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The text below is taken from an article of the same name, printed in the Summer 1997 issue of The Journal.

Eucharistic Belief 

In 1982 a questionnaire on eucharistic belief and practice was circulated among members of the Association of Interchurch Families (the result of the survey was published in 1983 by Collins under the title Sharing Communion: an appeal to the churches by interchurch families). Fr John Coventry, SJ, co-chair of the Association, realised that the replies of some couples raised the question of how far people were misunderstanding each other, or the doctrine of their own church, rather than disagreeing. He therefore wrote the following brief article as an attempt to clarify the meanings of "real presence " and of "sacrifice ". Many interchurch families have found it a great help to their understanding ever since. 

As a "Centrepiece" it was reprinted and has been included in our Sharing Communion Pack. Supplies have now run out, and we are glad to be able to reprint it here. At the same time we would like to pay tribute to Fr John Coventry for all he has done over the years to put his theological expertise at the service of interchurch families. We give thanks for his ministry in this year in which he celebrates his Golden Jubilee in the priesthood on 10th September. 

The body of the Lord

Paul is the clue to the meaning of 'body' (soma) in the New Testament. He did not think in the Greek way of distinguishing one reality completely from another: e.g. body/soul. (And you cannot distinguish body and blood in that way as the body includes the blood.) Paul's Hebraic way of thinking was in wholes or areas of experience. I experience my self as a body. (Well, I do, don't I?) 'Body' is not the 'I' that experiences but the 'me' that I experience. I experience my body-self as 'flesh', i.e. fragile, mortal, subject to death, to law, to sin. But I also experience my body-self as 'spirit', i.e. open to the action of God. 

There is no 'is' (copula) in Aramaic. Jesus said: "This my body-self given (broken) for you; this my blood (i.e. life) poured out for you." Blood was thought of as conveying God's gift of life, which is why Jews do not eat meat without first draining the blood. So Jesus was not distinguishing body from blood, but uttering parallel sayings as was common in his language and culture. 

It is certain that Christian belief always was that it is the risen Jesus, the Lord (the title is always and only used of the risen Christ) who is present and is received in the Eucharist. When Paul says, "You proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" (I Cor. 11:26), he is not saying that they proclaim the death of the mortal Jesus, but the death of the risen Christ: he is holding cross and resurrection together in one. And "the Lord" is the risen Jesus who pours out on us the Spirit he has received from his Father, the life-force of God.

The Corinthians had over-materialistic ideas of resurrection. Paul takes up most of I Cor. 15 dispelling these ideas and wrestling with the difficulties of finding adequate language to speak of the risen Christ. Flesh-body does not rise. The Lord is spirit-body (this would be a contradiction in terms to a Greek thinker). Paul even says, "the Lord is spirit"; but it is the Lord who is spirit, the risen Jesus. Jesus does not cease to be a man (cease to be incarnate) by being risen, exalted, glorified. He experiences himself as fully spirit-self or spirit-body. He gives himself to us as spirit-body. 

Really present in and for receiving

The eucharistic belief witnessed in the New Testament is that the bread and wine are the risen body-self of Christ in the receiving. If you read the eucharistic texts of the New Testament carefully (Paul and John), you will find that there is no evidence for any further or more developed belief. This is already a very great deal. 

This is called 'receptionism' and most Christians hold at least this belief. It was the belief of Calvin. Zwingli taught that the bread and wine were not more than symbols of the Lord's reality. Some individual Christians may not go further than this belief, but so far as I know it is not the doctrine of any main Christian communion. 

By the third century the conviction had taken hold in both East and West that, if the bread and wine were the risen body of Christ in the receiving, and could be carried to the sick and imprisoned for communion, they must already have become the body of Christ for the receiving. There had been a mysterious change of the elements. It is noteworthy that this doctrine prevailed in the church without argument and remained unchallenged until the eleventh century. It is the doctrine endorsed by ARCIC. When it was challenged, this was because the fact had been lost sight of that it was the risen, not simply the crucified, Lord who was present and was received, and very crude and distasteful flesh-language was being used. 


That is really all there is to say about belief and doctrine in regard to real presence. All the rest is a matter of language in which to express that belief in a mysterious change. It is not a matter of more belief or extra doctrine. 

There is no adequate language to express a mysterious change, because it is not the same as any of the situations from which language can be drawn. It is best to coin a new word and to stick to it. The presence of Christ is a sacramental presence, a mystery presence, the presence of the mystery of the risen Christ. Other language misleads. 

The language of Aristotle was introduced to spiritualize what had become crude. Unfortunately that language in turn came to have a mechanistic flavour. The language of the Church was 'reality' and 'appearance': the reality of the bread and wine changes, the appearance does not. The language of Aristotle was 'substance' and 'accident' and introduced a refinement: the substance of the bread is changed but the accidents are not, so the whole reality is not changed: transsubstantiation. But of course in Aristotelianism 'substance' meant metaphysical substance. And who understands that now? Certainly not the ordinary lay Catholic who may insist on the use of the word. And among those who do understand it, many reject the implication of a misguided metaphysic or attempt to understand the constituents of reality. 

The philosophy of Aristotle was never imposed as necessary to eucharistic doctrine. What the Council of Trent said was that the change of the reality (substance) of the bread and wine into the reality (substance) of the body and blood of Christ, while the appearances of bread and wine remained, was appropriately called by the Church 'trans-substantiation'. It is a remark about language. Seen as appropriate then the language has ceased to be appropriate for three reasons: because people no longer understand the philosophical system to which it is attached; because it acquired a mechanistic flavour; and because at Trent 'body' and 'blood' were being understood in the Greek and not the Hebraic sense. As ARCIC rightly says, and rightly puts in a footnote, the language does not purport to show how the mysterious change takes place. 

The sad thing today is that Catholics who no longer know what the word means often say that 'they' (i.e. other Christians) do not accept trans-substantiation, and jump from there to imagining that 'they' do not believe they are receiving the body of Christ. They do. If they reject the language, this is because it seems to be trying to explain the change in terms of a philosophy of nature and so to de-mystify it and make it mechanistic. 

Personally present

Other troubles are caused by other words. The ciborium is physically present in the tabernacle, but the body of Christ is not present in that way, i.e. not physically present. If the word is to retain any sense at all, it should be kept for the proper field of physics: a presence detectable by natural vision and natural sciences. Paul insisted that the risen body-self was not a physical (natural) body, but a spirit-body: I Cor. 15:44. Flesh and blood, i.e. the flesh-body-self which is buried in the ground, do not inherit the Kingdom. 

'Corporal' presence causes further and similar trouble. It is the body (corpus) of Christ which is present, so the word seems at first sight appropriate. But it is the spirit-body-self of the risen Christ that is mysteriously present. 

Just stick to 'sacramentally present'! 

One trouble about attempts to insist on realistic language is that one inevitably finds oneself treating 'the body of Christ' as a thing: really, objectively, there, present, regardless of any personal relationship. It is not our faith that makes Christ the Lord present. But the risen Lord is personally present as a gift of his spirit-self to us. He is not effectively present to us until we recognise and respond to his presence in faith. 

You are the body of Christ

ARCIC is a bit light on reservation of the elements for communion to the sick, and on the veneration, adoration, of Christ present and devotions to the reserved Sacrament. The place to start is with meditation on the mysterious unity of Eucharist and Church. The ruthless western mind came to make distinctions which were unheard of in the first eight or nine centuries and lost a good deal in the process. 

First and foremost, it is we who are the body of Christ, we the baptised community. We are communion (koinonia).

Only we can celebrate the Eucharist and nourish the life already given us of the body of Christ. The Eucharist is a concentrated or crystallised expression of what we are all the time. If we think of the reserved Sacrament as the abiding sacrament of Christ's abiding presence in us, his body, the different practices become intelligible. Certainly, the elements were at first reserved solely for communion to those unable to be present at the celebration. But, with a fuller understanding of both Church and Eucharist as communion, the reserved elements can rightly be seen as a focus for the Church's daily, unceasing, life and prayer. 


Then there is sacrifice. This is a less difficult area for a couple who want to receive communion together, but it is within the field of eucharistic belief about which they would like to be able to agree. 

At the Reformation the Protestants objected to chantry masses and so on, and cut the ground from under them by asserting that the Eucharist was not a sacrifice. The Catholics were sure it was, but did not have any clear idea how it was. There was no received theology of the Mass as sacrifice: Thomas Aquinas had said nothing about it, as he never got to that part of his Summa. Since then, various Catholic theologies of the Eucharist as sacrifice have developed. None of them is mandatory or 'the' Catholic theology of sacrifice. Trent said a certain amount, but it can fit into various theologies. 

One argument has been futile: is it a sacrifice or is it a meal? There are many different kinds of sacrifices, but they are all meals. Sometimes the meal is wholly God's (holocaust) and it is all put on his table: an altar is God's table. Sometimes the meal is shared with God: his part is put on his table (perhaps burned there, perhaps carried off as the priests' portion), and we take our part to eat at our table at home. Sometimes God shares our table at home (any Jewish sabbath meal). 

Whether the Last Supper was the Passover meal or not, and for this purpose it does not matter, it was certainly a ritual meal of some kind, and so a sacrifice. And the Eucharist is certainly a ritual meal, a meal shared with God, and so a sacrifice. What is shared? Precisely the risen-body-self of Christ. So it is a communion sacrifice, a sacrifice because it is communion. More technically, it is a sacramental sacrifice, a sacrifice because it is communion. It is not a sacrifice plus a sacrament, so the priest offers a sacrifice and we others may or may not communicate in it. We only participate fully in a communion sacrifice by communicating. The priest must communicate and only celebrates this sort of sacrifice by doing so. 

One can go further in constructing a theology of sacrifice, and it is then that the trouble starts. But I would suggest one doesn't have to go further. The Church lived the Eucharist for centuries without drawing out all the theology. Indeed, has it done so yet? The point is, really, to do it, to share it. Which is what Jesus told us to do. 


The 'trouble' does not stem from eucharistic theology at all but from theologies of salvation (redemption, atonement). At the time of the Reformation, both Catholics and Reformers were limited by the view that we are saved by an event in past history, the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. The resurrection was not regarded as an essential part of the saving work of Jesus but as God's reward to him. Some evangelicals today still wish to assert this (and ARCIC wobbles). And in that perspective it is extremely hard to see how the Eucharist could be a repeated series of sacrificial acts without adding to the self-sacrifice of Jesus, or suggesting it was incomplete or inadequate. Catholic theologies of the making present today of a past act in history, so that we can participate in it rather than add to it, are not entirely convincing. 

But once you see that the resurrection, the risen-ness of Jesus and his sharing fully the life and power of his Father, is an integral part of his redeeming, atoning, saving work, and so of his sacrifice, then everything falls into place. The risen-ness of Jesus, his being 'at the right hand of God' (seated on God's throne, and sharing God's power with us, is what the image conveys), is not an event in past history; it is not in history at all, but outside history in God's eternity. The risen Lord gives us the eternal life he draws from the Father in Baptism, in the Eucharist, and so on. 

Now we can say (as the Epistle to the Hebrews keeps saying) that the sacrifice of Christ is an event that starts in time but is completed in eternity. Not a once-and-for-all past event, but an outside-time event, and therefore once and for all. 

Then we can say that in the Eucharist Christ gathers us, in all times and places, into his eternal sacrifice so that we 'enter into the movement of his self-offering'. The latter is what ARCIC says. But it is rather roundabout, and has the danger of making 'we' the subject of the sentence. If Christ were always the subject of the sentence, the difficulties would evaporate. Not 'we offer' or 'we enter'. Not 'the Church offers', though that is all right if you always understand by 'the Church' not us apart from Christ but the risen Lord present and active in his people. But in the Eucharist, precisely as communion, Christ gathers us daily and everywhere into his eternal self-offering. He is always living to make intercession for us. 

John Coventry, SJ



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