Hath not a Jew eyes?
hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons,
subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh?
if you poison us, do we not die?
and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
IN ACT III, Scene I of the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare puts one of his most eloquent speeches into the mouth of one of his most complex and controversial antagonists. Shylock draws out the fundamental commonalities between Jews and Christians, presenting the base common to all humanity. If you prick us, he asks, do we not bleed? Of course we do, because despite differences of age, sex, race, culture and society, we are the same. We are one. We are, Jew and Gentile, borrower and lender, enemy and friend – we are rational creatures with bodies.
And yet, in the Blessed Sacrament, in which is present Jesus Christ fully God and fully man, we cannot help but notice that this eloquent and obvious commonality does not apply. With the exception of some Eucharistic miracles apt for strengthening the faith in the Real Presence, the Body of Christ does not bleed. And there is, to be sure, ample pricking or cutting of the host within the liturgical tradition; ample opportunity for bleeding, if you like. In the Latin Rite, the tradition is to break the consecrated host into two or three parts, with a small particle being put into the chalice. In the Mozarabic Rite, used in parts of Spain, the Host is also divided into two halves, after the Consecration, but then one half is divided into five and the other into four parts. Seven of these particles are arranged in the form of a cross, five, named Incarnation, Nativity, Circumcision, Epiphany, and Passion forming the upright part, and two, named Death and Resurrection, the arms. These last are arranged on either side of the Particle Nativity with ‘Glory’ and ‘Kingdom’ placed together on one side. Then, says the rubric, somewhat laconically, ‘the priest washes his fingers’. No blood, though.
How, then, are we to understand that that which we confess to be Christ’s Body does not behave as a body ought? When St Thomas, in his hymn Adoro te devote, alludes to the Pelican in her piety, he is referring to the legend that the bird feeds her young with her own blood. And yet the blood remains in the chalice, and the body remains bloodless. On Calvary itself, body and blood were separated by the piercing blow of the holy lance, but the body of Christ present on the altar is not the dead body in the borrowed tomb, but the risen, ascended and glorified body. How can a body be a body if it doesn’t do what bodies do?
St Augustine begins to put us on the right lines when he says, in his commentary on St John’s Gospel,
The Lord gives us His flesh to eat, and yet to understand it according to the flesh is death; while yet He says of His flesh, that therein is eternal life. Therefore we ought not to understand the flesh carnally. (Augustine, In Joannis Ev., Tract 27)
And Matthias Scheeben, one of the great German theologians of the nineteenth century, develops this theme. Christ’s flesh is flesh of the same substance as our flesh. It is derived from the womb of Our Lady, but this has happened in a spiritual way, by the overshadowing of the Holy Ghost. And because of this, that same Spirit endows Christ’s flesh with qualities that are primarily spiritual.
It is given to us not as mere natural flesh with a view to the life of flesh, but as flesh steeped in the Spirit of God, unto a life that is at once divine and spiritual. It has the function of not only offering an external sacrifice of the flesh, but of prefiguring and effecting a spiritual oblation of the soul. (Scheeben, The Mysteries of Christianity)
So Christ’s body is unlike our bodies because it is pointing us, calling us, and making us into a body, and conforming us to a life, that is not like ours. But that doesn’t quite answer the question. And so we ask again, with Anscar Vonier: ‘in which sense must we say that the Eucharistic Body is identical with the natural Body of Christ?’ ‘That they are identical, Dom Vonier continues, ‘is the very point of this sacrament; yet even in this identity there is a possibility of difference’.
So this is it: we are asking the right question, but we are asking with the wrong parameters, and in doing so, we have set it up so as to give us the wrong answer. He takes us further:
With perfect identity in everything, there is still this possible difference, there is another mode of being. In the Eucharist, we have the Body of Christ and the Blood of Christ, but with a mode of being entirely different from that mode of being in which Christ was at the Last Supper, in which he is now in heaven. (Vonier, Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist)
To say that the Eucharistic Presence is a natural presence thinly disguised is not the teaching of the Catholic faith. What we believe and profess is that it is possible for Christ to ‘be’, to ‘be being’, sacramentally, rather than naturally. With God, all things are possible, and he chooses this way of being for this sacrament. ‘To be deep in history’, said Bl. John Henry Newman, ‘is to cease to be a Protestant’ (Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Introduction). To be Catholic, we might continue, is to think sacramentally. A natural body, if pricked, bleeds. A sacramental body need not bleed. That doesn’t make it any less of a body. Christ is here, he is really present, whether we believe it or not, whether we understand it or not, whether we respond or not, whether it moves us that he is present or not. His presence depends only on his promise to be present, and nothing we can do can change the objective fact that he will be present. ‘Than truth’s own word there is no truer token’.
And because of all of this, in the words of St Leo the Great,
Nothing else is brought about by partaking of the body and blood of Christ than that we pass into what we take and both in spirit and in body carry him everywhere, him in whom we have died and risen again. (Leo, Sermo 63, 7)
‘I am the living bread which has come down from heaven, says the Lord. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever’.