This past February, I was invited by the Southwest Liturgical Conference Study Week to give a virtual workshop presentation on classic eucharistic hymns. Thanks to SWLC and to GIA Publications, the video of that session “Singing on the Shoulders” is now available through GIA’s YouTube™ channel. In this post, I share a few items that came to the forefront as I researched and prepared for the workshop.
One of the initial things I noticed was how often, in Roman Catholic circles, the terms “transubstantiation” and “real presence” seem to be understood—perhaps understandably, though imprecisely—as interchangeable. An occasional (sometimes unintentional, sometimes not) consequence of this is the misperception on the part of Roman Catholics that they are the only ones who believe in Christ’s real presence in the communion elements and/or that transubstantiation is the sole way within broader Christian doctrine that this presence is expressed.
To presume that other Christians—one thinks particularly of our Orthodox sisters and brothers—do not believe Christ to be truly present is an extremely limited view of those other rich faith traditions. There are many Christians who believe Christ to be truly and fully present in the eucharist, even though they do not use the particular term “transubstantiation” to convey how this occurs. Among the Protestant reformers there was a range of approaches, from using a different term (consubstantiation/Luther) to proposing that the presence of Christ, while real, is spiritual in nature (Calvin). The fact remains—then, as now—that various Christians do believe in the real eucharistic presence of Christ in varying ways.
All of this led me to toy briefly with including a Protestant eucharistic hymn in the workshop; I am admittedly lacking in knowledge of these hymns, so I received recommendations from Protestant liturgical music colleagues. (Since no hymns from these sources have entered common Roman Catholic repertoire, I decided not to.) One of the primary realities that emerged was that many texts had a rather studied avoidance of saying humans could know how the communion elements are changed into Christ’s Body and Blood. Their focus often is on the mortal inability to bridge the gap between us and infinite mystery, and so they turn instead to expressions of an adoration beyond human knowledge or language, in a posture of reverence and awe before the mystery of Christ present in the sacrament. (Yes, other Christians refer to eucharist as a sacrament too.)
Though Roman Catholicism uses the term “transubstantiation” confidently, it has never claimed that the term exhaustively communicates the wondrous mystery. From Trent’s use of aptissime (it is the “most apt” term) to the current Catechism (“This change the holy Catholic Church has fittingly and properly called transubstantiation.” [1376, quoting Trent]), the language around transubstantiation and the real presence of Christ is consistently and humbly aware of our mortal limitations.
Sometimes the current Roman Catholic discourse surrounding these matters can seem a bit smug, if not outright condescending. I can’t help but speculate that we might benefit a bit from a healthy dose of the humility and awe present in eucharistic hymns’ language outside our own heritage (those of the Wesley brothers come to mind). If our earthly eucharistic banquet is truly a foretaste of the celestial banquet to come, perhaps it would be to our benefit to apply Charles Wesley’s “lost in wonder, love, and praise” of eternity to the here and now.
The “here and now” purpose of the eucharist always takes me back to Alexander Schmemann’s Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom.
“The purpose of the Eucharist lies not in the change of the bread and wine, but in the partaking of Christ, who has become our food, our life, the manifestation of the Church as the body of Christ.”
Schmemann also explains that the focus on partaking is largely why the churches of the orthodox East—for all the liturgical reverence the communion elements are shown—didn’t really turn them into their own topic of theological discourse, much less attempt to go into the mechanics of the mystery, as happened in the West.
The same way that Roman Catholicism hasn’t been a sola scriptura denomination, the Eucharist shouldn’t be turned into a solum transsubstantiationem event. Transubstantiation, of course, is at the heart of the mystery, but any kind of co-identification unnecessarily impoverishes the many other facets of the sacrament and can even set our faces in the direction of idolatry, in which the event of transubstantiation itself is worshiped, and not the Christ made present.
Augustine’s insight is relevant here: at the eucharistic celebration, we receive what we already are—the Body of Christ—so that we might become what we receive—Christ present in and for the life of the world. At the end of the SWLC workshop I offered my own view that the next major frontier for eucharistic hymns might be a more regular and explicit connection made between the eucharist and the Church’s mission for peace and justice. As Godfrey Diekmann stated: “What difference does it make if the bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of Christ and we don’t?” We could likewise ask what difference it makes how we express the manner in which that change is described, if it does not also help us to be changed.
Take and eat the Body of Christ broken for you.
Take and drink the Blood of Christ shed for you.