Friday, February 13, 2015

On the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist

As I am gathering my thoughts and sit to write this post on the most Catholic of Catholic topics, I am also mulling over Levi Bryant's poignant call for a transformation of our concept of phenomenality. Unless I am morbidly misreading Jean-Luc Marion, his project is nothing if it is not about transforming what we mean by phenomenality. His phenomenology ain't your father's phenomenology. His readings of Husserl and Heidegger are deconstructive to the bone, and his emerging phenomenology and certainly his theology have as their goals the systematic release of the event, which is the very heart of deconstruction.

The Real Presence, and how that comes about in the Eucharist, are indeed saturated phenomena of the event, and certainly of idol and icon. In this piece I intend to respect just how these Catholic realities present to the intuition that which is uncontainable in intentionality. While I will discuss the old categories used by the Church to cope with the greatest of mysteries, I hope  to side-step resting in the idol, and pursue the iconic, and thereby set the stage for the release of the event harbored in the sacred texts, the liturgy and the Eucharistic moment.

To begin, I want to imagine that moment in thanksgiving (that is precisely what eucharistos means), but also in reshith, in a beginning; for the Eucharistic moment is about something appearing that was not there before. And that moment is 'solid time,' time not in its ordinary sense, but a time that has presence and is present, and has matter. The Eucharist is a place to stand. Thanksgiving, beginning, thanks-beginning, be-giving. The solid time of the Eucharist is a theological moment playing out on the horizon of the mystical.

We must imagine the sacramental essence of the Eucharist moving on the stage of liturgy, which is itself anchored into the words of the Word-made-flesh. The Logos is love, and its sacramental, liturgical present makes its presence known to us on a horizon of charity. Bread and wine become for us the Body and Blood of Christ: the idol (more but not less than a symbol) passes into icon (more but not less than reality-the hyper-real). The idol, created by the gaze upon it and saturated as it is, is still a missed opportunity. The icon provokes the gaze upon it, but does not reflect back on the gaze, but lets the light through, and gazes upon the gazer. The sacrament is a gift to the gazer giving thanks.

The Blessed Sacrament, the sacrament par excellence of the Catholic faith, is the Eucharist and the Real Presence. It is the sacrament from which all the others flow, and which authorizes and authenticates the very sacramentality so central to Catholicism's self-understanding. As such, the Eucharist must be understood in terms of its sacramentality, its relationship to the Body of Christ, and its liturgical meaning in process and reality. The faith makes great claims for the phenomenon of the Eucharist; it proclaims the real presence of Christ in divinity and humanity (the hypostatic union persists in any of its manifestations) under the appearances of bread and wine, the imparting of grace, the remission of sins,and the assimilation of the whole Christ within the person of the recipient and the community of the faithful.

The claims the Church makes for the Real Presence trace their authenticity and authority to the Synoptic Jesus's words over the bread and wine at the final meal he shared with his disciples. The words of inauguration, consecration or more commonly, of institution, vary slightly among the 3 Synoptics, but they are nearly identical in their 'this is my body' and 'this is my blood' statements. The Church confesses that the words uttered by the Word (Logos) have the power to effect what they say. It is the power of is-ing: this bread is my body--so it becomes; this wine is my blood--so it becomes; for the Logos participates in creation by fiat. In this sense, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements is already understood in the work of the evangelists, and the Pauline corpus attests to the same (e.g., 1 Corinthians). Indeed, the Eucharistic celebration is already deeply liturgical (of course in a rudimentary way) in the 1st century, and both the epistolary NT and the Gospels depict this state of affairs. John 6 is constitutive of the liturgical reality of Christ's flesh and blood, despite and because of its perverse and dramatic language. A juxtaposition of all the Eucharistic texts of the NT is instructive and convincing in determining the self-understanding of the early Church and I invite the reader to undertake this rewarding venture.

Far more controversial than a growing understanding of the Real Presence in the NT is the explanation of just how the liturgical celebration effects the change in the bread and wine. It simply wasn't a problem for the disciples at the last supper: what Jesus said became reality. Speculatively, there was no process involved at the inauguration of the Eucharist, precluded as it must have been by the prerogative of the actus purus of the divine Logos. God said it, so it is was. But how does it happen at each celebration of the Eucharist?

Here the genius of the Church develops the concept of transubstantiation (T, henceforth) to describe the metaphysics of the conversion, under the words of consecration/institution as uttered by the celebrant in persona Christi, which is the liturgical role of the priest in the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The clumsy term T has its roots in Aristotle and 'substance theory.' Unfortunately for us [post]moderns, we have no rapport with such roots and theory. Suffice it to say that in this theory, a substance (deepest reality, essence) was separate from its attributes (appearance, qualities, properties). So when we ask 'what's this substance?' we expect a response that answers 'what's it made of,' such as, metal, wood, plastic, water, alcohol, oil, etc. When that question is asked of Aristotle or of  the mediaeval theologians who appropriated his work to provide philosophical scaffolding to their theologies, the answer would be 'what makes it what it is,' whatever absolute reality inhering in the thing in question, what ever makes the thing the thing itself, its deepest meaning and reality. Furthermore, substance was not something accessible through the senses, but only through pure intellect (as Aquinas would put it). In this sense, substance can only be understood as idol.

If T is to speak to us at all today, we must learn 'substance' as a technical term. We use terms like essence, deepest reality, deepest reality that determines identity, meaning, signified of a sign (semiotics), finality, telos when we want to mean what the Tradition means by 'substance.' We should become sensitive to how 'substance' is meant in the theology of the Eucharist, and try to imagine 'substance' both as it is understood in the Tradition (without of course collapsing the icon into the idol), and as it is informed by the terms we have replaced it with today. We should adopt a less hostile attitude toward substance theory, without necessarily embracing it (especially if that means resting in the idol and falling asleep before reaching the icon). We should be open to the ideas of, for example, Schillebeeckx and Rahner, and to the use of the ideas they have named 'transignification' and 'transfinalization' (respectively),  not to supplant but to deepen our understanding of the conversion that takes place in the bread and wine during the liturgy as it is understood in the Tradition. These newer terms have their own clumsiness to be sure, but they are not to be understood in the idolatry of their concepts, but how they operate in the heart and mind, in short, as iconic, as lifting the mind over the idol to the icon.

T was intended not only as a dogmatic explanation of a liturgical event, but also as a fence built around the Real Presence in order to protect it from degradation. The dogmas of T and the Real Presence therefore go hand in hand from the 4th Lateran Council of 1215 through the sessions of the Council of Trent in the mid 16th century to the present. Simply stated (ha!), T is the process of conversion, grounded in the words of the Word made flesh, whereby the the deepest reality and meaning of bread and wine, in their literal and symbolic sense and existence, are converted completely into the deepest reality and meaning of the Whole Christ, that is, everything to do with Christ that makes him Christ. The process does not entail any transformation or conversion of the appearance, properties or qualities of the bread and wine, nor does it entail any change in Christ's body and blood. Bread and wine remain as signifiers, but their reality, their sign has changed because their signified has been completely converted into another signified, with an attendant conversion of all meaning and presence. The finality of the bread and wine have undergone a complete conversion into the finality that is the Christ. This process has nothing to do with physics or the horizon of Being. It cuts to the heart of liturgy and sacramentality, and to the release of the event of faith.

When we participate in the Eucharist, we take in what the senses know as bread and wine, but assimilate the whole Christ into our being in a sacramental manner. In this way, the reality of the bread and wine become 'un-symbols,' the actuality and the reality of the body and blood of Christ, even as their appearances continue to be symbols of that body and blood. The symbolic richness remains, even as Christ's actual presence is really real. This is the mystery of the Catholic faith, and to participate in the sacrifice of the Mass, the Divine Liturgy (as it is known in the East), is the sine qua non of catholicity--the Catholic experience.

Approaching the end of the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI promulgated his Mysterium Fidei (mystery of faith), which countenanced his great anxiety that the high mood of the conciliar moment would result in a degraded understanding of the Real Presence and its guardian, T. He was already too late for the latter, but his trepidation regarding adding the layers of transignification and transfinalization into the magisterium was unfounded. There is more rampant misunderstanding of the Eucharist today, since the closing of the council in 1965 (the year of Mysterium Fidei). Perhaps allowing certain periti of the Council greater influence on its documents would have enriched the lives of Catholics with a more vibrant understanding of the Blessed Sacrament.

I have recently been challenged about my faith in the Real Presence and T, and my response then and now is simply that I have divine and Catholic faith in this profoundest of mysteries of the Church. I wonder if I could say that if I were not so theological a thinker, not so very sympathetic to post-structuralist, post-secularist ideas about this world and our reality; for it is my conviction that my faith in this matter reflects what the Church has always confessed.  It is unfortunate that T is generally not received into the sensus fidelium, such as it is; but neither has the Church worried itself with what it means to hand down the Tradition in a secular world.  The anxieties of a Papacy notwithstanding, such a central tenet of Catholic faith should be brought to each generation in the fullness of the Tradition and with respect to the signs of  the times.


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  2. A blog post like this one is not everyone's cup of tea. Yet, I am Catholic, and sometimes I am moved to write on the great themes of the faith. Having divine and Catholic faith is another way to say that one is a member of the Catholic faith. The Real Presence and the Eucharist are profoundly religious events. To loosen the grip of old-fashioned metaphysics upon them and free them for the event does not strike me as a waste of time. To wrest the Eucharistic moment from the phenomenon of the idol and deliver it to the icon allows it to continue to having meaning and value in our post-secular world.

    While I would never compare my own writings to those whose writings are sometimes referenced in these posts, I would hazard a guess that Joseph Goodson, because of the entrenched theodicy present in his comment, would also deem these writings of some of our most original thinkers also a waste of time. Still, transforming evil and restoring justice is not only the heart and soul of Catholicism, it is the crux of deconstruction and the new phenomenology. I invite Joseph to peruse other posts in this blog that concern themselves with his lofty and worthwhile goals.