Eastern Orthodoxy and the Eucharistic Transmutation

That the Holy Orthodox Church boldly and steadfastly confesses the Holy Gifts of the Holy Orthodox to be the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, no one can doubt. But satisfactory interpretations of the eucharistic mystery are difficult to find. Somewhat surprisingly Eastern theologians have tended to avoid the topic, Alexander Schmemann being a happy exception. In his monograph “The Eucharistic Dogma,” Sergius Bulgakov briefly reviews the history of Western reflection on the sacramental presence of Christ in the Eucharist. He then comments: “Orthodoxy has not yet said its word here” (p. 82). I think it is fair to say that in this monograph Eastern Orthodoxy has spoken a powerful, compelling, and creative word. Even though Bulgakov appears, at various points, to misunderstand both the Roman Catholic and Lutheran positions, “The Eucharistic Dogma” remains one of the most stimulating discussions of the eucharistic transformation that I have come across.

The central problem of Western reflection, asserts Bulgakov, is a materialistic understanding of Christ’s risen body. Since the Middle Ages Western theologians have understood Jesus in his glorified corporeality as occupying space somewhere in heaven. As a result, Western reflection has been trapped in a cosmic immanentism. The ascended body of the Christ is properly understood as supraspatial, supraphysical, supramundane, supracosmic. The employment of the categories of substance and accident to elucidate this spiritual body can only distort our understanding of that which has been so radically transformed through resurrection. The ascension is an elevation to a new quality of existence. In his deified body the Lord enjoys “total mastery over corporeality” (p. 98). The incarnate Son is not locatable in any place, for he in fact transcends all places, is above all places; but in his resurrected state he has the supernatural capacity to make himself present at any time and site of his choosing. He has departed from the material world, but his departure is not an abandonment of the world but rather the means by which he can now enter into new forms of relationship with the world.

Bulgakov creatively speculates on the nature of Christ’s ascended body (some might say too speculatively). For our purposes it is sufficient to concentrate on his assertion that the glorified Christ is not an object within the universe. Christ no longer exists on the same ontological plane as the objects of bread and wine that are offered in the Holy Eucharist. Here is the Bulgakovian solution to the Western problematic: because the Son in his sacred humanity now transcends the world, he can identify himself with an object in the world, without compromising the constitution of either. The replacement of creaturely substance, as posited in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, is unnecessary. In his transcendent existence Christ Jesus can now objectify himself in creaturely reality and at the very same time maintain both the integrity of his supramundane body and the integrity of the finite objects in which he has materialized himself.

In the eucharistic transmutation the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ. This is not, of course, a physical or chemical transformation; for there in fact is no thing or matter in this world for them to become. The transfigured humanity of Christ abides outside of this world. The transmutation does not resolve, abolish, or contradict this difference. If any such physical change were to happen, the transmutation would be annulled and the power of the sacrament undone. But the entire being of the bread and wine, substance and accidents together, is nonetheless converted into Body and Blood. The transmuted elements stop being themselves, Bulgakov says. They now belong to another world, for they have been assimilated to the body of Jesus—yet they do not lose their “thingness” in the world. All of their physical properties remain unchanged:

The whole problem of the theory of transsubstantiatio, which is wholly foreign to the undivided Church, flows not from the difficulty of accepting the transmutation of matter of the world into supratemporal being but from the difficulty of explaining the transformation of one material into another material within the limits of cosmic being. But no transformation at all occurs, and there is no place for a transformation, for only different things of one and the same natural world, not things that belong to different realms of being, can be transformed. Things that belong to different realms of being can only be transmuted the one into the other, while preserving their own mode of being in their own realm. The body of Christ, being manifested in the bread and wine, does not cease being a spiritual body, abiding above this world. And in becoming Christ’s body and blood, which now belong to His supramundane, glorified corporeality, the bread and wine do not lose their being in this world. (pp. 109-110)

Note the distinction Bulgakov here makes between “transformation” and “transmutation”: transformation speaks of natural change that occurs within the created realm; transmutation speaks of metaphysical change that occurs when the divine Son in his glorified body identifies himself with objects of the world.

Thus, the transmutation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ signifies not the tabernacling of the heavenly Christ substantialiter into these accidents, which are then viewed as a kind of unchanging shell, but their direct conversion without any limitation and remainder into the body and blood of Christ—a true transmutation. The fact that the body and blood in their earthly nature remain what they were has no significance here. As such, they have become other than themselves; they no longer have independent existence as things of this world but belong to the body of Jesus, in the same way that the bread and fish that He ate in the presence of his disciples belonged to his body. The Lord, who in His spiritual and glorified body abides at the right hand of God the Father, creates, in the transmutation, a body for Himself from the bread, matter of this world, and animates it with His blood. (p. 115)

Readers of the Fathers will immediately detect the influence of St Gregory Nyssen’s teaching of eucharistic transelementation (see chap. 37 of The Great Catechism).

When the risen and glorified Son unites himself to the eucharistic oblations, a mysterious change occurs. The bread and wine continue to be bread and wine (no chemical change is involved); yet in their true reality they are Body and Blood, no longer belonging to this world:

As a result of this transmutation, the bread and wine with all their properties stop being matter of this world, stop belonging to the world, but become the true body and blood of Christ. This transmutation is accomplished through their unification with the Lord’s spiritual and glorified body that ascended from the world but now appears in them on earth. In the capacity of earthly matter, the eucharistic elements remain bread and wine for the world, whereas, in being transmuted, they already belong to the body of Christ, which is found outside and above the world. And the elements are thereby raised to the metacosmic being of this body and manifest in themselves the corporeality of Christ on earth. (p. 124)

The transmutation, therefore, can only be understood as a radical metaphysical change, a true transcensus. In the transmutation the glorified Christ identifies himself with the material objects of bread and wine. Two separate worlds, two separate domains of being are united. Bulgakov describes it as an antinomic miracle—“an identity of things that are different and a differentiation of things that are identical.” Thus we must say both that the consecrated bread and wine truly are the Body and Blood of Christ and that the Body and Blood of Christ are the eucharistized bread and wine.

Bulgakov turns to St Gregory of Nyssa and St John of Damascus for help in understanding the eucharistic transmutation. Both Fathers note that throughout his earthly life the God-man was nourished by eating various kinds of food and drink, which were then assimilated into his body and became his body. Bulgakov describes this as a “natural transubstantiation.” Through the process of eating and physical assimilation, Jesus enters into communion with the world and the world with Jesus. Food and drink become the Lord’s body and blood. Here we see revealed the profound depth of the Incarnation: the eternal Son incorporates himself into the organic universe and becomes part of its cyclical metabolism.

At the Last Supper Jesus short-circuits this process in a miraculous instant. The bread and wine that would have become his body and blood through eating and digestion becomes his Body and Blood outside of his body, independently of the act of consumption. The conclusion of the natural process of assimilation is, as it were, supernaturally projected back to the moment when Jesus speaks the consecrating words. Bread that was destined to become his body becomes his body; wine that was destined to become his blood becomes his blood. The miracle occurs not by a physical change of the elements, not by their physical absorption into Jesus’ body through natural processes, but through a miracle of transmutation. It’s as if Jesus extended his corporeality beyond the determinate body that sat before the disciples. Thus Christ was able to give himself to them as food and drink, thereby uniting them to himself in intimate communion and completing the process of corporal assimilation. And so the disciples ate the Lord’s body and drank his blood and were united to him in his deified body.

Through the descent of the Holy Spirit, this transmutation occurs at every Holy Eucharist, but with one difference: Christ Jesus has been crucified, buried, and raised by God into a new mode of physical existence. His body has been transfigured and eternalized in the triune life of the Godhead. In his glorified body Christ now exists outside of the world, yet he has abandoned neither the world nor his body. He demonstrates his commitment and connection to the world by breaking bread and eating fish with his disciples after his resurrection (Luke 24:30; 24:41-43). He eats the bread and fish not to nourish himself but to demonstrate his corporeal identity with the Crucified. Through the Eucharist the transcendent Lord establishes a new union with the things of this world. Just as he desired at the Last Supper to give himself as food and drink to his disciples, so he accomplishes this same purpose in the Eucharist of the Church, until the recreation of the cosmos and his return in glory.

Christ makes himself present in the Eucharist for communion. He desires to unite the baptized to his spiritual, glorified body, and he effects this end by making “material His body and blood for us in the sacrament.” It is thus necessary for the consecrated elements to retain their natural properties as food and drink because Christ desires to give himself to his people as food and drink:

In this world and for the life of this world, the bread and wine remain bread and wine. Their transmutation is not a physical but a metaphysical transmutation; it transcends this world. This transmutation does not exist for this world, which is why the eucharistic elements retain all the properties of natural matter even after the transmutation. But these elements become Christ’s body and blood immediately, as such, without any transformation. The transmutation here is not a physical transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood through a physico-chemical process. The Catholic transubstantatio wishes to explain why this does not take place, excusing the absence of a miracle of natural transformation. But such an understanding of the transmutation diminishes the sacrament and distorts its meaning. The meaning of the sacrament consists not in the fact that believers eat a particle of the body and blood in its natural form, but in the fact that they take communion of the one, indivisible body and blood of the Lord, being united with Him bodily and therefore spiritually. We could not take communion of the spiritual, glorified body and blood of the Lord if He did not make material His body and blood for us in the sacrament. By eating food in the presence of His disciples, the Lord manifested matter of this world as united with His glorified body, whereas, in the sacrament, He offers Himself to be eaten, uniting Himself with matter of this world. (pp. 110-111)

Is there a genuine conflict between Bulgakov’s presentation of the eucharistic presence and the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation? No doubt it depends on which theologian is exegeting the dogma. A definite conflict exists, for example, if Fr Michael Scanlon’s interpretation represents the Catholic position. Scanlon clearly asserts that transubstantiation involves a change in the physical order. Why then do we still see “bread” and “wine” before us after the consecration? Because the appearances of the “bread and wine exist only in the mind (intellect and senses) of the communicant, and, therefore, the reality outside his mind, which he handles and eats, is not physical bread and wine!” Fr Herbert McCabe, on the other hand, rejects interpretations similar to those of Scanlon. He deems them as caricatures of the kind of change intended by the doctrine of transubstantiation. Consider this passage:

What happens, then, when we consecrate is that the body and blood of Christ become present as our food and drink to constitute our sharing in the coming banquet of the Kingdom. This happens not by any change in Christ himself but by a miracle, comparable to creation, in which the whole existence of our bread and wine becomes the existence of Christ. The bread which was present naturally is converted not by any substantial change but by the creative power of God, into the body of Christ which is present not naturally but sacramentally.

I have to believe that Bulgakov and McCabe would have a constructive and interesting conversation on this topic—no doubt they already are.

(This is an edited version of an article that was originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 19 June 2004)

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24 Responses to Eastern Orthodoxy and the Eucharistic Transmutation

  1. John says:

    Fr., thank you! Most people are totally ignorant of this issue mostly through fear. A fear born of of confusion I feel even further understanding of the Eucharist is to be found in it’s Jewish roots, have you read Brant Pitre’s Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. gratefully, John M

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  2. Vito says:

    I would suggest “A Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist” by Abbot Vonier. Zaccheus Press, Bethesda. 2003. The original I believe was published 1925.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      A good book. Eric Mascall was a big fan of it. I wrote a Pontifications article on it way back when. I’ll probably repost it in the next week or two. Thanks for the reminder.

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  3. Father Lev says:

    Hi, Father. Does Bulgakov make an argument for why “transmute” is a better term (by definition or etymology), or is it just a term he chooses to describe his form of the Orthodox teaching? The OED gives the primary definition of transmute as “To alter or change in nature, properties, appearance, or form; to transform, convert, turn.” It at least sounds better than the term Frs Weil & Price used in _Liturgy for Living_ to describe the Orthodox view — “transesentiation.”

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  4. tgbelt says:

    As I understand what Fr Aidan has shared, I’d want to say that what he describes as becoming true of the relationship between the glorified humanity of Christ and the bread and wine in the Eucharist, I’d want to say is already true universally, so that in the Eucharist we are celebrating what is everywhere true and not what becomes true on occasion. I’m open to changing my mind, but that’s where I am at present. Everything he says about the union of the world in Christ’s resurrected humanity as ‘occurring’ in the Eucharist I’d want to say occurs universally as a consequence of resurrection and that the Eucharist is simply where and how we declare “here and now” what is in fact true everywhere about everything.

    But this means the entire created order, via Incarnation, really is Christ’s body—now. The Church is just where that body gets steadily transformed into the full exercise of its God-given capacities for relationship with God. Why isn’t the whole universe now as immortal and gloried as Christ now is if Christ is as present in all things as he is in the Eurcharist? Good question. I think the answer may be because in the end the universal-created body that Christ seeks is the concrete-materialization of hypostatically (‘personally’, if I may) distinct others. This means the glorification of the rest of the material order awaits the hypostatic (freely personal) surrender of all other embodied, sentient human beings (even if on Christ’s end the divine presence is sufficiently present already). That is, when created persons are sufficiently defined in their own personal reality (perspective) by the transcendent reality of Christ’s presence (i.e., beatific vision), glorification follows. It’s not that we ‘become’ his body. It’s that our understanding and perceptions catch up to the truth of his already abiding presence. The Eucharist is a celebration that declare this to be so, not an event which achieves a divine presence not already the case.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You’ve raised a very interesting question, Tom. I do not have a firm opinion and am open to your suggestion. But it seems to me that the eucharistic practice of the Church argues against you. For one thing, some of the Eucharistic Prayers do in fact speak of the bread and wine as becoming the Body and Blood of Christ. It’s not as if they already are. The invocation of the Spirit is needed:

      We pray to You and call upon You, O Holy of Holies, that by the favor of Your goodness, Your Holy Spirit may come upon us and upon the gifts here presented, to bless, sanctify, and make this bread to be the precious Body of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. And this cup to be the precious Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. (Liturgy of St Basil)

      Once again we offer to You this spiritual worship without the shedding of blood, and we ask, pray, and entreat You: send down Your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts here presented. And make this bread the precious Body of Your Christ. Amen. And that which is in this cup the precious Blood of Your Christ. Amen. Changing them by Your Holy Spirit. Amen. Amen. Amen. (Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

      Your view on the universal presence of the risen Christ (which I certainly do not dispute) needs to take account of and be brought into accord with this primary language of the Church.

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  5. See Article 28 of the 39 Articles.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Carlton, I’ll bite. What is it you’d like us to see?

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      • An article that could be interpreted in a way very similar to the Orthodox understanding of Eucharistic presence.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          I could be so interpreted–and certainly there have been those Anglicans who have so interpreted (I was one)–but I believe that Article 28 is best interpreted along Calvinist lines, as confirmed by Article 29.

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          • Perhaps your current interpretation of this article has changed due to your context.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            That’s always possible, Carlton … but the catholic construal of Article 28 still flounders on Article 29. Against both RCs and Lutherans, the Calvinists asserted that the ungodly do not partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, only the respective signs. My impression is that most Orthodox will want to side with the RCs and Lutherans on this question.

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      • William Tighe says:

        I agree with Fr. Aidan. If Article 28 were to be read independently of its historical context, and, particularly, of that of the strenuous disputes over whether the Body of Christ was present “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper between the Lutherans and the Reformed (with Melanchthon attempting to mediate from the Lutheran side, and Calvin from the Reformed) from the 1540s onward (and particularly from the mid-50s, when Calvin, having aligned himself decisively, if somewhat reluctantly, with the Reformed camp in 1549, entered the lists against the Lutherans Hesshus and Westphal), it might, just, be possible to wrack it into an (not “the”) “Orthodox understanding,” but this seems far-fetched indeed in its historical context.

        The second and fourth paragraphs of that article are directed against purported errors of the (Western) Catholic Church; paragraph one may be directed, in its first half, against the views of Zwingli (some might argue, against a caricature of Zwingli’s views), and in its second half reflect, in its vagueness and use of the word “partaking,” something like those of the Consensus Tigurinus of 1549, in which the views of Zurich’s Bullinger and Geneva’s Calvin were harmonized (rather than reconciled), rather to the advantage of Bullinger than Calvin. The “savor” is Reformed, even if it is vague enough to be wrenched into other frameworks. The third paragraph, especially the phrase “only after an heavenly and spiritual manner” (but not forgetting “the mean… is Faith”) shows it to be Reformed through and through, rejecting Lutheran views as much as Catholic ones, if only implicitly. I see nothing of Orthodoxy here.

        Article 29 (which Queen Elizabeth vetoed in 1563, only to accept in 1571), which probably should be understood as an “application” of Article 29, although it does not name the Lutherans, nor quote any Lutheran confessional statements, is clearly a repudiation of Lutheran views; indeed, it is a more clearly a repudiation of Lutheran views than of Catholic views, since, even after Trent, Article 29 could be given an Augustinian reading compatible with an unqualified acceptance of transubstantiation. It is standard Reformed boilerplate.

        I know that some attempts have been made to reconcile, or at least render compatible, the eucharistic doctrines of Constantinople and Geneva (didn’t Tom Torrance attempt one?), but such an attempt involves too obvious a use of the “memory hole” to be historically convincing or plausible.

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        • Of course everything must be interpreted in context on both the large and local scales. However, the arguments that seemed so compelling to our ancestors have little urgency to them today. We simply do not know how the Eucharistic gifts are what they are and do what they do and to speculate endlessly on that is futile – at best. It is, therefore, equally futile to proclaim, within reason, that one idea is “better” than another beyond the acknowledgment that Our Lord promises to be present. We only know that the Holy Spirit acts to keep the Lord’s promise.

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  6. tgbelt says:

    Will somebody tell me if I’m a heretic or not? ;o)

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    • tgbelt says:

      Just saw your response, Fr Aidan. Thanks! Whew! Not a heretic!

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Let’s not be hasty! 🙂

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      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        I have one practical rule in these matters: are you willing to prostrate yourself before the Holy Gifts and adore them (latria)? Here is where Orthodox/Catholic Christians and Protestant Christians separate.

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        • tgbelt says:

          Well, not if it meant confessing that something is happening here and now (in the elements) that isn’t the case everywhere all the time. But if it were understood to be a recognition celebrating what is everywhere true, yes, I’d prostrate myself. I’m trying to transform my life into one uninterrupted act of prostration and adoration of Christ present in all things.

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          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            Tom, consider the difference between worshipping a tree (which I hope you would not do), venerating an icon, and worshipping the Holy Gifts.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      You’re Pentecostal … 😉

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