Transubstantiation—The Literal Truth

This is the fifth in an ongoing series of articles on the Real Presence.  Other articles that have appeared in this series are Ralph McInerny’s “The Eucharist and Culture” (December 1998), Peter Kreeft’s “What I Learned From a Muslim About Eucharistic Adoration” (December 1998), Thomas Howard’s “The Hidden Manna” (April 1999), and Bishop Eugene J. Gerber’s, “A Eucharistic Prayer” (June 1999).

To the unchurched and the unbeliever, many religious doctrines seem far-fetched. But few seem more unlikely than those of the incarnation—the doctrine that God became man—and of transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic belief that when the priest consecrates the bread and wine at Mass, they actually become, contrary to appearances, Christ’s Body and Blood.

Although the word “transubstantiation” was not used until the medieval period, the idea to which it refers can be found in many scriptural passages (Matthew 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20; John 6:50-67; 1 Corinthians 11:23¬25). Moreover, many of the early Church fathers make it very clear that, once consecrated, the sacramental bread and wine actually become Christ’s Body and Blood. Ignatius of Antioch, Justin, and Ireneus, as well as Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, and Cyril of Alexandria all explained this mysterious transformation in their writings, and by the close of the seventh century, this doctrine was accepted throughout Christendom as the authentic teaching of the Church.

Many Protestants, however, consider this interpretation of the “Lord’s Supper,” a medieval accretion to the “pure” Gospel story. They frequently interpret Christ’s words, “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” symbolically, claiming that Jesus is speaking either metaphorically, as when He says, “I am the vine and you are the branches” (John 15:1-8); or parabolically, as when Christ tells the story of the sower and the seeds (Matthew 13:3-8).

It is perplexing that the very people who so zealously support the literal truth of the Bible in almost every other instance interpret the institution of the Eucharist in a purely metaphoric manner. One wonders how the same people who interpret literally the transformation of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana and the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes (which obviously prefigure the miracle Christ effects at the Last Supper) can interpret the Eucharist symbolically.

Even for many Catholics, transubstantiation is an intellectual and spiritual stumbling block—hard to understand and harder still to accept. In fact, this doctrine has proved so difficult that only 33 percent of Catholics (according to a recent Gallup survey) say they believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Even many of these consider transubstantiation a sacred mystery that is fundamentally unrelated to the rest of their faith, the Scriptures, and their daily life.

Incarnation Implication

Nothing could be further from the truth. The incarnation and transubstantiation are intimately related. The latter derives from Christ’s identity as the Incarnate Word, and the transformation effected in the Eucharist is itself a kind of incarnation. These intimately related doctrines lie at the very heart of Christian belief. They represent and embody the ultimate truth. They illuminate the way that God deals with man; the character of Christ’s ministry and of the sacraments; the nature of man; and the structure of reality itself.

At first glance, it may seem strange to say that incarnation and transubstantiation indicate how God deals with man because God is usually thought to be an uncreated Spirit with neither flesh nor physical substance. But a closer look at the way God reveals Himself to man shows that He constantly accommodates His nature to ours. Since we are both spirit and flesh, who ordinarily learn through our senses, God repeatedly incarnates and transubstantiates in His dealings with us.

Indeed, the Bible describes the very creation of the world as an act of incarnation—or a kind of transubstantiation—with God transforming His “word” or “thought” into a physical reality. Genesis records that “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:1-3). Clearly, His non-material “word” is transmuted instantaneously into the real presence of light. Similarly, according to the Old Testament, in creating the world and all that dwell therein, the Creator performed this kind of transmutation again and again—with His “word” or “thought” not just symbolizing but actually effecting the creation of what it invoked.

The Bible clearly reveals that man is himself a creature of body and soul—a spirit incarnate. The Scriptures also reveal that God chooses to redeem humans through the greatest of all incarnations—that of God become man. After Adam and Eve fall victim to Original Sin, God the Father foretells this great redemption when He promises them that He will send a Messiah to save the human race. Christ’s Incarnation is the embodiment or enfleshment of this promise. In a way, it is also a transubstantiation in which, as the last Gospel so beautifully puts it, “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14).

The Incarnate Incarnates

We are used to thinking of Christ as the Incarnate Word, but we do not usually follow to its logical conclusion what this identity implies. Just as it is in the nature of pilots to pilot, actors to act, and painters to paint, so it is in the nature of the Incarnate Word to incarnate. Christ is Himself the Word Incarnate, whose words endlessly incarnate.

Even a quick glance at the Gospel narratives reveals that His is an incarnational ministry—with each transformational healing leading up to and prefiguring the great transformation that culminates in the Eucharist. Again and again, as Jesus travels the roads of the ancient world, His words effect physical healings and spiritual transformations. Echoing the divine mandate in Genesis that brings forth light, Jesus says to the paralytic, “I order you: get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home,” and immediately, the man gets up and walks away carrying the stretcher on which he had been carried (Luke 5:24-25). Likewise, Christ says to the leper, “Be cured!,” and he is cleansed of leprosy (Luke 5:14). To Lazarus, who has been dead and buried for three days, Christ calls out “Lazarus, come forth,” and Lazarus walks out of his tomb still wrapped in grave clothes (John 11).

All of these miracles show Christ’s divinity, but they also illustrate the way that God uses His creative, healing power to transform His word into physical or spiritual cures (which also have a physical element because of man’s identity as an embodied soul). One of the cures that most clearly shows Christ’s incarnational nature is that of the woman with the hemorrhage.

This poor woman, who had suffered for twelve years and whom no doctor had been able to help, is immediately cured when she touches the fringe of Jesus’ garment (Luke 8:43¬45). The pathos of her situation increases when we realize that her condition, which would have both weakened and embarrassed her, would also have made her ritually unclean, cutting her off entirely from most ordinary social relations. This pathos increases even further when we recognize that she was so desperate for help that she ventured into a standing-room-only crowd despite her humiliating malady and the revulsion of those around her. Perhaps most touching of all is the realization that when she reaches out, she comes into contact with the hem of Christ’s garment. This implies her sense of unworthiness and her reluctance to make Jesus ritually impure by touching him, but it also suggests that she was on her hands and knees crawling through the crowd in hope of somehow coming into contact with Christ’s healing power.

After the woman touches His garment, Christ turns and asks “Who touched me?” because the Gospel says, “He had felt the power go out of Him” (Luke 8:45-46). The apostles are irritated by this question and remonstrate with Jesus, reminding Him that in such a huge, jostling crowd, it is impossible to know who touched Him. This miracle is particularly interesting because it suggests that to touch the Incarnate Word with faith and humility is to be instantaneously cured and transformed.

The institution of the Eucharist is the culmination of Christ’s life on earth, as well as of all the miraculous incarnations and transubstantiations He has effected. When He says, “This is my body which will be given for you…. This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you” (Luke 22:19-20), His language is literal, for on the cross He is Himself the paschal sacrifice whose body and blood are the oblation offered for the remission of sins.

Not Real Absence

Repeatedly throughout the Gospels, Christ makes it clear that He does not intend His injunction “Do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) to be merely symbolic. Indeed, He says emphatically, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

When Christ’s auditors seem loath to accept this claim, He makes his identity as the Living Bread and its importance even more explicit, saying, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-54).

When Christ resurrects from the dead, His identity as the Incarnate Word is unchanged. Although in His resurrected body He is able to pass through the wall of the upper room where the frightened apostles have congregated, He also sits on the beach with his disciples and eats fish, breaks bread with them in Emmaus, and tells Mary Magdalene, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father” (John 20:17). Christ also appears to Thomas, the apostle who had said he would not believe in Jesus’ resurrection unless he could touch Christ’s wounds (John 20:25-26). “Put your finger here,” Christ says, “look, here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side” (John 20:27). All of these events clearly reinforce not only Christ’s real presence but also His incarnate identity.

Before Your Eyes

The sacraments are also related to Christ’s identity as the Word Incarnate, as well as to the transubstantiation effected in the Eucharist. In all of the sacraments—the words, the water, or the oil that the priest uses actually effect what they represent. The words of baptism and the water and chrism do not simply represent cleansing from original sin; they actually cause it to happen. Similarly, the words of absolution spoken in the confessional do not just represent forgiveness, they actually cleanse the penitent’s soul of sin. In the Eucharist, the words the priest recites at the consecration not only symbolize Christ’s presence in the bread and the wine, they actually change them into His Body and Blood.

The incarnational nature of the sacraments also sheds some interesting light on human nature. At first glance, the transformations effected in the sacraments seem wildly out of sync with man’s identity as a “rational animal,” and especially with modern technological man. At best, what the Church claims occurs in the sacraments seems to reflect “magical thinking” and a distinctly unmodern cast of mind. A closer look, however, reveals an intimate fit between the deepest desires of the human heart and what actually happens in the sacraments.

God answers man’s desire for union and communion with Him by giving Himself first in His word; then in Christ as the Incarnate Word; and finally, as the Paschal Sacrifice on the cross. After Jesus’ resurrection, God gives Himself to man in Christ’s glorified body; next in the Eucharist in which the faithful receive His body, blood, soul, and divinity; and finally, in Christ’s second coming.

Man is so constituted that nothing less than absolute reality satisfies him and nothing less than total union with God slakes his deepest desires. Man’s creation of the arts reflects this desire to create and to come into communion with the real. The poet, musician, and painter all try to transform words or music or paint into the real presence of the thing conjured. So, a poem may present love under the form of poetry. A piece of music may re-create war or springtime under the form of music, and a portrait may capture—under the form of paint—the identity of the person depicted.

But the arts, no matter how successful, cannot effect what they signify. They can only symbolize—or at best represent under a specific form—the reality to which they point. Man, however, desires more. He desires the real over the imitation. He desires the actual over the artificial. He craves real presence over not only real absence but also over symbolic presence. Along with the poet Wallace Stevens, man’s heart cries out, “Let be be finale of seem.”

Even—or perhaps especially—in everyday life we are constantly looking for transubstantiations and are invariably disappointed when they do not occur. The words that convey our utmost opprobrium—words like “liar,” “deceiver,” “seducer,” “traitor,” “hypocrite”—label behavior in which someone says one thing or behaves in such a way so as to imply a certain belief and then speaks or acts in another way. We find it hard to forgive others for not being what they seem and for not incarnating or transubstantiating what they promise.

For example, a man may be furious because his son promised to pick him up at the gas station at three o’clock only to arrive two hours late. In such a case, the father certainly does not say to the son, “I’m furious because you failed to transubstantiate your words into actions,” but it is nonetheless the source of his grievance. Likewise, a woman certainly does not say to an unloving spouse, “I can’t believe how you treat me—you’ve failed to incarnate your wedding vows,” but it is what she means.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we most respect those whose word is their bond, those who incarnate the good that they profess. Indeed, as Christians we are called upon to be “other Christs”—to be so Christ-like that there is virtually no difference between the way He would act and the way we act.

No Symbolic Help

Perhaps most interesting of all, prayer itself is a request for incarnations and transubstantiations of a sort. When we pray for a good job, a good spouse, or a good grade, we are asking that God transmute our request into a real position, partner, or percentage. When we pray for a change of heart or for forgiveness, we are also praying for an actual change, although it may not be primarily physical. No one who is out of work asks God for a symbolic job. No one worried about her daughter’s marrying the right person asks for a good metaphorical husband, and no one asks for only symbolic forgiveness.

Ours is a God of the Real and of the Good—and both incarnation and transubstantiation are intimately linked to these facts. Any interpretation of Scripture that obscures these facts misrepresents both God and reality. Because the incarnation is such an amazing, unlikely, and, frankly, divine gift, it is easy to see why the mind of man reels and, in some cases, founders before it. It is understandable that during the early centuries of Christianity, the Church had, again and again, to refute those who couldn’t accept that God had become man—the Gnostics who felt that He was only spirit and the Arians who thought that Christ could not really have been fully divine.

Transubstantiation poses the same kind of stumbling block for many. It seems too mysterious, too miraculous, too divine, and, consequently, some people cannot accept that Christ is really present in the Eucharist. An exclusively symbolic interpretation of the Eucharist grows out of the Gnostics’ and Docetists’ mistaken view of the incarnation. Just as Christ was true man and true God and really present in both flesh and spirit, so He is really present in Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity in the Eucharist.

To interpret Christ’s incarnation or the transubstantiation effected in the Eucharist as merely symbolic is, ironically, to believe in and celebrate Real Absence instead of Real Presence. This was the best that the ancients, worshiping an ever elusive deus absconditus, could do. It is the best that the Athenians—with their altars to THE UNKNOWN GOD (Acts 17:23)—could do. But it is not the best that Christians—believers in the Incarnate Word—can do.

Ours is a God of magnificence and munificence. He is a Creator who delights in spirit and flesh. He is a Father who so loves the world that He sends His only Son in the flesh to redeem man. God is such a generous parent that He allows humans to become co-creators with Him—conceiving and bringing into the world new embodied souls. He is also a constant God Who, unsatisfied with sending His Son to a specific time and people, embraces, through the sacrament of the Eucharist, many times and peoples.

Ours is a God of ultimate goodness and ultimate reality. He is the culmination of all our hopes, the fulfillment of all our dreams, and the answer to all our prayers. He is not a God Who only seems. He is, as He told our ancestors in faith, first, last, and always, the One Who Is.


  • Carson Daly

    At the time this article was published, Carson Daly wrote from New York.

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