of not visible…. There lies the force of the liturgy.”

What does it mean to say “something not visible” - what is the something, and why is it not visible? Consider this: why do people prefer antiques to reproductions? Original works of art to prints? If I like Monet, I could furnish my house with every Monet ever painted using framed prints for a few hundred dollars. A single original would cost more than the house, and you couldn’t tell it from the print without a close examination. So why desire the original? The answer lies in the authentic nature of the original; it was the actual canvass used by Monet; he stood before it in all his creative force, the original has a unique history having been passed from estate to estate, and is the only one of its kind. The owner of an original painting or an antique possesses something authentic and real that can be imitated but not copied. In other words, the accidents of the thing can be reproduced, but the substance cannot – there is only one original and therein lies its authentic substance.

Remember that there are two kinds of change that can happen to matter: both are real, but only one can be perceived. In the case of transubstantiation, as with people, bodies or antiques, something authentic and unique happens to the bread and wine. A priest, validly ordained through an unbroken line of Apolistic succession leading back to Christ Himself, and acting with the full authority of the Church founded by Him, changes the substance of bread and wine into the new substances of Christ’s Body and Blood – all the while retaining the accidents of ordinary bread and wine. This authentic experience happens to the bread and wine – making them different in a real, but not discernable way.

Getting one’s head around the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist does not require the suspension of reason; only the understanding of the nature of change and the limits of the five human senses. Reason, of course, is a gift – just like faith.

But that’s another discussion….

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