Academic journal article Theological Studies

Eucharistic Presence: An Invitation to Dialogue

Academic journal article Theological Studies

Eucharistic Presence: An Invitation to Dialogue

Article excerpt

IN THE INTRODUCTION to his book The Eucharist, Schillebeeckx apologized for dealing exclusively with the topic of eucharistic or real presence.(1) Self-limitation, however, is useful and necessary at times. I feel under a similar constraint in this article, which also concentrates on the question of eucharistic presence.(2) My purpose will be to help provide a basis for ecumenical dialogue. I am also convinced that the way we view eucharistic presence has implications for our understanding of the Eucharist and sacrifice.

First, I shall briefly place the topic in the context of other crucial theological and historical questions that lie at the heart of the discussion of eucharistic presence.(3) Then I shall give an overview of ways in which eucharistic presence has been understood in the course of Christian history, including transubstantiation. Finally, I shall discuss another model by which some theologians are attempting to understand the Eucharist, the model of interpersonal encounter.


Symbol and Reality

Symbols are an intimate part of our existence as human beings. If we have deep feelings or experiences, either we must express them or they atrophy and die. Symbols enable us to express both ourselves and our profound human experiences, such as the birth of a baby, the death of a loved one, falling in love, the sense of our own sinfulness. We sense God's presence and the need to express the faith that inspires; we improvise, or more commonly, turn to already existing symbols to express the experience. This, I think, is what Jesus did. This is what the first Christians did and what we do.(4)

We use symbolic actions which have a language and a meaning of their own prior to and independent of any word proclaimed over them. We embrace, share a meal. In themselves, these actions move us deeply. They are crucial to the experience. We also use words. We sing hymns, recite a poem, say a prayer, proclaim a blessing, or tell a story about ourselves and our experience. Our words proclaim and give the deeper meaning of the symbolic actions. Words make that action less ambiguous.(5) Finally, theological reflection attempts to explain and illuminate the experience our symbolic actions and words sought to express. These are all ways of expressing the initial experience and thus deepening it.

Paul Tillich, while eschewing the notion of a mere symbol, reminded us how imperative it is to define our terms in dealing with symbol.(6) Karl Rahner did just that.(7) For him symbol was described in the highest, most primordial fundamental sense as one reality rendering another present. Symbol embodies or expresses the person or thing so strongly that it renders the other reality present, it "allows the other to be there." This is what Rahner calls a symbolic reality (Realsymbol).(8) Moreover, it is the symbolizer, not the recipient, who determines whether or not this is a symbolic reality. This means that a symbol, be it a wedding ring or sexual intercourse, can lose its closeness to the symbolizer and sink to the level of mere sign or "symbolic representation" if one's heart is no longer in it.(9)

A symbolic representation is not the self-realization of one being in another. It does not express or embody the person or thing so fully that it allows the other reality to be present in it. One example of that would be bells, which point to something else, notifying us that "it is time for church," or that "somebody is at the door." Symbolic representations are not close to the person or thing signified; they are more arbitrary (for instance, red means "stop," green means "go"). But arbitrariness, for Rahner, is not the key norm. Closeness to the symbolizer or the presence of the symbolizer is.(10)

Since the symbolizer, not the recipient, determines whether or not something is a symbolic reality, the margin between sign (symbolic representation) and symbol (symbolic reality) is fluid. …

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