Saturday, January 28, 2006

Hoc est corpus meum

This Lord’s Day, we come to the passage in Mark’s Gospel which recounts the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:22-25). Christians have disagreed as to the meaning of the ritual of bread and wine. At the time of the Reformation, questions about the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper (in what sense is Christ present?) was the center of many a stormy debate. At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the Roman Catholic church affirmed (as it still affirms) a doctrine called “transubstantiation.”

Transubstantiation suggests that the “substance” (slippery word then and slippery word now) of the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the “substance” of Christ’s body and blood. They may look like bread and wine, even taste like bread and wine but these are “accidents”—tricks of the mind we might naughtily say. The bread and wine are the body and blood of Jesus (though few Catholics think this through). Luther (and Eastern Orthodox and many Anglicans have largely followed him) modified this but not in any helpful (or understandable) way. Confusing a basic rule of Christology, he applied a property of Christ’s divine nature (ubiquity—the property of being everywhere present) to his human nature, suggesting that Christ’s body and blood come to be present in, with, and under the form of the bread and wine. It is called “consubstantiation” (a term that Luther did not favor). Zwingli denied that the glorified Christ, now in heaven, is present in any way. John Calvin held that though the bread and wine remained unchanged (he agreed with Zwingli that the is of “this is my body... my blood” means “represents”), Christ is present by the Spirit and that in the Supper we are drawn to fellowship with Christ who remains in heaven. “Lift up your hearts” (the so-called sursum corda), an ancient liturgical rubric, was thus employed by Calvin in the Genevan and Strasbourg Lord’s Supper liturgies of 1543 and 1545.