RETHINKING THE EUCHARISTIC "REAL PRESENCE" OF CHRIST

Almost from the very beginning of Christianity there has been a real problem over the belief in the "real", or as some would even insist, "physical" presence of the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. In one of the earliest New Testament writings (the First Letter to the Corinthians) the Apostle Paul, after first recounting the last supper rite in much the same terms reported in the three synoptic Gospels, complains about those Christians to participate in the communion rite carelessly or without proper dispositions, "behaving unworthily towards the body and blood of the Lord" (I Corinthians 11:27).

Nevertheless, the difficulties only begin there. The Fourth Gospel (written some time later), in particular, displays a curious ambivalence over the matter. While John's account of the Last Supper totally ignores the communion rite, the sixth chapter of that same gospel one the one hand seems to go out of its way to drive home the startling physical realism of the Christian belief ("For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink...") even to the point of admitting that there were many who departed from the company of Jesus's followers over this issue, and yet, in the end, trying to reassure those who remained faithful that "it is the spirit that gives life, the flesh has nothing to offer..." (John 6:63).

Subsequent Christian history shows this same tension, all the way from the practice of the "discipline of the secret" (to ward off the charge that Christians practiced cannibalism in the catacombs) through medieval and reformation times when repeated attempts were made to reduce the belief to one of "memorial symbolism". Then there is the accusation (with some justification) that the modern liturgical movement has sought to divert directed away from this difficult belief (along with various theories on how the Mass is truly a "sacrifice") and has instead concentrated on the Eucharist as primarily a community meal.

Historically, the Church's official reaction to such attempts to water down or deemphasize this belief has been to reemphasize the actual presence of Jesus Christ "body and blood, soul and divinity" in this sacrament and to officially adopt the language of what has come to be called the doctrine of "transubstantiation" -- the idea that while the "accidents" (shape, taste, etc.) of bread and wine remain, the actual "substance" (literally, what "stands underneath") is no longer that of bread or wine, but truly that of the body and blood of the risen Christ. Attempts to reformulate the belief in different terms, whether they be Luther's theory of "impanation" (a real presence of Christ along with the substance of bread) or of "transignification" (as advanced by the modern Dutch theologian, Edward Schillebeecykx) have been rejected as inadequate.

Nevertheless, despite these rejections, it seems to me essential, particularly in the light of modern physics that we attempt to reformulate not the theological grounding (for that remains faith in the risen Jesus) but the philosophical expression of our belief in the real presence of Christ. To do this, three issues must be addressed.

FIRST, we need to know what we mean by the physical presence of anything whatsoever. Modern physics holds energy and matter to be simply two forms of the same thing, and an evolutionary explanation of this phenomenon would postulate further that "matter" is simply a concretization of energy: "substance" in this case, is nothing but energy "frozen" as it were, into a more or less fixed configuration. Furthermore, in terms of our biological nature, we now know that this "more or less" is mostly the latter. More than our outward "form" (or our "accidents") changing (which they surely over time, often alarmingly, do!) it is our physical substance, our constituent "matter" that changes even more -- every seven years, more or less, depending, I suppose, on the rate of our individual metabolism. On top of all this, we now know that better than 99 & 99/100% of even the densest matter is itself nothing but space. Does it make sense any longer, at the beginning of the 21st. century, to talk in such quaint terms (borrowed from Aristotle's musing in the 5th. Century BC) as "substance" and "accident"? I would guess a change in vocabulary has been long overdue. Given the current understanding of physics, I think even the phrase "real presence" might best be laid aside in favor of something more dynamic in expression. Perhaps "actual presence" (with an emphasis on act) would do.

SECOND, we need to renew our sense of the overall presence of God in the universe. I suspect that a good deal of Christian doubt about the "real presence" of Christ in the Eucharist derives from a lack of appreciation of God's immanence or presence throughout the whole universe. When God (the Father) is regarded as some venerable old "Man upstairs" and the risen Christ is imagined as "sitting" up there as His "right hand" it is no wonder that people have doubts! God, to be truly the creator and sustainer of all things must be seen a present IN all things as well as "above" all things. Biblical religion, and Christianity in particular, seems quite deficient in this realization. We have always tended to emphasize God's "transcendence" or "apartness" from creation -- our widespread disregard for the environment betrays this failing for all to see. But it has also severely damaged our ability to understand, much less even to begin to grasp, the meaning of such phrases found in the New Testament where the risen Christ is depicted as "the fullness of Him who fills the universe in all its parts"(see Ephesians 1:23). Jesus, if he truly rose from the grave, did not rise to some other physical location on planet earth or up in the sky someplace. He rose to an altogether different dimension of reality which both transcends, yet is immanent to, all space and time. Understood in these terms, the real or actual presence of Christ in the Eucharist is no big deal. In a certain sense, it's one of the most natural things in the world! So it could be that if Christians have doubts about this belief, it is due more to a lack of understanding what is the most fundamental notion of God than anything to do with the doctrine of "transubstantiation" or the "real presence of Christ".

From our usual limited perspective, however, we still have problems comprehending anything like this mystery. So again, we have to ask another, THIRD question: this time about the mystery of what we ourselves really are. I have already suggested that the idea of our own physical "substantiality" is largely an illusion. Although it is a convenient one, of course -- because we somehow need to pin our even deeper illusion of self-identity onto to something, like a peg on which we can hang our hat or coat. In fact, more than perhaps ever before in human history there has sprung up this obsessive concern (as well as a thriving business for various promoters of "pop-psychology") to discover, define, and defend this supposed true, or authentic, or real "self". But is there really any such animal? True, there is a kind of sense of "selfhood" that grows out of our interaction with others, even from our earliest childhood -- the so-called "social self". And then there is that "ideal self" that takes shape out of our hopes and dreams and so often turns out, to our dismay, to be woefully out of sync with the hand that nature has dealt us in the card-game of life. But is there really, hiding under these more or less illusory other selves, such a thing as a "real" self much less, a complete self? I really doubt that.

If that were so, and we were already complete or "finished products", then why (except for purely sexual "libido") this unrelenting drive toward union, linkage, solidarity, or communion with others or another? It is not because, at the deepest core of our existence, we are radically incomplete beings? The truth is that by ourselves, as isolated individuals, we can achieve little, least of all, become a complete, lasting, or permanent, "self". We are not naturally immortal selves or souls.

If we can be said to possess an immortal "soul" (an idea Christian theology borrowed more from Plato than from the Bible), it is only in terms of an on-going process by which our psychological activity (our sense of self) finds fulfillment or completion in a way that will enable our ambition or "spirit" (in the widest sense of that term) to come to fruition in some permanent state of existence that we call "eternal life". But this desire for immortality, no less than the ambition to discover the "true self", remains an impossible dream unless we are permanently united to God, the source of all life, all existence.

Yet God, in his transcendent aspect, purely as God apart from his role as Creator, remains totally other. This God is "spirit" pure and simple -- this time in the strictest sense of that term. Yet it is this same spirit, having become immanent ("the Spirit of Jesus" as St. Paul terms it) that raised Jesus from the dead. And it will have to be this same Spirit who must "raise" us, if we ourselves hope to enjoy eternal life. Hence the intimate connection, expressed in the sixth chapter of John's gospel, between Holy Communion and eternal life ("...if you do not eat the flesh of the son of man, and drink his blood, you will not have life in you, [but] anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life and I shall raise him up on the last day" John 6:53-54).

Does this mean that participation in Holy Communion is the only way that we can hope to arrive at true, immortal, selfhood? Surely not, because, even as the same chapter admits, it is "the Spirit alone that gives life." But the whole point of the Incarnation, of God appearing in human form, is to make it clear to us, through the human life of Jesus, that it is in and from the dynamism of our life in our body in this world, illusory and as fleeting as it may be, that we are born into another dimension of life and existence that surpasses the limitations of this world. And for us, who claim to be Christians, it may truly be the only way, for if we have really cast our lot with Jesus, then it is not mere in virtue of our life, but through his life that live in us that the Spirit will raise us to eternal life.

RWK 11/28/96


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