Today, the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, is the traditional date of the great Feast of Corpus Christi. It seems a good moment to pause and reflect upon the Doctrine of the Blessed Sacrament. It is, of course, Catholic and Orthodox belief, as it has been since the time of Christ, that the Blessed Sacrament is not merely a symbol of Christ, but is actually, truly and substantially, Christ Himself, but with the accidents, or appearances, of bread and wine remaining. This change of substance without the accompanying change in accidents is called transubstantiation. Before examining some texts from the Sacred Scriptures and from Christian history on the subject, you should note the following two links, and the Gregorian Chant Sequence of the Feast:
For more on the history of this great feast:
Old Catholic Encyclopedia: Corpus Christi
...for some more on the customs of the day:
Fisheaters: Corpus Christi
...and the Sequence for the Feast, Lauda Sion:
Christ with the Eucharist, by Vicente Juan Masip (+1545AD):
What basis in Scripture and in the history of Christian practice is there for this belief? Let us take a look.
Turning first to the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark (14:22-24), we recall the Last Supper of Our Lord:
"And whilst they were eating, Jesus took bread; and blessing, broke, and gave to them, and said: Take ye. This is my body. And having taken the chalice, giving thanks, he gave it to them. And they all drank of it. And he said to them: This is my blood of the new testament, which shall be shed for many."
Our Lord, Jesus Christ, had earlier given some discourse on this matter, as we find in the 6th Chapter of the Gospel according to St. John (6:53-56, 61, 67-69):
"The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said to them: Amen I say unto you: except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed: and my blood is drink indeed…Many therefore of his disciples, hearing it said: This saying is hard, and who can hear it?…After this many disciples went back; and walked no more with him. Then Jesus said to the twelve: Will you also go away? And Simon Peter answered him: Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."
St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (11:26-29) gives further explanation into this most sublime doctrine and practice:
"For as often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall shew the death of the Lord, until he come. Therefore whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord."
It should be no surprise, then, that considering the basis in Sacred Scripture, Christians from the beginning would hold to this Real Presence of Christ in Holy Communion:
St. Ignatius of Antioch, in his “Letter to the Smyrnaeans” (ca. 110AD) writes: "They [“They” refers to “those who hold heterodox opinions on the grace of Jesus Christ which has come to us.”] abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the Flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, Flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His goodness, raised up again."
St. Justin Martyr, in his “First Apology” (between A.D. 148-155) writes:
“After the president has given thanks, and all the people have shouted their assent, those whom we call deacons give to each one present to partake of the Eucharistic bread and wine and water; and to those who are absent they carry away a portion.
We call this food Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by Him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nourished, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus.
The Apostles, in the Memoirs which they produced, which are called Gospels, have thus passed on that which was enjoined upon them: that Jesus took bread and, having given thanks, said, ‘Do this in remembrance of Me; this is My Body.’ And in like manner, taking the cup, and having given thanks, He said, ‘This is my Blood.’ And He imparted this to them only.”
St. Cyprian of Carthage, in his “Letter of Cyprian to a certain Cecil” (ca. 250AD) writes:
“Also in the priest Melchisedech we see the Sacrament of the Sacrifice of the Lord prefigured…The order certainly is that which comes from his sacrifice and which comes down from it; because Melchisedech was a priest of the Most High God; because he offered bread; and because he blessed Abraham. And who is more a priest of the Most High God than our Lord Jesus Christ, who, when He offered sacrifice to God the Father, offered the very same which Melchisedech had offered, namely bread and wine, which is in fact His Body and Blood!”
“…nor is the Sacrifice of the Lord celebrated with a legitimate consecration unless our offering and sacrifice corresponds with the passion…I wonder, indeed, whence this practice has come, that, contrary to evangelic and apostolic tradition, in certain places water alone, which cannot signify the Blood of Christ, is offered in the cup of the Lord.”
The great St. Athanasius, Doctor and defender of the Divinity of Christ writes, before 373AD, in his “Sermon to the Newly Baptized”:
"But after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed, then the bread is become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ. And again: Let us approach the celebration of the mysteries. This bread and this wine, so long as the prayers and supplications have not taken place, remain what they are. But after the great prayers and holy supplications have been sent forth, the Word comes down into the bread and wine — and thus is His Body confected."
St. Hilary of Poitiers, writing in 356-359AD, in the work "The Trinity," clearly explains:
"As to the reality of His Flesh and Blood, there is no room left for doubt, because now, both by the declaration of the Lord Himself and by our own faith, it is truly Flesh and it is truly Blood."
St. Cyril of Alexandria, too, bears witness writing in “Commentaries on Matthew” (after A.D. 428):
“He states demonstratively: ‘This is My Body,’ and ‘This is My Blood,’ lest you might suppose the things that are seen are a figure. Rather, by some secret of the all-powerful God the things seen are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, truly offered in sacrifice in which we, as participants, receive the life-giving and sanctifying power of Christ.”
I omit a great many other documents, letters, and teachings that manifest the same belief throughout the early centuries of the Church. Indeed, moving to the 11th century, we find a man, Berengarius, that dared deny what Christians had always held, and he was required by Pope St. Gregory VII in 1079AD to assent to the following statement of belief if he wished to be reconciled to the Church:
"I, Berengarius, believe interiorly and profess publicly that the bread and wine, which are placed on the altar, through the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of our Redeemer are substantially changed into the true, proper, and life-giving flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. After the consecration it is the true body of Christ…"
It is interesting to note that St. Thomas Aquinas refers to this Berengarius, who lived a thousand years after Christ as he "who had been the first deviser of this heresy," the heresy being a denial of the Real Presence of Christ.
The decrees of Ecumenical Councils of the Church, then, merely echo constant Christian belief:
From the Council of Florence (1438-1445AD), presided over by Pope Eugene IV:
"It is by the power of these words that the substance of bread is changed into the body of Christ, and the substance of wine into his blood. This change takes place in such a way that the whole Christ is present under the species of bread and the whole Christ is present under the species of wine."
From the 13th session of the Council of Trent (1551AD), presided over by Pope Julius III:
"To begin with, the holy council teaches and openly and straightforwardly professes that in the blessed sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, after the consecration of the bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and man, is truly, really, and substantially contained under the perceptible species of bread and wine"
From Trent to this very day, the constant belief in the life-giving words of Christ, in the veracity of Sacred Scripture, and the integrity of constant Christian faith, are adhered to by Catholics and Orthodox. Hence, this day, in particular, we give thanks for this awesome gift, and the blessing of the virtue of Faith. This sublime teaching is also bound with the Sacrament of Holy Orders and Apostolic Succession. That, however, we will leave for another day.
St. Thomas Aquinas, in his magnificent Summa Theologiae, III, Q. 75, A. 1, gives an excellent summary of the Doctrine, referring to some of the very texts above:
"I answer that, The presence of Christ's true body and blood in this sacrament cannot be detected by sense, nor understanding, but by faith alone, which rests upon Divine authority. Hence, on Luke 22:19: "This is My body which shall be delivered up for you," Cyril says: "Doubt not whether this be true; but take rather the Saviour's words with faith; for since He is the Truth, He lieth not."
Now this is suitable, first for the perfection of the New Law. For, the sacrifices of the Old Law contained only in figure that true sacrifice of Christ's Passion, according to Hebrews 10:1: "For the law having a shadow of the good things to come, not the very image of the things." And therefore it was necessary that the sacrifice of the New Law instituted by Christ should have something more, namely, that it should contain Christ Himself crucified, not merely in signification or figure, but also in very truth. And therefore this sacrament which contains Christ Himself, as Dionysius says (Eccl. Hier. iii), is perfective of all the other sacraments, in which Christ's virtue is participated.
Secondly, this belongs to Christ's love, out of which for our salvation He assumed a true body of our nature. And because it is the special feature of friendship to live together with friends, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix), He promises us His bodily presence as a reward, saying (Matthew 24:28): "Where the body is, there shall the eagles be gathered together." Yet meanwhile in our pilgrimage He does not deprive us of His bodily presence; but unites us with Himself in this sacrament through the truth of His body and blood. Hence (John 6:57) he says: "He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, abideth in Me, and I in him." Hence this sacrament is the sign of supreme charity, and the uplifter of our hope, from such familiar union of Christ with us.
Thirdly, it belongs to the perfection of faith, which concerns His humanity just as it does His Godhead, according to John 14:1: "You believe in God, believe also in Me." And since faith is of things unseen, as Christ shows us His Godhead invisibly, so also in this sacrament He shows us His flesh in an invisible manner.
Some men accordingly, not paying heed to these things, have contended that Christ's body and blood are not in this sacrament except as in a sign, a thing to be rejected as heretical, since it is contrary to Christ's words. Hence Berengarius, who had been the first deviser of this heresy, was afterwards forced to withdraw his error, and to acknowledge the truth of the faith."