What’s so real about Real Presence?

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Tara writes to ask how best to respond to people who say that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist isn’t real, it’s just symbolic.

Thanks for the question Tara!

I think there are at least two complementary ways of approaching this.  The first is the most common.  Catholics who want to defend the claim that Christ is REALLY present in the Eucharist turn to Scripture.  There we can find extremely realistic language.  At the institution of the Eucharist Jesus says “This is my body,” not “This signifies or represents or symbolizes my body.”  That argument alone was enough for Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, to fight for belief in the real presence against other Protestants his whole career.

And in John 6, Jesus baldly states that anyone who eats his flesh and drinks his blood has life and those who don’t, don’t.  In 1 Corinthians Paul admonishes his congregation for approaching the table unworthily and even suggests that such sacrilege can lead to physical illness or death.  How would that be possible if the eucharist were merely a symbol of Christ’s body?

And, we can note, throughout the history of the Church these passages have always been taken to teach Christ’s real presence.  To read them as such is not a matter of personal preference or cherry-picking, but a matter of continuity with the mainstream of Christian interpretation since the beginning of the Church.

All of this is to say that there are excellent reasons for affirming Christ’s real presence in the Eucharist from both Scripture and Tradition.  I choose to deal with this in only a cursory way here because there are many solid treatments available of this topic.  It would not be hard to find dozens of articles on the internet that talk about these biblical passages or share the teaching of the Fathers of the Church, the medieval theologians, etc. on Christ’s real presence.

Instead, I want to spend the rest of this piece looking at another question that may be lurking in the background for those who are troubled by the claim that Christ’s body is really present in the eucharist, namely, “What do we mean by real?”

Some people may know the Scriptural passages and even about the insistence of the theological tradition of the Church, but still think that the idea that Christ is really present in the Eucharist is simply incoherent.  “Of course it’s only a symbol,” they think, “just look at it!”

In our insistence on Christ’s real presence, Catholics (contemporary ones, anyways, the Fathers of the Church never made this mistake) often say things like “It’s not a symbol.”  But our doubters are correct on this point.  It is a symbol.  In fact, according to the Catholic Church, part of the definition of a sacrament is that it is a symbol.  But it is not only a symbol.  It is an effective symbol.  A sacrament is a symbol that accomplishes what it signifies.

For the Fathers of the Church, it was easy to talk about the Eucharist as both symbol and reality because, for them, those two things were not opposites.  It is only a later worldview that raised the question, “Is Christ present in the Eucharist symbolically or really?”  And, to really understand this question, we need to realize that by “really” people meant “physically.”  That is to say, once reality was conceived of as basically physical, then the way the Church had traditionally talked about the Eucharist became awkward.

In response to this problem, medieval theologians developed the doctrine of transubstantiation.  The whole thrust of this doctrine was to affirm that Christ is really present in the Eucharist through the symbolic meaning of the bread and wine and in a way that cannot be reduced to the physical. 

That is why transubstantiation insists that the “accidents,” that is, the physical properties of the bread and wine, are unaltered at the consecration.  But by saying that the “substance” did change at the consecration, transubstantiation insisted that there is a reality deeper than the physical that is the true identity of a thing.

Here are a couple examples to show you that this is not just a made up philosophy to explain the incoherent but is actually how we think and talk about things in everyday life. 

  1. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said (and was quoted anonymously in Disney’s Pocahontas) that you can’t step in the same river twice.  But of course most of us actually have stepped in the same river twice!  Heraclitus’s point is easy to see.  Rivers are in a constant state of flux.  The water you step in today is long downstream by tomorrow.  The riverbed is constantly shifting, the vegetation and the wildlife grow, move and die.  Nevertheless, I can step in the Fraser River today and do it again tomorrow.  More than that, geologists can tell us how old the Fraser river is and what it looked like 20,000 years ago in a way that is meaningful and coherent.  Yes, this thing that I’m stepping in existed, however different its outward appearance, 20,000 years ago. 
    In other words, the physical properties of the river, which constantly shift, are not all that makes a river the river that it is.  There is an underlying pattern of intelligibility that our minds can identify and think about.  That is what is meant by substance. 

  2. The human body is constantly regenerating.  Every cell in your body today will be gone within about 7 years.  And every cell that your body contained when you were in your mother’s womb is long gone (unless you are a very young reader!).  In fact, you were once a one-celled creature.  But there is no question of who that one-celled creature was.  The one-celled creature that first came into existence in your mother’s fallopian tube is the same person with the same body as you are and have today.  And it will be the same person and body on your death bed, even if your cells have all disappeared a dozen times over.  That thing that marks you as you, that allows us to say that this disparate collection of ever growing and dying cells is one coherent unit, that gives you your identity, that thing is what we mean by substance.

When the Church says that what changes in the eucharist is the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of Christ’s body and blood, it is making a claim about what is real.  It is saying that the physical does not exhaust the real, even though it where we encounter the real.

And that is why we have sacraments in the first place.  Because we are physical beings that encounter reality through the physical world, God gives us physical signs through which to express his love and care and mercy.

We also use physical signs to communicate real meaning or love.  It is part of what sets humanity off from the rest of physical creation.  We can write novels and tell stories and sing songs and send letters.  Theses are some of our most human actions. 

The recognition of this truth, however, can lead to a certain misunderstanding of the Eucharist.  Because we are so good at using signs and symbols to communicate and even impact reality, we can be tempted to imagine that what happens at the Eucharist is a kind of community meaning making by the use of symbol.  If we all get together and call something the body of Christ and treat it like the body of Christ and act like it is the body of Christ, then it is the body of Christ.

When the Church uses the adjective “real” to describe Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, it is insisting that, while no physical change takes place, the change in what the deepest reality of the elements are is the result, not of community meaning making, but of God’s action.

This is the heart of the Catholic insistence on real presence, that God is genuinely present and active with us in the Eucharist.  We are not saying that the physical stuff changes, nor that the community is shaping its own reality through symbol.  We are saying that God is really present with us through both the physical stuff and the ritual symbolism that surrounds the stuff.  (Medieval theology called this the matter and form of the sacrament, respectively.)  That is how God comes to us.  That is how God communicates with us.

And because the one who says “This is my body” is the same one who said “Let there be light,” the change takes place at the very level of creation, at the level of what a thing is and what God made it to be.

In the end, to say that Christ is really present is to say that what things are is not what we make them to be, but what God makes them to be.

And Christ doesn’t only tell us that the Eucharist is His body, Christ also tells us that we, the Church, are his body.  And by feeding that body with the Eucharist he makes it so.