Monday, June 01, 2015

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

(Co-authored with Dr. Jeremy Holmes)
St. Thomas Aquinas
The mystery of the Eucharist is so unlike anything else we experience that we struggle to find language to describe it. A venerable tradition speaks of Jesus descending to the altar at the consecration to become present among us. But even so pious a way of speaking has sometimes caused trouble. The Benedictine monk Guitmund, a classmate of St. Anselm’s writing in the eleventh century, reports that the heretic Berengar of Tours took it as an occasion to attack the doctrine of the real presence:
To this day St. Peter is a stumbling block to Berengar, saying of the Lord, “whom heaven must receive until the time of the restoration of all things” (Acts 3:21). If he must be received by heaven until the end, Berengar says, then he never leaves heaven such that he could be detained on earth at some time.[1]
Although Guitmund points out that Jesus reigns in heaven rather than being incarcerated there as prisoner, he doesn’t conclude that Jesus in fact leaves heaven:
But far be it from the prudence of Christians to say that Christ is sacrificed on earth, or eaten, in such a way that in the meantime he necessarily abandons heaven. For he is entire in heaven, while his entire body is truly eaten on earth.[2]
Guitmond’s instinct is surely correct: Christ does not depart from heaven to descend on the altar every time a Mass is said anywhere on earth. But how, then, are we to describe his truly coming to be among us? The honor of advancing our Eucharistic language remained for the scholastic theologians, using Aristotelian texts that came to Europe after Guitmond’s time. And the pinnacle of the scholastic effort came in the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas’s work was technical but ultimately fruitful for piety. He frequently made use of a distinction between a “real” relation and a “logical” relation (also known as a relation of reason). A real relation is one in which two realities stand to each other in such a way that when one changes, the other also changes. For example, if I press on an apple, the apple returns the favor by resisting my pressure; if I eat the apple, not only is the apple changed, but I, too, am changed by adding the apple to my substance. But things are different when we speak God’s relation to the world. Being absolutely unchanging and unchangeable, God is not metaphysically bound to any creature in such a way that a change in the creature causes a change in Him.

Thus St. Thomas would say God has a “logical” relation to the creature, namely, the relation of a perfect cause (altogether in actuality) to an imperfect effect (in potency to His causality). All the change that God causes is therefore located in the creature, not in the Creator. In fact, God is called “Creator” because of a dependency that creatures have on Him, not because He changed when He created. On the other hand, the creature, which depends entirely on God for anything it is or does, is really (i.e., in its very being) related to Him. Thus we have a lop-sided relationship: the creature could not exist for a moment without God causing it to do so, whereas God depends in no way on the existence of any creature.

St. Thomas sometimes expresses the doctrine of transubstantiation in terms of the relation which the Eucharistic species acquire to the body of Christ. On the one hand, something happens to the being of the bread and wine at the consecration: the species acquire some real relation to Christ’s body, such that Christ is substantially present under them, although we do not know what exactly that relation is because there is nothing else like it in the created universe. On the other hand, since acquiring a real relation requires a change in the thing related, it would seem that Christ’s glorified body does not acquire a real relation to the species, despite the fact that the species acquire a real relation to it. If his glorified body acquired a real relation to the Eucharistic species, we would have to say that Christ’s body is somehow impinged upon and affected by all the innumerable consecrations which occur every day. The relation between Christ and the Eucharistic species is real in only one direction.

Nevertheless, as St. Thomas shows in the case of the word creator, to say that a relation is only real in one direction does not make the relation in any “fake” or unimportant. The “logical” relation between the glorified Body of Christ in heaven and the sacramental species parallels exactly the logical relation of God vis-à-vis creation and re-creation or the justification of sinners, as well as the relation between the divine and human natures in Christ. God is in no way changed when he creates, and yet nothing could be more real or important than our dependence on him as creatures. At the moment of the Incarnation, it is not the Eternal Word who acquires something new but a human nature that changes, being assumed to the Person of the Son to subsist in Him; and yet nothing could be more real or important than the fact that Jesus Christ truly is the Son of God. The point can be illustrated at a lower level by a physical analogy: the sun does not become less bright or warm when another flower comes under its light, and yet the flower’s entire dependence on the sun is the chief fact of its life. In a parallel way, the glorified body of Christ is not moved or changed at the consecration, and yet the species of bread and wine are really and truly changed such that when we touch the species of bread or wine we touch the body of God.

The New Jerusalem (14th cent. tapestry)
Now if our speculation is right on this matter, it seems less true to speak of Christ descending to the altar than to speak of us—via the species—ascending to the heavenly temple. The metaphysical movement is upwards. This should not be taken as a disparagement of the age-old way of speaking about Christ coming into our midst, but rather, as an emphasis on another part of the tradition, which sees the Mass as a joining-in with the perpetual heavenly Mass, from the Sanctus when we lift up our hearts and sing with the angels, to the invitation “Ecce Agnus Dei” when we are invited to partake of the Lamb who reigns in the City of God, our faint participation in what the angels enjoy in heaven. The sacramental species become, so to speak, a miraculous portal which pulls us upwards and inwards—a small rent in the veil, through which we can peer into glory.

Both St. Thomas and the Roman Canon itself seem to bear out the claim that the Eucharist is more our being brought to God than God being brought to us. Fr. Jean-Pierre Torrell notes that St. Thomas’s office for Corpus Christi conspicuously lacks the vocabulary of praesentia corporalis which is strong in Bonaventure, Peter of Tarentaise, and the bull Transiturus. Rather, he speaks of “the ineffable mode of the divine presence in the visible sacrament” (Matins).

(Part II will appear on Thursday, the Feast of Corpus Christi.)

[1] Guitmund, De corporis et sanguinis Jesu Christi veritate in Eucharistia, PL 149:1466.

[2] Ibid.

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