Monday, November 21, 2016

Inwards and Outwards

Question: if a sacrament is "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace," doesn't the doctrine of Transusbstantiation violate this definition given that the outward sign (bread and wine) is obliterated by the presence of the Body of Christ.

It's a lovely question, but it is important that we do not allow ourselves to be influenced by a particular philosophy of physics. This is why the Roman definition of Transubstantiation causes problems with people who have a different understanding of what it is to be. It has to be remembered that we owe this definition to St Augustine of Hippo who himself is influenced heavily by Platonism, and the idea of Transubstantiation comes from St Thomas Aquinas' reading of Aristotelian physics.

Anglicans and Romans ascribe to the Augustinian definition of sacrament, and so the burden of answering the question will largely fall upon those who hold the Roman Doctrine of Transubstantiation. However, not every Transubstantiation need to be Roman. For many orthodox and catholic Christians, it is sufficient to say that before Mass they behold wafer and wine and that after Mass they say that they have truly received the Body and Blood of Christ which were indeed present in that Mass. Nonetheless the Real Presence of Christ does seem to mix up what we mean by inward and outward.

Let us therefore be as clear as we can and go back to first principles. I preached on Corpus Christi that it is the word "indeed" that is vitally important when it comes to understanding the Presence of the Lord in the Sacrament of the altar. It means that, whatever a Christian understands to be real, Christ is as present in the Elements as that Christian is in the Church. The doctrine of the Real Presence is scriptural and exists soundly within the Tradition of the Primitive Church. It is a literal presence, as Our Lord intends it to be, but it is not an observable presence as no change has occurred in the outward appearance of the Elements.

That a physicist (nor I for that matter!) would not be able to distinguish a consecrated Host from an unconsecrated wafer means that we really are pointing to a reality that exists beyond Space and Time which dwarf Space and Time so as to render them thinner than tissue paper. This gives us an interesting conundrum because, in the Reality of God, there isn't enough room "inside" our reality for God to be present. Of course, the problem goes away with the Incarnation which shows that it is entirely possible for God to be within His Creation and yet beyond it. Christ Himself becomes the Sacrament that generates all the others. As He walks among us, His human nature is the outward sign that presents itself to us allowing us to receive the "inward" spiritual grace of His Divine nature - literally Emmanuel.

Holy Scripture and the Fathers make it clear that "outwards" and "inwards" can only be used metaphorically when it comes to the relationship of God with Man. In the Holy Mass, Scripture tells us categorically that we indeed eat of the Body of Christ, that we indeed drink of the blood of Christ and that in so doing we receive the substance of God Himself. In attending our Mass and receiving these Sacred things, we are given sufficient substance to say that Christ is within us. Indeed, we actually exist more fully as a result of taking Christ into us, and plugging ourselves into the Church which is itself His Body.

Whether this actually obliterates the existence of bread and wine is difficult to determine and, in some sense, is utterly irrelevant. Before Consecration, bread and wine; After Consecration, Body and Blood - that is all that is necessary. In that sense, and perhaps Schillebeeckx might say this, the significance of the wafer and wine is completely nullified. Of course, this is unprovable, especially from Scripture. Personally, I affirm the objective obliteration of the bread and wine for the reason that I cannot understand them any further as bread and wine any more than I can understand them as bread and wine in the state of digestion within me. I affirm that what I see in the monstrance is nor wafer, but the True Christ Himself hidden "inwardly" or, more properly, beyond the evidence of my senses. I cannot require anyone to hold this view, though I believe it to be wholesome.

At the very least, one must simply embrace the mystery as a Mystery and learn to focus on what is truly necessary, namely our encounter of our not-so-real and vaguely present selves with the truly Real and objectively Present Lord and God.

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