In 1263, in the town of Bolsena in Italy, during Mass, just after consecration, the host started bleeding onto the Corporal. The priest who was celebrating was shocked, even more so because he had been having doubts about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He was deeply convicted and informed the Pope who was staying at Orvieto who immediately dispatched a delegation to investigate the miracle. The chief theologian in that delegation was none other than St Thomas Aquinas, the great doctor of the Church. He had already proposed to the Pope that we should have a feast dedicated to celebrate the Body and Blood of the Lord, and given this miracle, it became a good occasion to do so. Even today, the corporal on which the host bled is preserved in the magnificent Orvieto Cathedral and is brought out in procession on the Feast of Corpus Christi (though I guess not this year).
A survey done last year in the US, found that about 70% of Catholics – not the general population – did not believe this most fundamental and most beautiful of the doctrines of our faith. I’m not sure how representative that is in the UK, but that’s a shocking number. Because without the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church is not too far from becoming just another human institution. And a very flawed one at that. And given this, it is not surprising that a lot of Catholics do not show up for Mass on Sundays and with all the crises we face, that many don’t think too much about leaving the Church.
It seems strangely fitting then, to reflect on this core belief, on the occasion of the institution of the feast – the priests’ doubt – given our own situation today. The doctrine which defines our Eucharistic faith is called transubstantiation. It’s a term borrowed from ancient Greek Philosophy. The Fathers regularly did this, appropriating concepts and transforming them for use in theology. Aristotle proposed that, given any thing, we can differentiate it into its substance and accidents. We use this even in common language – we say, something is accidental. When the lockdown started, someone commented on Facebook saying that in 8 weeks time, 80% of blondes will cease to exist. (I had to ask someone to explain what that meant). But whether you colour your hair or not, you have hair tomorrow or not, you still remain the same person in substance – your hair/colour is accidental. This is of course a trivial example. But coming to the Eucharist, this is reversed: transubstantiation says that during the Mass, through the action of the Spirit, the substance of the bread and wine on the altar change into the Risen Christ. The accidents however, remain the same. These are the taste, smell, touch, colour, etc. The bread still feels like bread and the wine smells and tastes like wine. But at its core, it is no longer simple bread and wine but it is the Risen Christ himself – fully, including his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. This doctrine is not like a recipe book, which defines how much of one thing and another you have to add to get something else. And sometimes as Catholics we have spent too much time delving into the how of things – which remains Mystery – more than its why, itsmeaning, without which it remains just a dull dogma, or worse some kind of magic. And today’s readings give one entry point into understanding the deeper significance of this doctrine.
The Israelites were slaves for about 400 years, around five or six generations. By this time, all they knew was only to be slaves and work on mud, under the whip. And God chose them and brought them out to freedom. To live free is man’s greatest desire and one of his greatest fears. And a people who have never known freedom their entire life, were to become not just a free people, but a light to the nations. Even if they could have escaped Pharoah’s army by themselves (impossible), to become a free people of dignity is something else. And that is what God did. Their journey began around a meal, from a sacrifice which made them a people of God. He worked signs and wonders displaying his might to them. And on the way, God provided them with manna from above and water from the rock. He was always present to them in the pillar of fire, keeping them safe. The food from above was both a sign of the food that would be abundantly available in the promised land and that God took care of them in impossible circumstances. It was a food that they received without working. They would always what they needed. And in all that they had to do one thing – to learn to trust. This God was not like Pharoah, who reduced them to slavery and stripped them of their worth. This was a Father who loved them. This was the journey they had to make, to reach the promised land. God wouldn’t force them to enter the promised land; they were free. They had to to choose for thenselves, what they will be. Whether they wanted this promised land, a land of freedom and abundance or a return to slavery. Many would refuse and perish in the wilderness.
If that was a near impossible journey, the one we are on is far greater and completely impossible. Because our promised land is not some place on earth, it is heaven itself. Heaven is the place of our heart’s deepest longing. It is here that we will be completely free. And to be free means that we can love completely and experience love in all its fullness. That’s what true freedom means. Everything that destroys our capacity to love, i.e., sin, will be destroyed. Here we will experience the fullness of union with God and through God, with each other. But even if there was some way to reach heaven by ourselves (there isn’t – all creatures, all matter perishes!), to be free to love the other fully and to receive this love in return, when we are so turned inwards at our core, is near impossible. Without grace that is. And for that God supplies the new manna, the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the gravitational force of heaven. And with this in mind, I want to draw a few implications of this doctrine.
Made for Glory: Why do we so fiercely defend this doctrine of transubstantiation? Why would God do such a strange thing for us? Because firstly, the Eucharist, which as sacrament is both sign and the cause of what it promises. The Spirit transforms the bread at its deepest level – in its substance – into the body of Christ. While still having the appearance and capacities of bread, it can become the risen Christ himself, in a form which can be communicated to us. Matter was created to bear spirit. Here, the true destiny of this humble food – bread – is revealed. If such humble matter has such a great destiny, how much more God can give us, if we believe.
God can transform us, at the core of our being, our sinful selves, turned inward, into new creations; he can heal and make us whole, wholly ourselves, radiant with his glory. This is the hope and promise that the Eucharist holds out to us.
Unity: Just as God brought the Israelites together through a sacrificial meal, he himself becomes the sacrifice, who unites us through his meal. The Eucharist is the passion, death and resurrection of Christ into which we are immersed. And Augustine would say, just as the loaf of bread is formed of different grains of wheat, in the Eucharist, we who are divided and isolated, are healed and brought to unity, in love, through the power of the Spirit.
The journey: Bread, is transformed instantly, but it takes a lifetime for us; because bread is obedient to the voice of its Creator. We are not, we rebel, we hesitate, what not; that’s the price of our freedom. We have to make a journey, just like the Israelites. Here, God gives us the opportunity to discover and to respond to the love of God. To decide if we want to be with him, if we want to be free of our selfishness, of our divisions, of our sin. He doesn’t abandon us on this Way. He was present as fire among Israel – but it was external and they couldn’t come near; but this same God comes close to us in friendship, through the Eucharist. He is there with us, every step of the way. Just as this bread is transformed, we can be healed. This is the mystery we are given to celebrate and partake. This is our life, our destiny. Which is why Augustine said, “the mystery that you are lies there on the table; it is your own mystery that you receive”. Glory to God who gives us such great gifts!