On the Road with Matthew Levering

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“When your soul is overcome by some temptation, it is not the temptation that turns you into chaff”

The baptism that Jesus gives is a baptism in the Holy Spirit and in fire. Baptism is one and the same no matter who receives it, but its effect depends on the recipient’s disposition. He who is portrayed as baptizing in the Holy Spirit and in fire “holds a winnowing fan in his hand which he will use to clear his threshing floor. The wheat he will gather into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with fire that can never be quenched.”

I should like to discover our Lord’s reason for holding a winnowing fan and to inquire into the nature of the wind that scatters the light chaff here and there, leaving the heavier grain lying in a heap—for you must have a wind if you want to separate wheat and chaff. I suggest that the faithful are like a heap of unsifted grain, and that the wind represents the tempta­tions which assail them and show up the wheat and the chaff among them. When your soul is overcome by some temptation, it is not the temptation that turns you into chaff. No, you were chaff already, that is to say fickle and faithless; the temptation simply discloses the stuff you are made of. On the other hand, when you endure temptations bravely it is not the temptation that makes you faithful and patient; temptation merely brings to light the hidden virtues of patience and fortitude that have been present in you all along.

“Do you think I had any other purpose in speaking to you,” said the Lord to Job, “than to reveal your virtue?”

In another text he declares: “I humbled you and made you feel the pangs of hunger in order to find out what was in your heart.”

In the same way, a storm will not allow a house to stand firm if it is built upon sand. If you wish to build a house, you must build it upon rock. Then any storms that arise will not demolish your handiwork, whereas the house built upon sand will totter, proving thereby that it is not well founded. So while all is yet quiet, before the storm gathers, before the squalls begin to bluster or the waves to swell, let us concentrate all our efforts on the foundations of our building and construct our house with the many strong, interlocking bricks of God’s commandments. Then when cruel persecution is unleashed like some fearful tornado against Christians, we shall be able to show that our house is built upon Christ Jesus our rock.

Far be it from us to deny Christ when that time comes.

But if anyone should do so, let that person realize that it was not at the moment of his public denial that his apostasy took place. Its seeds and roots had been hidden within him for a long time; persecution only brought into the open and made public what was already there.

Let us pray to the Lord then that we may be firm and solid buildings that no storm can overthrow, founded on the rock of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

Origen Adamantius

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“The hell of the fallen condition is abolished in Christ”

It is certainly for Christians to make people understand that Christ comes for all, since he combines the maximum of humanity with the maximum of divinity. This, for the first Christians, is one of the fundamental dimensions of the descent of Jesus into hell. A descent and a proclamation mysteriously coextensive with all times and all places.

Does the matter stand otherwise today for unbelievers? Christ is close to them and they are often following him without realizing it, ‘practicing justice and kindness towards their neighbours’, gaining a foretaste of the mystery through love and beauty. Christ reveals himself fully to them at the moment of their death, flooding them with sweetness and splendour. Doubtless he has to wait about through years of hardening and spiritual insensitivity before he can rediscover the vulnerable and astonished child.

The hell of the fallen condition is abolished in Christ. Everything now depends not on merits, but on faith and love, on the relationship of each individual with Christ and with the neighbour. The early Church with its gaze fixed wholly on the Parousia had no conception either of the present existence of souls definitely damned, nor of an already consummated beatitude for the saints (or even for Christ, according to Origen), nor again of a ‘purgatory’ in the strictest sense of the word, meaning penal ‘satisfaction’ of a juridical nature, such as developed in the mediaeval West. What we find rather in the Fathers is the idea of a progressive purification and healing. After death the soul crosses either a ‘sea of fire’ or spiritual ‘frontier’, where the powers of evil wrest from it what belongs to them and leave it stripped, ready to embark on a life of peace and silence (the ‘abodes’, one above another, of which St Ambrose speaks here suggest a progressive perfecting). Thus the ‘sleep’ of death appears as a contemplative state. Death, undoing the tangles of idolatry and sin, offers the soul that peace, quies, hesychia, which spiritual persons know already here below, a blissful visitation of Christ who is always present in hell. For since Holy Saturday and the Ascension he is the fulfilment of all things. The Church does not forget that for the dead, fixed on their ignorance or greed or pride, there are states in which the peace, the silence, the light, and the glimpse of the Physician’s presence are experienced as torments. But the Church with all her love and all her power of intercession—that intercession for the damned to which Peguy’s Joan of Arc summoned the saints—prays for all the dead, including those who are in transitory ‘hells’. That is so especially in the Byzantine rite during the ‘prayers of genuflexion’ at the Vespers of Pentecost. The love of God, multiplied by the prayers of the faithful, works from within upon the individual in order that, since no one is alone, each may, with a personal effort, become opened up to the ontological unity of the Body of Christ.

As for the communion of the angels and the saints, they keep watch over the slow and painful exodus of humanity towards the Kingdom. As discarnate souls, the saints after their death, which is for them a very simple passing over ‘to the other side of things’, also keep watch in the light for the ultimate transfiguration of the cosmos and therewith of their bodies. They await the fulfilment of the illimitable human and divine communion when God shall be manifestly ‘all in all’.

In their waiting and preparing for the Parousia, spiritual people are impelled to pray for the salvation of all by their sense of universal fellowship in Christ, and by their conviction that the only way to be saved is to accept responsibility for all. Dionysius the Areopagite powerfully reminds us that we ourselves cannot condemn or damn anyone at all, and that our zeal to ‘avenge God’ in fact shuts us into the hell of our own vindictiveness. It is true that thunderbolts were needed to protect the Hebrew people, that amazing laboratory of humanity, from idolatry. But the coming of Christ was the coming of a fellowship without limits. Jesus refused to let the Samaritans who would not receive him be consumed by fire (Luke 9·53). He prayed for his executioners, he remains close to those who reject him and makes himself their advocate. In Jesus, God is not one who hurls thunderbolts but one who lets himself be crucified.

Dionysius relates the vision of a holy man whose indignation which he considered righteous had led him to pray for the damnation of a blasphemer, and for one of the faithful whom he had expelled from the Church. Carpus’s vision convinces him that to wish to damn anyone is to attack Christ himself, to annul his Passion and so to compel him to undergo it again; similarly it is to throw oneself, by one’s own action, into the abyss.

One day I was in Crete. The holy man Carpus welcomed me to his home. If there exists anyone predisposed to contemplation by the purity of his mind, it is he . . . yet he told me that one day he was exasperated by the infidelity of a man. The cause of his bitterness was that this infidel had turned away from faith in God one of the members of his church, at a time when he was still celebrating the solemnity of his baptism. Carpus in his goodness should have been duty bound to pray for both of them . . . to try tirelessly to regain them until the day when their objections had been cleared up . . . Instead, Carpus for the first time in his life felt grieved and indignant. It was in this state of mind that he went to bed and fell asleep. In the middle of the night, at the hour when he was in the habit of waking of his own accord to sing the praises of God, he arose, still prey to unspiritual irritation, saying to himself that it was not right to let someone live . . . and he begged God to hurl his inexorable thunderbolt to put an end at a single stroke to the life of two unbelievers. At that moment, he said, the house where he was suddenly seemed to rock this way and that, then to split in two from the roof down the middle. A vivid flame appeared which came down on him; the sky was rent; Jesus revealed himself in the midst of a multitude of angels . . .

Carpus lifted his eyes and stood astonished at what he saw. Looking down, he told me, he watched the ground itself opening to make a black yawning abyss, and in front of him on the edge of the abyss the two men he had cursed, trembling and gradually losing their foothold. From the bottom of the abyss he saw snakes crawling up and wrapping themselves round the men’s feet trying their utmost to drag them down. The men seemed to be on the point of succumbing, partly despite themselves, partly quite willingly, since they were being assaulted and at same time seduced by the Evil One. Carpus was overjoyed, he told me, as he contemplated the spectacle beneath him. Forgetting the vi­ sion above, he was growing impatient and indignant that the unbelievers had not yet succumbed. Several times he joined his efforts to those of the snakes . . .

In the end he lifted his eyes and saw again in the sky the same vision as shortly before. But this time Jesus, moved with compassion, came down to the unbelievers and stretched out a hand to help them . . . then he said to Carpus, ‘Your hand is already raised. It is I whom you should strike, for here I am to suffer again for the salvation of humanity . . . moreover you should consider whether you yourself should not stay in the abyss with the snakes, rather than live with God . . .’

That was Carpus’ story, and I believe it.

[Dionysius the Areopagite Letter 8, To Demophilus (PG 3, 1097-100)]

Certainly the Church has rejected Origen’s theory that finally, after going through a multitude of spiritual states, all human beings and even the fallen angels would be reconciled and restored to their original condition. Such a conviction actually conflicts with Christ’s warnings so emphatically formulated in the synoptic Gospels. It also belittles the irreducible nature of our freedom. To admit with Origen that evil will come to an end by exhaustion, whereas God alone is infinite and therefore alone able to satisfy the inexhaustible desires of human nature, is to forget the absolute character that belongs to personal freedom precisely because it is in the image of God.

That said, it remains spiritually impossible to talk of hell for others. The theme of hell can only be broached in the language of I and Thou. The threats in the Gospel concern me; they form the serious tragic element in my spiritual destiny; they prompt me to humility and repentance, because I recognize them as the diagnosis of my state. But for you, the numberless you of my neighbour, I can only serve, bear witness, and pray that you will experience the Risen Christ, and that you and everyone will be saved.

Olivier Clément

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Eschatological Transubstantiation

The oblations of bread and wine are placed on the altar. The celebrant offers the prayer of thanksgiving. The narrative of institution is recited. The Holy Spirit is invoked. The Holy Gifts are distributed, and to each communicant is spoken the remarkable words of the gospel: “the Body of Christ,” “the Blood of Christ.”

But what do these words mean? What has happened to the bread and wine? What is the relationship between the consecrated elements and the Body and Blood of Christ? In response to these questions the theologians of the medieval Latin Church proposed the doctrine of transubstantiation. The most influential formulation of this doctrine has been that of St Thomas Aquinas. Yet as influential as Thomas’s formulation has been, many modern Catholic theologians have not been content to recite by rote the views of the Angelic Doctor. Fr Herbert McCabe, O.P., is one such theologian.

cal_Vrelant_Mass_Gregory_360_zpsf38204b9.pngAll Catholic presentations of the doctrine of transubstantiation must navigate, says McCabe, between two errors—between memorialism and chemical transformation. The memorialist view asserts that the bread and wine become signs or tokens that remind us of Christ and thus function as a focus for faith. The oblations are not ontologically changed. They are not different from the ordinary food and drink of which we partake every day; but they have now assumed a specific role and meaning within the ritual of the Supper. The chemical-transformationist view, on the other hand, asserts that the bread and wine have quite literally ceased to be bread and wine. They have become the physical Body and Blood of Christ, now disguised as food and drink, perhaps to make their consumption more palatable. A chemical analysis might reveal the material change, but if not, this is only because God is supernaturally preventing us from seeing what in fact now exists, appearances to the contrary.

Against these two errors Roman Catholic doctrine asserts the radical transformation of the bread and wine at the deepest level of existence. The bread and wine have indeed become the Body and Blood of Christ. The consecrated elements are thus no longer literally described as bread and wine, not because they have ceased to be food and drink, but because they are now food and drink in the most profound sense possible. They are now the food of the kingdom. We must distinguish, suggests McCabe, two questions: If we ask, “How is Christ present in the Eucharist?” then we must answer, he is present because the bread and wine have become his body. If we ask, “How is Christ’s body present?” then we must answer, his body is present to us sacramentally. Thus McCabe: “‘This is the body of Christ’ says how Christ is present to us. ‘This is the sacrament of Christ’s body’ says how his body is present to us” (God Matters, p. 117). The risen Christ becomes truly present to us in our present reality; but he does so not by changing the bread and wine into a different kind of this-worldly stuff but by changing them into the effective symbols of his eschatological reality. The eucharistic bread and wine have become the language of God.

Aquinas is often accused of Aristotelianizing the eucharistic transformation. On the contrary, responds McCabe. Aristotle could not have made any more sense of the doctrine of transubstantiation than he could have made sense of the doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo—and for the same reason. In the thought of Aristotle, to make is to actualize the potentialities of something. It always makes sense to ask what something is made of or what something is made out of. A person might make something by changing its accidental properties (I can paint my car a different color but it still remains a car), or he might make something by effecting an alteration of substance (I can chop down a tree, cut up the wood and fashion it into a cabinet)—the absurdity of speaking of the divine Creator as making the universe from out of nothing, for there ain’t nothing from which or out of which the universe may be made. “If God created the world he operated at a different level, or in a different dimension, from making as we understand it,” McCabe explains. “To bring it about, in this sense, that something should exist is not to make any difference to it or to anything else, it is not to change it in any way. It is just for this reason that Aquinas denies that creation is a change (Ia, 45, 2, ad 2). But what sense can we make of a making that does not change anything” (p. 147). The creation of the universe does not make a difference to anything. At this point the philosophy of Aristotle explodes:

So Aristotle gives us an interesting analysis of coming into existence by substantial change, but had no notion of creation. St Thomas, however, believing in creation, believed in a new and different kind of bringing into existence. He thought there was a kind of cause which did not merely give a new form to the matter of already existing perishable things, but simply brought things into being when there was nothing there before. The creative act of God does not just deal in the forms of things—making one kind of thing into an individual of another kind with a different form. It gives sheer existence to the whole thing. Causes within nature give things the form by which they have existence; God gives things existence itself. God is the reason why there is a world of natural causality; and every natural cause can only give existence because it is an instrument of the Creator, the source of all existence. (God Still Matters, p. 119)

Transubstantiation involves something analogous to the creatio ex nihilo, argues McCabe. It is a changing that occurs at a radically deeper level than that of accident or substance; it is a re-creation that occurs at the level of existence itself:

The bread does not turn into the body by acquiring a new form in its matter; the whole existence of the bread becomes the existence of the living body of Christ. The body is not made out of the bread, as ashes are made out of paper by burning it (a chemical change). Something has happened as profoundly different from chemical change as creation is. It is not that the bread has become a new kind of thing in this world; it now belongs to a new world. As far as this world is concerned, nothing seems to have happened, but in fact what we have is not part of this world. It is the kingdom impinging on our history and showing itself not by appearing in the world but by signs speaking to it. … The change is so tremendous that it is quite imperceptible. In fact, St Thomas says it is not a change (mutatio) at all, for such a change means a re-adjustment of our world—as when one thing is altered or changes into something else. This clearly makes a perceptible difference. But transubstantiation is not a change, just as creation is not a change. What the bread has become is the body of Christ, which is to say the kingdom itself—for Christ does not inhabit the kingdom, he, his body, his human way of communicating with other humans, is the kingdom of God. Now the kingdom, the glorified body of Christ, is not something that could be seen within our world as part of our world; if it is to be manifest among us it can only be by signs, by sacramental signs. And this is just what the Eucharist is. (pp. 119-120)

A change that is no change. A change that makes no difference. Aquinas employs the language of Aristotle to speak of divine creation and transubstantiation, but in both cases he breaks the language to speak of things of which our language cannot speak. We are confronted with mystery that transcends human comprehension. Hence McCabe acknowledges that traditional formulations of the eucharistic conversion as “substantial change” can be misleading. The change that occurs is not, according to Aristotelian categories, a substantial change at all. It is a change that occurs at a deeper metaphysical level:

The Eucharist is not a question of the substance of bread becoming the substance of a human body (this kind of substantial change is familiar enough and takes place whenever we eat a slice of bread); it is a miraculous transformation at a deeper level, which Aquinas compares to creation, in which the esse (the existence) of this piece of bread and this cup of wine becomes the esse of Christ. This transformation of a substance into another particular existent, as distinct from a different kind of thing (as in ordinary substantial change) would have been completely unintelligible to Aristotle as, of course, was the notion of creation and, indeed, the whole notion of esse in Aquinas’s sense. (pp. 125-126)

Aquinas famously analyzed the eucharistic conversion in terms of substance and accidents, and the Council of Trent appropriated his analysis in its Decree on the Holy Eucharist. The Council declared that under the appearances (species) of bread and wine Christ truly offers his Body and Blood. To make sense of this teaching it is helpful to understand the difference between appearances and signs. The appearances of something are the accidental properties and characteristics by which we recognize things as what they are—size, color, taste, shape, and so on. Appearances show us things; signs tell us things. Appearances, in themselves, never deceive. We may exploit appearances to deceive, or we may deceive ourselves by drawing false inferences; but the way an object appears to us never deceives. It simply is. Signs, on the other hand, are part of language. They speak to us; they communicate to us; they tell us things about things. Signs can also be employed to deceive—we call it lying.

When St Thomas declares that by consecration the accidents of the bread and wine have ceased to be the appearances of bread and wine, this does not mean that they have become the appearances of something else. They have ceased, rather, to function as appearances at all. Here, McCabe believes, is where many people misunderstand the doctrine of transub­stantiation. When folks hear the Church declaring that the substance of the bread and wine has been converted into the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood, while leaving the accidents intact, they draw the conclusion that the accidents have now become the deceptive appearances of the Body and Blood. But the critical point is that the accidents no longer operate and exist in the way they used to:

There is, then, a lot of difference between the appearance which simply shows you a thing and signs which are part of telling you something about it. I labour this point because it is an important part of St Thomas’s teaching on the Eucharist that the accidents of bread and wine cease to be the appearances of bread and wine, but this is not because they become the misleading appearances of something else. They cease to function as appearances at all, they have become signs, sacramental signs through which what is signified is made real.

Before the consecration the appearances were there because the bread was there; they were just the appearances of the bread. After the consecration it is the other way around; the body of Christ is sacramentally there because what were the appearances of bread (and are now sacramental signs), are there. So with unconsecrated bread the accidents can remain (and vary) so long as the bread still exists: how very bizarre if they were to stay on (like the Cheshire cat’s grin) when what they are accidents of isn’t there. But after the consecration the Body of Christ is sacramentally present just as long as the signs are there. The important consequence of this is that these signs are not the appearances of Christ’s body: they are no longer the appearances of anything. The colour and shape of the host is not the colour and shape of Christ’s body; the location of the host, its being on the altar does not mean that Christ’s body is located on the altar; the fact that the host is moved about, say in procession, does not mean that Christ’s body is being moved about. When we do things to the host, such as eating it, we are not doing anything to Christ’s body. What we are doing is completing the significance of the signs. For bread and wine are meant to be eaten and drunk, to be our food; and food, eating, and drinking together is, even in our secular lives, a sign expressing friendship and unity. This is why Jesus chose it to be the sign which would tell us of the real sacramental presence of his body given for us and his blood poured out for us—the body of Christ which is more deeply our food, our “bread and wine,” than is the ordinary bread and wine with which we began. (p. 118; also see “Eucharistic Change”)

This change from appearance to sacramental sign must not be considered as merely conventional, as if we, the Church, have assigned a different role and meaning to the bread and wine. As we observed above, the eucharistic change occurs at the deepest level of existence. When God deems the eucharistic objects as his Body and Blood, then they indeed become and are his Body and Blood. “The notion of transubstantiation,” McCabe writes, “depends on the idea that there can be a kind of transformation in what it means to exist which is not simply a change in what it is that exists” (God Matters, p. 150).

7862838090_f5e8ec02c2_m_zps70a8fe2eAnd this brings us to the most controversial assertion of the doctrine of transubstantiation, namely, the assertion that the bread and wine no longer exist as bread and wine. What can this mean? After all, the objects have not experienced any physical, chemical, or material changes. When the Church declares, “this is not bread,” she is not saying that it is now zinc or disguised human flesh. By all normal criteria, the conse­crated bread is no different than unconsecrated bread. But the critical point is that the normal criteria are no longer relevant to the proper determination of the identity of the Holy Gifts. Something has happened which can be neither humanly understood nor adequately expressed in human language:

It is not that God tricks us—so that while all our criteria for decision make us think that it is bread, he has secretly switched the ‘inner reality’ to make it zinc or flesh. On the contrary the consecration is God’s quite public announcement that there these criteria no longer apply. It makes no more sense to ask whether this is bread than to ask whether God is bread—of course both these questions could be asked within the realm of metaphor. It appears that we have here a fit subject for our ordinary criteria. It is only because we have faith in the consecrating word of God that we know the criteria cannot sensibly be applied. If we did not know this we would make the mistake of applying them (as the unbeliever does) and then naturally we would say that this is bread and not anything else.

I am suggesting that the consecrated host exists at a level of reality at which the questions of whether it is bread cannot relevantly be asked; our language breaks down when we try to speak of it, just as it does in the case of God. What happens at the consecration is not that the proper description of the host shifts within our language (from “bread” to “Body of Christ”) but that it no longer becomes possible to give an account of it within our language at all. (p. 152)

To continue to describe the eucharistic elements as literally bread and wine is to fail to recognize the radical change that has occurred. It is to misdescribe them. It is to treat “the appearances as accidents of bread when really they are the divine sacramental signs of Christ’s body” (God Still Matters, p. 121). We may and will, of course, continue to speak metaphorically of the Holy Gifts as “bread” and “wine,” just as Scripture and liturgy do; but the doctrine of transubstantiation reminds us of the peculiar use of our language at this point.

Is this the best way to speak of the eucharistic mystery? Fr McCabe readily acknowledges that future theologians may well offer superior analyses and presentations; but he avers that all such analyses must respect the following rule: “Anything which seems to take the scandal or mystery out of the Eucharist must be wrong, whether it be couched in terms of substance or meaning” (p. 117).

(This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 28 February 2008)

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The Risen Christ, Body, and the Language of God

Jesus answered and said to them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews therefore said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body. (John 2:19-21)

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. (1 Cor 15:42-44)

But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. (Phil 3:20-21)

Take and eat; this is my body. (Mark 14:22)

Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:35)

And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. (1 Cor 10:16-17)

At the heart of the salvific mystery of Christ is the mystery of his body. We confess that in the womb of the Blessed Virgin God the Son took to himself a human body. We confess that on the Cross God the Son offered his body in sufferings and death for the sins of the world. We confess that God the Son rose from the dead in a new and glorified body and in this body ascended to the right hand of the Father. We confess that we share in the salvation and future of God the Son through communion in his body, the Church. What is body?

Healing_of_a_bleeding_women_Marcellinus-Peter-Catacomb_zpsfe2aa08c.jpg~originalImagine St Peter in Galilee one day pointing to Jesus and saying, “This is the body of Jesus.” While he might mean many things in saying this, one thing he undoubtedly would mean is “This is the way Jesus is present to us.” The body of Jesus is his mode of presence and communication. To touch the body of Jesus is to touch Jesus himself and enter into communion with him. “If I touch even his garments,” the hemorrhaging woman thought to herself, “I will be made well” (Mark 5:28). She yearned to touch our Lord’s body, his clothes being an extension of his physical presence. Families and friends know the importance of bodily communication. Children need the presence and care of their parents. Parents miss their children when they grow up and move away. Families are renewed when they gather for holidays. Lovers especially know the necessity of physical intimacy. To be separated from one’s lover, from her bodily presence and touch, is agony. Letters, email, telephone conversations—all are insufficient. We must be with the body of the other. Body is the human mode of presence.

That our bodies are also modes of absence characterizes our historical existence. If I am in New Jersey, I cannot be in Maryland. My bodily communion with others is limited to those who can come within a certain distance to my body. To overcome these limitations, we seek in various ways to extend our corporeality into the world. We create media of communi­cation—writing, telephones, pens and pencils, fax machines, text-messaging, Christmas gifts, clothes, crafts, paintings and sculpture—but all such media are extensions of the human body; their source is the body. The body is not in this sense a means of communication, writes Herbert McCabe, “because we have to have a body to use such means” (God Matters, p. 121). Human communication just is bodily communication. Through our bodies, as the bodies we are, we take our place in the business of life and share with others a common world.

We tend to think of bodies in impersonal terms. Bodies are objects that interact and collide with other objects. Our bodies thus become that objective, impersonal, material part of ourselves, with our true selves located in our souls or spirits. McCabe believes this is the wrong way to think of bodies. Consider a telephone. It sits on a desk. We can see it. We can move it around. It’s just a thing. But then it rings. We pick it up and begin a conversation with someone. At this point the telephone disappears as object. It has become a medium of communication, and our attention is now focused on that person at the other end of the line. But with human bodies, McCabe suggests, the reverse is the case:

A telephone is most of the time a thing, an object before you, but just sometimes it becomes a medium of communication with the rest of the world. Your body, on the contrary, is normally experienced as a medium of communication and is just occasionally treated as an object, a part of the world. The ordinary way in which you are conscious of being bodily, conscious of “having a body,” is being conscious of it as your way of being present to the world. Your body is first of all a means of communication. Telephones and books and satellites are only media of communication in so far as they are used by human bodies. Nothing uses the body, except in the sense that we may speak of one part of it being used by the whole—“He used his left hand to twist the knob.” It is because the body is the source of communication that we say it is alive, that it has a soul. The body that communicates by conventional signs, by symbols it has not just inherited but created, by language, is humanly alive, it has a human soul. (p. 111)

Death typically brings the destruction of body and therefore the conclusion of personal communication. Yet not so with Jesus! By his resurrection the bodiliness of Jesus became more intense, more powerful, more available. “The risen Christ,” states McCabe, “has lost many of the characteristics we think of as bodily but in fact is more bodily than ever” (p. 125). Standing on this side of the kingdom, we cannot comprehend this new form of our Lord’s corporeality, yet we can see that our Lord’s resurrection has made him available not to just a few in Palestine but to all humanitfy in all places.


Christians have read the stories of the resurrection appearances of Christ for clues as to the nature of glorified bodies; but McCabe cautions we need to be careful, for it is all too easy to reduce the eschatological bodiliness of Christ to the terms of the pre-resurrection world:

I think that in these appearances Christ was more bodily than he allowed himself to appear. In himself he was the risen man, his body was that of the future to which we are summoned, the future beyond the ultimate revolution, but in order to show himself to his followers he appeared more or less as a body of our own time, a body of this world—it is true that he passed through closed doors and appeared and disappeared and so on, but generally speaking he wished to emphasize that he was a body and not a ghost. “‘See my hands and feet that it is I myself; handle me and see; for a ghost has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And while they still disbelieved for joy, and wondered, he said to them: ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish and he took it and ate before them.” The emphasis in this as in the other stories of post-resurrection appearances is on the bodily reality of the risen Christ, but we are not to suppose that his bodiliness is restricted to the bodiliness of this era.

For our present purposes the interest of this point is that in these appearances Jesus presents an intersection of future and present. He is the future world, the body in whom our bodies are to find unity and final humanity, the medium of communication in which mankind is ultimately to realise itself, he is the future world but he appears as a body of the present world. … Although in fact he has surpassed the present and belongs not to this world but to the world of the future, he is presenting himself amongst men of this world and he can only be recognised by them in terms of a part of his biography that he has surpassed. (pp. 125-126)

The Holy Eucharist also enjoys this conjunction of future and present. The risen Christ manifests and communicates himself within the conditions of the old world. In the Supper the language of meal becomes the language of the kingdom. Food and drink are fundamental to human society. By eating together human beings, perhaps indeed all animals, share a common world. This is not accidental to our humanity but is rooted in our bodies. “Food is a medium in which we communicate, come together,” McCabe elaborates. “It is for this reason that Christ can say that he is the true bread that comes down from heaven; since he is the medium in which we finally meet each other, in which we are finally able to communicate ourselves to each other, he is more intensely food than meat and drink can be. We may say that all eating and drinking is an attempt to reach towards the communication we will only finally find in Christ” (p. 127). Christ has a better right to be our food and drink than bread and wine. The doctrine of transubstantiation, at least as interpreted by McCabe, declares that the eucharistic bread and wine have not become something “else”; they have become food and drink in the most radical way conceivable. Perhaps we might even say that they are fulfilled in Christ. As McCabe enigmatically phrases the matter, “our language has become his body” (p. 117).

In the Eucharist, then, we have an intersection of future and present, we have what is ostensibly language of the present, of this world, of this body, but which in fact is language of the future, of the world to come, of the risen body. This does not involve any disguise or deceit for what the bread and wine have become is not something different from food and drink, they have become food and drink in a deeper sense than we can imagine. We cannot say that the body of Christ is disguised as bread and wine any more than we can say that the risen Christ was disguised as a man of six feet high who ate broiled fish. (p. 127)

Our language has become the body of Christ. Christ appears to us, not in his glorified reality—this side of resurrection, the kingdom cannot be seen within the world as part of the world—but in sign and symbolic action. Our Lord’s bodily presence amongst us, therefore, is precisely sacramental. As Jesus was the eternal Word in the flesh of this world, so the sacraments are the language of the future in the language of this world. McCabe even coins a word for this—translinguification. I am reminded at this point of the provocative statement of Abbot Vonier: “If the priest at the altar brought down Christ from heaven in His natural state as a full-grown man, this would not be a sacrament at all, for the event would lack the very essence of the sacrament, representative signification” (A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, p. 21). Sacraments work by signifying. In the words of E. L. Mascall: “Sacra­mental signs do not make present the realities which they signify by spatially enclosing them, in the way in which a gas-cylinder may contain hydrogen, or by being instruments by which they are manufactured, as a sausage machine produces sausages, or by being channels through which they are communicated, as a water-pipe delivers water, but by being divinely-ordained efficacious signs of them” (Corpus Christi, p. 220). This understanding of sacra­mental symbolism helps us to grasp how the risen Christ may be present in many Eucharists celebrated simultaneously around the world: in the Mass his body is present to us in the mode of language, “as meaning is present to a word” (McCabe, p. 118).  “In the sacraments,” states McCabe, “the language itself is transformed and becomes the medium of the future, the language itself becomes the presence, the bodily presence of Christ” (p. 118).

As the Apostle Peter might have pointed to the Galilean Jew and declared, “This is the body of Christ,” so we today may point at the eucharistic bread and cup and make the same declaration. But who is closer to Christ, Peter touching the physical body of Jesus before his crucifixion or we ourselves when we take the sacramental body of Christ into our mouths? McCabe offers this answer:

In one way Peter is in closer contact, he actually touches the body of Jesus, they can share a common bodily life—a better example, of course, would be Mary who actually gave birth to Jesus, whose body gave life to his—on the other hand when they were in contact with his body it was not risen and was thus a less total communication of Jesus than is the risen body with whom we make a sacramental contact in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is a mere foretaste of the world to come when we shall have it both ways, we shall be present to the risen body of Christ as intimately as Mary was present to Jesus in his birth. (p. 118)

During his historical life, Jesus gathered to himself a community of disciples and friends, to which he was so present that they felt utterly loved and forgiven, thus becoming themselves capable of loving and forgiving others. But this bodily presence of Jesus was restricted to the few, to those who were privileged to hear his words and share his fellowship. But after Easter Christ becomes capable of reaching out to all of humanity. Liberated from the bonds of mortality and the limitations of historical existence, the glorified Jesus is more bodily now than when he walked the roads of Galilee and ate and drank with his disciples. He is alive and present, present in his body, present in the life and communion of the Church. Yet this presence remains hidden, sacramental, experienced only by faith. The risen Jesus is no longer circumscriptively present as he was during his historical life. He manifests himself to us not in glory, not in his accidents, but in the mode of human language. We experience both presence and absence. “Christ is present but ambiguously present,” McCabe remarks; “what we see, the presence we experience, is the presence of each other” (p. 112). Our hearts thus cry out for that perfect realization of bodily communion that two lovers know in the embrace of ecstasy. But one day our future in Christ will be gloriously achieved and we will speak fluently the language of the kingdom. The Church will be gathered up into the Trinitarian life of God. There will be no sacraments, no rituals, no faith, “only the immediate presence of our risen bodies to the risen body of Christ. Then it will no longer be a question of media of communication which are separate from ourselves (although extensions of our bodies) becoming the body of Christ, but we ourselves will be taken up into the body of Christ which is the incarnate word of the Father” (p. 129).

Come, Lord Jesus, come!

(This is an edited and retitled version of an article originally published on my old Pontifications blog on 14 March 2008)

(Go to “Eschatological Transubstantiation”)

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“Coming down and rushing in full flood is the river of God, the Lord our Savior, in whom we were baptized”

“The word of God was addressed to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert, and he went through all the Jordan valley.”

Where else could he go but through the Jordan valley. Where there would be water at hand to baptize those wishing to amend their lives? Now the word Jordan means descent or coming down. Coming down and rushing in full flood is the river of God, the Lord our Savior, in whom we were baptized. This is the real, life-giving water, and the sins of those baptized in it are forgiven. So come, catechumens, and amend your lives so that you may have your sins forgiven in baptism. In baptism the sins of those who cease to sin are forgiven, but if anyone comes to be baptized while continuing to sin, that person’s sins are not forgiven.

This is why I urge you not to present yourselves for baptism without thinking very carefully, but to give some evidence that you really mean to change your way of living.

Spend some time living a good life. Cleanse yourselves from all impurity and avoid every sin. Then, when you yourselves have begun to despise your sins, they will be forgiven you. You will be forgiven your sins if you renounce them.

The teaching of the Old Testament is the same. We read in the prophet Isaiah: “A voice cries out in the desert: Prepare a way for the Lord. Build him a straight highway.”

What way shall we prepare for the Lord? A way by land? Could the Word of God travel such a road? Is it not rather a way within ourselves that we have to prepare for the Lord? Is it not a straight and level highway in our hearts that we are to make ready? Surely this is the way by which the Word of God enters, a way that exists in the spaciousness of the human body. The human heart is vast, broad, and capacious, if only it is pure. Would you like to know its length and breadth? See then what a vast amount of divine knowledge it can contain.

Solomon says:

He gave me knowledge of all that exists; he taught me about the structure of the universe and the properties of the elements, the beginning and the end of epochs and the periods between, the variations in the seasons and the succession of the months, the revolution of the year and the position of the stars, the nature of living things and the instincts of wild animals, the force of the winds and the thoughts of human beings, the various kinds of plants and the medicinal properties of roots. (Wisdom 7:17)

You must realize that the human heart is not small when it can contain all this. You ought to judge it not by its physical size but by its power to embrace such a vast amount of knowledge of the truth.

But so that I may convince you that the human heart is large by a simple example from daily life, let us consider this. Whatever city we may have passed through, we have in our minds. We remember its streets, walls, and buildings, what they were like and where they were situated. We have a mental picture of the roads we have traveled. In moments of quiet reflection our minds embrace the sea that we have crossed. So, as I said, the heart that can contain all this is not small!

Therefore, if what contains so much is not small, let a way be prepared in it for the Lord, a straight highway along which the Word and Wisdom of God may advance. Prepare a way for the Lord by living a good life and guard that way by good works. Let the Word of God move in you unhindered and give you a knowledge of his coming and of his mysteries. To him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

Origen Adamantius

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Was St Nicholas a Klingon?

126,000 impressions so far (“impressions”=the number of times people on Twitter have seen the tweet)! Star Trek and the Saints are a powerful combination!

Needless to say, St Nicholas’s (alleged) Klingon origin helps to explain the zealous violence he expressed toward Arius at the Council of Nicaea. Before he threw the punch heard around the Church, the Bishop of Myra was heard to exclaim, “It is a good day to die!” Historians still debate the precise meaning of the exclamation.

Some have speculated that St Nicholas was in fact the famous Star Fleet commander Worf, son of Mogh, who is alleged to have traveled back in time in the USS Defiant. Beyond the iconological evidence, however, little has been submitted to substantiate this wild suggestion. Star Fleet emphatically denies any manipulation of the timeline, intentional or accidental, by Commander Worf. A spokesman for the Department of Temporal Investigations states: “We’ve come a long way since the wild and undisciplined days of Captain James T. Kirk. Journeys into the past are strictly prohibited.” The Klingon High Council is equally vigorous in its denial: “We are Klingons, not saints!”

UPDATE: Commander Worf was just promoted to the rank of Captain and assigned the USS Donner. The Federation News Service tracked down Captain Worf. Our astute investigative reporter bluntly asked him: “Are you Santa Claus?” With a twinkle in his eyes, Worf replied: “I am not a merry man.”

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