Father Richard Barrett answers readers' questions Mr say IN LAW is quite unconvinced about the mystery of the Eucharist, understood as transubstantiation, and actively promotes the theory that the words of Jesus in the Gospels are merely figures of speech since most Jews are given over to "hyperbolic" language. For him the use of the expressions "body" and "blood" by Jesus at the Last Supper is symbolic and at best metaphorical. How do we convince him otherwise?
AS MY BEST FRIEND at school was Jewish, I can assure the reader that the word "hyperbole" is not the first one that comes to mind about Jews when they use religious language. Jewish prayers are very empirical. For more on this I would suggest a read through Isaac Bashevis Singer's hooks such as The Magician of Lublin or Satan in Gorily.
As a chaplain to a Catholic school I was once overseeing a first communion programme and pointed out to the RE teacher that we would be introducing the children to the word "cucharist" and to the mysterious change that takes place at Mass. The teacher was sympathetic, but explained that the headmaster had let it be known that he would discourage the teaching of transubstantiation and would permit only the expression "bread of life". If we were in France of course this latter expression would simply be understood by the children as an advert for a certain kind of Wonderloaf, le pain de vie. Anyway he explained that a symbolic understanding of this matter was the only approach that could be justified. Anything else amounted to
advocating cannibalism. The reader's son-in-law may be suffering from the same condition as the headteacher from the post-christian Catholic school. A dose of recessive paganism. For, funnily enough, the Romans thought precisely the same thing of the early Christians. They accused Christians of organising Thyestian banquets, ie banquets where the participants dined on human flesh, a little specialty among some pagan cults in the empire but technically banned. This charge appeared during the reign of the emperor Marcus Aurelius and was rebutted in the east by Athenagoras of Athens, a philosopher and a Christian. He published his defence as a Supplication for the Christians in the year 177. In fact the charge of cannibalism was one of three main accusations, the other two involving atheism (refusing homage to the imperial gods) and Oedipal incest. Athenagoras pointed out that the Romans had misunderstood the realism of the Christian liturgy when it spoke of its priests offering up the sacred victim. The Romans had assumed that Christians were nicking into the mordant flesh of some unfortunate Aztec offering, rather than communicating with the eucharistised gifts of the Mass, the living body and blood of the Risen Lord.
In the west, that other great apologist and philosopher of the second century, Justin, is more often cited in this regard than our friend Athenagoras. Justin was martyred 10 years before the appearance of the Supplication but in his Apologia, written about 150 AD, we are offered a second-century account of the way the Eucharistic liturgy was
conducted, replete with readings "from the writings of the prophets and the memoirs of the apostles".
Eucharistic realism is evident when he states: "For we do not receive this food as ordinary bread and ordinary drink; but just as Jesus Christ our Saviour became flesh and assumed flesh and blood for our salvation, so too we are taught that the food over which the prayer of thanksgiving, the Word received from Christ, has been said, the food that nourishes our flesh and blood by assimilation, is the flesh and blood of this Jesus who became flesh."
1970s liturgists like Tad Guzie object to what they call the "reification" of the eucharistic elements, oddly attributed to the Middle Ages, and refer disparagingly to the three solemn elevations of the Mass as mere exercises in "the gaze that saves". They also regard the Roman rite as theatre and its sacred vestments and furnishings as stage props. If they had had their way in France, Simone Weil would never have considered Christianity eucharistic adoration led her to Christ.
We can identify Guzian liturgists by their unwillingness to elevate the host and chalice though in their defence this may be because most of them are now suffering from arthritis.
Guzie's lesser disciples seem unaware of Justin and Athenagoras and indeed of Ambrose of Milan when holding forth against the realism of the Roman rite. In the east, John Chrysostom also testified to the traditional doctrine and so reservation developed there too. The Church of England in
its 1980 ASB communion rite has made it clear that "the sacramental bread and wine retain their natural substance" and are not to be the object of adoration. Not that they ever were in classical Christianity of course we adore Christ, not bread and wine. And given such ecumenical concerns one wonders whether it is wise to insist on these latter terms for the eucharistic elements, even if they are capitalised. If "Body" and "Blood" were good enough for Justin, why not for us? Perhaps Guzian liturgists take their cue from the ASB. Their disparagement of the tradition of reservation and of Catholic churches as "temples to the Blessed Sacrament" may sound trendy, but it belongs to that perfectly respectable church down the road where adoration is officially suppressed. Guzian liturgists really have a problem with transubstantiation, which some of them oddly confuse with transignification, condemned by Paul VI's Mysterium Fidei (1965) as an inadequate explanation of the eucharistic change (MF 46).
With regard to the neologism, "reification", it is true that the first theologian to gain the title magister at Oxford, Richard Fishacre (1200-1248), is to be accredited with the medieval spadework on eucharistic realism. He gave us the word transubstantiation and Aquinas simply adopted Fishacre's resolution. But the medievals were simply systematising earlier realism, not inventing it. Why any waspish reader could object to a British stroke of genius is a mystery of course. The argument agin eucharistic realism offered by the reader's sonin-law then is pretty specious, antisemitic and barely needs serious consideration but one could venture he re-read John 6, Justin, Athenagoras or even the encyclical Mysterium Fidei. In the latter text the Tradition is distanced from the misunderstandings of the Elizabethan theology found in the ASB.
Transubstantiation remains the most able way of introducing students to eucharistic realism and yet it is only the outward frame of a much more profound mystery.