“Transubstantiation — The Literal Truth”

by Carson Daly Crisis, January 2000

Carson Daly, a New York-based writer, contributes the fifth in a series of articles in Crisis on the Real Presence. “To the unchurched and the unbeliever, many religious doctrines seem far-fetched,” writes Daly. “But few seem more unlikely than those of the incarnation — the doctrine that God becomes man — and of transubstantiation, the Roman Catholic belief that when the priest consecrates the bread and wine at Mass, they actually become, contrary to appearances, Christ's Body and Blood.”

Daly points out that “Even for many Catholics, transubstantiation is an intellectual and spiritual stumbling block — hard to understand and harder still to accept. In fact, this doctrine has proved so difficult that only 33 percent of Catholics (according to a recent Gallup survey) say they believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Even many of these consider transubstantiation a sacred mystery that is fundamentally unrelated to the rest of their faith, the Scriptures, and their daily life.”

But Daly explains that “These intimately related doctrines ... illuminate the way that God deals with man because God is usually thought to be an uncreated Spirit with neither flesh nor physical substance. But a closer look at the way God reveals Himself to man shows that He constantly accommodates His nature to ours. Since we are both spirit and flesh, who ordinarily learn through our senses, God repeatedly incarnates and transubstantiates in His dealings with us.

“Indeed, the Bible describes the very creation of the world as an act of incarnation — or a kind of tran-substantiation — with God transforming His ‘word’ or ‘thought’ into a physical reality. Genesis records that ‘God said, Let there be light, and there was light’ (Genesis 1:1-3). Clearly, His nonmaterial ‘word’ is transmuted instantaneously into the real presence of light. Similarly, according to the Old Testament, in creating the world and all that dwells therein, the Creator performed this kind of transmutation again and again — who with His ‘word’ or ‘thought’ not just symbolizing but actually effecting the creation of what it invoked.”

Daly reminds us of our own human status as spirits incarnate, apt creatures to be redeemed by a Christ whose Incarnation is “the embodiment or enfleshment” of God's promise to send a messiah. Daly traces the relationships between many of Christ's physical and spiritual healings, where we see “that God uses His creative, healing power to transform His word into physical or spiritual cures (which also have a physical element because of man's identity as an embodied soul). One of the cures that most clearly shows Christ's incarnational nature is that of the woman with the hemorrhage.” Daly finds “this miracle particularly interesting because it suggests that to touch the Incarnate Word with faith and humility is to be instantaneously cured and transformed.”

Not just the Eucharist, but all of the sacraments speak to Christ's identity as the Word incarnate, because they all use physical means to effect spiritual results. “The words of baptism and the water and chrism do not simply represent cleansing from original sin; they actually cause it to happen,” notes Daly. “Similarly, the words of absolution spoken in the confessional do not just represent forgiveness, they actually cleanse the penitent's soul of sin. In the Eucharist, the words the priest recites at the consecration not only symbolize Christ's presence in the bread and the wine, they actually change them into His Body and Blood.”

Daly sees “an intimate fit between the deepest desires of the human heart and what actually happens in the sacraments. ... God answers man's desire for union and communion with Him by giving Himself first in His word; then in Christ as the Incarnate Word; and finally, as the Paschal Sacrifice on the cross. After Jesus' resurrection, God gives Himself to man in Christ's glorified body; next, in the Eucharist in which the faithful receive His body, blood, soul and divinity; and finally, in Christ's second coming.

In the arts as well as daily life, man longs for tran-substantiation. And in prayer, “When we pray for a good job, a good spouse, or a good grade, we are asking that God transmute our request into a real position, partner, or percentage. Ours is a God of the Real and of the Good — and both incarnation and tran-substantiation are intimately linked to these facts. ...He is not a God Who only seems. He is, as He told our ancestors in faith, first, last, and always, the One Who Is.”

Ellen Wilson Fielding writes from Davidson, Maryland.

A condensed version, in the words of the original author, of an article selected by the Register from the nation's top journals.