Tuesday, 20 March 2012


In this post I want to explore the idea of transubstantiation and Christian relatedness.  Firstly, I don't presume to follow all the arguments of transubstantiation, but as I understand it, it says that, despite appearances, at officiation the bread and wine transform into the actual body and blood of Christ.  In philosophical/theological language (drawn from Aristotle) this means that the substance of the bread and wine change, while the accidents (the physical manifestation) stays the same.  What I would like to suggest is that the often arcane and violent discussion of transubstantiation is a red-herring. That is, it places undue stress on the actual bread and wine as being either Christ's body and blood or simply symbols, which suggests a watered down version of the same thing.  

Let me digress a little.  My wife and I are planning on adopting a  baby this year.  In legal terms what this means is that in every sense except the physical (the accidents of DNA, so to speak) that child will be ours as it's parents (in substance).  A kind of legal transubstantiation will have taken place by an officiating judge.  Following the previous post, this got me thinking about how our relation to one another exists within a personal, institutional and legal matrix through which we are constituted as persons.  Physical relation through blood is one type of relation among many, as the case of adoption shows.

For the Christian, then, what is the source and ground of our relation to one another?  Is it the mental assent to certain metaphysical ideas about reality, i.e. God, immortality, freedom, etc?  Is it a shared moral horizon?  Is it the trust we all place in Christ as our saviour?  In many ways these do constitute our shared relatedness to one another; but the problem is that none of these involve the highly emotive and binding relatedness of blood-relation.  Without this form of relatedness a Christian community of believers represent merely a club of like-minded people who more or less agree with one another.

So, where I think that the issue of transubstantiation might have been misplaced is in fixating on the bread and wine as the (only) site of transubstantiation.  Believing or not believing that the bread and wine take on the substance of Christ misses the point that as the broken body and spilled blood of Christ it is we who are transubstantiated in our inner being, taking on a material blood-relation to Christ and his family that is more than a watered down and abstract symbolism.  The bread is real bread and the wine is real wine that actually enters our body and in some small way sustains it.  And in this sense, through sharing his body and blood the incarnation spills over into us, his brothers and sisters, giving us an actual, physical relation to both Him and one another that transcends all familial, legal and institutional relations, revealing them to be merely watered down versions of what we share in Christ.  It is in this sharing of the bread and wine that our relation to one another and Christ is grounded, and because it is an event that occurs in real time it means that our unity is not symbolic or theoretical but heartily visceral.                                   

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