Eucharistic Presence: An Interpretation as Mystery and Union

From its origins in the first century, the Christian church has spiritually encountered, and thus experientially known, the presence of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist.  Our communion with the living God in Eucharistic prayer and worship lies in the realm of Holy Mystery.  Mystery lies at the root of how Christ’s presence is (and can be) experienced, and by extension, mystery lies at the root of how and why we attempt to explain it and how we then defend our understanding.

Sacramentally, the mystery of the Eucharistic Presence embraces past, present and future with immediacy[1]:  The historic references efficaciously bring into the living present God’s past works of salvation (specifically the anamnesis).  The Eucharistic present is the current “moment and place in which Christ’s deified humanity becomes ours”[2] in the mystery of the act of worship.  The future eschatological mystery of the Eucharist is understood as a “foretaste of the great banquet.”[3]

Throughout history, the dynamics of Eucharistic Presence have been understood to be multi-layered with parallel actions operating simultaneously.  In the writing of Sts. Paul and Augustine, the body of Christ means participation in both (the risen) Christ himself and his Body the Church.[4]  Ireneaus (2nd century) wrote of an earthly–heavenly correlation:  “. . . just as the bread of the earth, on receiving the invocation of God, is no longer ordinary bread but eucharist, consisting of two realities, the one earthly, the other heavenly, so our bodies, on receiving the eucharist, are no longer destined for corruption, having the hope of an eternal resurrection.” (Ireneaus, Against Heresies 4, 18, 5.)[5] In his liturgical writings, Amalarius of Metz (d. ca. 850) defined three symbolic loci for the Body of Christ:  “the first, the presence on the altar [in the bread and the wine], the second, the church itself, and the third, the risen body of Christ now in heaven.”[6]  Although denying a real presence in the bread and wine, Zwingli (14th century) points to the efficacy of the symbol of the body and blood in the formation of the community into the Body of Christ.[7]  The Book of Common Prayer (1979) likewise calls for a parallel sanctification of both the bread/wine and the worshipping community by the Holy Spirit in the epicleses of Eucharist Prayers A,[8] B,[9] and D[10].   A variation of this idea of parallel relationship exists in the understanding of the role assumed by the Celebrant at the Eucharist:  the priest can be understood as acting in persona christi representing Christ to the community (the Christocentric model emphasized in the West) or in persona ecclesiae representing the worshiping community (the Ecclesiastic model, emphasized in the East)[11].  In the spirit of Mystery, the priest may be understood to be filling both roles simultaneously.

Worship is primary theology; reflection on the worship experience is secondary theology.[12]  It is important to avoid being overly caught up in the focus on and development of intellectual arguments of secondary theology that may limit or define the mystery of God.[13]   At the same time, an examination of the theological history is valuable to the development of a personal understanding of Eucharistic Presence: study and reflection feed and stimulate thought, challenge assumptions, and function as a “Eucharistic faith seeking understanding”[14].  Speaking experientially, reflection on Holy Worship can draw us deeper into Holy Mystery.

Returning to the writings of the early church father, we find “not a theology of the Eucharist, but a pluralism of themes out of which any number of theologies could develop.”[15]  All Eucharistic theologies which subsequently developed these themes in a legitimate, logical and linear manner are part of a bigger story, part of the organic being and the story of the catholic Church, the Body of Christ on earth.  Robert Taft has written that “within a single church, any legitimate view of its own particular tradition must encompass the complete spectrum of its witnesses throughout the whole continuum of its history, and not just its most recent or currently popular expression.”[16]

Indeed, most historical Eucharistic theologies, naturally and by necessity, must reflect the evolving philosophy and cultural concerns of their historic origins and are articulated using associated concepts and language.[17] Meyendorff points out that although the basic structure of the Eucharistic liturgy has not changed since the early centuries, “even today retaining the forms which they acquired in the ninth century, the interpretation of words and gestures was subject to substantial change and evolution.”[18]

Therefore, on the surface level, the conclusions of a given age may not make sense to a later context.  However, with a bit of understanding and a desire (even a willingness) to accept the Eucharist as timeless mystery, all these theologies can contribute to unity — a unity to be restored — rather than divisions to be clung to and defended for the sake of maintaining separate, individual identities.

Drawing from the theologies that have taken shape and definition over the two thousand years of Christian history, arguments in the following areas are especially supportive and complementary to reflection on Eucharistic Presence holding a focus on the ideas of Holy Mystery and Union:

I.  The Eucharist as Sacrament

The Eucharist as a sacrament is an “outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace.”[19]   The relationship between the outward sign and the inward grace (which is dynamically real yet in some sense lies mysteriously “hidden”) has been the point of contention in divergent Eucharist theologies.  For Platonists, the sign and the grace are tightly connected, held as one in the mind and heart of the believer.  Hugh of St. Victor (12th century) referred to a sacrament as an “act which mediates the union between God and humans . . . ceremonies which mediate salvation”, in which the outward sign acts to draw us toward the inner reality to which it points.  Introducing the idea of action, Hugh’s definition is closely related to the Platonic and reflects the mystical theology of Dionysius.[20]  With the evolving thinking of the Scholastics (including Aquinas, 13th century) the unity between sign and inward reality began to dissolve leading to theologies which attempted to explain the “why and how” of the outward sign, the bread and wine in the Eucharistic sacrament.

Among the reformers, Luther held to the close unity between sign and grace, adding that faith is necessary to “make both of them together operative and useful.” Zwinglian theology, in contrast to Lutheran, stresses distinction and non-participation of sign and grace.  Calvin maintained both distinction and unity.[21]   Traces of the theologies of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin where included in the earliest versions of the Book of Common Prayer and remain in our current 1997 Prayer Book.

Richard Hooker, considering the conflicting Eucharist theologies of his time, adopted an inclusive attitude and stated “that this sacrament is a true and a real participation of Christ, who imparts his whole entire Person as a mystical Head” unto all that receive him, and that every one who receives incorporates or unites him or herself into Christ as “a mystical member of Christ.[22]   In his discussion of Hooker’s stance, William Witt concludes that Hooker was opposed to “endless and unfruitful speculation about Christ’s presence in the elements. It is not necessary to speak of a change in the elements themselves, so why worry about it?”  Hooker chose to turn the purpose of the discussion to unity, not division.[23]

II.  Eucharistic Transformation, Union and Unity

The teleological end of the Eucharist is the transformation of our humanity into the likeness of Christ — “the ontological transformation of the believing community, not primarily the transformation of bread and wine,”[24] — the union of humans, both as individuals and as community (the Church), with the risen Christ.

III.  The Eucharist as Participatory Action and Trinitarian Prayer

“The Eucharist is not a memorial tableau of an historical event.  It is a sweeping thanksgiving for the whole of the Father’s benevolence towards the world and his people in Christ and the Holy Spirit.”[25]  It is a prayer, a communion, not a show, a performance.

On the horizontal plane the Eucharist is participatory action and communion involving all the members of the Body.  This concept and practice has its roots in the early Church.  With the emphasis in the West of the priest acting in persona christi, the celebration can take on the sense of a ritual done “for the people” rather than a ritual “of the people”.  Along with this approach words of institution have often taken on the sense of words of consecration – the “words eternally efficacious in the mouth of Jesus.”[26] But as Vernon Staley pointed out   “ ‘This is my body and this is my blood’ were not our Lord’s words of Consecration, but His words of Administration.”[27]

In the Eastern church emphasis has traditionally been placed on the priest in personal ecclesiae and the Holy Spirit’s action in the Eucharistic as consecratory action.  Within this framework the epiclesis has often taken on the sense of the “moment of consecration.”

A broader, more inclusive, more authentically traditional understanding is that the consecration and transformation in the Eucharist are accomplished by the whole sacramental prayer and action[28] and that the “power” to invoke and interact with the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist is a function of the entire worshipping Body of the Church.[29]

As a Trinitarian action and prayer the distinct missions of each of the members of the Trinity might be seen as:  “The Father sends the Son to redeem sinful humanity. The risen Christ mediates between the Father and sinful humanity. The risen Christ sends the Spirit to sanctify humanity. The Spirit unites sinful humanity to the risen Christ through faith and the sacraments. Sinful humanity is transformed to conformity to the risen Christ by being united to his risen humanity  the Spirit.”[30]

The movement, action and energy exchange in the Eucharist are channels of Holy Spirit’s relationship and communion within the Trinity.  By extension the Holy Spirit draws the members of the Body of Christ together, integrating their collective presence into the Trinitarian mystery.


The Book of Common Prayer (1979) supports many aspects of this understanding of Eucharistic Presence as Mystery and Union and inherently allows space to accommodate others.  At the same time the BCP provides boundaries to maintain unity in worship and upholds standards for obedience and accountability to our common Body in its beliefs and worship.  The BCP is eclectic in that it includes traces of the influence of a variety of Eucharistic theologies.  The resulting ambiguities can be held together, perhaps as paradox, in the light of an inclusive interpretation of the Eucharist as Mystery and Union.


 “Christ was the Word that spake it.

He took the bread and brake it.

And what that Word did make it,

I do believe and take it.”[31]

[1] Aquinas wrote:  “. . . as a sign a sacrament has a threeforld function.  It is at once a remembrance of that which has gone before . . . a demonstration of that which is brought about in us through the passion of Christ, namely grace, and a promise, I.E., a pledge of future glory.”  Quoted in William R. Crockett, Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1989), 113-114.

[2] William G. Witt, “Real Presence or Substantial Transformation? An Anglican Reflection on Eucharistic Theology Or The Anglican Reformers on the Eucharist,” William G. Witt, (accessed November 21, 2010).

[3]  John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes (New York: Fordham Univ., 1987), 206.

[4] William R. Crockett, Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1989), 102.  This double meaning is common throughout the Patristic era.

[5]  Quoted by Witt.

[6]  Gary Macy, The Banquet’s Wisdom: A Short History of the Theologies of the Lord’s Supper (New York: Paulist, 1992), 69.

[7]  Crockett, 107.

[8]  The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Episcopal Church of the U.S.A., 1979), 363

[9]  Ibid. 369

[10] Ibid. 375

[11] Witt.

[12] Aidan Kavanagh, On Liturgical Theology (Hale Memorial Lectures of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, 1981) (New York: Pueblo, 1992), 89.  Kavanagh states that in Eastern Churches theologia prima remains the basic way of doing theology (pg. 78).

[13] Luther was adamant in not allowing reason or philosophy to determine the content of Christian faith, and on this stand he rejected transubstantiation while retaining the belief in real presence in the bread and wine.  (Crockett, 134.)

[14] This idea is intended to parallel Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God in Proslogium which he originally titled Faith Seeking Understanding.  As Anselm sought rational explanation based on his “knowing” of God in faith, so Christian worshipers who know God through the Mystery of the Eucharist have sought philosophical explanations regarding the Mystery.

[15]  Macy, 58.

[16] Robert F. Taft, “Mass Without the Consecration? The Historic Agreement on the Eucharist Between the Catholic Church and the Assyrian Church of the East Promulgated,” Worship 77 (2003), 488.

[17] See Macy, 39-42, for a discussion of Platonic understanding of reality; See Crockett, 106ff, for a discussion of the breaking apart of the earlier unified (Platonic) understandings of symbol/reality and Christological/ecclesiological, especially as reflected in the writings of Aquinas; See Crockett (135ff) and Witt for the Eucharistic theology of Reformists, especially Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.

[18] Meyendorff, 201.

[19] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), 857.

[20] Macy 85-87.

[21] Crockett, 128-149

[22] Witt.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Witt.

[25] Kavanagh, 312.

[26] Taft, 503.

[27] Quote from 1939  Alcuin Club’s “Prayer Book Revision Pamphlets” in Donald Gray, “Hands and Hocus-Pocus: The Manual Acts in the Eucharistic Prayer,” Worship 69 (1995),  310.

[28] See  statements from the 1984 “Anglican-Orthodox Dialogue, The Dublin Statement” (London: SPCK 1985) quoted by Gray 310 and from the 1982 “Munich Statement of the Orthodox-Catholic Join Commission for Theological Dialogue” quoted by Taft, 502 for like conclusions.

[29] Meyendorff, 206.

[30] Witt.

[31] Poem attributed to John Donne (1573-1631) reflecting Anglican reformed Eucharistic theology.  Hymnal 1982, (New York: The Episcopal Church of the U.S.A, 1982,  No. 322, verse 2. )

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