26 October 2004

In Memory of Me

Over the last week or so I've had a couple of interesting chats -- first with The Other Half and then with Eddie earlier today -- about the nature of the Eucharist. I know, not the lightest of conversation topics, but there you have it.

Herself and I got talking about it after Paul and Sinead's wedding mass last Friday. She was a bit concerned about how non-Catholics might feel excluded at a Catholic marriage ceremony, since they can't partake of Holy Communion. I don't think communion features in Anglican marriages, but even if it did, the Church of England allows all present to receive.

Anyway, a lengthy discussion of the nature of the Eucharist followed, and when Eddie popped round after his service this morning, I took the opportunity to quiz him on why his church doesn't have communion every week, despite this having the practice of the earliest Christians, and espoused by Calvin, and also on why the Church of England -- and indeed Protestants in general -- do not regard the Eucharist as being the body and blood of Christ. The latter's an odd question, you might think, but since the vast majority -- about two-thirds -- of all Christians are bound to believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, as indeed did all Christians until the sixteenth century, the burden of proof surely falls on those who dissent.

Of course, as happens all too often in these conversations, we got sidetracked into discussions of what sacraments are, how many sacraments there are, why Protestants follow the Pharisees rather than the early Church in leaving out seven books from the Old Testament, and how on earth we're meant to interpret ambiguous passages of scripture.

Despite that, though, shorn of all the digressions, Eddie's argument basically came down to saying that Jesus was speaking symbolically at the Last Supper when he said 'this is my body'. He likened it to a parable, and said that yes, we should break bread as Jesus commanded us, but only as a way of remembering how Our Lord sacrificed himself for us. Furthermore, he said, it's not really that important to Christianity, not when compared to simply evangelising, and telling people about Jesus.

Maybe, I wondered, but what on earth do you tell them? How can you be sure you've got it right? The Bible might well be infallible, but it's meaning is all too often far from clear. How can you be sure you're reading the Biblical map right? It's not good enough for us to claim as individuals that the Holy Spirit guides us. It's unlikely to be guiding over 20,000 sects in very different directions. But then, I've talked about this before.

'I am the Truth...'
It seems to me that if we're to be honest in our Faith; indeed, if we're to be honest with ourselves, we have an obligation to seek after the Truth. This means not shutting out ideas that challenge us, whatever we believe, but facing them and grappling with them. We have been given the gift of Reason for a reason. It is our duty to use it.

Could Eddie be right? Could it be the case that the consecrated bread and wine Catholics receive at mass is just that, bread and wine? That it's merely symbolic of the broken body and shed blood of Our Lord, rather than really being the Body and Blood of the Lord?

On the face of it, Eddie would appear to be right. After all, the Host looks like bread. It tastes, feels, and smells like it. Under a microscope it would surely be identical to bread. And the same goes for the contents of the Chalice. By any practical test, it's wine, diluted by just the tiniest drop of water. Surely these aren't really the Body and Blood of the Lord?

But if they're not, then we're left with a problem. Was Jesus a Liar? Was he lying that night in the upper room, when he told the Apostles to eat the bread he had blessed, saying 'This is my body... do this in memory of me'?

Well, obviously not, but he could have been speaking symbolically, surely. Could? Is there anything that suggests that he was? He doesn't say 'This is like my body,' or 'This represents my body,' or 'Honour this as if it were my body.' And it's not as if he couldn't have said that, if he really wanted his disciples to know his was speaking figuratively.

Yes, but this hardly proves that it's not a metaphor. Granted, that's true, but this is a dangerous path to tread: it would be absurd to approach every statement of Our Lord as if it's most likely to be read symbolically; so why pick this one statement in particular? The burden of proof, as I've said, is on those who would claim that Jesus was speaking of the bread and wine as mere symbols of his body and blood.

John's account of Jesus' teaching after the Feeding of the Five Thousand should dispel any notions that Jesus spoke symbolically at the Last Supper. John records how Jesus told the multitudes that he was the Bread of Life, come down from Heaven, telling those who wished for Eternal Life that they must 'eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood'.

Jesus' language here is gritty and earthy; it's tactile stuff, not the language of metaphor; a less graceful but more literally reading might render 'eat' as 'gnaw' or 'chew'. Further, John uses the word sarx for 'flesh', a word that can only mean physical flesh, rather than the more ambiguous soma. Jesus wasn't talking about some floaty absorption of himself, but rather of something much more 'real'. In fact, the multitudes who were listening to him took his words at face value and were appalled. Many turned away in disgust, horrified at what seemed to be an injunction towards cannibalism. Many of these had previously witnessed a great miracle, and yet they could not accept this teaching. Even the apostles were confused.

And yet Jesus made no attempt to retract his teaching, or to explain it away as symbolic. Jesus wasn't above explaining things which his disciples couldn't understand. Yet here he simply reiterated his teaching, but more forcefully.

The meaning of what he was saying only became clear with the Last Supper, when he transformed bread and wine into his flesh and blood.

'Three things are alleged against us: atheism, Thyestean feasts, Oedipodean intercourse...'
Saint Paul, writing to the Corinthians, was quite adamant that the consecrated bread and wine was indeed the Body and Blood of the Lord and ought to be treated as such. He makes it quite clear that anybody who 'eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord' and that 'any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself'.

Could this be clearer? In the light of this, how can anybody claim that Our Lord was speaking figuratively when he instituted the sacrament at the Last Supper? Paul explicitly says that those who take Communion without recognising it as the body of Christ condemn themselves.

Of course, it doesn't look like flesh and blood. Nevertheless, it's pretty clear that the very first Christians followed Paul and John in regarding it as such; there was a reason, after all, why the Pagan Romans considered the Christians to be cannibals.

Take a look at what Saint Ignatius of Antioch has to say on the matter. Ignatius was a Syrian Bishop and a disciple, along with Polycarp, of Saint John, who was martyred in Rome at the start of the second century. On the way to Rome he wrote a series of letters to local churches, including one to the Smyrnaeans, where he warned them to beware of 'those who hold strange doctrine touching the grace of Jesus Christ which came to us, how that they are contrary to the mind of God... they allow not that the eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which flesh suffered for our sins, and which the Father of His goodness raised up.' (6.2)

Think about that. We're dealing with historical fact here. Even if you're a convinced atheist, you can't deny the fact that Ignatius is a credible source for mainstream Christian belief in his day. He's basically warning his fellow Christians to beware of being tempted towards Gnosticism, of which 'strange beliefs' about the Eucharist are a hallmark. The notion that the Eucharist was not really the Body and Blood of the Lord would hardly have been strange to the early Christians if the belief in the Real Presence hadn't been central to their faith, would it?

Or take Saint Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century. Justin wrote the first detailed account of Christian worship which is still extant - Biblical references scarcely do more than make vague references to the singing of psalms or the breaking of bread. Take a look at it -- it's towards the end of his First Apology. His comments on the Eucharist are most instructive, built as they are around the observation that the Eucharistic bread and wine are not received as common food and drink but that 'the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.' (66)

Yes, but how?
The problem still remains that the consecrated bread and wine, when consecrated, still seem to be bread and wine. When we receive communion our sense scream that what we are consuming is ordinary bread and wine. How could it be the Body and Blood of the Lord?

This is something that the Church has grappled with from the start. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem accepts the transformation as real, but a mystery nonetheless, when he notes in a lecture to the newly baptised that 'the seeming bread is not bread, though sensible to taste, but the Body of Christ; and that the seeming wine is not wine, though the taste will have it so, but the Blood of Christ.' (22.9)

Cyril clearly doesn't understand how the bread and wine could have been transformed into the Body and Blood of the Lord. Despite his incomprehension, however, he believes without question. Jesus took the bread and identified it as his body; who could gainsay the Lord?

Cyril's faith is a model to us all, and I think important in refuting one of Eddie's points. Eddie had argued that our faith had to be simple enough for a child to understand, as otherwise we'd be excluding people. At the time I countered that it also should be complex enough for an adult to understand, as otherwise we'd be excluding people.

We were both wrong. The issue isn't that the faith be simple or complex enough for anyone to understand. Cyril obviously didn't understand. No, what's needed is that the faith be simple enough for a child to believe, complex enough for an adult to belief.

It's belief that counts, not understanding. If understanding helps belief, so much the better. Ideally they should work as a team. But it's our faith that saves us, not our intelligence.

Yes, but come on, if it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, it's, um, bread, isn't it?
But even allowing that it's faith that saves us, it has to be said that this is a great stumbling block - indeed, it has been since many of Jesus' first followers declared the command to 'eat his flesh' to be 'a hard saying' and wondered 'who can listen to it?' (Jn. 6.60)

Saint Irenaeus of Lyons, writing in the second half of the second century, says of the host that 'the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly' (4.18.5)

Two realities? But how? Well, over time, it was felt that the concept of 'transubstantiation' best explained what happened at the consecration, with it becoming officially accepted by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches in the thirteenth century.

Greek philosophy speaks of things having an accidental and a substantial reality. The 'accidents' of something are its physical properties, those attributes that can be perceived with the senses. The 'substance' of something, on the other hand, is its inner reality, what it really is.

The accidents of something can change - for instance a potato can be cooked - without the substance changing - it's still a potato. That's normal. Accidents change all the time.

But when Jesus is reported to have changed water into wine, he changed not merely its accidents, but its substance too. It did not become like wine, as it would if it had just acquired the taste, the colour, and the properties of wine. Rather it really became wine.

So what happened at the Last Supper? And what happens whenever we celebrate the Eucharist as Christ commanded us to do? Well, if the doctrine of transubstation is right, the accidents of the bread and wine stay the same, as they did in the upper room, but their substance changes. At their ultimate and innermost level, they cease to be bread and wine, despite all appearances, and become the true Body and Blood of Christ.

Yes, I know it's hard to believe. And ultimately, it is a matter of faith. Saint Thomas Aquinas puts it well, as ever, when he says that 'The presence of Christ's true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority. Hence, on Lk. 22:19: "This is My body which shall be delivered up for you," Cyril says: "Doubt not whether this be true; but take rather the Saviour's words with faith; for since He is the Truth, He lieth not."'

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