One of my good friends from Harding, Jake Owens, has written my post for this week. He puts out quality stuff on his own blog, The Badlands, and his guest post here is no exception.
Bad news, folks. I’m here to talk about the doctrine of Transubstantiation.
*a chorus of protestants boo me mercilessly*
I think most objections to the teaching stem from a misunderstanding of it, and if we’re going to dismiss it (though I don’t think we should), we ought to at least understand what we’re dismissing. However, I will be the first to admit that it sounds a bit out-there to claim that the bread and the wine become the actual body and blood of Jesus. Even for people whose faith centers on a man raising from the dead, it sounds far-fetched.
Here is where the real issue lies. Many get hung up on the idea of the bread and wine transforming into actual human flesh and blood because it doesn’t appear or taste like flesh and blood. As far as we can observe, the bread and the wine stay exactly as they are—aside from being chomped up and gulped down.
That objection, however, would not be to transubstantiation, but to transformation, which, to my knowledge, nobody actually teaches.
In philosophical terms, a given subject has substance and accidents. “Accidents” are qualities that don’t affect something’s essence. “Substance,” on the other hand, is the essence that lies beneath something’s attributes. My humanity isn’t contingent upon my pale skin, blue eyes, and love of boiled peanuts—plenty of humans exist who don’t share those qualities (accidents) but still have the same human substance.
Transubstantiation is when, at the moment of consecration, the substance of Jesus Christ becomes wholly and physically present within the accidents of the bread and wine. The accidents, that which is perceived by the senses, remain the same, but the physical presence of Christ is nevertheless there within them.
Not symbolically. Not as a memorial. Not as “emblems.” The bread and the wine are the body and blood of Jesus.
After all, that’s exactly what Jesus said.
“Take, eat. This is my body.”
If he was speaking figuratively, it’s a shame the early church didn’t pick up on that, because they caught a lot of flack (read: martyrdom) for their beliefs surrounding the Eucharist. Maybe they wouldn’t have faced charges of cannibalism if they had been looser with their interpretation. Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) and Ignatius of Antioch (35-108 AD) both explicitly acknowledged the physical presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Ignatius, a disciple of John who was personally appointed by Peter to lead the church in Antioch, even went so far as to say that those who do not believe Christ is physically present in the bread and wine are heretics— separate from the true Church.
Cyril of Jerusalem (313-386 AD) wrote, “Jesus Christ once changed water into wine, so why should we not believe that he can change wine into blood?… So do not think of them as just bread and wine. And if your senses suggest otherwise, then let faith assure you beyond doubt that you have received the body and blood of Christ.”
If Jesus was speaking metaphorically, it’s odd that 1) He would give so much time to the specifics of the metaphor and 2) that He would be willing to lose followers over it rather than say, “Relax, it’s just a metaphor. Geez.”
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.”… Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?”… As a result of this, many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. (John 6: 53-58, 60, 66)
From the early church onward, a literal interpretation of Jesus’s words on the Eucharist was the only accepted understanding of it. That is, until Martin Luther contested it. For all the justified critiques Luther gave of the Catholic Church, he really whiffed on this one.
In the very same sentence that he calls transubstantiation “a monstrous idea,” he also calls Aristotle “pseudo-philosophy.”
There can be all kinds of debate concerning what exactly happens to the bread and wine. The word “transubstantiation” might have too Catholic a ring to it for protestants to feel comfortable with adopting it. But ultimately, the crux of the issue is the physical presence of Christ. Regardless of how one believes the bread and wine physically become Christ, the point is that Jesus is tangibly and physically with us and in us.
If communion does not include the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine, it is something foreign to what the church practiced for the first millennia and a half.
When it’s not taken as a symbol or a memorial, but rather as the real presence of Christ, it’s a drastically different experience. It’s no longer a tray to be passed or a ritual that fits between songs. It dominates the room and demands our adoration. Peter Kreeft says that communion without the physical presence is like describing a marriage as a friendship.
If transubstantiation sounds like it’s too weird to believe, then you’re in good company because that’s what Jesus’ disciples thought at first too. Nevertheless, it became a touchstone for the faith and remained that way all the way up until protestants got trigger happy during the reformation and threw baby Jesus out with the bathwater.
During the Mass, right before the Eucharist is received, Catholics say a beautiful appropriation of Matthew 8. Before taking and eating the body that was broken for us, they say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”
Ultimately, it comes down to the point of the gathering. Maybe the church is stuck in a cycle of repeating different versions of the same eulogy right before the main event (the sermon, of course), or perhaps the purpose of meeting is more than that. In Christ’s body being broken and blood being spilt, he sustains us through his physical presence, and the church, in turn, bears him out to the world.