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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Truth – A Relationship

A few personal challenges of late sent me reflecting on truth again. Some of our loved ones confronted us with some difficult positions on important moral and family matters. It’s all I could do to keep conversations open and respectful, while working hard to share my opposing perspectives in non-judgmental ways and in a manner that deserved equal openness and respect. Maintaining open and loving relationships in times of disagreement is so heart-wrenching.

And then a peculiar thing happened. As if the ears of my mind and heart were sharpened by my own painful experience of discord, I heard and saw the same pain in so many places and over so many issues: disagreements over assisted suicide, disputes over the need to reconcile with our First Nations sisters and brothers, deep differences over the definition of marriage and how the church ought to care and seek justice for the LGBTQ community, strong disagreements within First Nations jurisdictions over allowing mining on their territory or not, a family feud over an estate, debate over whether to sit or kneel at the consecration or the place of the tabernacle (really!), sharp divisions over the peaceful nature of Islam,  vastly opposing opinions on how to eradicate racism and violence in the US, in Canada, in the world …

Sometimes I wonder: “How can we ever sort this out?” Is it even possible to reach for higher conversation standards; are there others who are dissatisfied with entrenched polarizing positions on controversial questions? The extent of volatile conflict near and far is scary; even disputes within churches sometimes resemble more a vindictive culture war than the Gospel.

What is so hard about acknowledging our vulnerability and awkwardness while affirming goodwill and desire for wholeness in every person? What is so hard about living God’s truth, Jesus’ truth, in the quality of our relationships, challenging ourselves to deliberately choose love as our foundational orientation? I sadly acknowledge the reasons for violence, war, and discords of all shapes and sizes. But are we doomed to live with this alienating way of relating to one another? In all these examples, a battle for “the truth” rages. I find myself asking Pilate’s ancient question again: what is truth?

As if an answer to the pleading prayer in my soul, along came the words of Pope Francis:
The truth, according to Christian faith, is God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. So the truth is a relationship! Each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives…. This doesn’t mean that truth is variable or subjective; quite the opposite. But it means that it is given to us always and only as a way and a life. Did not Jesus himself say: ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life’? In other words, truth being altogether one with love, requires humility and openness to be sought, received and expressed. ~ Pope Francis in his letter to Eugenio Scalfari, Nov. 9, 2013

What if this is true? I mean, what if truth is first and foremost a relationship of love patterned on the Trinity as the ultimate communion of love (long before it is a set of intellectual dogmas and beliefs), and is given to us always and only as a way and a life? If indeed this is true, that has enormous implications for those of us who claim to follow Jesus, the incarnation of that truth. We cannot ignore today’s local, national and international conflicts, both within and between our churches and in the wider world. Nor can we retreat in ideological fortresses of our own making and say to the rest of the Body ‘I have no need of you.’

But we desperately need to adopt conversation models “in a new key” so to speak, models which can equip us to listen without fear or prejudice and seek a better understanding of ‘the other,’ whoever that may be in any given situation. At best we can only change ourselves, and only if our Christian discipleship summons us to do so. In other words, the most life-giving reason to desire change is to deepen our capacity to love as God loves. I know that I need to change daily, as I struggle with difficult people, new issues and moral dilemmas. We may not agree, but can we be committed to hold together in love, and through that commitment, see the face of Christ in one another while inching ever closer to realizing God’s Kingdom on earth?

I read echoes of this same diagnosis and a desire for fostering a higher standard of discourse through the quality of how we relate to one another and the world in Fr. Richard Rohr’s words in Breathing Under Water (pg. 62):
The longer I live the more I believe that truth is not an abstraction or an idea that can be put into formulas or mere words. Our real truth has to do with how we situate ourselves in this world. There are ways of living and relating that are honest and sustainable and fair, and there are utterly dishonest ways of living and relating . This is our real, de facto, and operative “truth,” no matter whose theories or theologies we believe. Our life situation and our style of relating to others is “the truth” that we actually take with us to the grave. It is who we are, more than our theories about this or that. 

Jesus himself holds us to this higher standard, and yet we forget as quickly as water passes through a sieve. We keep making a categorical mistake, i.e. that loving and honouring our opponent implies consent and support for something that risks violating our conscience. But far from condoning sin, pain and woundedness, Jesus’ capacity to love unconditionally and show generous mercy had a radical life-changing effect on persons. His love shed clear truth-filled light into burdened souls, spontaneously exposed the darkness of sin and healed open wounds, while restoring dignity and honour.

Simply by experiencing the honour to be worthy to host Jesus, Zaccheus confessed of his own accord. (Luke 19:1-10) Simply by being in his presence, the sinful woman washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, evoking from Jesus the words: “Her sins, which were many; have been forgiven.” (Luke 7:36-50). In the parable on the weeds and the wheat, Jesus cautioned about pulling the weeds before harvest (Matthew 13:24-30). Even the Syro-Phoenician woman, an outcast by all social standards, felt the power of divine love, and claimed it for her daughter. (Matthew 15:21-28)

Simply put, the sheer power of divine love does the sifting and sorting, the healing and restoring; no need to add judgment or condemnation, no need to fear, dispute or despise. That is why St. Augustine said in his famous sermon on love:

Human actions can only be understood by their root in love. All kinds of actions might appear good without proceeding from the root of love. Remember, thorns also have flowers: some actions seem truly savage, but are done for the sake of discipline motivated by love. Once and for all, I give you this one short command: love, and do what you will. If you hold your peace, hold your peace out of love. If you cry out, cry out in love. If you correct someone, correct them out of love. If you spare them, spare them out of love. Let the root of love be in you: nothing can spring from it but good. …

Contrary to earlier reports, it became clear this morning (July 12, 2016) that the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada did pass the motion last night that will change the definition of marriage. While many are grateful and relieved there is also much pain over this decision across the Anglican and ecumenical landscape. Are there really any winners in such a divisive outcome? The most striking comments came from Rev. Dr. Iain Luke, soon-to-be the new principal at Emmanuel St. Chad College in Saskatoon:

The irony is that before the whole synod started, people were saying it’s a “lose-lose” situation. Everybody knows what it feels like now. Both sides have understood now what it feels like to lose, if you have to use that word. One side ends up not getting their way, but the other side knows what it feels like. For a day, they felt that, and I hope that that will help us.
The most important thing going ahead is that we bring those two groups of people together, that people see the leadership of those two groups working together to find one story for our church. It would be terrible if there were two stories of this synod, because two stories lead to two churches. We need one story, one church. But to do that, people have to see that both sides are working together to tell that story.
Why did it happen this way? There must be something for us to learn from this … (Anglican Journal, July 12, 2016)

My heart hurts and my spirit weeps as one group cheers and another group breaks. Can we take seriously Pope Francis’ words that each one of us receives the truth and expresses it in his or her own way, from the history, culture and situation in which he or she lives? Are we willing to look for “Holy Ground” in another’s painful life story? Can we let God’s love purify all our hearts so that love’s divine power can truly flow through us all freely, confidently and generously? For the sake of the world, create a clean heart in me, O God, and put a new and steadfast spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)

O gracious and holy Father,
give us wisdom to perceive you,
diligence to seek you,
patience to wait for you,
eyes to behold you,
a heart to meditate upon you,
and a life to proclaim you;
through the power of
the Spirit of Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Amen.
~ St. Benedict

Prairie Encounters

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