The Eucharist and the Scandal of Particularity

Breton - The Blessing of the Wheat in Artois (1857)
J. Breton, The Blessing of the Wheat in Artois (1857)

“In some real sense it is true to say: ignorance of ontology is ignorance of Christ,” argues a recent Christological treatise. If this is true, then by extension it is also true of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The harmony of faith and reason demand that our knowing Christ in the Sacrament in faith be answered by reasons not scandalized by its material particularity.

Consider the “scandal of particularity”—das Ärgernis der Einmaligkeit—more generally. While coined by a German biblical theologian, its roots are, of course, Kantian. Fr. Doherty, SJ, discusses this in the context of discussing the motivations of the philosophy of Maurice Blondel. (See here for the role of Blondel’s thought in 20th-century controversies over the nature of dogma.)

Years after his 1893 dissertation, Blondel recalls how one of his fellow students put the question to him as to why anyone concerned with governing one’s life rationally for the good of human beings should show any interest in a contingency that occurred to one individual 1900 years previously in a shadowy corner of the Roman Empire. The Enlightenment rejection of Christian particularity or positivity in favor of a purely universal religion contained within the bounds of human reason was an important stimulus for his philosophical project, therefore.

This “Enlightenment rejection of Christian particularity” and a “religion contained within the bounds of human reason” descends from its encapsulation in Immanuel Kant’s Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason, which outlined the purely rational and abstract system of faith that makes us pleasing to God. Various historical faiths were, then, just better or worse vehicles and approximations to this faith, for Kant protests that “it is not ritual observance or doctrinal profession that makes us well pleasing to God.”

That is, it cannot be this particular historical faith that God wills. That would be to make faith in God and our journey towards Him particularized, bound to history and place and time, to this way and not others. Faith as the product of pure reason explains why Kant requires that even Christ, “the Holy one of the Gospel” be measured by abstract Kantian standards of moral rectitude, that is, measured by Kant’s principles of his own kingdom of ends.

The claim that the here and now does not matter when it comes to moral rectitude—when it comes to holiness—flows from various Kantian presuppositions about the nature of human beings and thus the parameters for any possible encounter between human consciousness and claims of revelation. This man here and now cannot matter, for our human nature is such that our religious duties can be circumscribed by pure reason alone. The general truths about our search for happiness and holiness, rigorously and thoroughly conceived and thought about, are sufficient. (Only the weak minded, then, have need of concrete religious symbols.)

Contrast this with a different philosophical basis: that the here and now does matter. This can only be the case—philosophically speaking—if whatever stuff it is that underwrites the here and now is real. Such a basis cannot be a Platonic one, which minimizes the substantial reality of concrete particulars; nor a nominalist-materialist one which, denies them any intrinsic meaning; nor a Manichean or Albigensian one, which denies them any goodness. The Aristotelian, however, can and does defend the reality, meaning, and goodness found in the here and now, in material substances limited to certain places and certain times. The goodness of material creation is best defended upon these grounds.

Aristotelian reason is on such grounds not scandalized by the particularity of the faith in the Cross or the Sacraments. Indeed, against the Kantian denigration of concrete symbols and evacuation of power from signs and secondary causes, St. Thomas takes a very Aristotelian line in his first argument for the necessity of the sacraments:

Sacraments are necessary unto man’s salvation for three reasons. The first is taken from the condition of human nature which is such that it has to be led by things corporeal and sensible to things spiritual and intelligible. Now it belongs to Divine providence to provide for each one according as its condition requires. Divine wisdom, therefore, fittingly provides man with means of salvation, in the shape of corporeal and sensible signs that are called sacraments.

That is, the condition of human nature, bound to the material limits of space and time, is lifted from “corporeal and sensible” goods to “spiritual and intelligible” goods through the wisdom of God’s providence reaching out to men and entering into human history as his friend (John 15:15), first in the Incarnation and then through the Eucharist. The mercy of God is shown to Mary insofar as she was taken from among the naturally lowest ranks of creation—for human nature is lower than any angelic one—and elevated through grace to the heights of the Hypostatic Order. The mercy of God is shown also insofar as he hides himself under the accidents and appearances of mere elements, the humblest and commonest of material and human things, to draw us to himself and the heights of the Beatified.

As has been pointed out before, this hiddenness is the reason why it is a “hard saying” of Christ’s (John 6:61). One translator renders St. Thomas Aquinas’ beautiful hymn Adoro Te Devote: “Sight, and touch, and taste, are all in Thee deceived, / ’Tis the hearing only safely is believed.” The senses, the very gatekeepers of all intelligibility within particularity, must be surrendered. Even our ears, upon hearing the words of the consecration, can merely send word to our hearts that in faith see Christ present on the altar. This is a “scandal of particularity” of the Eucharist, where the particular and personal Christ come to save us is hidden within the extrinsic trappings of particularity itself. This is “the tone of [our] own [Church]” that scandalized an Anglican divine, preaching against careless reforms of parish hymnals, and referring to the lines of the Adoro Te Devote just quoted:

I can conceive of no real interpretation of these remarkable lines, except that which involves the Roman fiction of Transubstantiation, which represents the senses of touch, taste ,and sight, which deal with the qualities of the transubstantiated bread, as being all deceived, whilst the hearing, accepting the “Hoc est,” as above the senses, along perceives Christ. . . . Again I would point to expressions which speak of the reality and the expiatory nature of the sacrifice in the Holy Sacrament which are as strange to English formularies as they are familiar to Roman. I will mention only one or two as types of a class. “Instead of the mysterious cloud—we have the Adorable Sacrament.” How different from this is the language of Bishop Andrews, who ends the remarkable passage from his controversy with Bellarmine, with the distinct assertion, “Et Sacramentum [tamen] nulli adoramus.” Again “During the august Sacrifice of the Holy Eucharist, in which the Blood of Christ is shed—and wherein this same sacrifice wherein the victim is a Saviour and a God is offered for the remission of our sins to an all powerful God,” words which can scarcely convey any idea below that of direct meritorious propitiation.

Indeed, in contrast to that certain bishop, quarreling with St. Robert Bellarmine, who averred that “Still—we in no way adore this Sacrament,” we sing in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ rendering: “Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore.” We adore the Sacrament because it is not a sign divorced from the reality that it signifies—and for this reason it is also a perfect sacrifice: “Eucharistia est sacramentum perfectum dominicae passionis, tanquam continens ipsum Christum passum.—The Eucharist is the perfect sacrament of our Lord’s passion, because it contains Christ himself who endured it.” (ST, IIIa, q. 73, a. 5, ad 2; Sokolowski’s translation)

Thus, the Eucharist presents a manifold scandal of particularity. First, it contains that particular Christ Incarnate, Redeemer of the world; it is not a mere symbol to remind us of the Holy One of the Gospel. Second, it contains Christ here and now, and therefore, third, is hidden from all our means of sensibly accessing that particularity here and now, save through faith submitting to it. Finally, it contains without repeating that one particular sacrifice which, from that hill on that Good Friday, redeemed the fallen human race in all places and times. “Thou art a priest for ever, according to the order of Melchisedech.” (Hebrews 5:6)

* * *

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting are in thee deceived:
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth himself speaks truly or there’s nothing true.

On the cross thy godhead made no sign to men,
Here thy very manhood steals from human ken:
Both are my confession, both are my belief,
And I pray the prayer of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But can plainly call thee Lord and God as he;
Let me to a deeper faith daily nearer move,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

O thou our reminder of Christ crucified,
Living Bread, the life of us for whom he died,
Lend this life to me then: feed and feast my mind,
There be thou the sweetness man was meant to find.

Bring the tender tale true of the Pelican;
Bathe me, Jesu Lord, in what thy bosom ran—
Blood whereof a single drop has power to win
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.

Jesu, whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech thee send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on thee face to face in light
And be blest for ever with thy glory’s sight. Amen.

Translation: Gerard Manley Hopkins

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