Theology of the Eucharist

During the celebration of Mass, in four ways Christ is “present.” The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy explains that Christ is “present” in the liturgical assembly, in the proclaimed scripture, in the presiding priest, and in the consecrated bread and wine. The assembly, the scripture, the priest, and the bread and wine constitute the respective mediums through which the Holy Spirit conveys each of these modes of Christ’s presence to us.

In order to illustrate this further, let us first recall that Christ is a human person, and let us consider further what we mean when we declare that another human person is to us “present.” Like any other existential reality, another human person qua existential reality can be physically present to us. This goes without saying. However, that same person can also be “present” to us in other ways. For example, we often hear people speak of experiencing the “presence” of their deceased loved ones. Furthermore, since we are inherently social, relational beings, and since other people – especially those whom we deeply love – have influenced and effected us and, in myriad ways, “formed” us and form us still into the persons whom we have become and are still yet becoming, even when we are not consciously aware of another person’s material or immaterial presence in our lives, to us that person is still “present.” So, we are aware of another person’s presence either because they are physically present to us, and/or because we are thinking or dreaming about them, and/or because some other material or immaterial reality has also entered into our awareness that causes us to recall or remember them, and/or because we act and think in certain ways on account of the persons whom we have known.

The first kind of awareness – the one that is the result of another person being physically present to us – is easy enough to understand.

The second kind of awareness – the one that is the result of us thinking or dreaming about a person – is exemplified in a young woman who, being madly in love with her boyfriend, cannot stop thinking about him. To her, he is present even though he may be thousands of miles away.

The third kind of awareness – the one that is the result some material or immaterial reality – is exemplified in a forlorn husband who, walking by the bench in the park on which he and his now-deceased wife exchanged their first kiss a half-century ago, smiles as he recalls her to his memory at the moment that he sees the bench. To him, at that moment, even in death she is “present.”

The fourth kind of awareness – the one on account of which we act in a certain way on account of the persons whom we have known – is exemplified by a young soldier who, crouched inside a foxhole on a battlefield, removes from his pocket and then looks upon a photograph of his father who taught him as a boy to be brave. To him, his father, whether he is alive or deceased, is “present” as the soldier, on account of the bravery that his father had inspired in him, rushes with bravery out of his foxhole and toward the enemy’s front-lines.

And so on.

In all of this, we see that it is possible for a person to be present to us in existential degrees and substantial manners that, from each other, vary quite significantly. Such selfsame variance is a mark of the differences that exist between the four ways in which Christ is present to us during the sacred liturgy.

Christ's Presence at Mass

Regarding the first manner of Christ’s presence, the liturgical assembly is comprised of human persons whom Christ saves by his death and resurrection. Christ’s was a once and for all sacrifice by which Christ meant (and means) to save us all.

Therefore, each person in the liturgical assembly, being the recipient of Christ’s salvation through baptism, participates in the common priesthood of Christ and, therefore, is also a Christ-bearer. Accordingly, within each person, Christ is to be found, and of this fact we become especially aware when we gather together, in the physical presence of others, for the celebration of the Eucharist. Furthermore, in Scripture we hear Christ himself declare that he is present wherever and whenever two or more gather in his name. Such a gathering, in his name, is predicative of the liturgical assembly that, to we who attend Mass, is present to us.

Regarding the second manner of Christ’s presence, Scripture consists of the “speech of God” that was “put down in writing.” Inspired by the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the church fathers – acting in the name of Jesus Christ and with the apostolic authority granted them by him – discerned which Jewish writings of the Old Covenant and Christian writings of the New Covenant should constitute the Christian canon. To the very large degree that the discernment of these early Church leaders was prompted and directed by the Holy Spirit, we can rightfully call the entire scriptural canon the “revealed word of God.” Hence, Scripture, as a body of text, is not like any other body of text in the whole universe. When we read and hear Scripture at Mass, we are reading and hearing, quite literally, God’s own words. These selfsame words enable us to grasp and, more importantly, grow in relationship with the Word who becomes present to us through these words, since it is He himself who through the Holy Spirit conveyed them to their human writers. Therefore, in the same way that the deceased wife becomes present to the man who sees the park bench on which they first kissed decades ago, Jesus becomes present to us when our eyes pass by and take in the words of Holy Scripture. Like the husband who wistfully looks at that park bench and recalls the loving words that he once exchanged there with his beloved wife, we look at and sit with sacred Scripture and hear the words contained therein as if they were and are spoken for us, which, in fact, they are. And like the soldier who becomes able to rush out of the safety of his foxhole, when we hear the words of Scripture, we become able to “rush forward” in and through life that, being marred by original sin, requires the certain bravery that comes from knowing that Christ, who runs the race with us, will also in the end be with us and save us.

Regarding the third and fourth manners of Christ’s presence, the priest and the bread and wine, respectively, are among the essential constitutive elements of the liturgy, which is directed to the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit. In the celebration of the Mass, Jesus the High Priest, who is united to the Father already in heaven, becomes present to us. This occurs through the priest, through whom Christ the High Priest acts to change the bread and wine of the Eucharistic celebration into his very body and blood. As ones who make Christ’s eternal and self-sufficient sacrifice present to us through the Eucharistic celebration, priests themselves manifest Christ’s presence, and since the substance of the bread and the substance of the wine become during the Mass the body and blood of Christ, it is that selfsame bread and wine that becomes, in actuality, the “Real Presence” of Jesus Christ himself.

The "Real Presence" of Christ in the Eucharist

The heathen philosopher Aristotle rightly taught that true friendship is only possible if those who are friends are proximate, physically, to each other. Hence, because Christ loves us and calls us his friends, and because we love Christ and call him our friend, Christ promises to us his bodily, physical presence in, by, and through the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

At the Last Supper, Christ declares, “This is my body.” The pronoun “this” refers to the bread that he held in his hands. His “body” is that bread’s predicate. The “to be” verb signals that the bread and Christ’s body are equivalent; the bread that Christ held in his sacred hands and the wine that he drank at the Last Supper became his precious body and blood at the very moment that he uttered these words. The same occurs in the present day at the Mass when the priest utters the words of consecration.

The Church terms this change of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood “transubstantiation.” This change is itself supernatural and effected by God’s power alone. At the very moment of consecration, the substance of the bread, whole and entire, immediately changes into the body of Christ, whole and entire; the substance of the wine, whole and entire, immediately changes into the blood of Christ, whole and entire. Furthermore, the whole Christ is contained in both the consecrated bread and the consecrated wine.

St. Thomas Aquinas and others clarify for us that this substantial change of the bread and wine does not occur by Christ’s body’s locomotion from heaven, since if it did, Christ’s body would leave heaven.

Accordingly, the dimensive qualities of Christ’s body are not in the bread and wine. Furthermore, the substantial presence of Christ's body and blood in the Eucharist cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone. Faith’s object is that which remains unseen; hence, it is seemly that in the Eucharist, Christ’s flesh remains unseen by us. The human sense of sight cannot see “substance,” but since “accidents” are the objects of the human senses, the “accidents” of the bread and wine, both before the consecration and after it, can be sensed by the five human senses. The Church’s teaching is that the consecrated bread and wine look like bread and wine and taste like bread and wine, but are truly the Body and Blood of Christ.

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