Monday, March 07, 2016

On “Pinpointing” Consecration: A Letter for the Feast of St. Thomas Aquinas

I happened recently upon a letter I had sent in 2007 to a priest with whom I was having an amicable disagreement. It is more than likely that some NLM readers are confronted with similar objections or rude remarks about St. Thomas, the scholastics, and traditional Eucharistic devotion and piety. I offer it today in homage to the Angelic Doctor, who departed to his heavenly reward on this day in the year 1274.

March 1, 2007
Dear Father ———,

Thank you for the conversation we had recently. I’ve been pondering your claim that people who think there is a definite moment of consecration have gotten lost in trivial details and are missing the point, which is, according to you, that “the Eucharist is about our transformation.” Moreover, you expressed concern that any claim about a “moment of consecration” subjects mystery to rational dissection and that it’s more honest to say “we don’t know.” I hope you will not mind if I challenge these views.

People are concerned to know about the moment of consecration for quite legitimate reasons, and certainly not because they have no sense of mystery. After all, some of the most poignant expressions of the conviction that consecration occurs through the “words of institution” are to be found in St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and St. Ambrose, none of whom could even remotely be considered rationalistic. On the contrary, they, with St. Thomas Aquinas, were well-known mystics of the Holy Eucharist.

But they were also practical and pastoral men. They knew that the Lord truly present in His body and blood deserves our inward and outward adoration (latria). Therefore they quite reasonably wondered when they should show such adoration to the gifts on the altar. To do so towards ordinary bread is idolatry. But to fail to do so when the Lord is truly present would be irreverence. As parents know, little children will ask questions like: “Daddy, when does Jesus come to the altar?” “Mommy, why is the priest kneeling now?” “Is the host Jesus yet?” I would submit that these humble, child-like, and yes, “naïve” questions — some of them not very accurate theologically — are not at all displeasing to our Lord; they are “faith seeking understanding.” I believe that Jesus is more pleased by a naïve realism than by sophisticated postconciliar theories that leave us devotionally dry.

In his final encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II called St. Thomas Aquinas “supreme theologian and impassioned singer of the eucharistic Christ,” summus theologus simulque Christi eucharistici fervidus cantor. We know the beauty of Aquinas’s Corpus Christi hymns and prayers. In his case, it was the very depth of his faith and the intensity of his desire to surrender himself to the mystery with all the force of his powerful intellect that propelled him to formulate such a “scholastic” question as “When does consecration take place? When is it completed or perfected?” And his answer is as serene as it is inherently plausible: when the priest finishes saying the entire formula “This is my body” or “This is my blood.” The reason is that only the entire statement has the meaning that sufficiently signifies what is taking place by divine power. “This is my…” without completion, or merely the words “my body,” would not signify that, but “This is my body” does. By Christ’s institution, these words have power to bring about what they mean to say (or, in the older language, they effect what they signify).

(As an aside, it is clear that if a priest were to die after consecrating the bread alone, the body of Jesus — and concomitantly the blood, soul, and divinity — would be fully present, but the representation of the sacrifice would be imperfect and therefore another priest would have to be called in to consecrate the blood. After all, as Pius XII teaches in Mediator Dei, the fundamental reason for the separate consecrations is to re-present, in a sacramental fashion, the bloody immolation of the Victim on Calvary.)

You were concerned that my interest in “explaining” the Anaphora of Addai and Mari in terms of Thomistic sacramental theology[1] might have been motivated by a reductionism or rationalism that sees itself as capable of “proving” what is and will always remain mysterious. This was absolutely not my intention! Rather, I sought to interpret an unusual anaphora in light of a familiar theological account that is reasonable and hallowed by tradition. My conclusion was that this familiar account did not have to be abandoned, because it has a more profound meaning than most people realize.

I do not believe that speaking of a moment of consecration in any way lessens the mysteriousness of the event; on the contrary, for me at least, it heightens that mysteriousness by dramatically underlining the infinite divine power required to accomplish such a miraculous change, and the quasi-infinite faith it takes to accept it as fact. For me, the Mass has the shape of a mountain in which we climb to the summit and join our Savior on the Cross, to share His life; then we climb down, as it were, to our everyday life in the valley, carrying something of that immense love to everyone we meet. In that sense, the special sacramental presence of Jesus at the heart of the Eucharistic liturgy gives shape and order to the whole. He is not present in just that way on the credence table or on the altar during the Sanctus; He becomes present, and in a definite, priestly, liturgical, ecclesial way, when the gifts are transformed. To me, this speaks volumes about the drama of the divine; there is a narrative, a movement, a climax, and we are then allowed to share in that victorious redemption. God seems to like to paint in bright colors and bold strokes, rather than an indistinguishable haze of grays and browns.

I hope you will not mind a final comment about the example you used, namely, of communion in the hand. You say it makes little difference whether the host touches my hands first or my tongue, because the hands and tongue of a sinner are sinful, while a man with a pure heart has pure hands. But as you well know, there is a phenomenological question here, too: what if kneeling to receive the host on the tongue were more conducive to the devotion of most people and helped to accentuate the seriousness of what they are doing, and what if standing in line to receive on the hand encouraged a more casual, relaxed, and unreflective attitude? Would this not be spiritually and pastorally relevant? Moreover, what if a certain posture had centuries of practice and symbolism behind it, while another was self-consciously new and lacked that benefit? Only a rationalist could ignore such immense aspects of the question.

I believe that St. Thomas, like his patristic predecessors, was not preoccupied with “pinpointing” a miracle, but rather with submitting mind and heart to the mighty mystery that descends, like the flames of Pentecost, upon the altar of sacrifice. Their concern was the concern of the lover who wishes to be maximally attentive to the beloved, the mother who wants to be right there when her baby walks for the first time, the poet who does not wish to miss the sunrise or the sunset. I don’t see it as trivial at all; it shows a sensitivity to what is at stake in the act of adoration. I know that when Jesus comes, I want to be awake and ready to meet him. This is as true for his sacramental advent as for his Second Coming.

I appreciate your taking the time to consider these ideas. I hope the foregoing clarifies what moves me to follow in the footsteps of St. Thomas in regard to Eucharistic consecration.

Sincerely yours, in Christ,

Peter Kwasniewski

[1] The letter is referring to my article "Doing and Speaking in the Person of Christ: Eucharistic Form in the Anaphora of Addai and Mari," Nova et Vetera 4 (2006): 313–79, available here.

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