Why Go to Mass ?
Bishop Michael Evans
A simple explanation of the Eucharist and our encounter with Christ in it.
Through faith not the senses
The whole living Christ is present in this sacrament in a way that can be grasped only by faith, not by our senses (n. 1381). The Catholic Church insists on three points here: the whole Christ is really and truly present (it is not just a ‘spiritual’ presence), but it is a presence ‘in the manner of a substance’ (something beyond the senses, ‘metaphysical’) and it is a sacramental presence (the presence of an invisible reality through a visible sign). These three points must be held together.
As the Catechism puts it, ‘Under the consecrated species of bread and wine Christ himself, living and glorious, is present in a true, real and substantial manner: his Body and Blood, with his soul and divinity’ (n. 1413). This substantial presence of the risen and glorified Lord is there for us ‘under the consecrated species’. Those species of bread and wine (their ‘accidents’, appearances, form: in other words, what our senses can grasp) are the sacramental sign, the ‘Blessed Sacrament’ of Christ’s presence; they are not themselves that presence, as obviously ‘the appearances of bread and wine’ cannot possibly actually be ‘the substance of the risen Christ’. But when we receive the consecrated bread and wine, the only ‘substance’ (or profound reality) that we receive is that of Christ himself.
Pope Paul VI reminded us in his encyclical letter Mysterium Fidei that as a result of God’s transforming work in the Eucharist, the species of bread and wine take on a new meaning, ‘for they are no longer common bread and common drink, but rather the sign of something sacred and the sign of spiritual food’ (art. 46). They take on this new significance because they now contain and make present a new reality: ‘For beneath these appearances there is no longer what was there before, but something quite different’: in other words, instead of the ‘substance’ of bread and wine, there is now the ‘substance’ of Christ, whole and entire.
Throughout history there have been two extreme and opposing tendencies in Eucharistic thought. One view so stresses the distinction between the visible sign (the form, species or ‘accidents’ of bread and wine) and the invisible reality it signifies (the very presence of Christ) that the two are seen as separate, with no guarantee that when we receive the sacramental sign we also receive the Body and Blood of Christ. This view does not take seriously enough the real presence of the whole Christ in the Eucharist, and often talks of simply the power or the spirit of Jesus being present in some way.
The other view (sometimes called ‘ultra-realism’) so strongly emphasises the real presence of Christ that the visible sign and the invisible ‘substance’ of Christ become identified, with the unacceptable implication that whatever we do to the consecrated bread and wine – breaking, chewing, dropping, spilling, digesting – we do to Christ himself. This view takes seriously enough neither the substantial (beyond the senses) nature of Christ’s presence, nor the central idea of sacrament (the invisible through the visible).