Friday, February 13, 2009
"This" Is Why I Believe In The Real Presence
I am incredibly grateful for my education at an evangelical seminary. The nearly continuous faith-challenging questions posed by both faculty and fellow students only strengthened my Roman Catholic convictions. However, one particular objection to a Roman Catholic doctrine, presented by a professor I deeply admired (and still do), affected me quite significantly, and drove me to search diligently for an answer.
The real presence of our Lord in the most holy Eucharist is a unique doctrine of the Roman Catholic faith. When such a truth is challenged, the Catholic feels compelled to defend such skepticism with ferocity. This is how I felt when my professor challenged this doctrine in my first class at the evangelical seminary. His two main arguments (at least presented in class) consisted of one assumption and one critique based on language. The assumption was that no one would have imagined our Lord claiming the bread and wine to be his actual body. Not only does this beg the question, but such a skeptical assessment contains a further assumption that Jesus would have only said things that could be clearly understood by others. From a cursory reading of the Gospels, we see that such an understanding is far from accurate.
The second argument presented by my professor was an argument from language. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic. So a phrase like “This is my body” could not have been said since Aramaic did not use “to be” verbs (e.g. is, was, were, etc.). The inference to this argument is that the Greek writing authors of the Gospels inserted an ‘is’ so as to not go beyond Christ’s own words yet maintaining proper Greek grammar. In other words, the ‘is” in the phrase “This is my body” is a deliberate generic verb which functions simply to fill the lack of a verb from the original Aramaic quotation. Thus, Roman Catholics—according to my professor—have gone beyond the scope of the text with their “transubstantiation” theology.
Despite my profound admiration for this professor, I vehemently disagree with his rather sophisticated argument. While it may be true that Jesus did speak in Aramaic, such an argument is an argument from silence. A more powerful argument comes from a close examination of the Greek texts to see if the author, guided by the Holy Spirit, left any clues to what Jesus might have meant when we said “This [no verb] my body” in Aramaic. When such an examination is done, we find an answer that confirms the validity of our Catholic faith and gives the believer goose-bumps.
Those of you who have studied a language like Spanish know that words can have genders. While both Amigo and Amiga share the same basic structure (the stem), the ‘o’ and ‘a’ at the end of the word give it its gender (the first being masculine and the later being feminine). Greek is very similar in that many words may look nearly identical with only a minor change being due to gender differences. One such example is the demonstrative pronoun (e.g. this/these, that/those). In Greek, you can find the word “this” in feminine, masculine, and even neuter forms. The gender of the pronoun is chosen by what it is referring to (i.e. the antecedent). If Joe asks Sally, “Can you hand me my book?” and Sally responds, “Is this your book?” Sally’s “this” obviously refers to “book.” In Greek, “book” has a gender (feminine) so “this” would also have share the same gender as the word book. Enough with Greek grammar and on to the good stuff!
From Scripture we know that when Jesus picked up the bread from the table and said, “This is my body” the ‘this’ was referring to the bread He was holding up. In Greek, ‘bread’ has a Gender (like all nouns) and it is masculine. Thus, we ought to conclude that the ‘this’ that Jesus speaks is also masculine in gender since it is referring to the bread. But wait, it is not masculine at all but rather neuter in gender. Have all three Gospels committed a grammatical blunder? By no means! If only we had the eyes to see (Greek in this case) the reason why all Last Supper accounts record such a grammatical faux pas. We already mentioned that the Greek word ‘bread’ is masculine but we have not yet made explicit what the other critical noun’s gender is, and that would be ‘body’ which is neuter!
Tying all the loose ends together, we must ask why all the Gospel writers took the liberty to make Christ’s “this” in the phrase “This is my body” neuter in gender when it is clear that the ‘this’ is referring to the masculine in gender bread which he is holding up to his apostles. The answer is quite clear to the Catholic. By the time our Lord and savior raised the sacred bread from the table, the bread had changed into the body (and blood) of our Lord Jesus Christ, which the grammatical gender-change from masculine to neuter conveys! The bread is no longer simply bread but now has taken on the grammatical gender of the body which communicates to the reader the breads substantial change into the body of our Lord! The Gospel writers, guided by the Holy Spirit, could not have been any more explicit regarding the Real Presence of our Lord in the bread and wine consecrated by our faithful priests! Thus, the ‘is’ in Christ’s phrase “This is my body” is not some verb to be disputed, but rather a powerful lens into the Real Presence of our Lord in the Holy Eucharist.
Saying all of this, it would be unfair of me to ignore the common non-Catholic objection to this “demonstrative” argument which favors a Real Presence understanding of the Last Supper passages. Due to the intricate and complexity of this rebuttal, I will only deal with its most “deadly blow” to what I have just argued above. For those wanting a more exhaustive treatment of the non-Catholic perspective, I refer you to Robert Sungenis’s article.
It is true that there are a small number of passages that share the grammatical structure of the Last Supper passages. Both Matthew 13.38 and Luke 8.14 contain a demonstrative pronoun followed by a ‘to be’ verb and ending with a noun or noun equivalent. While the pronoun ought to be taking on the gender of its antecedent, it actually takes on the gender of the substantive following the verb. In the case of Mt. 13.38, the ‘these’ in “these good seeds” takes on the gender of “kingdom” rather than “seeds.” The non-Catholic claims victory in that this appears to be a clear attestation that such a grammatical usage does in fact point to a metaphor.
However, on closer inspection the weight of this objection collapses (along with every other similar example by the non-Catholic interlocutor). Both Mt. 13.38 and Lk. 8.14 are explanations of parables by Jesus which had just been presented. The actual metaphoric usage was in the parable. Jesus is NOT explaining a metaphor (i.e. the parable) with another metaphor. We must make the distinction between metaphor and assigning identities. Coming from a computer science background, I find the best way to explain this is through the lens of mathematics. If I were to create a program based upon an algorithm, I would have two (at the minimum) separate locations of code. One would contain the actual algorithm. The algorithm section of my code would be equivalent to the metaphoric structure of Christ’s parable. I would also have a separate location whereby I would be assigning identities to all the appropriate variables. These are not simply representative variables, but they actually take on that which it symbolizes. The assignments actually imbue the variable to the fullest extent. Thus, we have the clear distinction between metaphor and the assignment of identities.
In light of what I just said, it makes all the more sense why these additional exceptions simply prove the rule. Since both Mt. 13.38 and Lk. 8.14 (and many more like these) are assigning identities, it makes sense why the demonstrative pronoun would take on the gender that follows rather than its antecedent. This grammatical rarity is conveying the message that the subsequent noun is taking on the identity of the pronoun! Again, it is good to be Catholic!
Next time you are at Mass and you hear your parish priest say the words of consecration, “This is my body” I hope you will have a greater appreciation for such a simple word as “this”, and have a deeper love for the Son of God who stands before you in the Holy Eucharist! May God be Praised!