The objection that the Eucharist can’t actually be the Body and Blood of Christ is frequently rooted in a pretty logical objection: if the bread and wine are actually transformed into the Eucharistic Body and Blood, why can’t we see this transformation? After all, this is a miracle, and miracles are testaments to God’s glory: that is, they’re meant to be seen. Former Catholic Michael Craig-Martin “created” an art exhibit in the 1970s called An Oak Tree, consisting of a glass of water which he mockingly called “a full-grown oak tree,” created “without altering the accidents of the glass of water.” Of course, what Craig-Martin was calling an oak tree was a glass of water. And that was his point. It showed, to him, the absurdity of the Eucharist: how could it be the Flesh and Blood of Christ if it neither looked nor behaved like His Flesh or Blood?
Huldreich Zwingli, the father of the Swiss Reformation, shared Craig-Martin’s skepticism. He justified his rejection of the Real Presence (at that time, a cataclysmic decision, since he was one of the first to openly reject the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist without rejecting all of the rest of Christianity) by saying:
“The manna which came down from heaven was of the same size and shape as
coriander seed, but its taste was quite different. Here the case is otherwise,
for what we see and what we taste are exactly the same, bread and wine. And how
can we say that it is flesh when we do not perceive it to be such? If the body
were there miraculously, the bread would not be bread, but we should perceive it
to be flesh. Since, however, we see and perceive bread, it is evident that we
are ascribing to God a miracle which he himself neither wills nor approves: for
he does not work miracles which cannot be perceived.”
Countless others since Zwingli have used some variation upon this theme. But is it really true that God does not work miracles which cannot be perceived? Remember that the perception in question is material: that is, it’s perceived by the senses: by sight, taste, sound, touch, and/or feel. If, like Zwingli, you think of the Eucharist as similar to the miracle at the Wedding of Cana in John 2 (where Jesus turned water into wine through the hands of His obedient servants, in this case, the house servants), the Eucharist doesn’t seem to measure up. But if you think of the Eucharist as something much more profound, the picture changes somewhat.
I explained yesterday that the wedding of Cana, while it involved an actual transformation of water into wine, was largely symbolic: it told us something about the nature of God and His love for us, and it demonstrated who Jesus was. That, more or less, is John’s own take-away from the miracle (John 2:11). To those who take a merely symbolic view of the Eucharist, this is a much less impressive show of God’s glory: we have the symbol, but no actual transformation.
The Catholic view, however, is of a much greater magnitude. Rather than expecting God to present Himself in the Eucharist in the way in which He presents external gifts (like wine at the wedding, or loaves and fishes in the first part of John 6), look at how He presents Himself in the one instance that Protestants and Catholics agree upon: the Incarnation. This very obvious miracle stands out, a miracle taken so for granted we sometimes forget to include it as perhaps the greatest miracle God ever performed: taking on the flesh of a man, and becoming genuinely Man. Unlike the Eucharist, Christ genuinely was what He appeared to be (a man), but like the Eucharist, the miraculous part (that this Man happened to be God) was imperceptible to the senses.
Isaiah 53:2, in a Christological prophesy, says, “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” This verse comes at the beginning of the Suffering Servant passage, which tells us that “by His stripes, we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). It’s one of the clearest references to Jesus in the Old Testament. Philippians 2:8 says that part of the incredible humility of God was that He allowed Himself to be “found in appearance as a man.”
John 7:24 contains Jesus’ warning to the Pharisees: “stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” The most important things (our souls, God in Heaven, truth, love) are often invisible. We may see the impact that they have on our lives, or the lives of others, but we typically don’t see them incarnate. And when we do, we often don’t realize it: Jacob didn’t in Genesis 32, and the Jews of Jesus’ day generally missed it as well. To external appearances, the Passion of Christ was the killing of a common criminal. Through the eyes of Faith, we see its substance: the atonement of the world. With these same eyes, we can see the Eucharist for what It truly is.
To suggest, as Zwingli did, that Christ allowing Himself to be found in appearance as bread or wine is inconsistent with His miracles is striking in its inaccuracy. The Incarnation is the closest miracle to the Eucharist. In turning water into wine, Jesus is providing for physical needs to signify spiritual needs. In the Incarnation and the Eucharist, He does much more than that. He becomes physical, material, visible. He provides not merely His bounty, but Himself.