As we continue through the 6th chapter of the Gospel of John, we reflect upon the gift of Jesus’ real presence in the Eucharist. When we say that his presence is real, it is in opposition to a merely symbolic or spiritual presence. Following the words of consecration, when the priest says, speaking in the person of Christ, “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood,” that which was bread and wine is transformed and Jesus becomes truly and fully present: body, blood, soul and divinity. However, it is important to remember that all the external appearances of bread and wine remain. The Eucharist still looks and tastes like bread and wine. By faith, trusting in the words of our savior, we know that it is no longer bread and wine, but his true Body and Blood.
The idea that something is more than it seems is not foreign to us. Don’t we strive to teach our children this basic idea? We say things like, “don’t judge by appearances,” “looks can be deceiving,” and “there is more to him than meets the eye.” Indeed, we insist that the true beauty of our loved ones is not on the outside, but what is hidden within. This is exactly what we as Catholics believe about the Eucharist. The appearance of bread and wine is a disguise for the true Beauty hidden within. It is the disguise that the Lord uses in order to come to us fully. In this way, we are able to receive the fullness of Jesus into our bodies and our souls as food and drink.
Catholic theology uses terms and concepts borrowed from philosophy, especially from St. Thomas Aquinas, to explain this transformation. The mere external appearance of a thing are called its accidents or species, whereas a thing’s essence is called its substance. Using this terminology, we call the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus transubstantiation. The substance or essence of bread and wine transitions to be the substance of Jesus Christ. The accidents or species of bread and wine remain.
To some this is difficult to accept; but is it really any more difficult to except than the truth that God created the universe and all that is in it from nothing? Surely, creation is a greater act of God’s power than changing the substance of something that already exists. At the same time, while accepting this truth of our faith, we can acknowledge that it is mysterious. Indeed, St. Thomas Aquinas, who used philosophy and theology to explain this miraculous change, also acknowledged its mysterious nature. He captured this sense of mystery in a famous hymn he wrote honoring our Lord’s presence in the Eucharist. This hymn is commonly known as the Tantum Ergo, which in part reads: “Down in adoration falling, Lo! the sacred Host we hail; o’er ancient forms departing, newer rites of grace prevail; Faith for all defects supplying, where the feeble senses fail.”