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Mysteries of the Eucharist
By Steve Mueller

What really happens to us when we receive Holy Communion? Why do we call the eucharistic presence “real,” and how does it make a difference in our lives? Discover the answers to these and other crucial questions

What do we mean by “presence”?

In its most general sense, presence means being with another. We all experience presence in several familiar ways. It might be local, when we are in the same physical place as another. It can also be temporal, when we are with another at the same time. Local and temporal presence usually go together, but sometimes we can be temporally present to another without being physically with them, for example when talking over the phone or via the Internet. A third kind of presence might be called personal — how we experience “being with” another person — even when that person is not physically with us but is with us through our memory, imagination, or emotions.

Why is God present to us?

The only explanation is that God loves us and wants to be in a relationship with us. Like every personal relationship, the partners freely choose not just to be present locally or temporally, but also to open up their inner selves to one another through communication that leads to deeper communion. God chooses to be with us so that we can participate in God’s own life and so live beyond our death in an eternal life of loving relationship. By sharing in the intimate communion of Christ in the Eucharist, we nourish ourselves and become united to God for eternal life.

How do the sacraments reveal God’s presence?

The sacraments are ritual celebrations through which we actually experience the power of God present with us. Through the sacramental words and actions, God acting in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit actually brings about what the signs represent. The sacraments are not only signs of our salvation but bring about the realities they symbolize.

Can you explain how God is present with us in the Eucharist?

No. Explaining how God is present to us is impossible for it is a theological mystery, in the strict sense. The idea of mystery, as used by theologians, identifies a reality that we affirm through faith to be true but which we cannot adequately explain. The Christian mysteries of faith identify such realities as the Trinity (one divine reality that is at once three distinct persons), the Incarnation (Jesus who is truly both divine and human), and Jesus’ Real Presence with us as the eucharistic bread and wine.

But don’t we have doctrines that explain these mysteries?

Not really. Doctrines do not really explain these mysteries — nothing can explain them completely. But doctrines offer theological guidelines for thinking and talking about these unique mysteries of faith.

But aren’t these doctrines the basis of our faith?

No, the basis of our faith is the mystery itself. The doctrines help us to understand and talk about the mystery, but they are not the mystery. Doctrine about the Real Presence concerns how best to think and talk about this mystery.

Why do we call this eucharistic presence “real”?

The word real comes from a Latin word, res, which means thing. So to identify this presence as real — or “thinglike” — is meant to convey the sense that it is the presence of one “thing” to another, not just a fleeting change but an enduring reality, like the thing rather than its changing features.

Pope Paul VI explained the Church’s use of the term this way. “This presence is called ‘real’ — by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, divine and human, makes Himself wholly and entirely present” (Mystery of Faith, 1965).

What does it mean to call this a “substantial” presence?

To identify this as a “substantial” presence adopts the substance/ accidents terminology used by medieval Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas. The idea of a thing being made up of sub- stance and accidents rests on our everyday experience. Substance (Latin, “standing under”) talks about the basic underlying reality. Accidents (Latin, “clinging or hanging on to”) describe the changeable features noticed by our senses. As the term implies, the substance is what “stands under” all of the accidents. The substance identifies what we call the thing — the dog, cat, house, person, car. The accidents refer to characteristics of the thing such as color, weight, shape, etc. So even though many accidental characteristics might change — I put on or lose weight, lose a tooth, dye my hair, get a tattoo, replace a hip joint — my substance continues and I remain myself.

How does this relate to the doctrine of transubstantiation?

The doctrine of transubstantiation was officially adopted by the Council of Trent (1545-1563) as an attempt to guide our thinking about the Real Presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements of bread and wine. The doctrine of transubstantiation tells us that to understand the difference between the bread and wine before the eucharistic prayer at Mass and after it, the change can best be described as a change of sub- stance, not of accidental features.

Does the priest do the transubstantiation?

Although the priest, who is the representative of Christ among the worshipping assembly, prays the words at Mass, the power to make the change in substance belongs to God alone.

So what does a change of substance mean?

Transubstantiation tells us that what happens with the bread and wine through the act of consecration is a change in their substance brought about by the action of God’s Holy Spirit. After the consecration, the bread and wine are no longer the same things (sub- stances) they were before. Before the consecration, their substance was that of bread and wine, after it their substance is the person of Jesus Christ.

But what about the accidents of the bread and wine?

The change in the substance does not affect the accidents at all. After the consecration, the shape, color, taste — everything except the substance — remains exactly the same. There is no way by analyzing the bread and wine, for example though chemistry or atomic analysis, to discover any difference. So we cannot just

“take a good look” at the consecrated bread and wine and conclude that they have undergone a change of substance. Only our “eyes of faith” can perceive the change.

What other views inadequately explain the “Real Presence”?

The doctrine of transubstantiation affirms that the bread and wine undergo a change of substance (what they are as things) without a change in their appearance or accidents. This means that talking about this reality in magical, or merely symbolic terms is inadequate.

What are magical explanations?

Magical explanations depend too much on the sense perception of changes in the accidents. So if someone claims to see Christ’s face in the Host or his blood dripping from it, this might be a miracle, but it is not an indication of the Real Presence. In fact, because all these sense-perceptible changes would be in the accidents and not in the substance, they would not confirm the Real Presence. Remember, in the Real Presence there are no changes in the accidents of bread and wine that our senses can detect.

Can chewing the Host or letting it touch our teeth hurt Christ?

No. This is again a magical type of understanding of the reality. Christ becomes the bread, and tells us to eat it. When we chew the bread or Host, we do not hurt Jesus but rather take Him into our bodies as our nourishment for eternal life as He directed us to do. As we eat and digest the bread, we are transformed into Christ through his presence now in us.

How long does the change in substance last?

Because the change in substance is a change in the thing itself, it lasts until it is no more. For us, the substantial change in the bread and wine remains until these are changed into our substance as happens to all food through digestion. This also helps to explain the reverence for the bread that extends beyond the actual Mass.

What happens to us when we receive Holy Communion?

Just as we nourish our bodies by eating, so we nourish our spiritual lives by contact with God’s presence in the eucharistic bread and wine. Through Holy Communion, we become what we eat — the Body of Christ. St. Cyril of Alexandria understood that “When we ingest the Eucharist, in reality we are ingesting the Godhead ... Because his Body and Blood are diffused through our members, we become partakers of the divine nature.” The divine reality works from within us — this

is what grace is all about — God’s divine life present in us is at work transforming us from within. As digestion transforms the bread and wine into ourselves, so too are we being transformed on the spiritual level into the divine through contact with God’s holy reality.

How does the Real Presence make a difference in our lives?

We believe that God’s Real Presence continues today in our lives and in the Church, especially in the sacraments. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”) that “God encounters us ever anew, in the men and women who reflect God’s presence, in God’s Word, in the sacraments, and especially in the Eucharist. In the Church’s liturgy, in her prayer, in the living community of believers, we experience the love of God, we perceive God’s presence, and we thus learn to recognize that presence in our daily lives.”

So as we take Christ into our mouths and into our hearts, we become more and more like Christ Himself. In this way we will more faithfully imitate his love and our lives will radiate with his compassion for others and his concern for justice. As Teresa of Ávila recognized, “Christ has no body now on Earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which to look at Christ’s compassion to the world, yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.”

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