June 6; The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ; Year B

corpus christi 20 21Truly, Really, Substantially Present

Two weeks ago, we celebrated the Solemnity of the Pentecost. And as our Lord had promised, the Holy Spirit is given to the Church, to us, so that we can be led to the complete Truth. Before the Apostles received the Holy Spirit, much of what our Lord had taught them remained a fuzzy mystery. They not only struggled in their understanding but also in their faith. But with the coming of the Spirit of Truth, their understanding and imagination were now expanded beyond their natural capacity.
Beginning with last Sunday, the Church invites us to contemplate a series of the most profound mysteries of faith. Last Sunday, we contemplated the central mystery of our faith - the Most Holy Trinity - One God in three distinct persons - a mystery which is bigger than the universe and escapes rationalising by even the most erudite geniuses on this earth. But the mysteries of faith do not only come in mega cosmic proportions like the dogma of the Holy Trinity; they can also be found in the seemingly unimpressive and mundane objects of our world. This week, we are asked to focus on something equally baffling, though tangible at the same time. It is the Most Holy Eucharist - that is our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ fully present, truly, really, substantially, body and blood, soul and divinity in the Holy Eucharist.

The real presence takes the human mind to the very limits of its capacity. After the consecration, the priest at every Mass proclaims that the Eucharist is a mysterium fidei, a mystery of faith. In the end we have to acknowledge that the mystery is ineffable and should be greeted with wonder and amazement. It is a truth that only the mind of God can fully understand. Nevertheless, God in His love has revealed this truth to us. God has not revealed Himself simply to mystify us, but to save us. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you do not have life within you.” (John 6:52).

The Church accepts the real presence as a matter of faith, because it is contained in the Word of God, as attested by Scripture and tradition. Our Lord said clearly as we had heard in today’s gospel, “This is my body ... this is my blood”, and in the controversy surrounding His teachings on the Bread of Life, He insisted that He was not just using metaphors. “My flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him”. (Jn 6: 55-56) Many of the disciples found this saying difficult to accept and chose to part company with Him, but our Lord refused to revise His audacious claims to win them back. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church have confidently proclaimed the real presence century after century, notwithstanding objections and misconceptions. The Council of Trent defended this belief against the incredulity of the Protestants and gave a full exposition of the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist and that of the Real Presence.

In describing Christ’s presence in this sacrament, the Council of Trent used three adverbs, “truly, really, and substantially”. These three adverbs are the keys that help us understand and explain the nature of Christ’s Eucharistic Presence. They may appear to be repetitive and superfluous, but each adverb takes us beyond another layer of truth.

“Truly” is a common word often used by the Lord in the Fourth Gospel. It translates from the Hebrew “Amen.” In saying that Christ is truly contained under the Eucharistic species, the Council repudiated the Protestant argument. The Eucharist is not a mere sign or figure pointing to a body that is absent, perhaps somewhere in the heavens. Christ’s body and blood are “truly”, not symbolically nor figuratively present in the consecrated bread and wine.

Secondly, the presence is real. That is to say, it is objectively real. It is objective because it does not depend on the thoughts or feelings of the minister or the communicants. The body and blood of Christ are present in the sacrament because of the promise of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, by the words and actions of a duly ordained minister. In so teaching that the presence is “real,” the Church rejects the view that faith is the instrument that brings about Christ’s presence in the sacrament. Faith does not make Christ present. Christ is present when the priest speaks the word of consecration over the bread and wine. But faith is needed if we want Christ’s presence to bear fruit within us. To receive the sacrament without faith is unprofitable, even sinful, but the lack of faith does not render the presence unreal. To put it simply, Christ being present in the Eucharist does not depend on you or your feelings. But how the Eucharist affects you, depends on you. So, if you see no changes in yourself after attending Mass and receiving Holy Communion, don’t blame Christ. You have only yourself to blame.

Thirdly, the Church teaches us that Christ’s presence in the sacrament is substantial. “Substance” denotes the basic reality of the thing, i.e., what it is in itself. For example, I am in substance a human being, a man. The white grainy stuff which I eat every day is substantially rice. Although appearances may change, for example water can take various forms (it can be solid as in ice, gaseous as in steam or fluid), its substance remains the same – it is still water but under different forms. Water is “transformed.” But what happens at the consecration is different. After consecration, the bread and wine are changed; but not “transformed” in the sense that the consecrated species will still look like and taste like, bread and wine. But there is a substantial change in that they cease to be what they were and become what they were not. The consecrated bread may still look like bread and taste like bread, likewise with the wine, but they are no longer bread and wine. They are now Christ’s body and blood in substance. The Church has coined the unique term “transubstantiation” to designate this process.

Although the mystery of the real presence certainly stretches our powers of comprehension to the utmost, just like the dogma of the Most Holy Trinity, it is not simply a puzzle meant to test us or condemn us to eternal confusion. Rather, it is a consoling sign of the love, power, and ingenuity of our Divine Saviour. He willed to bring Himself into intimate union with Christians, and to do so in a way that suits our nature as embodied spirits; beings needing both physical nourishment for our survival, and spiritual refreshment for eternal life.

Finally, the Eucharist instituted by Christ invites us to look in two directions - to call to mind the crucifixion of Christ, who shed His blood for our redemption and to prefigure the everlasting banquet of the blessed in the heavenly Jerusalem. The Eucharist has the singular power to recapture the past, transform the present, and anticipate the future because it contains the Lord of history truly, really, and substantially, body and blood, soul and divinity.