August 15, 2015

Homily for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, August 16, 2015, Year B

Fr. René J. Butler, M.S.
Director, La Salette Shrine
Enfield, NH

(Click here for today’s readings)

As mentioned last week, the words, “I am the bread of life,” taken in the context of Jesus’ other “I am” sayings, can be treated, like them, as symbolic. What makes this one different from all the others is the continuation of the discourse as we see it today, and next week as well.

Some of the other “I am” sayings of Jesus’ provoked a negative reaction from his hearers, but none as visceral as we see today: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” And none of his disciples abandoned him on account of any of those other sayings.

Similarly, while Jesus repeats “I am the good shepherd,” for example, a couple of times, it is not by any means with the same insistence as we encounter here: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you... For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”

My purpose here is not to “prove” the Real Presence to people of other Christian traditions, but rather to help Catholics to understand that our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist is in fact scripturally based.

There is also the fact that in the first four centuries of the Church’s existence the belief in the Real Presence, expressed by at least twenty of the ancient Christian teachers known as the “Fathers of the Church,” generated no controversy. It was the common faith of the universal Church. It was not until the Middle Ages that any problem arose, and even then it did not concern the faith in the Real Presence but the question of how to explain it. By the thirteenth century one term had become dominant, and in 1551 it was confirmed by an Ecumenical Council in these words: “Since Christ, our Redeemer, has said that that is truly His own body which He offered under the species of bread, it has always been a matter of conviction in the Church of God... that by the consecration of the bread and wine a conversion takes place of the whole substance of bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood. This conversion is appropriately and properly called transubstantiation by the Catholic Church.”

Thus, faith in the Real Presence is also supported by the long unbroken Tradition of the Church, whether Catholic or Orthodox.

The term transubstantiation comes from philosophical concepts developed originally by Aristotle, who lived over 300 years before the birth of Christ. Those concepts were rediscovered by European Christian scholars in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and found their way also into theology. Simplifying the ideas somewhat, “Substance” meant the underlying reality of something, while “accident” meant any aspect of it accessible to the senses. In the Eucharist, then, the “accidents” of bread and wine remain unchanged, while their substance is changed. It all made perfect sense.

Since then, however, Aristotle has definitely fallen out of fashion in academic circles, and a variety of philosophies have arisen in its place. Each has a different answer to the question, “What makes anything what it is?” or, “What really matters about anything?”

Around the time of the Second Vatican Council, some Catholic theologians wondered out loud, so to speak, about how to express the truth of transubstantiation in non-Aristotelian terms. In a philosophy in which the meaning of anything is what really matters, one might speak of “transignification.” If, on the other hand, purpose is what makes anything what it is, one might speak of “transfinalization.”

In some circles, these theologians were immediately accused of denying the Real Presence. Nothing could be farther from the truth. They were simply attempting the very difficult task of translating that same doctrine into other philosophical languages.

Nevertheless, the Church wisely decided not to adopt this approach. After all, new philosophies continue to crop up, and while the exercise might be interesting, one would be always trying to say the same thing in new words.

Besides, as I have had occasion to note in the past, faith is not an academic exercise, but first and foremost a matter of personal relationship. Each of us has a personal relationship with Jesus in the sacrament of the Eucharist. For some it is intensely devotional. For others it is the gateway to a deeply mysterious encounter.

If I were to ask what transubstantiation means to you, you would presumably give me the theological explanation as you understand it. But if I were to ask what receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist means to you, well, that’s a very different question, isn’t it?

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