This Sunday, we celebrate the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, or the Body and Blood of Christ. It is the day in which the universal Church celebrates with great joy and thanksgiving the gift of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist, in which he is truly and really with us until the end of time. We recall the words of Jesus himself in the Gospel of John: “For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” (John 6:55-56) This teaching was and has been a hard teaching for many. The truth of these words is especially evident when many of Jesus’ followers abandoned him after he spoke them. Jesus does not apologize or give a further explanation for his teaching but instead he turns to the twelve apostles and says, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter replies with the great his great words of faith, “Master, to whom shall we go, for you have the words of everlasting life.” (Jn 6:68)
One of the major stumbling blocks concerning the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist for some Catholics and non-Catholics alike is that it seems so impossible that Christ could be really and substantially present in the Eucharist when it looks, tastes, smells, and feels like bread and wine. It is a mystery and it goes against what our senses are telling us. Our senses perceive what appears to be bread and wine, when in fact, through the power and miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, the substance itself has been changed from bread and wine into Christ himself. This doctrine of transubstantiation literally means “change of substance.” This is relatively simple miracle for us to comprehend, much more so than the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation or the Resurrection of Christ. Let’s look at how all this happens.
To better understand this doctrine, we need to do just a little philosophy. We need to delve into some metaphysics, or the study of being. Now, everything that exists has what we call its substance and its accidents, or properties. For example, if I have an apple, the substance put quite simply, is what it is objectively apart from it’s individual characteristics: an apple or its “appleness.” Now, the accidents or properties of the apple are things like size, shape, taste, color, texture, etc. So, if I am holding an apple, the substance is an apple and the accidents would be red, round, sweet, crunchy, smooth, etc. Now, could it be possible to change the accidents of a substance, but the substance remains the same? Sure. Let’s say I put the apple in a blender. What happens? The accidents change, but the substance remains the same. It is still an apple, but now it is liquid, yellow, etc. Let’s take another example. How about water? Here is a substance that remains the same while the accidents change quite drastically. It can be a liquid, solid or gas, but regardless it remains water.
Now that we have a better understanding of substance and accidents, we can better comprehend that what God does in the Eucharist through the power of the Holy Spirit. Instead of the accidents changing in the bread, it is the substance which changes. When the priest says the words of Jesus, “this is my body” over the bread, the Holy Spirit suspends, or keeps the same, the accidents and appearance of bread, but changes the substance from bread to Christ himself. The very substance of the Eucharist is Jesus, though the accidents remain those of bread. Therefore, though we see the accidents of bread and wine, the reality of the substance is truly the Son of God who chooses such a humble means to present himself to us and come in our hearts to dwell. Not a hard miracle for God to perform, but it really throws our minds for a loop!
Now we need to do some epistemology, or the study of knowledge. How do we come to know things? Our intellect or mind is part of our soul, but it interacts with the physical world through the information from our senses to come to know things. Our mind relies on our senses of sight, touch, taste, smell, and hearing to know and understand the physical world. Our senses, however, only perceive the accidents of a substance. When my mind perceives furry, small, four legs, and bark, it knows the object as “dog.” Our minds completely rely on the accidents of a substance to know what it is.
However, in the Eucharist, God has changed the substance of bread and wine into Jesus, but has kept all the accidents of bread and wine the same. Thus, our senses are still telling our mind that the Eucharist is bread and wine, which is all that our senses can perceive. This is where we must make that intellectual and spiritual “leap of faith.” Christ has revealed, both through his own words and through the teaching of the Church, that He is truly present in the Eucharist. So while our senses are screaming to our intellect that what we hold in our hands is ordinary bread, our faith tells us that God has changed the substance to Christ himself! St. Thomas Aquinas writes a beautiful depiction of this mystery in a much loved traditional hymn of the Church, the Tantum Ergo:
Down in adoration falling,
This great sacrament we hail.
Over ancient forms of worship,
Newer rites of Grace prevail:
Faith will tell us Christ is present,
When our human senses fail.