The eucharist is different from the other sacraments. Jesus never said, “Friends, this water [of baptism] is my spittle,” or “this nard [of chrismation, ordination, and unction] is the oil of my brow.” But he did say that the Bread is his Body, and the Wine his Blood. Nor did he say that the Bread is “sort of like” his Body. He could of course have done so, if that is what he had meant to say. But instead he stated a straightforward, in your face identity between the Bread and his Body, and between the Wine and his Blood; and, since Jesus is identical with God, we are not at liberty to interpret his statement in any other way. The many disciples who instantly abandoned him on account of this “hard teaching” certainly didn’t; they figured that he was a lunatic because he said:
Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world … Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him … This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live forever. (John 6:47ff)
Is there any way he might have indicated the identity between the Body of his Incarnation and the Bread of his Presence more explicitly? Whatever the undoubted metaphysical difficulties of the Real Presence, if Jesus is Really Present in the elements, then they just are him, and it behooves us to grapple with this fact. It is, indeed a difficult teaching. How may we understand it?
The options range from the memorialist doctrine at the far, bitter, Zwinglian end of the Protestant spectrum – that Jesus is not Really Present in, but rather only symbolized by, the matter of the Mass – to the Patristic doctrine of transubstantiation, that at the consecration of the host the essence of the bread is simply changed to the essence of Jesus. Somewhere in between lies the notion that tradent Anglican philosopher Lydia McGrew articulated the other day in a fascinating post that, together with her subsequent exchange with Catholic philosopher William Luse, largely provoked this present post. She says:
I do not hold either of these views. In the case of transubstantiation, I simply do not hold a metaphysical view about such physical entities as bread, wine, and human flesh and blood according to which they have an entirely imperceptible essence which can literally be switched with the imperceptible essence of a different physical type of stuff while leaving all possibly perceptible physical properties the same. This doesn’t mean that I’m a nominalist or that I deny that anything has an essence nor that I am unable to imagine situations in which something might appear to be other than what it is. I think that human beings have an essence, for example, and that no matter how disabled or even wicked and degraded a man is, as long as he lives he retains that essence of being truly human. But for bread, wine, and flesh and blood, no, I just really can’t accept the view that that is what they are like, which would make transubstantiation possible.
Actually, the main burden of this post will be about why I don’t accept memorialism, so more on that later.
What I do believe is that Jesus is specially, spiritually present in the elements of Communion in the sense that they are spiritual food. God has so ordained that those of us who, as the Prayer Book says, have “duly received” Communion are objectively spiritually nourished thereby. In this sense Jesus objectively comes down to us in the bread and wine and gives himself, his life and spiritual strength, aka grace, to us when we rightly receive. (And if we don’t rightly receive, we could be in big trouble for profaning this Sacrament which has been rendered holy by God’s intention that it should be a means of grace to us.) When the consecrated Host is reserved on the altar, because the Host is that divinely ordained physical meeting point between our Lord Jesus Christ and ourselves, the place where it is reserved becomes a literally holy space, a place where we come before Christ, who is present there in a special way in which he is not present everywhere else.
Note that if the Bread of the eucharist simply is the Body of Jesus, then it is also trivially true that the Bread is like the Body; so that the memorialists are correct that the host is indeed a symbol of the Incarnate Lord. Identities are also metaphors. More on that in a moment.
Likewise, the doctrine of strict identity doesn’t contradict McGrew’s doctrine, at all, but rather includes it: if God simply is the Bread and Wine, it follows that “Jesus is specially, spiritually present in the elements … as spiritual food,” and that “the Host is that divinely ordained physical meeting point between our Lord Jesus Christ and ourselves.”
Thus while I certainly don’t disagree with McGrew’s notion of ordained sanctification of the elements, it doesn’t seem to me quite sufficient to comprehend Christ’s straightforward identification of his own material actuality with that of the Bread and Wine. There is more at work in the eucharist than in the Holy of Holies. God was “present” in the Holy of Holies, “dwelt” in the Temple and the Tabernacle, “sat” upon the Cherubim throne of the Ark – as, certainly, he is present in the world generally, in the Church and its members, and in the Body of Jesus particularly. But as there is more to the Incarnation than possession of the human body of the Son of Mary by the Logos, so there is more to the Real Presence than something like a greater density or effectuality of the Logos in the elements than we find elsewhere in nature.
That thickening and intensification of the Presence, of the Name and Glory of God, are at work in the Incarnation and the eucharist, to be sure, and the Logos does indeed possess and inhabit the body of Jesus of Nazareth, and ergo the Body and Blood of the eucharist. But there is more to the Real Presence than that.
What happens, then, at the epiklesis, when at the climax of the liturgy the celebrant calls the Logos down upon the elements? Note first the form of the event: God fulfills his end of a bargain, a New Covenant, that he strikes with the people of the Church at every Mass (it is but the latest of many; the Old Testament is liberally sprinkled with such covenants). They offer themselves a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice; he takes them up on the offer, and in return he comes down when the priest calls him into the elements, and then, when the communicants partake of those elements, enters into the people. The people thereby participate in his sacrifice, and he in them, so that they take on the mind of Christ, and become themselves gods.
Not, of course, that the people do any of the saving work in this transaction; rather, in the very motion of sacrifice they refrain from action of their own, or for their own sake. The people’s end of the bargain is fulfilled when they cease from all their doing. For the victim, sacrifice is utter surrender to the Divine Will; that surrender is the means of theosis.
But what I particularly want to get at here is that the sacrament by which the people are sanctified, by way of the sanctified host, is in formal terms a legal agreement, an oath, fulfilled, and an economic transaction effected.
Indeed, all the sacraments are formal legal agreements to effect an exchange of real economic value. Even unction of the sick is predicated on a valid rite of penance, in which the penitent truly offers his life again to God, thereby making himself morally fit and ritually clean for the reciprocal renewal of his anointing as again a priest of the Order of Melchizedek. Grace, then, enters the sacramental transaction when it is effected as such – when the agreement is formally executed, and then fulfilled.
The reason it is such a great sin to take communion unshriven, or with an unclean heart – to take the Name in vain, to accede to the Law of the exchange speciously or hypocritically – is that to do so is to renege on the deal one has formally executed. It is to welsh; it is to lie to God, and is to try to cheat him. It’s unfair dealing. Ditto for divorce, or apostasy. These motions mock God; but, being supernal, God cannot truly be mocked, so that any such mockery cannot but redound to the sinner’s doom.
To mock God is to choose exile from being. Reality everywhere agrees with God, this being the means of his provident coordination of things, that delivers to us from one moment to the next a coherent, logical world. So in a sense, any world, properly so called, is an instance of creaturely agreement to the Logos, and the Noachic covenant is everywhere fulfilled. What distinguishes the sacraments from the rest of the events that lawfully flow together under the Logos is that in the sacraments human beings make their peculiarly human formal accession to the Logos. In the sacraments, humans buy in to God in the ways that can matter peculiarly to them. This makes the sacraments the means of grace peculiarly pertinent to humans, which are for us the food of new and unending life.
The Real Presence is a mystery of the same type as that of the Incarnation, which seems a much more difficult notion to untangle, metaphysically; for how can human and divine natures, that are in many respects apparently contradictory, be expressed in the same being? Never mind the admittedly perplexing question of how a bit of bread can be a bit of meat: how can a single being be both finite and infinite, both eternal and living at a particular address in Nazareth of Galilee, with a business to run and bills to pay? Note then that the Incarnation, too, is the fruit of a legal agreement, in this case between humanity, by our attorney Mary, and YHWH, by his attorney Gabriel. The Magnificat is the record of that agreement, and the life of Jesus Christ its fulfillment. The Creator becomes a member of the created order to fulfill a formal covenant with his creatures, that, provided they admit him, he will come among them so that they may know him and participate in him, and in his life, that is the source of all life.
Knowing is participation; when we know something, we appropriate it, take it into ourselves so that it becomes an aspect of our being. There is a sense in which this is no different than the way we participate in the momentum of a thing that hits us, so that its momentum becomes our own. And memory is a form of knowledge. It is the appropriation by the present moment of bits of the past, by which the past contributes integrally to the present. Creaturely presence as such consists almost entirely of recollection – literally, “again-together-reading” – of the past. Causation, then, may be understood as recollection. Thus even memorialists end up committed to the Real Presence, for we cannot remember Jesus at all, other than by some participation in him, and ergo reenactment of him, which ipso facto results in a concrete embodiment of his Person, however etiolated or partial.
In the eucharist, then, the Logos hits us; because we eat him, he hits every cell of our bodies. Sure, we run into the problem that the bite each of us takes has to be a particular bit of his physical body, which as physical is ipso facto limited. But this is just the problem of the loaves and the fishes, which is a special case of the problem of how you get many mansions of worlds out of nothing – for an infinite Creator, not a problem at all. The metaphysical procedure under way in the epiklesis, then, is not fundamentally different than the procedure underway in creation generally. We find the Incarnation and the Real Presence mysterious because we can’t understand how to get something from nothing. But God does. He creates an instance of bread, again and again and again – which is to say, that he sustains the bread in being – then, he creates an instance of Bread that is his Body. The nature of the bread is not in contradiction to the nature of the Body of God. If it were, then, the Body of God being prior to the bread, what we would see at the epiklesis would be the replacement of the appearance of bread by the appearance of the Body of God.
As things are, however, nothing can be that is existentially in contradiction to the being of God. Anything, then, might have been ordained to be the physical implementation of the Body of God in the eucharist; bacon, or coffee, or a bit of cheese (each of which does indeed, from time to time, seem a foretaste of heaven). Doesn’t matter. All you need to implement the Body of God in the world is soma of some sort or other. Soma per se is capax dei.
While it cannot but seem to us as worldly creatures anything else, the Real Presence is not so much then a suspension of the laws of nature, as it is a fuller more comprehensive expression of the laws of supernature, upon which they supervene, and which in the usual course of things to which we are accustomed they but partially express. The basic, radical, principal meaning of physical substances is that they are expressions of supernature. On this principal meaning hang all subsidiary meanings – the meanings of physics, chemistry, of biology, and so forth, and also of the significance and signification of events, their effects and affects, that make of their serial congeries an intelligible causal order, and a history that matters.
And signification runs both ways. In the words of the Institution, there was indeed, as McGrew says, something that was not absolutely, strictly literal – that was metaphorical (albeit not merely so). But, likewise, in molecular collisions there is always some signification, some meaning or consequence. Every such collision is significant to the future of the world. The cogency of the metaphor between signification and causation, so apparent in the information theory of Claude Shannon, derives from the fact that their likeness is real. The metaphor works because it indicates something actually at work in the transactions of the physical world: causation is signification. It must be, if signification is ever, at any time, to have any causal effect.
This begins to sound like consubstantiation, the doctrine that understands the Real Presence as effectuated by the actualization in the consecrated Host of the essential natures both of God and bread. And it is indeed that, or rather, subsumes that, because in the Host are to be found all that is in the essential natures of bread and God; but it is more. For with the consecration, the Bread is no longer mere bread, nor is it even bread with some God mixed in like yeast, but rather an altogether new substance, of a different sort of entity than either bread, or God, or a soup of bread and God. It is supernatural Bread, the Bread of Heaven.
But neither is this transubstantiation, although as with the doctrines of memorialism and consubstantiation, in the doctrine of the Bread of Heaven the doctrine of transubstantiation is subsumed. The doctrine of transubstantiation is correct in that at the consecration the nature of bread is replaced with the nature of the Bread of Heaven; but all the essential aspects of bread are present in the Bread of Heaven, so that in that essential replacement, nothing of the essence of bread is lost.
Still, even granting that the substantial embodiment of Jesus in the Bread is in no sense an exclusion of the Bread’s natural breadiness, there is nevertheless a much deeper problem with the notion of the Real Presence. It is, again, a type of the basic problem of the Incarnation – and, by extension, of the Trinity. How can the infinite Eternal One be integral with a finite temporal creature? How can we be one with Jesus, or Jesus – whether as man or as eternal Logos – one with the Father?
Well, the same way that time is happening in eternity. That God is eternal does not mean he is not also in time. Indeed, as omnipresent, he pervades time. There cannot then be any contradiction between the eternal and temporal modes of being; if there were, then there would no way to have temporality in the first place, for since eternity is logically prior to time, any contradiction between the two modes of being would have the logical consequence that the posterior mode of being would not ever attain actuality. The only way to have time is to have eternity a priori, and for time to agree perfectly with eternity. Time, then, as posterior to eternity, is happening in eternity, and is fully limited by and conformed thereto.
So, in the eucharist, God responds to us in time, just as we respond to each other. His response is happening in time and in eternity – in time, which is an aspect of eternity. So Jesus is in time as we are, but he is also consciously eternal. The Incarnation happened before all worlds because all worlds happened before all worlds. The happening of worlds is a procedure of eternity. So, likewise, with the Earthly eucharist, which having happened once happens always, at every nonce. The Mass is after all a participation with all the angel choirs in an everlasting heavenly rite.