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Tuesday, December 25, 2018


Transubstantiation. Big word.

The word goes back to medieval theology and the term "substance," which in turn went back to Aristotle. The "substance" of a thing is that which makes the thing what it is, regardless of the trappings which surround the thing (the trappings were called "accidents").

The substance of a table is tableness. The accidents are the color of the table, the number of legs it has, its weight, its use, what kind of a top it has, and so on.

The medieval theologians used those terms to describe the Eucharist. The substance of the Eucharist is the person of Jesus Christ. The accidents are his body, but could also be the accidents of bread: its color, texture, and so on.

I don't want to scrap that theology. Not just because I would get excommunicated if I did, but because we no longer think in terms of substance and accidents. Those terms no longer speak to people today.

The story of an idea

I got to where I am today by reflecting on the scientific belief that most of the cells in the human body get replaced regularly. Only a relatively small number of cells that were in my body a year ago are still there. That caused me to ask, "then who am I?" I came up with the idea that I am really the history of my cells, and of the molecules and atoms that have made up my cells. A history is a type of story. I am the story built on what has been done by the cells in my body during the time they were part of me. Once they leave me, they are no longer part of my story, but  my story remains.

A story, of course, requires a story-teller. I am one of my story-tellers, but others have been telling my story ever since I was conceived. Others are still telling my story. We know from psychology that we are often not the best judge of how our stories should be told. We know that others can tell our stories in ways that are harmful to us, or they can tell our stories in ways that build us up.

A digression on junk

An heirloom is junk with a story attached. Once a physical object loses its story, it becomes junk. I have a tiny ivory emblem owned by my grandfather, who was a cooper, a barrel-maker. The ivory object was the symbol for the craftsmen who made barrels. I know what that little piece of ivory means. It has a story. If I discard the emblem, it will lose that story. Someone else may attach a different story to it--they may not know that there was an occupation called "cooper," and that the ivory is a symbol of that occupation--but that story is not the story that makes it important to me.

Junk goes to the landfill. The valley of Gehenna was Jerusalem's landfill. So when I read in Matthew 10 that I should fear the one who could cast me into Gehenna, I thought of Gehenna as the place where my story would be forgotten.

The Last Supper

Jesus took bread and wine and said "This is my body, this is my blood." He was attaching his story to bread and wine. That is not so different from people attaching my story to the particular set of cells that make up my body. But Jesus was doing more than that. He was saying that when his followers gathered, and used bread and wine that way, he became part of their stories. They became part of him. We are all part of the story of Jesus.

To be a Christian means to accept your own personal story as the story of Jesus, death and resurrection included.

So when I take the host and the wine at Mass and repeat the words of Jesus, I see those physical things as tied to the story of Jesus every bit as much as his story was attached to his physical body two thousand years ago. That way of thinking about the Eucharist is more meaningful to me than the language of substances and accidents.


I could not take this line of thinking very far without being faced with the phenomenon of idols. An idol is a physical object with a story attached. It is not a huge leap to think of a particular image as having a story that could be threatening to me, or beneficial to me, and therefore that I need to take seriously. The issue is, what kind of story.

There are religious movements that forbid the use of images for religious purposes. In Christianity they were called "iconoclasts"--icon smashers. I think Islam has a similar prohibition. Some of the Protestant reformers accused Catholics of worshipping idols because we had statues. The issue is, what kind of story is linked to the object.

This is all pretty poetic. I am too far along in life to get tangled in philosophical speculation and try to defend the ideas I just presented. Look at the ideas as poetry. The label "poetic" covers a multitude of sins.

I confess that I have never read Teilhard de Chardin. I was too much of a dutiful Catholic, and the Pope said his writing was dangerous. But the little I knew of what he wrote led me to conclude that he was mostly writing poetry with scientific language. Maybe that is all we can do in a scientific age.

My soul is my story. I tell my story. You tell my story. God tells my story. When my cells give out, God will remember my story, and will tell it some day in the most loving way possible--the Last Judgment. The Apostles Creed has the phrase "the resurrection of the body." That suggests that some day God will attach my story to another set of cells. The book of Revelation describes heaven as a city. That emphasizes the belief that we are all in this with other people. I would like to think of heaven as this present beautiful world, and all of us in it together. Since that is hard to visualize, perhaps those theorists have it at least partly right when they describe heaven as a single "now," without time, a resting in the reality of God and others in a perpetual instantaneous moment. 

But if my body is resurrected, there will have to be time and space. And when you say time and space, you say mountains and streams and birds and fish and animals. Otherwise what kind of fun would it be? And if Scripture tells us anything, it tells us that eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love God. Surely heaven will include beagles.