You know that conversation you get into with someone you’ve been dating for a bit, and you two come to talk a little deeper about what you think and believe, and then you find out that your date’s like really into “Dungeons and Dragons” still? Yeah, well, that’s the conversation we’re gonna have today, only instead of Dungeons and Dragons, it pertains to the body and blood of Christ: I think I eat and drink it on a weekly basis, an admission that, frankly, might be even be more awkward than saying I’m a level 21 Druid.
To be honest, this doctrine, which for any neophytes out there is called transubstantiation, was one of the more difficult ones for me to come to grips with as I made a switch from the lusty Protests of King Henry the VIII (I was Episcopalian for a time) to the Jesus-eating ideas of Catholicism. I’m still getting used to it in some ways, but I’ve come to embrace it for reasons far beyond what are usually talked about. So let’s talk about the usual pertaining to this doctrine, which is unusual in itself, and then we can push it to further and to its full radness.
First, the doctrine itself is pretty simple to explain, coming from a behemoth of a monk named Aquinas, who is sine qua non the most important theologian in Catholicism aside from the good Jesus himself. Here’s how it works.
We generally think that If a person changes his or her hair-color, the underlying reality of that person remains substantially the same. That’s because one’s hair-color is accidental to who one is; it’s a part of us but doesn’t make us, not in our base identity. Take this distinction between substance and accident, reverse, and now apply it to yeastless bread and sweet wine.
Catholics are actually claiming that the substance of the bread and wine are transformed (hence, tran-substantiation) into the body and blood of Christ, while the accidents—the appearances, tastes, and sounds—of the bread and wine remain the same. It’s the Freaky Friday of doctrines, and I admit it’s a little disconcerting for those unused to it. But I want to talk about why it’s awesome in ways you might never have thought. I begin with Incarnation.
Yep, Incarnation. Immanuel—God is with us. It’s bar none the coolest doctrine of the Christian faith, so much so that much of the early Church could have done without the death of Christ as the moment of salvation, placing it within the Incarnation itself. The doctrine in short means that God, in the Trinitarian person of the Son, became flesh, offering to this flesh the fullness of the world that it was always supposed to have had before the fall and in the mythic Garden of Eden.
In the Incarnation, we’re divinized, says Athanasius, given back the being which was lost in Adam: united to
God and nature simultaneously. (Well, Athanasius doesn’t think that, but it’s the right conclusion.)
Of the many important ideas emanating from Incarnation, one has been that, through the Incarnation’s recognition, we’ve rejected as a Church the rejection of nature and bodily being. That is, Gnosticism, which affirmed only the importance of spiritual existence, was put on the no-no list, and for good reason: it thought that bodily being was mostly filled with icky sex-stuff and was unfit for the divine. But if God thought that the bodilyness of this world and its nature was good enough to Incarnate into, then we should think it’s good enough to take seriously as well. Go home Gnostics!
Believe it or not, the Catholic doctrine of Incarnation is a continued, if not a bit gruesome in theory, affirmation of Christ’s Incarnation and its importance to this world. Each weekend, we participate in the flesh and blood of Christ in a total, positive, and continued affirmation of the Incarnation of God. Salvation has been offered to the bodilyness of this world, both human and natural, which will be set straight and corrected in accordance with the original order intended: an order of peace reflecting the total and loving relationship between God and creation as unfolded in the garden.
So, we must still affirm the bodily presence of Christ in this world, knowing that divine Incarnate bodies continue to offer salvation to embodied beings in their bodies. In the transubstantiated Eucharist, we continue to affirm the importance of this world as blessed by the body of Christ as a naturally embodied and beautiful being to be taken seriously in its own right and beloved of God.
Perhaps the continuing Incarnation and its importance, strangely and ironically, counters the world we’ve come to buy into hook, line, and sinker, which is one defined by infinite malleability and one that can be instrumentalized by the human will unchecked. We live in a world, after all, where bodies, identities, and nature itself can be broken down by chemistry, critical theory, or engineering into its constitutive parts—a set of primordial goos useful for creating whatever we desire—and then reformed into an image of our own liking, which we’ve defined out of a gnostic sense of the material not mattering.
So, here’s to some minor cannibalism and a recognition that the doctrine’s beauty far outweighs its initial awkwardness if not because in affirming the beauty and salvation of the natural world and the bodies within it, it also calls into question our lust for power over ourselves and nature.
Check out how the Incarnation brings us divine peace in Eric’s Hombrewed Christianity Guide to God, chapter 9, “God Did not Look Like a Norwegian Hippie.”