Whenever Eucharist as a meal is discussed, some one is bound to ask, eyes focused in a gaze of great intensity: "But is there transubstantiation?" It is a honest question, but it is a wrong question at the same time. The question ought to be "Is Christ present in this Eucharist?" And by Eucharist we cannot mean simply the consecrated species of bread and wine.
The Eucharist is not a thing; it is an action. Just as baptism is not the water, and confirmation the oils, the Eucharist is not the consecrated species, although people do speak of it at times in that way. The Eucharist as the Mass includes the gathering of community, Word of Scripture, the offering of the people, the consecration in the words of institution, the communion and finally the sending forth. The Risen Christ is present in all of this.
The purpose of the Mass is not to produce a product to be consumed, nor is it a magic show which culminates in a grand finale of producing the body and blood of the Christ. It is a sacrament of the Church, the purpose of which is to incorporate us into the Risen Christ, who is the great sacrament.
The Eucharist as a meal is also an entire action. This is even more evident in the historical Eucharistic meal of the Last Supper because the breaking of the bread and the cup of blessing are separated by a real meal, by food and conversation, as described by Paul in I Corinthians — breaking of bread at the beginning, and cup of blessing at the end. In the Emmaus story, the disciples experienced the Risen Christ in "the breaking of the bread," in the whole meal, including the discourse on the scriptures.
"Real Presence" is generally used to describe the presence of Christ specifically in the Blessed Sacrament, although Christ is present in all the sacraments. Let us consider the Real Presence in the consecrated species.
First of all, "Real" does not mean this body is the pre-resurrection body of Jesus the Christ. Lazarus was resuscitated and destined to die in the future; Jesus was resurrected, which means He conquered death and was glorified. There is only one Jesus the Christ, and his body now is the glorified body, about which we know little. St. Paul in Cor: 35-58 gives a lengthy sermon on the Risen Body, with ways of trying to imagine it. The final word, however, is that we cannot understand mystery.
We can think of it in terms of anti-matter, something comparable to a hologram — a three dimensional image made by light, or simply the product of Divine energy. St. Paul says it is a spiritual body, but this does not mean it is a phantasm like one sees in some low budget movie. Sprit body can and should be understood in the way we speak of a steam boat: not made of steam, but driven by steam.
Christians believe that Christ is present in all aspects of creation, and in all the actions we name as sacraments particularly. Real Presence in the Eucharist points to the fact that God intends to feed us this Presence like a mother nursing a baby, like Jesus fed the multitude and had baskets left over — the only gospel miracle story that is told by each of the evangelists.
When we face God's mystery, often the best we can do is to try to know what it is not. That is the apophatic knowledge spoken of by theologians.
Philosophy was very important in the Greco-Roman world and in the Middle Ages. It was inevitable that philosophers would try to place Christian belief in the context of philosophy. Clement of Alexandria, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyon wrote books in this vein. The Scholastics of the Middle Ages did the same thing, and tried to make Christian mysteries more rational, understandable, even when a mystery defies explanation. The early Fathers had little luck doing this with Platonic philosophy, but in the Middle Ages Aristotle was revived and Aquinas came up with "transubstantiation." Other efforts at this were made over the centuries, and I outline them below
transubstantiation — based on Aristotles concept of physical matter being made up of substance and accidents. In the consecration the substance changes and the accidents remain. This theory was never accepted by the Orthodox Church, partly because it contradicted itself: accidents must subsist in a substance proper to them; we cannot have weight without mass, color without light, etc . The mystery remains.
consubstantiation — Favored by the Orthodox: the bread and wine remain as they are, and the reality of the Risen Christ is added to them. They pointed to the mystery of the two natures of Christ existing in the one person as an example of this. This concept does not explain the mystery philosophically, but points to another mystery as a sign of it. Its strong point was it left the reality of the bread and wine as we do experience them.
symbolism — The more radical Protestant reformers such as Calvin generally said that the bread and wine were symbols of the body and blood of Christ, so there was no need to explain the mystery. They pointed to the fact that a person can be present in many different ways: through a picture, a letter, a memory. However, Martin Luther agreed with the Orthodox concept of consubstantiation, and the Anglicans stayed with Rome
transignification — An effort by modern theologians which depends on the concept that the purpose of something defines it in some way. If a plank of wood is subjected to great heat and pressure and formed into the side of a grand piano case, is it still a plank? Only part of a piano case? Or both? So, if the bread and wine are intended as spiritual food, are they still just food?
incorporation — Advances in science led to some other concepts; There are substances like the human heart which are a separate substance and can live outside "in vitro" for a period of time, and yet are intended to be part of a larger substance. So it is at the consecration that the bread and wine become subsumed, incorporated into the Risen Christ and exist there separately but part of the whole. They retain their own accidents, but are now part of the whole. I see this as similar to consubstantiation. The beauty of this concept is that we, the participants at the meal, are also to be incorporated more and more into the Risen Christ. We become what we eat. It is less of a magic show with its focus on what happens to the bread and wine.
field theory — Also from science, that
energy is more fundamental than matter, and God can be viewed as Energy —
Intelligent, Loving Energy and in that way is present in all creation. Just as a
wire can be charged with different amounts of energy, so God can enter into His
creation on different levels. In the Eucharistic meal Christ comes as energy
into the gathering, and during the re-membering at the breaking of the bread,
comes into that also as high voltage as our food. And just as we cannot tell if
a wire is charged without touching it, so we must touch Christ to experience
this presence. And Christ said: "Take and eat..."
All of these concepts have some merit; none of them explain the mystery. The words of John of Damascus (665-749) are appropriate here:
And now you ask how the bread becomes the body of Christ,
and the wine and the water become the blood of Christ. I shall tell you. The
Holy Spirit comes upon them, and achieves things which surpass every word and
thought. Let it be enough for you to understand that this takes place by the
Another form of the question is "Is there a consecration in the Eucharistic meal?"
To examine this, we must remember first of all that the Roman, Western Church teaches that the consecration happens at the words of institution, while the Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that it happens at the Epiclesis, the prayer before the institution when the priest prays that the Holy Spirit may come down upon these gifts. These are both apostolic churches with all the sacraments. Is it not clear that when God's power in mystery is involved, we cannot analyze it, dissect it, and claim to know all about it? Jesus does not come at our command, but rather joins us as he did with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, at His pleasure.
The first disciples who presided at the Lord's Supper had no idea of being priests. They were followers of Jesus who was not of the Jewish priestly line and did not officiate in the Temple, which was where priesthood was located. He was a teacher, a rabbi, a prophet and wandering healer, but not a Jewish priest. Nor did the first disciples have any concept of the meal as a ritual sacrifice, because that also belonged to the Temple.
The meal was a re-membering of the Christ, an experience of the Risen Lord among them in their community. As Paul said, "You are the Body of Christ." It took years, decades, for the community to come to the realization of the priesthood of Christ as described in the Epistle to the Hebrews: the new high priest that ended the Jewish priesthood. The office of the priesthood was not an issue for the first Christians. That does not negate the fact that Jesus gave to his first disciples the command to "Do this in memory of me." and promised to give them his body to eat and his blood to drink.
Today, whoever presides at the meal represents the whole community gathered at the table. The presider has the power given by the community to invite the Lord Jesus in their name to accept the offering of bread and wine, symbols of their lives, and to give them his body to eat and his blood to drink. This is the priesthood of the faithful, the basis of all priesthood, given by Jesus to the disciples.
The authority of this basic priesthood is very limited, but
its power is real. We need ordained priests and a hierarchy in the greater
church as representatives, administrators, and teachers. That is pat of social
evolution, but their authority came from the community. The priesthood of the
faithful is not to supplant them. Concerning the consecrating of the bread and
wine, however, we do not see it restricted to the ordained priesthood, because
merely baptizedfirst disciples did not have the power or right to
do this in memory of mehow did the later disciples acquire this power.
The sacrament of ordination came later on to meet the needs of the community
which was growing.
The issue is not about a man's or woman's power, but rather the desire and ability of God to come in love to the creatures made in his image, to support and feed them.