Transubstantiation – It’s No Accident

The Simple Catholic Snapshots:


    • The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is Mysterious – Even for the Average Catholic
    • Our Eyes Still See Bread and Wine
    • Our God Has Told Us “This is My Body”
    • Substance: What Something Is.
    • Accidents: How Something is Sensed (Sight, Smell etc)
    • We Have to Break Our Automatic Linking of Accidents to Substance
    • The All-Powerful God Can Easily Make His Body and Blood Appear Like Bread and Wine

This might sound confusing but don’t give up, it’s really not. 

The Simple Catholic Truth:

Very early this morning I was in our parish adoration chapel praying and reflecting on the Real Presence. monstrance
It’s hard to describe actually – there, just a few steps away, was Almighty God who with a simple thought created the entire universe from nothing and died on the Cross because He loves me. The solitude and quiet of the night accentuated the deep humility felt at that moment. I highly recommend spending time in adoration, especially when it’s dark outside and most people are sleeping. It’s much easier (for me) to calm the mind and connect with God.

Anyway, I began wondering why it is so difficult for some people to believe that God is really present in the Eucharist. The Catholic doctrine that describes how we get the Real Presence from bread and wine is called ‘transubstantiation’ and this term will become more clear later in this post. I know there are many non-Catholic Christians that object to the concept of transubstantiation and the Real Presence (and its efficacy) and with those objections come a variety of Bible verses offered as ‘proof’ that Christ wasn’t speaking literally, or Christ was misunderstood etc. etc. etc. It might be fun to explore some of these objections in future posts at SCT (leave a comment if you would be interested in hearing more) but for now I don’t want to get distracted with these theological or even philosophical debates.  In this post I want to focus on the common objection based on simple reason, an objection that even a non-Christian might hold.

[Note: For simplicity and brevity, from now on I will only talk about bread being consecrated into the body of Christ. All of the following discussions apply equally to the wine consecrated into the blood of Christ.]

You might have heard someone say, “It looks like bread, it smells like bread, it tastes like bread…..therefore, it must be bread and not the body of Christ.” These people claim that common sense and science demand rejection of the Real Presence.

On the surface their position sounds reasonable but to uncover the flaw in this statement we must introduce a couple of terms (substance and accidents) which we borrow from the early Church Fathers and Doctor of the Church, in particular St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Thomas writes (I paraphrase), the ‘substance’ of something is its essence, its unique nature. Everything that exists has a substance that reflects what the something IS.

On the other hand, the ‘accidents’ of something is how the natural senses perceive that something. Examples are sight, smell and touch.

Let me give a couple of examples.

If I said: Soft, Squishy, White and Sweet I am describing the accidents of….

Tastey-Marshmallow-840x560         a marshmallow!

But it is important to realize that Soft, Squishy, White and Sweet only reflect the accidents of the thing of substance we call a marshmallow.

Similarly, if I said: Heavy, Hard, Rough and Grey I am describing the accidents of…

rock      a rock!

Now we finally come to the crux of the original problem. We are physical beings and in our lives, in our NATURAL world, we have come to conflate the substance of something with its accidents. In other words, when we sense something that is Soft, Squishy, White and Sweet we automatically think marshmallow. We so powerfully link the accidents to the substance that in our minds there is no difference. In our natural world we are convinced that marshmallows are always, always, always Soft, Squishy, White and Sweet. We are falsely convinced that the substance is always inseparable from the accidents.

But this ‘inseparable’ relationship between the substance and the accidents is only inseparable in a natural world. There is nothing that says that God, the Super-Natural,  can not change the substance of something that exists while retaining the old accidents. Using the above example, it is completely possible that God could change the substance so that:

This…..    Tastey-Marshmallow-840x560  is actually a rock!

This may be difficult for us to believe because, as humans living an a world predominately driven by natural laws, we always associate what something IS with how it appears. God is not restricted by these associations. We must change how we think about the power of God.

Now back to how God chooses to physically interact with his children on Earth. For His reasons, which we must leave for future discussions, he chose to give us His body, blood, soul and divinity in the consecrated Eucharist. This consecrated Eucharist becomes the body of Christ by the process the Church calls ‘transubstantiation.’

If we unpack that word, the true meaning is revealed:

‘Trans’ is a Latin derivative that means to change, or change completely. Think of the word ‘transportation’ which indicates that your position has changed completely from here to there. Or the word ‘transpose’ which means to swap places.

Now look at ‘substantiation’. It should be clear in light of our discussions above regarding substance that this is referring to the essence or nature of something.

Putting the two words together it is clear that the substance of something has completely changed.

This bread….Eucharist

has in substance been completely changed to the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of God.

So the next time you are in the adoration chapel, or better yet the next time you about to receive Communion,  and you hear the words:

“The Body of Christ”, don’t be confused by the remaining accidents of bread.

Instead, with a resounding voice say… “Amen”

I believe!

p.s.  [For those interested in a deeper, more technical-academic treatment I suggest St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica, Part III, Q 74-77 which can be found at New Advent by using the ‘Useful Links’ menu in the header of SimpleCatholicTruth above.]

4 thoughts on “Transubstantiation – It’s No Accident”

  1. In the world of fictional movies:
    1) would a car that is really a transformer robot be an example of transubstantiation where the “accident’ being the appearance of the car but the substance is really a transformer robot and not a car at all?
    2) would a “vampire” be a better example of transubstantiation? Since it looks human (accidents) but has been transformed into a vampire (not human, different substance)?

    1. If we are using movies the best analogy (I’ve found) is the film “Freaky Friday” – the substance of the mother and daughter switch, while the accidents (their bodies) remain the same.

      In that vein a great film analogy for the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation would be “All of Me” (starring Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin) – the substances of Steve and Lily sharing the accidents of one body.

  2. MAM,
    Thanks for the comment and the two examples.
    Regarding 1) The Transformer:
    Yes, the Transformer changes but only its appearance (accidents) while remaining a transformer (substance). So this example is the opposite of transfiguration where the substance changes but the accidents remain unchanged.

    Regarding 2) the vampire:
    This is a better analogy because the accidents remain (it looks human before and after) but the substance changes (human to vampire). Unfortunately, this is purely fictional so it’s also difficult to relate to.

    Congratulations! Given that you came up with these two examples, it is clear that you understand the basic concept.


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