Corpus Christi and Reality

After reading my previous column on Hegel, a dear Protestant colleague, recently retired from an Eastern university, noted that my brief reference to a remark by Hegel concerning the Eucharist and the Real Presence might need some clarification. Today, the Feast of Christ the King, which was only instituted in 1925 as a response the growing secularism, is a fitting day to reflect on such matters.

My reference was to one of Hegel’s lectures on the philosophy of religion, in which he criticized the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, causing a Catholic student to report him to the authorities. Hegel had attempted what we might call a sick joke: he asked whether, if a mouse had come across a consecrated Host and eaten it, Catholics might be obliged to act worshipfully to the mouse, and so forth.

Hegel replied to the public officials that he was a Protestant teaching in Protestant Berlin, dealing with a religion inimical to “scientific” treatment. And besides, be had been speaking only in an “indeterminate, hypothetical sense,” and should not be expected to present Catholic doctrine uncritically in his philosophical expositions. (I am not aware of other incidents in his teaching causing Catholic consternation.)

My friend observed that I was giving the impression that Lutherans do not believe in the Real Presence. He pointed out that Luther strongly disagreed with Zwingli, Calvin, and other Reformers, who interpreted the Eucharist as a spiritual presence, or a mere memorial – in other words, Jesus was not physically present.

Quite true. Luther did not agree with Catholics that the Eucharist ceased to be bread and wine, but was actually the body and blood of Christ. But Luther did maintain that Christ was actually substantially there, along with the bread and wine. This is sometimes called “consubstantiation,” in contrast to the Catholic doctrine of “transubstantiation.”

I am not sure if that Lutheran interpretation amounts to a physical presence, but it seems closer to the Catholic interpretation than to many Protestant interpretations. The Eucharist, at least among high Lutheran bodies, is not just an assembly in “remembrance of the Lord’s Supper.”

Apostolic succession is also in play: Luther, validly ordained as a Catholic priest, may have had the power of consecration, if he had the proper intention, although he did not believe in some elements of the Mass. But as his followers and other Reformers multiplied, and produced various interpretations of the priesthood and episcopate (when they believed in them at all), hardly any elements of Apostolic succession would seem to remain – unlike the Orthodox churches, and possibly, for a time, the Anglican confession.

     The Last Supper by Tintoretto, c. 1582 (click on the image to enlarge)

Christ, being the Son of God, has no problem being really, substantially present under the appearance of bread and wine. As the Divine Wisdom, his “delight is to be with the children of men.” (Proverbs 8:31) His sojourn in Galilee was not sufficient; he wants (like an extreme extrovert) a personal encounter with each person. If, as Luther insisted, we are saved by faith alone, the Catholic belief in the Real Presence is perhaps the highest expression of faith.

In John’s Gospel (6:54-57), Jesus says: “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. . . .He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood, abides in me and I in him.” That assertion of a necessity (with its cannibalistic undertones) caused many erstwhile followers to abandon Him. But many also remained, possibly aware that they were privileged to live to see one with the earmarks of the promised Messiah. In Matthew (13:16-17), Jesus told them just how privileged they were: “Many prophets and just men have desired to see the things that you see, and have not seen them.”

But what about us, two millennia hence, who have not been so blessed? We might think, in our unguarded moments, “if only I had had such opportunities, and such a personal encounter, how my life might be changed.”

But we would be on the wrong track. At the Last Supper, He could and did put all future followers on the same level as his disciples, by giving them the Eucharist. They could enter into his presence just as easily as the woman who approached to touch his garment (Mk. 5:28), or the Apostle John leaning on Jesus’ breast (Jn. 13:25), or the Apostle Thomas quiveringly touching his wounds (Jn. 20:27) after the Resurrection.

There have been saints who were blessed in a special way in receiving Communion, actually seeing and/or hearing the Lord. (Catholics, like other people, do occasionally have religious experiences.) But for most of us, most of the time, we may not feel any special presence.

But do you think His Apostles and disciples during his public life felt some special aura as they approached Him? There were a few exceptions, when He allowed his divinity to be manifested sensibly: to the bystanders at His Baptism by John (Mt. 3:17); to Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration (Mt. 17:5); and when his captors in the Garden of Olives were struck to the ground (Jn. 18:6) by the power of His presence.

But for the most part, His contemporaries probably did not feel a supernatural presence any more intently than we do, although they may have been transfixed by His words and works.

Whether or not we, two millennia afterwards, experience any sensory presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, the Eucharist offers us the same opportunity as Christ’s contemporaries: to get close and speak to Jesus, and become eligible for some of the spiritual changes that the Son of God can bring about secretly in the innermost sanctuaries of our souls.

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.