The Eucharist, the Road to Emmaus, and Transubstantiation

“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.”  (Matthew 5:17)

One of the most interesting things about the post resurrection appearances of Christ is the many times he appeared to his disciples in a form they did not recognize.  At the same time, it was clear that he still possessed the same body that was crucified.  The Catechism speaks to this:

CCC645 By means of touch and the sharing of a meal, the risen Jesus establishes direct contact with his disciples.  He invites them in this way to recognize that he is not a ghost and above all to verify that the risen body in which he appears to them is the same body that had been tortured and crucified, for it still bears the traces of his Passion.  Yet at the same time this authentic, real body possesses the new properties of a glorious body: not limited by space and time but able to be present how and when he wills; for Christ’s humanity can no longer be confined to earth, and belongs henceforth only to the Father’s divine realm.  For this reason too the risen Jesus enjoys the sovereign freedom of appearing as he wishes: in the guise of a gardener or in other forms familiar to his disciples, precisely to awaken their faith.

So what is the reason that Jesus so often disguises himself?  As the Catechism says, he does this “precisely to awaken their faith.”  He seems to be challenging them to learn to recognize him by faith, regardless of how he may appear. 

Perhaps this is never more clear than when he meets two disciples who are walking on the road to Emmaus.  They are still reeling from the events that left their master crucified. 

“That very day two of them were going to a village named Emma′us, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.  While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them.  But their eyes were kept from recognizing him.  And he said to them, ‘What is this conversation which you are holding with each other as you walk?’  And they stood still, looking sad.  Then one of them, named Cle′opas, answered him, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?’  And he said to them, ‘What things?’  And they said to him, ‘Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him.  But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.  Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened.  Moreover, some women of our company amazed us.  They were at the tomb early in the morning and did not find his body; and they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive.  Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.’  And he said to them, ‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’  And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

 So they drew near to the village to which they were going.  He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, ‘Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.’  So he went in to stay with them.  When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them.  And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?’  And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, who said, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”  (Luke 24:13-35)

Christ celebrated Eucharist with his apostles before he died.  Catholics view that this passage of the two who encounter Christ on the road to Emmaus records the first post-resurrection Mass that was celebrated.  Each Mass has two basic parts – the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  With these two men, Christ first celebrates the Scriptures and how he is revealed to us through the written word – “And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.”  And then he celebrates Eucharist with them, and he becomes known to them “in the breaking of the bread.” 

Mark’s Gospel has a very brief notation of this encounter.  “After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.  And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.”  (Mark 16:12-13)

This understanding that the resurrected Christ is capable of appearing to us in whatever form he wishes is at the heart of the Catholic teaching of transubstantiation.  We accept Christ’s words from the Last Supper that the bread and wine truly do become his body and blood.  This is not because the properties of the bread and wine change.  One question I’ve heard asked of Catholics – so if you believe the bread actually becomes the body of Christ, if you take a consecrated host and examine it scientifically you should find human flesh, right?  Or human blood if you examine the cup?  And the answer to that would be no, you would find bread and wine.  The physical properties of the elements do not change.  But the substance does.

It is not an easy concept to grasp the difference between the physical properties (sometimes referred to as the “accidents”) and the “substance” of what a thing really is. I will often take an apple to class, and ask them what it is.  And they reply “an apple.”  Easy enough.  But then I ask how they know it’s an apple, and they begin to describe the physical properties that allow them to recognize it as an apple.  It has a certain shape, color, texture, appearance and taste.  The specific combination of these properties lead us to know the “substance” is an apple, but the “idea” that those specific properties correlate to an “apple” is much more of a concept.  The “substance” is an apple, not the specific properties that define it.  We humans have defined our entire world by these conceptual ideas – a tree, a table, a book, etc.  based on our observation of their physical properties.  And fortunately for us, our natural world is very consistent.  We can know an apple is safe to eat because the properties that define the concept of an apple are consistently the same.  In our natural world, the “substance” of a thing is bound to the properties that define it.

But the Eucharist is a supernatural reality, not a natural one.  So what the Church teaches and believes is that when the elements of bread and wine are consecrated, while those physical properties remain the same, the substance is no longer bread and wine, but the body, blood, soul and divinity of the person Jesus Christ.  The tiniest particle of the bread is fully the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.  The tiniest drop of the wine is fully the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.  But as with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, since he is appearing to us in a different form, our eyes must be opened.  And we must learn to recognize him in the breaking of the bread.  As we often sing the words written by St. Thomas Aquinas almost 900 years ago:

Down in adoration falling,

Lo!  the sacred Host we hail,

Lo!  o’er ancient forms departing

Newer rites of grace prevail;

Faith for all defects supplying,

Where the feeble senses fail.

When Christ teaches that we must “eat his flesh and drink his blood” the response of many of his disciples is “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”  (John 6:60).  Some seem to easily accept and approach the Eucharist with a childlike faith.  For those who may struggle, we can remember the exchange when Christ tells the father of a child possessed by an unclean spirit that “All things are possible to him who believes.”  The father immediately cries out “I believe; help my unbelief!”  (Mark 9:22-24).  If we struggle with the faith to recognize Christ in the Eucharist, we can be confident that like this father we can approach with the desire that through the Eucharist Christ will help our unbelief, and that we too can come to recognize him in the breaking of the bread.  Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb!  (Revelation 19:9)

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