The Physicality of the Eucharist
Imagine your average Catholic, or even a very educated version. Imagine someone going through life not believing for the longest time that the Eucharist was the Body and Blood of Christ. Indeed, according to the Pew Research Center, the average Catholic does not believe that “during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.”
What if I told you I made a similar error until last year? How could that possibly happen? If you had asked me, I would have said I believed in both transubstantiation and the Real Presence. But I realized after a homily that I had misunderstood something crucial. The Body and Blood of Christ are there in the Eucharist.
Let me emphasize this again: the Body and Blood of Christ, the same Body and Blood as was on the Cross, are in the Eucharist. The very same Body and Blood.
Do we understand that Christ is physically present before us at Mass? Do we realize this in visceral detail? How should we act accordingly?
When Father gave the homily, I realized that this was not something I thought. How could I have made such a basic mistake after going to so many masses in Traditional Latin Mass parishes?
The modern bias of materialistic scientism is hard to shake. We live in a culture that leaves no room for mystery. A society that tells us that any living thing must be visibly so. Given this materialist bias, we would mistakenly conclude that what appears to be bread could never be the body of a man. Even after learning metaphysics, I still had an ingrained idea that a change in substance was something that did not result in a change in the body. The materialist bias kept me from seeing that “the senses fail” (Pange Lingua Gloriosi) and cannot always tell me what kind of body is in front of me.
It is necessary to go into some Aristotelian metaphysics to understand this and see how ridiculous my confusion was. All bodies have a form, which defines “what” they are and how they are. Bodies also have matter, which constrains what they could be. Another name for the form of a body is its substantial form. A way of understanding this is to analyze a statue’s form and matter: its form is the statue’s shape, and its matter is the marble from which it is carved.
Furthermore, a body has things associated with it that are not essential to it. These are called accidents—these flow forth from limitations found in the matter. Think of the color of a statue—you can have the same kind of statue, but of a different color.
But a body also has a substance, which is whatever is said of a body and is essential to it. This flows forth from the form. The crucial point to understand here is that the substance is the means by which the form gives the particular individual “what” it is. If you change the substance of a body to something else, it changes individually. For a statue, “what” would mean the kind of statue it is (say, the Pieta by Michelangelo), as opposed to what kind of material it is made of (marble vs. resin, say).
The Body and Blood of Christ are in the Eucharist as its substance. The appearance of bread and wine are just accidents. Transubstantiation changes bread’s substance into the Body of Christ’s substance (and likewise for the wine and Blood of Christ). The transubstantiation happens during the words of consecration during the Canon of the Mass (in the Novus Ordo, during the Eucharistic Prayer).
The error that I made is that I had assumed that, while the appearance of the bread and wine still remained there, and that the substantial form of the body and blood of Christ were there, the same Body and Blood as on the Cross were not there. In particular, I thought the substantial forms of bread and wine were changed in transubstantiation to that of the Body and Blood of Christ, but that the latter, the Body and Blood themselves, were not there in the same way as the Body and Blood of Christ were on the Cross.
I did not know that substance confers to the particular individual what it is. It is the substance that is transformed. So if the substance of the body changes, that body itself changes! Somehow, I thought that the substantial form changed without the substance and particular individual changing.
That sounds very technical, I know. But it underscores the following point: our modern biases can find any reason to distort the doctrine. As you can see, there was an error made in my mind, when I was trying to understand transubstantiation, where I overly spiritualized the change. This error damaged my understanding of the Real Presence.
This is crucial: the same Body as was on the Cross is consumed by us in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is united to the Crucifixion. Did you ever wonder why some monstrances are shaped as a Cross? Eucharistic adoration is the ultimate humiliation for our Lord. He makes Himself so vulnerable for us. This is why the Eucharist is the sacrament of love. He loves us so much that He humbles Himself to such an extreme degree: His Body that was on the Cross is there in the monstrance.
Christ is physically present in the Eucharist! The importance of Corpus Christi is this physicality. When I heard the homily which revealed my error, Father emphasized the physicality of the sacrament, in the homily. I finally understood. I understood that I had not been acting as if Christ was really there, and I had to worship him and respect him accordingly in the Eucharist. I was excited—I was so happy!
Imagine the feeling that you might get if you met a celebrity. You should be infinitely more excited to attend the Mass than when meeting any celebrity! Let us genuinely celebrate Corpus Christi knowing that our Creator is physically there, waiting for us to honor him. The average Catholic does not do this. We should repent for our previous failings and give him due worship and reverence. We should make reparation for these injustices. And we should know that Christ is physically there, offering his very Body and Blood to us in the sacred Eucharist. We should act accordingly.