Points of Clarification on Consuming the Flesh and Blood of Christ

Douglas P. McManaman
January 25, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

Do we really consume the flesh and blood of Christ in the Eucharist? The problem with this question is the context in which it is asked. "Flesh and blood" means something entirely different for the Jewish mind than it does for a post-Cartesian, western European mind. Once we distinguish between the two, we can answer the original question.

Hebrew has no word that literally designates the living body.[1] The word that comes closest to this meaning is basar , which is translated as 'flesh'. The word "flesh" (Hb basar ) refers to the whole living man, that is, the total person. In the context of the gospel of John, it designates "the physical reality of the body",[2] that is, the total person as a physical reality. One of the most important texts that underscores this point is the opening line of the second chapter of Colossians: "Yes, I want you to know that I do have to struggle hard for you, and for those in Laodicea, and for so many others who have never seen me face to face " (Gk sarx , in the flesh).

In short, according to the biblical mindset, "You are your body". This is difficult to grasp for those in the western world who have been influenced by Platonic/Cartesian dualism (almost all of us), which tends to see the human person as an immaterial substance (soul or spirit) somehow trapped within a material substance (body). Such an idea is foreign to the Jews; "flesh" according to Scripture is the entire person in his physical reality.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, like the gospel of John, uses "flesh" instead of "body" in the context of his discussion on the Eucharist specifically in reaction to Docetism, an early heresy which denied that Christ had a real physical body.[3] John's emphasis on the "flesh" in the Bread of Life discourse serves the same purpose: "Anyone who does eat my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life...For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him" (Jn 6, 54-56). In other words, to eat the flesh of the Son of Man is to consume the whole Christ in his divine and physical reality.

In the 17th century, Descartes reduced "substance" to quantity. This, I believe, is the root of our difficulties with these biblical points. The fact is, however, that substance is not the same as quantity. Rather, quantity is the first "accident" of a material substance and refers to "parts outside of parts". For example, a person gains one hundred pounds, which amounts to a change in quantity; but this does not amount to a change in substance. It is still the same person, only more of him (one hundred pounds more). If quantity were the same mode of being as substance, a change in quantity would amount to a change in substance. Moreover, there are a multiplicity of parts in a single organic substance, but there is only one substance - my fingers, my cells, my organs, etc., are each "parts of" the single entity that I am. I can lose a finger or two, but I remain the same person, the same substance.

Substance is one of the most difficult concepts to teach in philosophy, because most people try to "picture" substance in the imagination. But substance considered in itself, without its accidental qualities and various parts and extension, is not something the imagination can apprehend. It can only be conceived by the mind (we have to think our way to it, not picture it). The imagination, which is an internal sense (and is not the mind) can only apprehend a fully constituted substance with all its accidental modes of being (quantity, affective qualities such as color, texture, odor, etc., its shape, place, posture, and relation, etc.). This point must be firmly grasped, because transubstantiation is the changing of the substance of bread and wine into the substance of Christ's "body and blood". The first part of this definition employs concepts borrowed from Aristotelian metaphysics (substance), but the last part (i.e., "body and blood") must be understood according to its biblical meaning. In other words, what happens is that the substance of bread and wine changes to the substance of the whole person of Christ. It does not mean that one consumes the parts of Christ, such as his fingers, toes, hemoglobin and fat cells. There would be nothing significant in that, because to sever a part of a body (i.e., the leg of a chicken) and consume it is not to consume the substance of the chicken - the severed part is no longer living. What happens in communion is much more significant; for we consume the entire physical substance of the risen Christ. Although the substance of the bread has changed, the accidental modes of being of the bread, i.e., its texture, flavor, shape, extension, color, etc., remain the same. And although the substance of the wine has changed (it is no longer wine, but the substance of Christ), the accidental modes of being of the wine, i.e., its flavor, odor, liquid state, color, etc., remain the same.

To consume the entire physical substance of Christ is to consume the "body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ" (in other words, the whole Christ), and since Christ is the eternal Person of the Word who joined a human nature (in one hypostasis), entered into human history and offered himself on the altar of the cross, his sacrifice that took place at a particular time (Good Friday) is also an eternal sacrifice. It is by virtue of the divine nature of the Word (Son) that the sacrifice of Good Friday is not limited by time, but embraces every moment of time; hence, to consume the whole Christ is to consume him in the eternal act of offering himself to the Father. In other words, we consume the sacrifice of Calvary. And so, to be present at an ordinary Mass is to be just as present at the foot of the cross as Mary and John were two thousand years ago.