The Real Miracle of the Eucharist

Karl Rahner and Herbert Vorgrimler’s 1965 Theological Dictionary defines Eucharist as “the flesh and blood of him [Jesus] who has been lifted up, by consuming which individuals are united in the community of the one pneumatic body of Jesus Christ” (p. 153). Of course, a longstanding difference between Catholic and Protestant factions has been their respective interpretations of the Eucharist, with Rome insisting that the bread and wine which comprise the elements of the Mass actually become the literal body and blood of Christ, while the non-Roman parties equate this with veritable cannibalism, on the one hand, while insisting, on the other, that this ostensible “incarnation” has no actual reality—the Eucharist is, instead, simply a commemoration of an event or may contain the presence of Jesus, but is by no means his literal flesh and blood.

For Catholics, the Eucharist is a miracle—being defined by the good Rahner and Vorgrimler as “an event within the horizon of our human experience which defies explanation according to the intrinsic laws of this experienced world” (p. 287). But how much of a miracle is it really? After all, the elements do not undergo any physical transformation. In fact, Catholic dogma still follows the Aristotelian “logic” that became popular in medieval debates over the nature of the Eucharist. Aristotle, like Plato before him, differentiated between an ideal world and the material world, and insisted that everything had two fundamental properties—essential properties, and accidental properties. The accidental properties are those we see, the variations in things, while the essential properties are those which bind things into the same category. Chairs come in all shapes and sizes, but they are all representative of a singular, essential, ideal “chair-ness.” (If only those Greek philosophers had lived to see the advent of the El Camino, the sofa-bed, and fruity beers, they might not have been so insistent that things can fall into only one category.) Thus does Rome insist even today that, during the Mass, the “essence” of the bread and wine offered changes into the literal body and blood of Christ, while the “accidental” properties—how it looks, how it tastes—remain the same.

Which rather seems to defy the definition of miracle, doesn’t it? I mean, if a miracle is an unexplainable intrusion of the supernatural world into the natural, something which one experiences on our material plane but which seems to have no material explanation, then how can bread and wine remaining bread and wine be considered a miracle of any kind? The argument that the elements of the Mass change their essential form calls to mind the chapter “The Dragon in My Garage” from Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (1995): Oh, I have a dragon in my garage—it’s invisible and incorporeal and breaths a heatless fire that cannot be detected, but I promise that it’s there. Of course, there are any number of apocryphal stories of saints who are able to tell the difference between a consecrated wafer and an unconsecrated one, or animals who kneel before a consecrated host (primarily to prove the doctrine of transubstantiation to heretics), but, as the Swedish writer Yrjö Hirn points out in The Sacred Shrine: A Study of the Poetry and Art of the Catholic Church (1909), “When Thomas Aquinas, by direction of the highest authorities, carried out his great and lastingly-binding work on the Transubstantiation, he laid special weight on the assertion that the miraculous transformation was in no way perceptible to the senses. The Eucharist could not be grasped either by sight or taste, and no increase of his power of observation could enable even the holiest man to see the Being who concealed himself behind the appearance of earthly materials” (p. 124).

So if a miracle is something that we can experience but not explain according to the laws of our science, then no miracle occurs at Mass. But even if one wanted to accept that bread and wine became flesh and blood, one would still be missing out on an even bigger miracle, indeed. Here’s a hint—it’s what Shylock couldn’t do.

In Act IV, Scene I of The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish financier Shylock has brought local merchant Antonio before the court to seek satisfaction upon a contract by which he has the right to take one pound of Antonio’s flesh, the latter having failed to pay back a loan. The judge, Portia (being a woman in disguise as a man, because this is Shakespeare, after all), informs Shylock: “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; / The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’ / Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, / But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate / Unto the state of Venice” (306–312).

Protestant divines also liked to complain that, if the dogma of the Mass were true, and the Mass was a re-inaction of Christ’s sacrifice, then the implication was that Christ was being killed again and again, throughout the day and throughout the world, anywhere a few Catholics came together to sing some hymns very badly and watch their priest play with their food. They might have added that Jesus wasn’t just being murdered again and again, he was also being exsanguinated, his body being drained of his blood in the best tradition of kosher butchering. (Well, he was Jewish, after all.) I’m not sure where this extra step occurs, but it must, since the end product is the separated flesh and blood.

So there’s your real miracle of the Eucharist—a properly ordained priest can separate the flesh and blood of a grown man without the use of a knife and a trough, and in much less time than it takes most butchers to drain a much smaller animal. Of course, like Transubstantiation, it’s a miracle that doesn’t happen, but it certainly changes my image of Catholic priests. Maybe they should wear some nice, thick aprons instead of all those robes.

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