The Rector writes …
In these weeks in which the Sunday readings from Saint John’s Gospel explore Jesus’s self-identification as the Bread of Life perhaps I can recount a story you might have heard me tell before. Until her death I used to go once a month to see an elderly nun in her Wimbledon convent. She had been brought up in the West Country with virtually no religious belief but at the age of sixteen a school friend persuaded her to go along with her to the local Anglican church to ask for Confirmation. A saintly elderly clergyman began to instruct them and before one of their sessions the friend said to the one who became a nun: “ask him if we have to believe in transubstantiation?” Now Sister had never heard the word before and did not know what she was asking, but the Anglican clergyman very carefully explained the meaning of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and of how the ordinariness of bread is transformed into the fullness of Christ. He finished by saying that, of course, as Anglicans they would be free to believe it, or not! Sister Marie Louise, at the age of sixteen, said to herself that this is either true or it is false and, if it is true then it must be the most wonderful truth in the world. Immediately she found the local Catholic church, was received and two years later entered religious life. She remained devoted to the Eucharist throughout her life, and her daily period of adoration remained central to her life with God until her last days on this earth.
In a poem about Christmas, John Betjeman once asked: “And is it true?” before the line: “that God was Man in Palestine, and lives today in Bread and Wine”. The poet is right in making the connection between Incarnation and Eucharist – the two truths are inextricably linked. Betjeman was a devoted but not unquestioning Anglican, of whom another writer’s description as “troubled dust” would seem apt. Of course he is right to struggle with the mystery of the Eucharist – we all do and must – but as Saint John Chrysostom reminds us, the emphasis should be on God’s imagination, not on ours. “It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us. Christ himself. The priest in the role of Christ pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s. ‘This is my Body’ he says: this word transforms the things offered”.
It was Blessed Paul VI who in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council asked the same question as Sister Marie Louise and answered it by stating as clearly as he could that the term “transubstantiation” offered the best and fullest expression of the Church’s testimony to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. “This formula, like the others which the Church uses to propose the dogmas of faith, express concepts which are not tied to a certain form of human culture, nor to a specific phase of human culture, nor to one or other theological school”. In the Incarnation the Son of God became substantially part of the created order – he “worked with human hands; he thought with a human mind. He acted with a human will, and with a human heart he loved “ (Gaudium et Spes) – and it is this substantial reality which we believe is maintained in the Eucharistic presence. The Food of the Eucharist is what it signifies. The bread and the chalice become, in the power of the Holy Spirit, the living, effective signs of Jesus moving as authentically among his brothers and sisters now as at any time in the Palestine of old. The Blessed Eucharist does not just point to Jesus as the Bread of Life: the Sacrament we receive is Jesus the Bread of Life.
As Jesus’s initial teaching was met with incomprehension – “this is intolerable language” – so the Church’s teaching about the blessed Eucharist has always faced misunderstanding and even ridicule, if not worse. But with Saint Paul we can only acknowledge that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength”. Saint Ambrose reminds us that whenever we receive Holy Communion: “you say ‘Amen’, that is, ‘It is true’. What the mouth speaks, let the mind within confess: what the tongue utters, let the heart feel”.