The Eucharist (or “What is Transubstantiation?”)

I belong to an email discussion list where I’m the only Catholic (which had made for some fun discussions!). I have 100’s of saved emails – I’m culling through them for some blogger material. So for the next few weeks – enjoy 🙂 Also, I copied and pasted quotes from several websites – most of the time I made it explicit that I was giving info from another source, but a few times I don’t think I did – please excuse the inadvertent plagarism. 🙂

Question: Where and how did the doctrine of Transubstantiation originate? Where do Catholics get the idea that there is a literal transformation of the bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ? It seems to me that the words of Christ have to be figurative when He refers to the bread and wine saying “This is my body…”

The actual term “transubstantiation” is not found in official Catholic theology until the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and there the term is used to denote the belief that that bread and wine used in the Eucharistic meal become the body and blood of Christ while remaining bread and wine.

However, prior to that scholastic definition and clarification, the notion of the bread and wine only symbolically representing the body and blood of Christ was not common. Here’s a brief selection of texts: 1 Cor. 10:16–17, 11:23–29John 6:32–71 (I won’t write these in – we can all look them up as needed) 🙂

Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Savior’s body and blood (“Early Christian Doctrines” pg. 440, J.N.D. Kelly).

Ignatius roundly declares that . . . [t]he bread is the flesh of Jesus, the cup his blood. Clearly he intends this realism to be taken strictly, for he makes it the basis of his argument against the Docetists’ denial of the reality of Christ’s body. . . . Irenaeus teaches that the bread and wine are really the Lord’s body and blood. His witness is, indeed, all the more impressive because he produces it quite incidentally while refuting the Gnostic and Docetic rejection of the Lord’s real humanity (Kelly, pgs. 197-198).

Hippolytus speaks of ‘the body and the blood’ through which the Church is saved, and Tertullian regularly describes the bread as ‘the Lord’s body.’ The converted pagan, he remarks, ‘feeds on the richness of the Lord’s body, that is, on the Eucharist.’ The realism of his theology comes to light in the argument, based on the intimate relation of body and soul, that just as in baptism the body is washed with water so that the soul may be cleansed, so in the Eucharist ‘the flesh feeds upon Christ’s body and blood so that the soul may be filled with God.’ Clearly his assumption is that the Savior’s body and blood are as real as the baptismal water. Cyprian’s attitude is similar. Lapsed Christians who claim communion without doing penance, he declares, ‘do violence to his body and blood, a sin more heinous against the Lord with their hands and mouths than when they denied him.’ Later he expatiates on the terrifying consequences of profaning the sacrament, and the stories he tells confirm that he took the Real Presence literally (Kelly, pgs. 211-212).”

If the Lord were from other than the Father, how could he rightly take bread, which is of the same creation as our own, and confess it to be his body and affirm that the mixture in the cup is his blood? (Irenaeus, “Against Heresies” 4:33–32. approx. 189 AD).

He has declared the cup, a part of creation, to be his own blood, from which he causes our blood to flow; and the bread, a part of creation, he has established as his own body, from which he gives increase unto our bodies. When, therefore, the mixed cup [wine and water] and the baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life—flesh which is nourished by the body and blood of the Lord, and is in fact a member of him? (ibid., 5:2).

The bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the holy invocation of the adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ (Cyril of Jerusalem, “Catechetical Lectures” 19:7, approx. 350 AD).

Do not, therefore, regard the bread and wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the body and blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by the faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the body and blood of Christ. . . . [Since you are] fully convinced that the apparent bread is not bread, even though it is sensible to the taste, but the body of Christ, and that the apparent wine is not wine, even though the taste would have it so, . . . partake of that bread as something spiritual, and put a cheerful face on your soul (ibid., 22:6, 9).

What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ. This has been said very briefly, which may perhaps be sufficient for faith; yet faith does not desire instruction (Augustine, “Sermons 227”, approx. 411 AD).

So more quotes than I thought I’d put in at first – sorry! 🙂

The question of whether or not the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ is not brought into serious question until the 16th century with the advent of the Protestant Reformation. By that time, however, Martin Luther and his fellow reformers were rebelling against a corrupted, superstitious form of the Real Presence, for example, that if the consecrated host were scratched it would bleed.

The more theological explanation has to do with Greek philosophy, where a distinction was made between the accidents and the substance of an object. The substance of an object was what it really was (it’s essence, it’s core, the heart of the matter, etc.). The accidents were those parts of an object that were not it’s essence. So in regards to the bread and wine, the act of consecration changes the substance, but leaves the accidents intact. In other words, the bread still tastes, looks, smells and feels like bread – it’s accidents remain unchanged. But it’s substance (the heart and soul of the object) are now transubstantiated into the body and blood of Jesus. Same with the wine – the accidents (alcoholic properties, color, flavor, etc.) remain unchanged, but the essence (the substance of the wine) is now the real presence of Jesus Christ.

For a more homey example, think of us as people. In a crude example, our bodies are our substance and our clothes are our accidents. No mater how we dress ourselves up (shorts and a t-shirt, tuxedo, swimwear, pajamas) our substance stays the same. In the Eucharist it is reversed, with the interior (the substance) changing, but the exterior (the accidents) staying the same.

One last distinction, though. We believe, as we have for millenia, that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus. That is the doctrine. The word “transubstantiation” and it’s related theology is our attempt to explain how it happens. We happen to use Greek philosophical language to try and explain it, but even should our language fail the Church still holds fast to the sacramental mystery of Christ with us.

Also, as a quick aside, since the advent of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s, we have affirmed that the real presence of Jesus Christ is present in various ways during our celebration of the Divine Liturgy – Christ is present in the person of the priest, in the gathered assembly, in the proclamation of the Scriptures, and in the Consecrated bread and wine – we literally bring, share and partake of communion throughout the whole Eucharistic liturgy . . . a far cry from the times when many Catholics only dared approach the Eucharist once or twice a year.

Blessings & Peace,