Basic questions and answers: questions five and six
Questions five and six of the American Catholic bishops June 15, 2001, document on the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist delicately presents the Church’s teaching on Jesus being present in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine. Jesus gives himself to us “in a form that employs the symbolism inherent in eating bread and drinking wine.” St. Bonaventure is quoted as affirming that “there is no difficulty over Christ’s being present in the sacrament as in a sign; the great difficulty is in the fact that he is really in the sacrament, as he is in heaven.” The bishops emphasize clearly that “the transformed bread and wine that are the Body and Blood of Christ are not merely symbols because they truly are the Body and Blood of Christ,” but they also indicate that “it is important to recognize that the Body and Blood of Christ come to us in the Eucharist in a sacramental form.”
Once we have carefully clarified the unique, real, substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist, we can reflect on the issue of sign and symbol as they pertain to this sacrament. Sacraments, as we learned in our early days of study of our Catholic faith are “outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.”
The Council of Trent pointed out that the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist has in common with the other sacraments that it is a “symbol of a sacred reality an a visible form of and invisible grace” (Session XIII, Decree on the Holy Eucharist, Chapter 3).
The terms “sign” and “symbol” are used by the Church in explaining the Holy Eucharist, but always very carefully, since the theologians of the Protestant Reformation used the terms in a different sense than the Catholic Church did at the Council of Trent.
A sign can be understood in the general sense as any person, thing, event, or reality that points to another reality. Symbols are a category of sign that go further than just pointing to another reality. They relate us to that reality. They are signs that have depth to them. They are emotive. We connect with someone or something through that symbol.
When ladies on our diocesan staff were cleaning out the desk of Cleo Cantey, our long-time devoted chancellor who died this past January, they found a prayer in her desk entitled “For Today.” The prayer portrayed Cleo so well, one of the women wrote under it, “This poem (prayer) is symbolic of everything she was.” The prayer is now in a frame, with Cleo’s picture, near the desk she worked at for years. That is the power of symbols. They evoke fond memories. More than that, they evoke relationships. Reading that prayer brought tears to Cleo’s friends’ eyes. They saw Cleo in that prayer.
Jesus chose his last meal with his disciples as the event that would link him for all time with his followers and unite them with the sacrificial offering he made of his life on Calvary. The bishops’ document states, “we cannot presume to know all the reasons behind God’s actions. God uses, however, the symbolism inherent in the eating of bread and the drinking of wine at the natural level to illuminate the meaning of what is being accomplished in the Eucharist through Jesus Christ.”
In bringing his divine Presence into the world, in relating himself to us human beings, Jesus took human elements — bread and wine — to be a vehicle of his grace. He used these to create his Presence from them. So much did he love us, that God respected our human condition.
Through the consecration of the Mass the bread and wine yield to the action of the Holy Spirit so that they are no longer bread and wine, but the Body and Blood of Christ. However, the remaining natural appearances of the bread and wine, after the awesome change of their substance, would normally disappear. By divine power alone they are sustained in existence without any underlying substance so that they may be the “Sacred” or “Sacramental” signs to indicate the New Reality of the Body and Blood of Christ that these now mere appearances contain.
What appears as food for the body is now food for the soul.
Bishop Robert J. Baker
5. Is it fitting that Christ’s Body and Blood become present in the Eucharist under the appearances of bread and wine?
Yes, for this way of being present corresponds perfectly to the sacramental celebration of the Eucharist. Jesus Christ gives himself to us in a form that employs the symbolism inherent in eating bread and drinking wine. Furthermore, being present under the appearances of bread and wine, Christ gives himself to us in a form that is appropriate for human eating and drinking. Also, this kind of presence corresponds to the virtue of faith, for the presence of the Body and Blood of Christ cannot be detected or discerned by any way other than faith. That is why St. Bonaventure affirmed: “There is no difficulty over Christ’s being present in the sacrament as in a sign; the great difficulty is in the fact that he is really in the sacrament, as he is in heaven. And so believing this is especially meritorious” (In IV Sent., dist. X, P. I, art. un., qu. I). On the authority of God who reveals himself to us, by faith we believe that which cannot be grasped by our human faculties (cf. Catechism, no. 1381).
6. Are the consecrated bread and wine “merely symbols”?
In everyday language, we call a “symbol” something that points beyond itself to something else, often to several other realities at once. The transformed bread and wine that are the Body and Blood of Christ are not merely symbols because they truly are the Body and Blood of Christ. As St. John Damascene wrote: “The bread and wine are not a foreshadowing of the body and blood of Christ — By no means! — but the actual deified body of the Lord, because the Lord himself said: ‘This is my body;’ not ‘a foreshadowing of my body; but ‘my body,; and not ‘a foreshadowing of my blood; but ‘my blood'” (The Orthodox Faith, IV [PG 94, 1148-49]).
At the same time, however, it is important to recognize that the Body and Blood of Christ come to us in the Eucharist in a sacramental form. In other words, Christ is present under the appearances of bread and wine, not in his own proper form. We cannot presume to know all the reasons behind God’s actions. God uses, however, the symbolism inherent in the eating of bread and the drinking of wine at the natural level to illuminate the meaning of what is being accomplished in the Eucharist through Jesus Christ.
There are various ways in which the symbolism of eating bread and drinking wine discloses the meaning of the Eucharist. For example, just as natural food gives nourishment to the body, so the eucharistic food gives spiritual nourishment. Furthermore, the sharing of an ordinary meal establishes a certain communion among the people who share it; in the Eucharist, the People of God share a meal that brings them into communion not only with each other but with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Similarly, as St. Paul tells us, the single loaf that is shared among many during the eucharistic meal is an indication of the unity of those who have been called together by the Holy Spirit as one body, the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17). To take another example, the individual grains of wheat and individual grapes have to be harvested and to undergo a process of grinding or crushing before they are unified as bread and as wine. Because of this, bread and wine point to both the union of the many that takes place in the Body of Christ and the suffering undergone by Christ, a suffering that must also be embraced by his disciples. Much more could be said about the many ways in which the eating of bread and drinking of wine symbolize what God does for us through Christ, since symbols carry multiple meanings and connotations.