Transubstantiation Revisited

An article in a well-reputed Catholic publication caught my eye recently. It reported from an extensive survey among Roman Catholics that a significant majority no longer believe the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, i.e. that the bread and wine in the Eucharist actually undergo a permanent change into the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The same article quoted Bishop Robert Barron, who has posted a video-response to these survey results.

Pity, really. As an Anglican, I say pity, really. As a woman priest, I say pity, really. For many reasons, I say pity, really. From the very beginning of our formal ecumenical dialogue, Anglicans and Catholics have shared a significant agreement on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, forming deep connective tissue between our two traditions. On the other hand, this increasing variance in belief among Roman Catholics on the Eucharist is not unknown to Anglicans. The Anglican large-tent ethos means that there exists the entire spectrum of Eucharistic understandings, from mere symbol to literal notions of the Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and the wine. To Roman Catholics this is most disconcerting, to Anglicans this is a fact of life. “Feed on Him in thy heart by faith with thanksgiving,” says the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

Some people argue we should do away with the term transubstantiation, as its original and precise meaning in philosophy is so little understood today. But instead of discarding it, can we expand its meaning? Is it possible to rescue the term and infuse it with fresh insight, so that it comes alive anew for today’s faithful?

We speak of transubstantiation when referring to ordinary food and drink — bread and wine — being transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. If we are willing to play with expanding the term, what about this: women engage in a type of biological “transubstantiation” every time our bodies grow another human being. The new life generated by the marital union is literally fed by the mother’s own body and blood.

In her yes, Mary became the first person to offer to the world God’s holy body and blood through the birth of her son Jesus, our Messiah and Lord. Through God’s gift of growing new life in her womb and nourishing it with her own body, every woman knows something about the mystery of transforming ordinary food and drink into new life – a profound Eucharistic transformation, culminating in the great Eucharistic Sacrament of the Incarnation of God’s own Son Jesus. Have we really tapped the sacramental significance of this glorious and mysterious wonder of biological transubstantiation called pregnancy?

God deems both male and female bodies worthy sacramental vessels, capable of transforming ordinary food, ordinary events, and ordinary situations into the radiance of the risen Christ present and active in the world. Without negating the reality of sin, our bodies are created to be living sacraments; both male and female bodies are created to make God physically present in the world through word and deed, just as our Lord Jesus Christ revealed. We make God in Christ present every day when we make giving ourselves to another a gift of love, mercy and beauty. Long before any of us end up in a marriage bed, and those who never do this in a marriage bed, we gift the world with our very selves in the quality of our love, our compassion, our forgiveness.

In one of his Lenten sermons a few years ago Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, urged all of us to offer our bodies and blood as a daily Eucharistic sacrifice and gift to the world, thereby transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary presence and action of God:
Let us try to imagine what would happen if the laity, at the moment of the consecration, said silently: ‘Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood. A mother of a family thus celebrates Mass, then she goes home and begins her day made up of a thousand little things. But what she does is not nothing: It is Eucharist together with Jesus! A [religious] sister also says in her heart at the moment of consecration: ‘Take, eat …’; then she goes to her daily work: children, the sick, the elderly. The Eucharist ‘invades’ their day which becomes … Eucharist. (Zenit, March 12, 2010)

Every time we drink the cup of blessing that we bless, we share in the Blood of Christ, thus committing ourselves to be poured out in love for others. Every time we eat the Body of Christ, we are called to offer our own bodies in sacrificial love for the healing of the world. Daily gifts of self redeem relationships – with one another, as well as with creation and with God, whether in the marriage bed, in school or the workplace, at the recycling depot, in the dance recital or the communion procession. Our body is an integral expression of our personhood, thus affirming creation as male and female in the divine image as “very good.”

In the Eucharistic Prayer the priest prays,
by your Holy Spirit graciously make holy these gifts . . .
that they may become the Body and Blood of your Son . . .
But that’s not all:  “grant that we, who are nourished
by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit,
may become one body, one spirit in Christ.

Here are the words that signify the double transubstantiation. This transformation into oneness, into communion, is a thread that runs through the whole Eucharistic liturgy. We, being made one, pray the Lord’s Prayer, to “Our Father.” We share the sign of peace, and pray “grant (the church) peace and unity.” We approach the communion table together, joining our voices in song to express our spiritual union, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the community character of receiving the Eucharist as one unified body.

All of this – the praying and singing, the sharing and processing – has but one major goal: This motley crew of saints and sinners is being transformed into the Body of Christ – transubstantiation. The Body of Christ receives the Body of Christ in order to be the Body of Christ in the world. We … are changed … This is the ultimate purpose of Eucharist: to change us! We say Amen to the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ, and to our own reality as Body of Christ. We say Amen to letting go of anything that would keep us from being the Body of Christ in our world.

Pope Francis echoed St. Augustine when he stated: 
Christ gives himself to us both in the Word and in the Sacrament of the altar, to conform us to him. This means to allow oneself to be changed as we receive. Just as the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, those who receive them with faith are transformed into a living Eucharist. You become the Body of Christ. This is beautiful, very beautiful. … We become what we receive!

Really? Do we really … become … what we receive? As a people of the breaking of bread, we are a people of eternal life – life in its fullness. Celebrating the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, challenges self-examination, as Paul urges. How do we express such an abundant gift of life day to day as we live in hope and joy as well as in difficulties and pain? In spite of the daily challenges and trials, we learn to draw hope, joy and courage by living the Eucharist in daily service to those most in need among us. It is in daily service and gift of ourselves that we can stand shoulder to shoulder in a Eucharistic gesture of compassion, solidarity and justice.

Who among you is in need, asks Christ through the Lord’s Supper. Examine yourselves, and only then eat and drink, says Paul. How beautiful indeed and how powerful if this was really happening! Do most Catholics and most Christians take the discipleship challenge of the Eucharistic table into daily life, literally? Do most Catholics allow transubstantiation to occur in their own bodies–minds–spirits as a result of their eating and drinking at Holy Communion? Could a lack of taking seriously the obligation in discipleship that partaking in Holy Communion places upon us contribute to the erosion of belief also? It is curious that the comments following Bishop Barron’s video-response almost all blame the loss of reverence and solemnity in the liturgy itself. Hardly any pick up on Bishop Barron’s last words: “You take away the central teachings of our church at the doctrinal level, and trust me, you will take away our commitment to the poor. It belongs together as a whole.”

In response to Bishop Barron, and with all due respect, Christ is so much bigger than our human limitations in believing. While Bishop Barron makes a good point, I pray that he might find some consolation in the fact that other Christian traditions draw on a wide range of inspirations to sustain their commitment to the poor, including Scripture itself, the witness of Jesus, the cloud of witnesses (of which he mentions some significant ones), prayer and worship. While good catechesis and expanding our understanding of transubstantiation would greatly help, we can sustain one another in many different ways so as to keep our Christian discipleship fresh and faithful, accountable and open to continued perfecting. Let that ecumenical support become ever more real among us.

  • Part of this reflection comes from a retreat I will be leading on the Eucharist at Queen’s House in Saskatoon on September 20-21, 2019, entitled: Become what you Eat … Really? For more information, click here.
  • For more Roman Catholic responses on Transubstantiation from RC theologians (and one Anglican), click here, here and here.

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