Thursday, June 04, 2015

Going Up to Heaven with the Blessed Sacrament (Part II)

(Co-authored with Dr. Jeremy Holmes)
In the first part, we looked at how the Roman Canon and St. Thomas alike seem to bear out the claim that the Eucharist is more our being brought to God than God being brought to us. To go a step further, let us consider the arc of Thomas’s own thinking on the matter. Fr. Jean-Pierre Torrell remarks:
In the earlier phase of his thought, Thomas preferred to avoid speaking about a ‘corporal’ presence of Christ in the sacrament, for it appeared to him linked with a ‘localization’, while the presence ‘in loco’ pertained only to the accidents. It is only in the Tertia Pars, several years later, that he will accept speaking of corporal presence, but, as we will see later, in an entirely different sense.[1]
Some pages later, Torrell addresses this “different sense.” In the office of the Blessed Sacrament, St. Thomas
centered the celebration on the mystery of Christ, God and perfect man, entirely contained in the sacrament, to such a point that he does not say: receive the body or the blood of Christ, but indeed: receive Christ (Christus sumitur, or even: Deus sumitur). The notion of presence also begins to be refined, and we intuit what will become the definitive formulation in the Summa: Christ does not become present to us (a ‘localizing’ conception that Thomas continued to discard), it is we whom He renders present to Himself.[2]
Then Torrell cites the corpus of Summa theologiae III, q. 75, a. 1, where St. Thomas gives as the second reason for the Christ’s true presence in the sacrament:
This befits the charity of Christ, out of which he assumed, for our salvation, a true body of our nature. And since what belongs to friendship most of all is dwelling together in a common life, as the Philosopher says (Ethics IX), He promises us His bodily presence as our reward (Matthew 24: “Where the body shall be, there the eagles will be gathered”). Yet meanwhile he has not left us destitute of His bodily presence in this pilgrimage, but by the truth of His body and blood He has joined us to Himself in this sacrament. Hence He says in John 6: “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him.” Hence this sacrament is the sign of the very greatest charity and a support of our hope, from such an intimate association of Christ with us.
On this magnificent passage, Torrell comments:
This evocation of hope in connection with the Eucharist does not occur by chance: full of the memory of the Passion, the celebration is entirely turned toward the eschatological achievement, since it is the pledge, the pignus, of future glory. According to Father Gy, who is quite convincing, this displacement of Thomas’s eucharistic theology toward eschatology . . . is entirely in line with his theological and spiritual personality, so deeply marked by a straining toward the vision of God.[3]
Thus the Eucharist is closely connected with the vision of God because in it, in a mystical way, we are already brought into God’s presence, brought before His throne, carried to Him, and embrace Him in the darkness of faith, not yet seeing the Beloved, but full of confidence and trust that He will reveal Himself to us when the fullness of time has come, when the period of trial is over: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone . . . Let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is comely” (Song of Solomon 2:10-11, 14).

The liturgy of the Roman Rite bears witness to this Thomistic teaching, in the “Supplices te rogamus” of the Roman Canon:
Most humbly we implore Thee, Almighty God, bid these offerings to be brought by the hands of Thy Holy Angel to Thine altar on high, before the face of Thy Divine Majesty; that as many of us as shall receive the most Sacred Body and Blood of Thy Son by partaking thereof from this altar, may be filled with every heavenly blessing and grace. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
This prayer, so beautiful and rich, seems to be woven of paradoxes. It asks God to command that the offerings (which are already divine) be brought by the hands of the “angel” (which, as St. Thomas suggests, is Christ himself) to the altar in heaven (which I take to mean: the throne where the Lamb reigns, as in the Apocalypse), so that those who receive the true body and blood from this earthly altar will be filled with the blessings of that heavenly altar. Those who participate in the earthly offering, as represented by the species, will participate in the heavenly offering of the ipse Christus passus—Christ Himself, as having suffered for our sakes—to the Most Holy Trinity. By participating in the Eucharist, the communicant is, like the Victim Himself, brought up to heaven, to the face of the Divine Majesty, by the Angel. Communion is to be re-located at the throne of the Lamb; it is divinization. This is why the sacrament is pignus futurae gloriae, the pledge or earnest of future glory, for that glory is nothing other than to be divinized by the face-to-face vision of God.


[1] Jean-Pierre Torrell, O.P., Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. I: The Person and His Work, trans. Robert Royal (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 131. Torrell refers us to Sent. IV, d. 10, a. 1, ad 4, and Resp. de 36 art., prop. 33: “corpus Christi non est in sacramento ut in loco.”

[2] Ibid., 135.

[3] Ibid., 135–36. See also M.-J. Nicolas, O.P., What is the Eucharist?, 53–55.

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