Monday, May 30, 2011

Real Flesh Indeed

Recently I had the chance to visit the university town of Freiburg, in Badem-Wurrtemburg, Germany, where I visited its beautiful cathedral and walked for a bit in the same campus where Heidegger, Karl Rahner, and Husserl once brooded. It's a charming city, much nearer to Switzerland than I had anticipated (it's the next train stop after Basel), and the air was very fresh, and the weather, sunny. I was told beforehand that Freiburg was once-- and still is-- a bastion of Catholic conservatism. Indeed, at the Freiburg Hauptbanhof, what should I find, but a rather large poster promoting the devotion to the Divine Mercy? The cathedral portals were all also inscribed with the traditional Epiphany blessing (20+C+M+B+11), as were most of the shops in and around the main plaza.

A rather curious implement caught my eye whilst at the cathedral, pictured above. To the right of the sanctuary, in a little alcove near the northern portal, I saw an effigy of the Dead Christ, cast in stone, being mourned by His Mother and Saint John (or so I seem to remember-- I wasn't able to observe at length). Attached to the chest of the stone Christ was a latch, with a handle, which presumably opened up to a small hole. My step uncle Bernhard, who had been touring us that afternoon, and himself a lapsed Catholic, told us that, apparently, it was the practice long ago to repose the Blessed Sacrament inside the chest of the Dead Christ on Good Friday. However, before I continue, a disclaimer: I confess that my German is very poor and probably closer to non-existent, and Uncle Bernhard's English is also at the subsistence level. Be that as it may, I do remember him mentioning the word "sacrament" and gesturing, in pantomime, at the chest of the Dead Christ. This was for me, something totally new, and fascinating: for the symbolism of such an act seems to suggest, if very crudely, an identification of the Sacrament with the dead body of Christ.

As I have mentioned before in the past, I am no theologian, and I am content to leave all theological wrangling to theologians-- that is to say, the "real ones" who actually have a prayer life and are not just academic mercenaries. But permit me this small reflection, since it has been percolating in my head for quite some time now. In Catholic school I was always taught the basics about the Holy Eucharist-- that it is the Real Presence of Christ, that, in receiving Holy Communion, one received the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord in their fullness, undiminished and unmitigated by the deficiencies of the sacramental matter (that is to say, God condescends to transform bread and wine into His presence, no matter how unworthy they may seem). The great miracle of transubstantiation is also its greatest puzzle: that God would debase Himself to come under the guise of such insignificant material objects; and therefore, the Holy Eucharist was to be worthy of the highest adoration from the People of God.

I confess that, when I first heard of the word "transubstantiation", I was both utterly amazed, and a bit repulsed, by what it meant. In hindsight I realize now that this stemmed from an initial confoundment as to what the term "substance" really meant. My initial thought as a sixth grade student was that it pertained, first of all, to a stratum of chemical change: in the Mass, bread and wine become chemically composed of the divinity of Christ, and so sensate an understanding led me to think further of this chemical change as essentially a transmutation of the properties of the sacramental material into the very flesh of the God-Man. I reasoned that, since God was Almighty anyway, He had a way of "replenishing" His flesh whenever it was diminished in Holy Communion; and later, that no diminution can even take place, because God qua God simply cannot be diminished, on account of His being All-powerful. Any first year philosophy student can immediately tell you, though, that substance and flesh, or even the quality of "fleshliness", are not equivalent. But of course, in everyday parlance, the word substance loses a lot of its philosophical baggage; for substance is not so much a material, quantifiable (i.e., measurable, rationalizable) quality so much as a "definition" for lack of a better term. I always get a laugh when society papers in the Philippines uses the phrase woman or man "of substance" as a discreet euphemism for what is undoubtedly a portly society don or doyenne.

This, of course, seems to be lost on many Catholics: our popular pieties and theologies about the Holy Eucharist seem to be defined, primarily, by a very sensate understanding of it. The Miracle of Lanciano illustrates this perfectly: a priest whose faith in the Mystery of Faith is at an all-time low is flabbergasted, when, as he raises the Host after the Consecration, the bread he has previously held in his hands is suddenly changed into a bleeding piece of raw meat: Corpus et Sanguis Domini Nostri Jesu Christi, in the flesh. The flesh is myocardium, which is to say, of the heart, and the blood type AA-, which is to say, exceedingly rare, and kingly. For Protestants, this tradition of a very sensate, very tactile understanding of the Holy Eucharist seems to confirm their worst suspicions about Catholics, about how we are pagan God-eaters who would rather see their Savior stuck and bleeding on the Cross in every Mass.

The late scholar of comparative mythology, Joseph Campbell, once compared the occult to an underlying unity the persists, perdures, underneath the veil of time: that, beneath the seeming progression of history, there is an image of a sort of universal truth that exists in a mythological plane, wherein all the threads of time are seemingly held. Catholics, of course, traditionally believed that the Mass was not just a representation of Calvary: to be at Mass is literally to be at Calvary itself, at the foot of the Cross, weeping with the holy women of Jerusalem and all the angels in the celestial choirs. Thus, it would seem as if the logical conclusion of such an understanding of the Mass would naturally result in a conception of the Holy Eucharist as the very meat of the God-Man's flesh, and reception of it as the consumption of real meat indeed. Like an ancient Chieftain being readied for the ritual consumption of his tribe, I would venture to say that there might have been an understanding of the Crucifixion as some sort of elaborate "cooking ritual"-- to tenderize, as it were, the holy flesh.

I daresay that I am already venturing into unfamiliar territory here, but at this point I would also like to add that Ourd Lord's language in the Gospel of John doesn't help in the debate, either. Not for naught did He scandalize His Jewish audience when He said: "My flesh is meat indeed, My blood is drink indeed"-- for certainly the Jews would have immediately hearkened back to their strict dietary laws, and where I could only imagine that such a notion would have been so taboo and too insalubrious to contemplate, that even a mention of it warranted no attention. Again, I am no expert on the subject, but I do remember one priest saying at Mass once, that the Greek verb used for that section of the Johannine Gospel ("Unless you eat my flesh...") implied a blunt, chewing action-- not a merely spiritual consumption of the Word of God, but an actual rending and tearing of something physical-- something substantial, in other words.

While theophagia has been a feature of numberless mythologies in history, I am almost certain that Christianity was the first to have devoted so much time and energy in clarifying its teaching(s) on the Eucharist. We receive the fullness of God-- corpus, sanguis, animus, et divinitas-- under the appearance of bread and wine, and yet we also do not receive the infinity of His fullness (and therefore, not God per se, for God, being eternal and absolute, is simply inexhaustible)-- for God, after all, is eternal, all-powerful, and not diminishable: it is a corollary of His absolute simplicity that He is also irreducible. At the same time, we--our senses-- understand the bread and wine to be the symbol of His flesh, inasmuch as we recognize the presence of the divine under the purely sensate stratum. But to speak of the bread and wine post Consecration as still symbols would also be a mistake, as these are no longer bread and wine, despite what they taste, smell, or look like: the symbol has itself become its sense and reference. There is something almost asymptotic about the matter and form, wherein both tend towards the same point, but never really completely meet-- at least, in the infinite sense. The language of the Church, however, is adamant in equating what we receive in Holy Communion with Jesus Christ Himself, and it suffices for me to believe that; no point, after all, deciphering the mechanics of miracles.

I always like to thank that, as the priest raises the Host, and is it meets, eye to eye, as it were, with the image of the Crucified, a literal fusion of horizons occurs: the veil of time is rent, and the foundation of the world--its past, present, and future-- is revealed in the singular event of the killing of the God-Man by the hands of His own creation. Time is dissolved and subsumed in the age of mythology that Campbell describes. The bread becomes the image of the Crucified-- or rather, the fiction of bread and wine, as well as the walls and altars of the church-- are revealed to be "participants" in an age that has never ended-- but which, on the contrary, has always gone on, hidden, and untrammeled by profane reality. The bread has never been bread; and in the consecration, it is revealed to be what it has always been, what it is, and what it will always be: the Body of Christ, and the entirety of the Christ-event: from the Annunciation, to His Birth, right down to His Passion and Death-- and yes, the Resurrection, too. Mayhap one can even throw in the Ascension, for certainly, that event was a pledge of the glory that awaits man, and the Second Coming, where the triumph of goodness would reach its final, irrevocable completion-- and in our lives, this is understood as a total transformation into the image of Christ, Crucified and Risen-- and therefore Divine. If, perhaps, I am approaching ambiguity at this point, then I should smile, since, as everyone knows, confoundment is the beginning of wisdom (no doubt, one would be so confounded when faced with his Maker, or even the mysteries and wonders of his Maker).

As with any mystery pertaining to the holy, the Holy Eucharist is an especially perplexing one to ponder. But perhaps the proper attitude to the holy is not so much one of scrutiny, categorization, and codification. Rather, I am starting to believe that to "mingle" with the holy is to realize the utter falsehood of the sensate and the immediate: that the primary task of the servant of the gods is to sense what cannot be sensed, and to immerse themselves in it completely. It is to be subsumed in the world of gods and monsters, heroes and conquerors, where bread is bread, even though it has never really been bread, and there was never "bread" to begin with.

Blessed are they who believe but have not seen - John 20:29

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post!