It is said that fools step in where Angels fear to tread, and for me writing on this theme smacks of that. I am so grateful to C451 for his help here, both in helping focus my reading, and also in marshalling my thoughts. It seemed to me a model of supervision, and I envy his research students. What follows is entirely mine, and I know he has his reservations as a Roman Catholic, which means I am even more grateful for his generosity in not pressing me down the path he follows. Now to plunge in!
I believe in the ‘Real Presence.’ What do I mean? I mean that in ways not to be described, or even understood by sinful men and women, Jesus is present in the consecrated bread and wine. This agrees, up to a point, with what the Roman Catholic Church believes, but only up to a point. The Catechism states:
1376 The Council of Trent summarizes the Catholic faith by declaring: “Because Christ our Redeemer said that it was truly his body that he was offering under the species of bread, it has always been the conviction of the Church of God, and this holy Council now declares again, that by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of his blood. This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.”
If I have understood correctly (and if not please correct me) this is based in part on Aquinas’ idea of “accidents”, that is that although the bread and wine look the same, they have been changed into the actual blood and flesh of Christ. In this view, the natural elements have been abolished and replaced by the body and blood of Christ. Why does this cause me, and other Anglicans, a difficulty?
Across the first five centuries of the Christian faith’s history there is one golden thread which runs, and that was to do with how to understand the Incarnation. First there were arguments about docetism. Was Christ’s human body real, or did it just seem to be real. Was he not, in fact, Spirit, and the flesh merely an image for our eyes? No, the Church decided that was not the case. Christ was fully human and fully divine. That also put an end to the debate about whether he had a real human mind and soul. But if he was fully human, what about original sin? He was like us in all things save sin. Aquinas put it best (thank you C451): ‘grace does not abolish nature, but perfects it.’ That being so, why are we to hold that the bread and wine cease to be bread and win but become something else?
Hooker (again, thank you C451) pointed out that the eucharist was ‘the sacrament of continuing santification,’ a key part of what the Eastern Orthodox call theosis – God became man so that man could become God, as St Athansius put it. The purpose of the Eucharist isn’t to change the bread and wine, it is to change us, again, to quote Hooker: ‘we are not to doubt but that they really give what they promise and are what they signify’. The change effected in us is ‘a true change both of soul and body, an alteration from death to life.’ This, thankfully, takes us away from old controversies over the manner in which Christ is present in the eucharist, which, frankly, we cannot and do not need to know (oh how our pride in our own ingenuity can lead us into controversy), and it restores to us the idea that the eucharist is a dynamic action of Grace leading us to fuller participation in the life of Christ.
I am with Hooker here. The ultimate location of Christ’s body and blood is not to be sought in the sacraments but ‘in the worthy receiver … only in the heart and soul of him which receives him’. I know from what I experience when I receive the eucharist (which is I twice a month) that Christ is there, the manner in which he is there is a mystery beyond me, neither do I seek to know what is not knowable – except what I know – that he is in me, and I am in him, and the whole world is thereby set to rights.