Reflection: The Miracle of Transubstantiation
by Father Don Thomas
In Catholic theology, transubstantiation is the miracle that occurs during Mass when the priest says the words that Jesus commanded at the Last Supper, and the substance of the bread is changed in to the substance of the body and blood of Christ; and the substance of the wine is changed into the substance of the body and blood of Christ, while the appearances (accidents) of the bread and wine remain unchanged.
Only God can perform a miracle. Supernatural mysteries such as the Holy Trinity, and the virgin birth of Christ, and this one, the holy Eucharist, cannot be understood by any of us. However, we accept the challenge to prove, in all of these cases, that there aren't any contradictions in what we are asked to believe. Faith, rather than Knowledge and understanding, is important in dealing with these mysteries.
What is meant by “substance” and what is meant by “accidents”? Brilliant philosophical scholars have told us that all matter is made up of substance and accidents.
Substance is not something material, such as soft, or sticky, or hard substance. No, substance is spiritual. It is not made up of parts or material. The substance is what makes a thing what it is. The substance analogy, although a poor one, makes it seem as if a dog, or ball, or any other thing has a soul.
Accidents, in the philosophical definition, mean the whiteness, the roundness, the taste, the thinness or the thickness of something.
Accidents and substance have to go together, they cannot exist alone. “Yellow”, “black”, or “round” cannot walk down the street by themselves, however you will see a yellow bird, a black cat, and a round ball.
The reason this is important in relation to the miracle of transubstantiation is that when God changes the bread and wine into his body and blood, the accidents remain unchanged. This is why, when people receive Holy Communion, the bread and wine look and taste the same. It is the substance that has been changed, not the color, taste, roundness, whiteness, or thickness. It is as if the bread and wine have a soul, and the soul is changed. The substance is like the soul. It cannot be perceived with the five senses, but the appearance, or accidents, can be perceived.
Let us now consider some other aspects of transubstantiation in order to grow in appreciation of this mystery of God's presence in the Eucharist. For example, if a man can lift 100 pounds of sand, he can easily lift twenty-five pounds of sand, Because God created the universe out of nothing, he can easily start with something and change it into something else. This is exactly what happens in the miracle of transubstantiation, when God, not the priest, changes the substance of the bread and wine into the substance of his body and blood, while the accidents remain unchanged.
What Jesus did at the last supper was to keep and fulfill a promise he made in the sixth chapter of St. John's gospel, where he informs us that he will give us his flesh to eat and blood to drink The apostles and his other followers did not understand what Jesus was talking about. Jesus knew that the apostles did not have degrees after their names. They were more renowned for their fishing skills than intelligence. Yet, when Jesus held the bread in his hands and said, “This is my body” he knew exactly what he was saying, and he meant it. The same thing took place with the wine, which he changed into his blood.
Jesus fully realized that the apostles didn't understand what was happening, but that is precisely the point. He was not asking them to understand it, but to believe it. That calls for true faith.
Let us now consider “presence”. Water, for example, can be present in the form of a liquid, as a solid (ice) or as a gas (steam). It is all water, but present in different ways. Consider a photo of a man and a man standing next to the photo. The man standing is present physically, and the man in the photo is present representatively. Here's another example. You are in Houston and your mother in New York is thinking of you. You are present in two places at the same time, but not in the same way. Physically you are in Houston, but mentally you are in New York.
When we search the scriptures we find God present in many ways. Keep in mind we are meaning “truly present” in the following examples. In the Old Testament, what did God make Himself look like when he appeared to Moses? A burning bush, from which came the voice of God giving direction to Moses on how the people of God should be guided. In other sources of revelation, God disguised Himself as the wind, or as a baby in the stable in Bethlehem, or as a cloud on the occasion of the transfiguration on the mountain, where the voice of God came forth and said “this is my beloved son, hear him”.
On Halloween, trick-or-treaters put on costumes so they appear to be something other than themselves. The resident who opens the door thinks she is looking at a little girl, but really it is really a little boy in disguise. Appearances can be deceiving. The trick-or-treater appears to be one person, but he is really another.
In concluding, let me say that this is my humble way of explaining my own faith in the miracle of transubstantiation, and all I can hope for is that it may help someone who reads this in some small way. Only God understands this mystery, and only when we appear before him will all mysteries become clear to us. As a result of this reflection, may these words of Christ now have greater meaning in our lives: “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have life everlasting, and I will raise him up on the last day, for my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” (Chapter 6 of John is all about the Eucharist.)
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