Presence and absence in Thomass Eucharistic theology

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Our merely illustrative examination of Thomas's Eucharistic theology may begin in an iconographical setting. In the once medieval Catholic, now Calvinist-maintained, cathedral at Bern in Switzerland, one is confronted by a visibly Calvinist architectural revision. Altars once richly ornamented are stripped; niches once containing images of saints are now empty; walls, once brilliantly hued, whitewashed; the glass now plain; the orientation reversed, the stalls facing north, not east. The effect is dramatic, not merely because of the powerful but relative impact of the stripped-out decorative condition of the cathedral - relative, that is to expectations which derive from our historical knowledge of what is missing, its former ornateness of iconography, its lurid colour schemes, its architectural orientation towards a high altar in the east. For the overwhelming sense of'absence' is reinforced by the more absolute and architecturally organic effect of the Gothic style itself, which could be said to give priority to the engineering and organisation of space rather than to the articulation of solid mass. Bern Cathedral is now, one might say, a place of absence, indeed a holy 'place of absence' or a place which 'sacralises' absence, a place fit for a community witnessing to absence. It 'speaks' absence as a theological - and still to some degree as a theological-polemical - and liturgical statement.

But if we were to turn history back to the year 1500 we should have to reconstruct the former condition of the cathedral, to fill its niches with statues of saints, the Virgin Mary and Christ, and the windows with glass representing Moses and the prophets in the north transept, the apostles in the south, the ascension in the west end and the resurrection in the east; we should need to daub the walls with colour and picture, and above all to refocus the building upon an elaborate triptych before which stands an ornate and elevated altar at the east end - in short, to re-equip the cathedral with all that, one may reasonably imagine, was stripped from it forty years later. What will then be the theological-liturgical statement which in that condition the appointments of the cathedral make? The answer would seem to be obvious. Here you have a statement of 'holy presence', a fullness oftheological affirmation, a space filled with presence and with a community in that presence.

And it might seem obvious in what the contrast between the present condition of the church and its former state consists. Now its architecture is rhetorically apophatic, then it was cataphatic; now it witnesses to a Zwinglian theology of Eucharistic absence, then to a Catholic theology of Eucharistic presence. Superficially these things are obvious, and since they are even, in a way, true, let us spell them out a little more fully.

Return then to the cathedral in 1500. It is full. But what it is full of is sign. Therefore, it might be said - but on a certain account of signs with which, I shall argue, it is not possible to be entirely happy - that it is 'full of absence'. I once facetiously explained to a student that you could account for the difference between the Catholic and the Protestant view of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist by analogy with a conference meal-ticket which he had been showing me. The Protestant thinks that the meal-ticket represents the meal you can purchase by means of it; the Catholic eats the meal-ticket, thinking that that is what you are getting for lunch. Of course, this is a travesty of the difference; indeed, a common sixteenth-century Protestant travesty of it, for this version of what Catholics believe entirely ignores what Catholic theology had always been fully aware of, namely the distinction between the material reality of the signifier and the formal character of the sign precisely as signifying. And of course in that formal character the sign signifies the body and blood of Christ precisely in so far as they are 'absent', where 'absence' is defined by contrast with the material presence of the sign itself; and so, in so far as by signifying the body and blood of Christ the appearances of bread and wine make them present in one way, they do so only in so far as in another, that is, in the manner in which the sign itself is present, they are absent.

It is for this reason that Zwingli is, of course, right, and in agreement with Thomas at this single point of convergence, when he says that Christ cannot be present in the Eucharist in the way in which the sign itself is present in its material reality, that is to say, as in this place. And Thomas and Zwingli agree on this notwithstanding the difference that for Thomas the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ which they signify, whereas for Zwingli they only signify the body and blood of Christ. For both, however, the material sign - the bread and wine - are present in a time and place, here in Bern in 1500. And if Christ is anywhere locally in 1500 it is not, as Thomas agrees, where the bread and wine are in Bern in 1500. For Christ has risen, is ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.14

But, for Zwingli, a theology of the Eucharist need say no more than this about its character as a 'sign': all you need to say about the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is that he is there 'in the sign' only; and all you need to say about the absence of Christ is that Christ's not being there is in the Eucharist's character as a sign, for on this account signs displace the reality of what they signify, it being the sign which is really present, and so not the signified. For Thomas the position appears to be quite different and fraught with much tougher problems, and for reasons which show that his agreement with Zwingli about the meaning of'absence' is at best superficial. Thomas wants to say that Christ is really present, and also absent. But, whereas Zwingli thinks this absence simply follows from the nature of a sign as such, so that the sign's 'real presence' excludes the real presence of what it signifies, it is not clear that Thomas maintained that view of signs at all. In any case, for him sacramental signs constitute a set of special cases, in which the conditions of absence follow not as such from the nature of signs but from the nature of a sacrament, and in the very special case of the Eucharist the necessity of Christ's absence does not exclude the real presence of Christ, but rather lays down conditions for the description of that real presence. For Thomas, therefore, if you are going to say that Christ is 'really present' in the Eucharist, your account of the word 'real' is going to have to begin from the fact that he cannot be there as in that place (localiter), because he is raised and ascended to the Father in heaven. And that starting point lays down three conditions for the meaning of the word 'real' as said of the Eucharistic presence: first, Christ is not there as he was in his historical pre-mortem existence; second, that though it is the risen Christ, ascended into heaven, who is present in the Eucharist, Christ is not there as, in the kingdom, he will be seen by us at the right hand of the Father; yet, third, any meaning of the word 'real' requires that the Christ who is present in the Eucharist is numerically one and the same Christ as he who once walked the shores of Lake Galilee and is now at the right hand of the Father.

14 ST 3a q75, a2, corp. where Thomas argues, exactly as Zwingli, that Christ could not be present locally in the Eucharist, else he would have left heaven: 'corpus Christi non incipit esse in hoc sacramento per motum localem . . . quia sequeretur quod desineret esse in coelo'. Christ 'is not present in the Eucharist simply as in a sign, however, even if every sacrament is a kind of sign, [but rather] in the manner appropriate to this sacrament' -'non intelligimus quod Christi sit ibi solum sicut in signo, licet sacramentum sit in genere signi . . . secundum modum proprium huic sacramento'. ST 3a q75 a1 ad3.

From this it follows that if Christ is really present in the Eucharist then he will have to be present in the Eucharist in his body. For no sense of Christ's presence which evacuates it of bodiliness will have the force of being 'real', since numerical identity of persons requires sameness of body. Hence, to capture the force of the word 'real' as said of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, we shall have to say that he is present in his body, but neither in the natural condition as known to Peter and James and John two thousand years ago, nor as they now know him in his and their condition as raised in the beatific vision of heaven. So the question for Thomas is not whether Christ is present in the Eucharist as in a sign as opposed to his being present there 'really'; it is rather, given that Christ is present in the Eucharist as in a sign, how we can find a sense for the word 'real' which is consistent with the Eucharist's eschatological temporality. In short, the core problem for Thomas's account of the Eucharist is the problem of how the future - the kingdom of our communication with the risen Christ, the resurrection - can be bodily present now to us, given our fallen and failing, as yet unraised, powers of bodily communication and given his raised and totally communicating body. And that problem of how the raised person of Jesus is present in the body to us in our as yet unraised bodies just is the problem of how to do a 'negative theology' of the Eucharist. The need for a negative theology arises out of Eucharistic exigencies.

Zwingli, by contrast, thinks that he has no such problem, and that no Christian ought to have it. But in this he appears to be mistaken. For turn again to our metaphor of the stripped-down cathedral of 1535. Here the relations of 'presence' and 'absence' are worked out along altogether different lines. Whereas in 1500 the repleteness of signs works its power of signifying only in the medium, as it were, of the absence of what is signified, in 1535 it is absence which is the very sign itself. In 1535 it is emptiness of sign which is the sign, its emptiness in no way diminishing the cathedral's character of being a sign, for just as negative metaphors are still metaphors, negative signs, for all their negativity, are still signs. Note that the 1535 cathedral can effect its negative signification only if it contains no signs at all. It could not do its work of signifying absence if there were a single sign in the cathedral, for the incomplete emptiness would simply have the effect of focussing attention upon the signifying power of that one sign; the cathedral would then be full of that single sign. As a matter of fact, the cathedral is possessed of one sign which draws attention to itself in that way, but that sign only reinforces the sense of absence, for it is itself empty, being a vacant cross. So here too the cathedral, its emptiness, is 'full of sign', for the signs of absence are not the absence of signs.

Hence, if the 1535 condition of the cathedral signifies by means of its absence of sign, if, to repeat, it is absence which is the sign, that absence can possess no less the materiality of a sign than does the fullness of sign in 1500. It may be a mistake to eat the meal-ticket thinking it is the meal; but if that is the case it is exactly the same mistake to identify the physical, material absences of Zwingli's cathedral with the absence of Christ which they signify. For if our analogy between the two conditions of the cathedral and the relations between affirmative and negative theology holds in general, it holds very particularly here. Just as affirmative and negative metaphors are equally metaphors; just as affirmation and negation are equally linguistic acts; just as the 'mystical' is therefore characterised by its transcendence of both affirmation and negation, so too are the signs of presence and the signs of absence equally signs, are equally material conditions which signify. Hence, if it is possible materialistically to displace the signified by the reification of the sign in the one case, so it is possible in the other. In short, 'absence' as a sign is but a material state of affairs - specifically, an architectural and decorative state of affairs -which signifies only on condition of the absence of what it signifies. So Zwingli's empty cathedral is not itself the absence of Christ which it signifies, but is only the sign of it, making that absence present only on the condition that it is not the thing itself.

And this seems to be important. Zwingli seems to think that he can overthrow the arguments of the papists simply by appeal to the bodily absence of Christ since the ascension. It is enough to overthrow those arguments that Christ is not 'there' localiter. Constantly in his polemic On the Lord's Supper15 he appeals to John 16:5-11, where Jesus tells his disciples that it is to their advantage that he go away, 'for if I do not go away the Counsellor will not come to you' (John 16:7). So, Zwingli comments, if he has gone away, if he has left the world, then either the Creed is unfaithful to the word of Christ, which is impossible (for it affirms that he will be with us always) or else the body and blood of Christ cannot be present in the sacrament. (Ibid., p. 214)

Hence Zwingli, maintaining, as Thomas does, that Christ is not present in the sign localiter, draws the conclusion, which Thomas rejects, that what is present is the sign of absence, a presence of Christ in the sign, on condition that Christ is not really present in body and blood. Given, then,

15 Ulrich Zwingli, On the Lord's Supper, in Zwingli and Bullinger, ed. and trans. G. W.

Bromiley, Library of Christian Classics XXIV, London: SCM Press, 1953, pp. 195238.

that Zwingli's starting point is an account of sign such that the presence of a thing in a sign excludes its being present as 'real' - a word the force of which Zwingli, like the Catholics, takes to mean 'in his body' - he naturally concludes that

[a] sacrament is the sign of a holy thing. When I say: 'the sacrament of the Lord's body', I am simply referring to that bread which is the symbol of the body of Christ who was put to death for our sakes . . . But the very body of Christ is the body which is seated at the right hand of God, and the sacrament of his body is the bread and the sacrament of his blood is the wine . . . Now the sign and the thing signified cannot be one and the same. Therefore the sacrament of the body of Christ cannot be the body itself. (Ibid., p. 188)

And so the root difference between Zwingli and Thomas becomes clear: Zwingli's 'Eucharistic' absence is the simple material absence of Christ's body localiter, an absence which Thomas can concede. For Zwingli, however, this 'absence' is such as to exclude 'real presence'. For Thomas, on the contrary, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is the real presence of Christ's body. But the force of the word 'real' is such as to require an absence which is eschatological. For what the Eucharist 'realises' is a bodily presence which is not yet, a real absence, a body making really present that of which, as yet, we cannot take possession. For Christ's body is raised, and our bodies are not. Hence, if we cannot, in the fallen condition of our bodiliness, enter fully into communication with the presence of the absent, because raised, person of Jesus, then neither can we enter fully into communication with that absence. For just as we cannot yet know that kingdom which one day we shall see and fully enjoy, so neither can we have any grasp of how far we fall short of communicating with it. We fail even in our calculation of the degree to which our Eucharistic communication fails. Hence, if there is a problem about how Christ is present in the Eucharistic sign there must equally be a problem of accounting for how that absence is present within it; and that problem is not to be resolved on any account of the nature of signs, but only on some account of the relationship between the apophatic and the cataphatic, that relationship being itself defined only under the constraint of the eschatological. If, therefore, we ask: 'How is Christ present in the Eucharist?' Thomas's answer is: 'Really, as bodies are present to one another.' And if you ask: 'How is Christ's body present?' Thomas's answer is: 'Sacramentally', that is, 'eschatologically', as the raised body of Jesus can be present to us in our pre-mortem condition as unraised. And that is a mode of 'real absence' as much as it is a mode of 'real presence'. For such is the nature of a sacrament.

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