[this is an excerpt from an email I sent someone last year in response to their question about what Catholics mean by transubstantiation. I have not edited the email, so excuse any mistakes]
I know, transubstantiation is a strange word. It’s a term taken from Aristotle and used, beginning in the high medieval period, to describe the radical and mysterious nature of what is going on in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
trans=across + substantia=substance
Substance, which for Aristotle refers to the definable and essential nature of something, whatever-it-means-to-be this or that. It’s a term that locates a particular thing in the realm of existence, of ‘being,’ in the realm of the real — as opposed to something virtual or imagined. Companion to ‘substance’ are its ‘accidents,’ the variable qualities a thing can have while still remaining itself. My substance as a human includes universal characteristics that must be there for me to be human, i.e. a rational animal. But my accidents include being tall, with white skin, gray hair, etc. I am substantially a human, but of a particular sort. Accidents are the way a substance ‘appears’ to us in the world, revealing that thing’s variable characteristics that inhere in a stable identity.
Okay, there’s a lot more to these terms, and that’s not very clear, but i’s a vague gist. What’s important especially is that these are not terms taken from chemistry or physics, describing a thing’s molecular composition. It’s a term of metaphysics, describing their identifiable, stable, intelligible characteristics as specific and existent things. It identifies them at the level of being, with both universal-stable and particular-variable qualities.
Okay, so bread and wine are each a unique substance, each with accidental appearances that can vary even as they each still remain bread and wine. Our confession of Faith argues that in the celebration of the Eucharist, at a certain moment in the ritual celebration, the substance of the bread and wine (their existent reality as things in the world) is changed into something new, i.e. the Body and Blood of the risen Christ, while the accidents (their unique manner of appearing to us) remain unchanged. But the accidents remain now, by an act of God’s power, by way of a sign. The bread and wine have become part of the sacramental order, communicating to us what they have become — Christ — not physically but meta-physically as signs of the new substance. You see, the transaction between old and new creation is by way of signs as the new reveals itself in the old as the old’s God-designed destiny.
What’s important also here is to remember that the new substance of Christ’s risen existence is not unrelated to the substance of this world. Rather, this new substance, this new mode of existing flows from Christ’s corpse being resurrected, transformed, glorified in God to participate in God’s life and eternity — and now, in the sacraments, but above all the Eucharistic, Christ is drawing, through his Spirit, all of creation with him into the Trinitarian mode of existence by way of participation (koinonia).
For Aristotle, this talk of transubstantiation would all be pure nonsense. On every level. Substance and accidents always go together. If a substance changes, the accidents also change. But in transubstantiation, the substance passes over into a new substance, but the accidents remain as signs, reminding us God does no violence to this world, but only perfects it in new beauty. For Aristotle, who knew nothing of new creation, and only described this world, transubstantiation would simply be an affirmation of an absurd impossibility and contradiction.
So when Aquinas takes Aristotle’s metaphysics and turns it on its head, he’s reminding us that what happens in the Eucharist is not part of this world any longer. We have entered the realm of transcendent mystery, known only through faith. The bread and wine have, in the moment of Consecration, pass-over (trans-) into a whole new order of being and existence (substantia), a whole new manner in which their substance exists, re-veiled by signs and marked by radically new laws. The consecrated elements exist now in the same manner-of-being that allowed the body of the Risen Jesus to pass through locked doors, or to be present to appear anywhere and everywhere he wills — “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23).
Realize: Christ is now, by his transubstantiating resurrection, part of a whole new order of being in eternity that radically transcends this one. No words can capture it, only gesturing-signs like water, oil, bread, wine — or the miracle of lifelong faithful, fruitful, selfless sacrificial cruciform marriage.
Let me say again: what we call the New Creation can only be seen, known and received in faith — faith, a share in God’s own knowing, is the new epistemology [way of knowing], a new Rosetta Stone, that alone can decipher the infinite mystery of this New Creation. And the Eucharist becomes a singular (sui generis) artifact of that New Creation lodged in this one; there to draw this one into the Next and the Next into this one.
Christ created this crazed Pass-over Meal, the Holy Eucharist, as the Sign of signs of the new Substantial-inbreaking-Kingdom. Eucharist becomes for us the locus, the sacramental and significant time-space where the metamorphosis of this world into a New Creation reaches its apogee-of-near-breaking. Well, actually, not just near-breaking: shattering! Transubstantiation means those symbols-signs have wholly passed-over, with the risen Christ, into the Imperishable, Immortal, Eternal Kingdom.
Also — super cool — in the Eucharist the substance of this whole world is, you could say, hyper-compressed into these super-enriched sign/symbols — bread and wine, which are themselves artifacts of BOTH cosmic history AND human culture — passes over into the infinitely energetic risen Body of Jesus. His Body is itself the singularity, the Big Bang, the Alpha and Omega of the New Creation.
The Eucharist is, like all the sacraments, a divine sign-language of the new order of Being. Interpreted by Faith. Communicating the truth of the manner by which Earth passes-over into the Heaven.
And what is that manner, you ask? The answer is writ into how the bread and wine are changed. By the Spirit-borne Words of Consecration Jesus spoke at the Passover Meal:
Take this, all of you, and eat of it:
for this is my body which will be given up for you.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it:
for this is the chalice of my blood,
the blood of the new and eternal covenant.
which will be poured out for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.
Do this in memory of me.
This is it. The whole Language. Everything. The Way in shorthand. Agapē, oblative love is the only way God has for the substance of this world is transformed into the new Substance. The divine-human love of Christ is the Stairway to Heaven, brought to its completion on the Divine Ladder of the Cross, when Jesus said:
Tetelestai “It is complete.” (Jn. 19:30)
Creation is complete. Transubstantiated by his total act of nuptial, self-emptying, merciful love; of total self-gift to the Father. And the Eucharist is our passageway into this Act. For all who eat his torn-Flesh and drink his spilled-Blood, that New Order which endures for all ages, which is made of love, Dawns.
So, let’s get on with it…