In Chapter 62 of Book IV of Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas outlined reasonable difficulties in believing in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar. The last one involved our custom at Mass of breaking the Host.
…It even seems absurd to say that the subject of the breaking of the bread at the Mass is the Body of Christ…
Since Christ’s Body, risen from the dead, and subject to no injury or corruption at this point, cannot be broken.
St. Thomas provided the key to solving this difficulty in Chapter 63. Now, in Chapter 67, he answers this particular objection.
Next, St. Thomas comments on the saying of Christ that supported all the objections to the Real Presence, Namely:
The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
Finally, to conclude the section on the Holy Eucharist, St. Thomas considers the use of leavened vs. unleavened bread.
The next section of Book IV considers the Sacrament of Penance. St. Thomas begins by considering whether an initiated Christian can sin.
In Chapter 62 of Book IV of Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas laid out a number of serious difficulties with crediting the Church’s faith in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
Those difficulties include:
How the Body of Christ comes to be on the altar, how His Body can occupy this precise space that was previously occupied by the bread and wine, and how the Body of Christ can have the appearance, taste, and smell of bread, and His Blood the appearance, taste, and smell of wine, not to mention the capacity of bread and wine to nourish and inebriate, or the capacity to spoil or burn.
St. Thomas provides the idea necessary to resolve these difficulties in Chapter 63. The consecration of the Host and Chalice brings about the transformation of the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of the Body of Christ. The consecration does notentail bringing about the presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in their proper dimensions in space.
This distinction is indeed subtle, but we can understand it, if we think of a loaf of bread.
Let’s say it’s Pepperidge Farm pumpernickel. A distinct substance.
The entirety of Pepperidge Farm pumpernickel-ness is in every slice of the loaf, and in the loaf as a whole, and in even a small bite of one slice. Pepperidge Farm pumpernickel-ness does not, in and of itself, occupy space. It occupies space through the dimensions of the bread, and Pepperidge Farm pumpernickel-ness and the dimensions of the loaf are not the same thing. After all, there are tens of thousands of loaves of the same kind of bread all over the world right now. You don’t have to know how many, in order to know what Pepperidge Farm pumpernickel-ness is.
So if you hold a slice of the bread in your hand to put some mustard on it, you are actually dealing with two things: the reality of Pepperidge Farm pumpernickel-ness, and the size and shape of the slice.
Or think of Coca-Cola. The entirety of Coca-Cola-ness resides in a 12-ounce can, or a 2-liter bottle, or the tank for a soda fountain that dispenses Coke. If you go to Mickey D’s and fill a cup with Coke, you’re actually dealing with two things: Coca-Cola-ness and the size of the cup.
The consecration at Holy Mass involves the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, a miracle as great as the creation of the universe out of nothing. It is also involves a second miracle of similar grandeur: the entire dimensions in space of the bread and wine remain, with everything attendant upon that: that is, the sensible qualities and capacities.
With this solution, St. Thomas does not intend to make it easy to believe in the consecration; he cannot do that. The Angelic Doctor concedes, in fact: believing in the Real Presence is super-humanly difficult, and it should be. Only the grace of supernatural faith suffices. We believe by virtue of a gift from heaven.
What St. Thomas does show, however, is: what we believe by supernatural faith about the Blessed Sacrament does not contradict reason; it is not impossible; it is not absurd. When we premise that God Himself brings about the miracle, the whole thing does make sense.
Solution to difficulties regarding the place of the Body and Blood of Christ:
Solution to difficulties regarding the sensible qualities of the consecrated Host and chalice.
Solution to difficulties regarding the capacity of the consecrated sacrament to nourish you or make you drunk, or to rot or burn.
Why do we eat? We get hungry, and we eat to stave-off starvation. Plus, hopefully we find the experience pleasant. Also, we can commune with our fellowman very fruitfully over a meal together. The common meal makes the family.
Now, what if bodily death meant The End? The End of all this eating?
We nourish our bodies daily, but to what purpose—if bodily death means a total Sayonara? After all, our bodily death comes inevitably—no matter how well, and how sociably, we eat. Why stave off starvation then? If death means The End, then the whole business of staving off starvation for a few short, seventy or eighty years seems like a pathetic, desperate exercise in futility.
And if bodily death spells Todo Finito, then why try to eat well? Why cook well? Why try to make eating pleasant? I guess you could answer: Because tomorrow we will die, so let’s enjoy today with good savors on our tongues! But that seems empty and pathetic, too. The sweetness of a good meal loses its appeal when we think of ourselves as mere random conglomerations of chemicals.
And if bodily death ends everything, then why eat together? Why build a family or friendships? None of it will last; our loves will die with our bodies. If bodily death means Tutto Chiuso.
My point is: The idea that bodily death ends everything—that idea is foreign to our experience of eating. The entire human enterprise of the table: it presumes that eternity somehow lies within our grasp. Somehow; we can’t conceive exactly how. But we know that human communion over dinner touches eternity somehow.
In other words, we feed on material food, yes—because we are material boys and girls. But we feed also on love, and on hope for friendship lasting forever. Hope and love make human meals human, as opposed to animal trough sessions.
Jesus Christ came from heaven to restore and fulfill human life. Yes, He brought something altogether new to the world. But His newness is not foreign to our human ways. His newness brings about the perfection of our present stumbles and flawed attempts at the greatness that fundamentally does belong to us.
We need to feed on the resurrected, immortal Body of Christ in order to eat anything else in peace. When we eat His Body with a clear conscience, what nourishment do we receive? How about the assurance of the hope that love lasts forever? How about: Eternal Life?
When we have that kind of confident hope, every plate of tamales, every lasagna, every bowl of pho we share means the coming of the Kingdom of God.
The holy angels have no bodies. They “feed on” truth, on God, by gazing upon Him with their purely spiritual minds.
We human beings, on the other hand, feed on truth and bread, since we have souls and bodies. We need both truth and bread to survive and thrive. Without this nourishment, we perish.
God feeds on nothing other than Himself; He possesses infinite life. He is obviously immortal—He’s eternal, the eternal source of all life–spiritual life and material life.
We understand from Holy Scripture that God formed mankind from the dust of the earth for the sake of giving us immortal life. Originally He made us to feed on the truth, and on the material largess of the earth–without ever experiencing the disintegration of the flesh.
But we disobeyed His law and fell away from the eternal source of life, leaving us to face the struggle to survive and the dissolution of our bodies back into dust.
God, infinitely merciful, became a man Himself, to unite our flesh with His life-giving power. He underwent our bodily death in His flesh. Then He conquered that death, rising again to a life no longer limited in any way by struggle or impending death.
But that’s not all: His work of uniting His death-conquering life with our flesh included the institution of the Mass and the Church. By instituting the Mass He instituted the Church, and vice-versa. The Mass is the life of the Church.
And the Mass is the way, perfectly suited to our human nature, by which we can feed on God. We cannot feed on Him like the angels do, since we do not see Him with spiritual eyes like they do. We need a bodily way to feed on the Body, Blood, soul, and divinity of the Christ. That way is: the Holy Mass.
If what was to fade was glorious, how much more will what endures be glorious. (II Corinthians 3:11) What does endure? What will endure even beyond the “passing away of heaven and earth?” (Matthew 5:18)
The answer resounds right in front of our noses. “The chalice of My Blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant.” We do not go too far when we say: Our religion is the Mass.
Not that we do no other acts of religion. We pray at other times and in other places. And we try to act justly and kindly all the time and everywhere we go, out of duty to God. But none of our prayers or religious acts outside of Mass make any sense at all without the Mass.
We do not go too far when we say: Our religion is Jesus Christ. Jesus, the incarnate Word of the eternal Father, makes Himself our sacrifice and our food in the Holy Mass.
Yes, we sacrifice other things; we strive to sacrifice our whole lives to God. But no sacrifice we can make pleases the Father unless we unite it with Christ’s sacrifice. And, in truth, we need make no sacrifice other than the sacrifice of Jesus—since, in offering Himself, He offered everything good and worthy in us. After all, He made us according to the infinite Wisdom He possesses in His unfathomable mind.
Sometimes non-Catholics try to confuse this issue of the absolute centrality of the Holy Mass and the sacred priesthood in the Catholic Church. They note that the New Testament contains relatively few references to the Mass, or the priesthood, or the Real Presence.
But this criticism actually misses the obvious context of the New Testament itself. What is the New Testament? Is it a collection of moral instructions? If so, it is not a coherent one. Is the New Testament an account of first-century Mediterranean-basin history? If so, it is a terrible, practically unreadable one.
The New Testament makes perfect sense, however, as a collection of documents written by churchmen—men who maintained intimate communion with Christ through the Holy Eucharist. Documents, in other words, written by priests of the new and eternal covenant, for the benefit of their people, namely the people who participated regularly in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
The living, breathing reality of the Church—priests and people celebrating Jesus’ Mass together: that is the gloriously glorious thing that will not pass away. Even on the other side of the final and all-encompassing purification of heaven and earth, we will gather together around the altar to offer Jesus and receive Jesus.
As we hear our Lord say at Holy Mass today, we pray, we fast, and we give alms in order to cultivate our friendship with our heavenly Father. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are works of piety. To pray, to fast, or to give alms means seeking a goal, exercising a means to an end. The end: union with God.
I daresay it’s possible that some of us neglect to fast. In other words, we forget that being friends with God requires that we deliberately deny ourselves certain pleasures that we would like to have.
God is infinitely loving and kind, infinitely patient and generous. Does that mean, though, that He is anything less than the most demanding friend a person could ever have?
No. Jesus, as a friend, makes extreme demands. Think of what He demanded of His mother. The indescribably agonizing fast that she had to keep on Good Friday.
She had to fast from sleep, from food, from any comfort. She had to fast from feeling at all at-home in this world. She had to fast from anything making any sense at all. Then she had to fast from the only light that gave her any real joy, when her Son closed His eyes, and she could have no human expectation that He would ever open them again.
God seeks our friendship–each of us–with the same relentless, indomitably demanding zeal. He wants to be as close to us as He was and is to the Blessed Virgin.
His friendship requires that we recognize our earthly pilgrimage for what it is: One long fast from the only thing that will really make us happy, which is the light of His eyes. The only true joy for the human race is the joy of the Blessed Virgin, which she found in the face of Christ. We will find that joy, too–by keeping the fast that she kept.
We could have no hope of keeping this fast faithfully—no hope of keeping the cold, dry vigil of the friends of God. But the Lord feeds us with His divine flesh and blood in the meantime, in the mysterious feast of faith which He gave us.
He knows how demanding He is. To obey Him means finding ourselves desperately, almost hopelessly, hungry for satisfactions which we cannot have now. So He feeds us with faith, se we can keep going.
And the feast that ends the fast is not as far away as it sometimes seems. On Good Friday afternoon, the Blessed Virgin’s fast seemed like it would last forever. But it actually only lasted until Sunday morning.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over—twelve wicker baskets full. Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children. (Matthew 14:19-21)
Anyone ever heard of St. Ignatius Loyola? As a young man, he dreamed of a life of knighthood and soldiering. But he fell, gravely wounded, in his first battle.
During his long recovery, Ignatius began to read passages from the gospel and imagine himself as a minor character in them. Over time, Ignatius became intimately familiar with every detail of the life of Christ. He gave up the idea of being a soldier and longed to serve Christ as His dutiful knight.
Ignatius studied and became a priest. He founded the Jesuit order. He became famous for his unswerving adherence to Church teaching. ‘Something might look white to me, but if the Church teaches that it is black, then I conclude that it is black.’ Ignatius died 455 years ago today.
St. Ignatius encouraged frequent Holy Communion. He wrote:
One of the most admirable effects of Holy Communion is to preserve the soul from sin, and to help those who fall through weakness to rise again. It is much more profitable, then, to approach this divine sacrament with love, respect, and confidence, than to remain away.
We read in the gospel that the Lord Jesus felt pity for us in our hunger. He knows that we human beings have appetites that don’t quit. He formed us from dust, and we tend toward dust. For all the magnificent intricacy of our bodies, they nonetheless starve to death without regular feeding.
On the stage, one actor begins to speak and move without a cue–namely, whoever speaks the opening lines. From then on, everything proceeds according to cues. To succeed as an actor, the first rule is: learn your cues.
Well, the Bard of Avon wrote, “all the world’s a stage.” On the stage of life, the only one who begins to speak and to act without a cue is: God, the Creator. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
Shakespeare spoke true: We human beings resemble actors on a stage in that we live our lives following cues. None of us here started this big show. Our first rule needs to be: Stay on cue.
The question is: From whom or from what will we take our cues?
The Lord Jesus said: “I am the Bread of Life.” And He gave us the Holy Eucharist.
The sacred ceremony of the Holy Mass is the perfect act of religion, the perfect act of obedience and devotion to God. By God’s design, the Holy Mass is both the sacrifice of salvation and the feast of faith.
The Blessed Sacrament of the altar is the source of eternal life. It is the divine Body and Blood, the flesh animated by the undying life of God.
How do we mortals share in Christ’s immortal life? Through His death.
Like all the chapters of all the gospels, the sixth chapter of John proclaims that the Messiah has come, and it is Jesus.
It will help us to understand this chapter if we recall some of the great deeds the Lord did through His prophet Moses in ancient times. Through Moses, the Lord taught His people a lot about how to hope for the Messiah—about how to hope for freedom and salvation.
Let us recall the Exodus of the Israelites. By the power of God, Moses brought plagues upon the Egyptian slave-masters. Then he parted the Red Sea and led the people across it. Later, Moses turned the desert rock into a spring of water.
Moses also demonstrated the power of God when he brought the Law down from Mt. Sinai and then consecrated the people in a covenant of obedience to it.