Transubstantiation—Hard to Believe?


The Catholic Church teaches that in the Eucharist, the wafer and the wine really become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  Have you ever met anyone who finds this a bit hard to take? 

If so, you shouldn’t be surprised.  When Jesus spoke about eating his flesh and drinking his blood in John 6, the response was less than enthusiastic.  “How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (V 52).  “This is a hard saying who can listen to it?” (V60).  In fact so many of his disciples abandoned him that Jesus asked the twelve if they also planned to quit.  Note that Jesus did not run after the deserters saying, “Come back! – I was just speaking metaphorically!”

It’s intriguing that one charge the pagan Romans lodged against Christians was that of cannibalism.  Why?  They heard that this sect met weekly to eat flesh and drink human blood.  Did the early Christians say: “wait a minute, it’s only a symbol!”?  Not at all.  When explaining the Eucharist to the Emperor around 155AD, St. Justin did not mince his words: “For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Sav­ior being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him . . . is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.”

 Not till the Middle Ages did theologians really try to explain how Christ’s body and blood became present in the Eucharist.  After a few theologians got it wrong, St. Thomas Aquinas came along and offered an explanation that became classic.  In all change that we normally observe, he teaches, appearances change, but deep down, the essence of a thing stays the same.  Example: if, in a fit of mid-life crisis, I traded my mini-van for a Ferrari, abandoned my wife and kids to be a tanned beach bum, bleached and spiked my hair, buffed up at the gym, and made a trip to the plastic surgeon, I’d look a lot different.  But for all my trouble, deep down I’d still substantially be the same confused, middle-aged dude as when I started.

 St. Thomas said the Eucharist is the one change we encounter that is exactly the opposite.  The appearances of bread and wine stay the same, but the very essence of these realities, which can’t be viewed by a microscope, is totally transformed.  What starts as bread and wine becomes Christ’s body and blood.   A handy word was coined to describe this unique change.  Transformation of the “sub-stance”, what “stands-under” the surface, came to be called “transubstantiation.”

What makes this happen?  The Spirit and the Word.  After praying for the Holy Spirit to come (epiklesis), the priest, who stands in the place of Christ, repeats the words of the God-man: “This is my Body, This is my Blood.”  Sounds like Genesis 1 to me: the mighty wind (read “Spirit”) whips over the surface of the water and God’s Word resounds. “Let there be light” and there was light.  It is no harder to believe in the Eucharist than to believe in Creation.

But why did Jesus arrange for this transformation of bread and wine?  Because he intended another kind of transformation.  The bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ which are, in turn, meant to transform us.  Ever hear the phrase: “you are what you eat?”  The Lord desires us to be transformed from a motley crew of imperfect individuals into the Body of Christ, come to full stature. 

Our evangelical brethren speak often of an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus.  But I ask you, how much more personal and intimate than the Eucharist can you get?  We receive the Lord’s body into our physical body that we may become him whom we receive!

Such an awesome gift deserves its own feast.  And that’s why, back in the days of Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope decided to institute the Feast of Corpus Christi.


About Author

Grew up in Providence RI. BA at Providence college, Ph.D. in historical theology from Catholic University of America. Former professional musician and theology professor at Loyola College in Maryland and the University of Dallas. Currently owner of Wellness Business Ventures LLC and director of Father of five.

  • noelfitz

    On the feast of Corpus Christi and with an International Eucharistic Congress in Ireland next year, this article gave me food for thought.

    I consider the starting point to be, as St Justin said, what looks like bread and wine is the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ.

    However I read here that St Thomas gave us an explanation to understand the Eucharist.

    But I consider that we cannot understand how the Eucharist happens. All we can do is accept it.

    Aristotle explained change in the hylomorphic theory. In this a substance is made up of matter and form, and in a change the matter remains the same and the form is altered. The form is a type of seal that makes a thing what is is, while matter is a vague underlying entity, like wax which has the seal. Nowadays change is understood in terms of atoms. Since Descartes, time the hylomorphic theory has not really been accepted. St Thomas attempted to use this theory to explain the Eucharist. I do not think this is adequate.

    I read here that we are what we eat. This is not so. We eat God, but we do not become God. Catholics are not pantheists.

    In “Mane Nobiscum Domine” JP II wrote
    “Yet in the Eucharist the glory of Christ remains veiled. The Eucharist is pre-eminently a mysterium fidei.”

    That sums it up, the Eucharist is a mystery where bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ.

  • Noel, St. Thomas Aquinas would be the first to agree with you that Aristotle’s theories of matter and form or Substance and accident, are not “adequate” to explain the mystery of the Eucharist. But no theory or image could ever by adequate to completely and exhaustively explain a mystery of faith. So should we forget about trying to explain or understand? It would seem not. The Lord Jesus spent three years using inadequate human images and stories called parables trying to express the mysteries of faith. And we have 2,000 years of his disciples, such as St. Thomas, trying to do the same thing. The classic definition of theology is faith seeking understanding. And one of the 7 Gifts of the Holy Spirit is understanding. While we can never “solve” the mystery of the Eucharist like a crossword puzzle and be done with it, we can have no understanding, some understanding, or pursue ever deeper understanding. I believe God calls us to the latter. As for pantheism, you are quite right. We don’t become God in the sense of losing our individuality and becoming part of some great universal “force.” However, the Eucharist is the Body of Christ. Are we the Church who receives this sacrament not also, in a very real sense, the body of Christ? And does not St. Athanasius and countless Fathers of the Church say that “God became man so that man might become God?” I will leave you to ponder in what sense we truly “are what we eat.”

  • noelfitz

    Dear Dr D’Ambrosio,

    I am surprised and very pleased that you took the time to write such a detailed and thoughtful reply to me. I am deeply honored and moved by your courtesy.

    I fully agree with St Anselm about theology being “fides quaerens intellectum” and with Virgil who claimed “Felix, qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas”

    But I am only a poor retired chemist, interested in the Bible and Fathers of the Church. I am no theologian.

    When I think of the Eucharist and St Thomas I do not think of the hylomorphic theory , but “Adoro Te Devote”.

    Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur,
    Sed auditu solo tuto creditur;
    Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius,
    Nil hoc verbo veritatis verius.

    Sight, touch, and taste in Thee are each deceived;
    The ear alone most safely is believed:
    I believe all the Son of God has spoken,
    Than Truth’s own word there is no truer token.