Virtual or Real Presence?

by The Reverend Daniel Tatarnic

“When Jesus was at table with them, he took bread blessed it and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him. (Luke 24.30-31)

It was February, 2020 and I was sitting at my computer. A big decision needed to be made: which books would I buy for Lent? I settled on one author and two books, one of which was Reinhard Hutter’s, Aquinas on Transubstantiation: The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (CUA Press, 2019). February feels like it was a long, long time ago.

There is an old adage, “when the student is ready, the teacher appears”, and I’m often struck by how a reading from scripture or a theological issue from the past provides new insight into a contemporary issue. When the church was thrust into social distancing, words like ‘virtual’, ‘zoom’, and ‘live stream’ suddenly became the vernacular. Not surprisingly, this reignited some old questions about communion and the real presence of Christ. 

I have to admit, I’m one of those people. As I sat in my study, early on Palm Sunday and watched the live-stream from St. Peter’s Basilica, I felt something ‘more’. Was that possible, or was it a flight of the imagination, wishful thinking? In my mind, I could hear Stephen Reynolds, a man known for his intellect and wicked-dry wit, admonishing our class about what Eucharistic remembering is not: “it’s not ‘think Jesus, think Jesus, think Jesus; and suddenly there’s Jesus”. 

The desire for real presence was a desire felt during social isolation. And so I’m reminded of a quote by Aidan Walker, “the more spiritual you are, the more incarnate you must be.” Walker challenges a mere ‘spiritual’ interpretation of the Christian message. The distinctly Christian doctrine of incarnation (keeping it real / fleshy), is an inconvenient matter; the Gospel is always Good News in flesh and blood (real-presence). 

I’m not arguing for, or against, Eucharistic real-presence occurring ‘virtually’, the effect of an online gathering. I for one believe in the doctrine of transubstantiation, and as time goes by, I come to believe in it more and more; real-presence is either really real, or it’s not real at all. And COVID-19 seems to have evoked a communal feeling for this mystery of faith: “I am with you always”. 

In this respect I find Hutter’s re-sourcing of the doctrine of Eucharistic transubstantiation — a sacrament of “consummate divine friendship”— quite helpful. Yes, the doctrine of transubstantiation is inter-woven with highly precise philosophical language (i.e. substance, essence), but the reality of Jesus’ real-presence is His promise of friendship in the flesh-and-blood (1 Corinthians 11.23-26), not merely a matter of individual believers thinking Jesus; which brings us back to re-sourcing Thomas Aquinas. 

Aquinas was deeply impressed with Aristotle’s philosophy regarding friendship and love, “it is the special feature of friendship to live together with friends.” When I was three years old, I had an imaginary friend, Fred. Fred lived in the heat ducts, and I’d talk to Fred through the floor registers. Jesus isn’t like my imaginary friend, Fred. 

‘Imaginary’ friendship is not the Gospel’s witness to the breadth of redemption we have in Jesus. Christ’s promise of His gift of divine friendship is a participation in the gift of His own self-giving, in the Incarnation, in his death on the cross, in the gift of his body and blood on the altar — everything that can be given is given (it is finished). Jesus’s gift of His body and blood is a real event; and the promise made in Matthew 28.20 is a real promise; Paul’s exhortation in 1 Corinthians is real testimony. And perhaps, that all requires the fulfillment of a real-presence on God’s part, not just a symbolic or spiritual one: “you are my friends”. (John 15.14)