June 14; Solemnity of Corpus Christi; Year A

corpus christi 19 20If we really understood, we would die with joy

Let’s be honest. Out of all the teachings of the Catholic Church (and we have quite a number of teachings to defend; for example, the Holy Trinity, the infallibility of the Pope, the cult of Mary and the saints) by far one of the most outrageous, unimaginable, and seemingly ludicrous is the dogma of Jesus Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist. We are not just stating that it is merely a symbolic presence that flows out of our sentimental attachment to the actions and words of Jesus, but that He is really truly present in the Eucharist. In light of such a seemingly ridiculous claim, it should at least pique one’s interest how so many millions of people, including some of the most brilliant minds in all of history, have believed it. Do we all need to have our heads checked?

What is it that we Catholics believe in or should believe in? The Council of Trent dogmatically defined it in this way: “After the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ…is truly, really, and substantially contained under the species of [the bread and wine]” because the “whole substance of the bread [is turned] into the Body, and the whole substance of the wine [is turned] into the Blood.” It is not just enough to state that we believe that Jesus is “really” present, we have to use a string of adjectives to emphasise this truth beyond any shadow of doubt.

This means that after the consecration, there is no longer bread or wine but only Jesus’ whole Person: His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. The Church teaches this not as a metaphor, sign, or symbol but as literally true. Any person, therefore, who has gone to a Catholic Mass can say just as truly as any of the Apostles who personally walked, talked, and ate with Him, that they have been in the same room as Jesus.

Although it is relatively easy to understand this dogma, what becomes difficult is explaining how to make sense of it. To do this, a bit of philosophy is needed. Aristotle asserts that every changeable being has a “substance” and “accidents.” Substance is that which remains the same about a thing even after it undergoes change. It is what is essential to it, what the thing truly is. A thing’s substance is its “what-ness.” The accidents, on the other hand, are all those characteristics that exist in a substance, but that are not essential to what it truly is. For example, I am substantially a human person. I have been a human person from the time I was conceived in my mother’s womb. I was born human. I was human when I was 12 years old. Now at 53, I am still human (I hope). But I look quite different now than when I was 12 years old or when I was a baby. I’ve grown in size. Perhaps, I possess less hair on my head. My shape has also changed. But, all of these are accidents. Even though these accidents may change, my substance as a human person has not.

Using these distinctions to explain the Eucharist, St. Thomas Aquinas explains at the consecration, the substance of bread and wine—what the thing really is—ceases to be and is replaced by Jesus Himself. This is why the dogma is called “Transubstantiation,” meaning a “change of substance.” However, unlike all other substantial changes, this change does not also involve a change in accidents. After the priest has consecrated the bread and wine, it still looks like bread and wine, tastes like bread and wine, smells like bread and wine. But this is the amazing truth about this miracle – we say that it is no longer bread and wine. It is the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. The accidents or non-essential characteristics of bread and wine remain the same. They have not changed. But the substance has changed. It is no longer bread and wine, but Christ truly, really, substantially present.

That is the reason why Saint Thomas Aquinas could confidently insert these words in the first two lines of his Eucharistic Hymn, Adoro Te (the popular English version is known as Humbly we adore thee), “I devoutly adore you, hidden deity, Who are truly hidden beneath these appearances.” Imagine that: God who hides in plain sight – “hidden deity … hidden beneath these appearances” of bread and wine. Although this might sound crazy, remember the religion we follow. We believe that the infinite God became man, the Word became flesh, the Invisible Deity became visible in our Lord Jesus Christ. Although no doctor with any microscope could discover God hiding in the consecrated bread and wine, He still is. And why should we believe this? Because our Lord expressly says so, “‘I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world.” St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Since then [Jesus] Himself declared and said of the Bread, ‘This is My Body,’ who shall dare to doubt?”

Once we come to accept this great truth of transubstantiation, we realise in a new way God’s humble and immense love for us. Not only did He become man in the Incarnation, but He also instituted the Eucharist so that until the end of time He would never be separated from us. God who became one of us, allows Himself to be consumed by us, so that He may truly be one with us, and we with Him. Although He knew that in the Eucharist He would be abused, trampled, and disgraced countless times, yet He saw it as a small price if even one humble and contrite person would receive Him in faith. In the face of such a beautiful mystery, then, it is no wonder Saint Thomas Aquinas would cry while elevating the host at Mass, knowing the greatest love story of all time lay before him. As Saint John Marie Vianney reminds us, “if we really understood the Mass, we would die with joy.”