Incarnation in the Eucharist



Question: These days, the noted philosopher-theologian, Dr. Subhash Anand, makes some provocative questions regarding the Eucharist, especially with regard to Last supper, Real Presence and Transubstantiation. As a member of the Eucharistic Congregation, what is your response to them?  How is Eucharist to be understood and expressed theologically in the postmodern era?

Fr. Kuriakose Nediakala, USA

Answer: Central point and climax of Christian life is the celebration of the Last Supper of Jesus memorialized under the term Eucharist. Dr. Subash Anand’s questions regarding “last supper,” Real Presence and Transubstantiation, etc. are good questions. They point to the task of understanding the Eucharist today, which requires continual re-examination. Dr. Subash questions the very term “last supper” because he says Jesus had no certain knowledge of what was to come. Hence the ‘last’ supper happened to be the last not by intention but by sheer chance. Further he says that the ‘last’ supper of Jesus was not on the eve of the Passover, but one day before. Hence it was not a Passover celebration. Besides, Dr. Subash adds that there is a strong tradition that Jesus did not want to die (Mk 14.34-36; Heb 5.7). Hence Dr. Subash’s question: Jesus could not have honestly referred to his death when he said: “This is my body given for you” or “This is my blood shed for you”? Could he at the last supper assure us his real presence? Could he have transubstantiated bread and wine at the last supper?

All good questions as a modern rationalist philosopher, but as John M Pimenta states: The term “last supper” was generated neither by Jesus nor by the “teaching church” nor by “hardworking scholars” or “honest theologians It was used by “contemporaries of Jesus” and hence Church Tradition.[Jn 6:27-57;Lk 22;19-21; I Cor 11:26-29; Didache 14:1-3; Justin: Apologetics 1:16,2; Hyppolitus’ Apostolic tradition 4:1-12:7; John Chrysostom, and Theodore Mopsuestia describe Eucharist as great, fearful, respectful, holy mysteries, Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical letters 4 and 16; St. Augustine’s sermons: 272, 235 Eucharistic presence.] That much for an answer to Dr. Subash’s questions on “last supper”.

Coming to the other questions, we must say that theology surrounding Eucharist is often accompanied by heated debates. During the 1990s, Jean Luc Marion, the great French, theo-logical phenomenologist, began to respond to the contemporary questions on the theology of the Eucharist. Marion boldly states that God is beyond Being, the foundational element of traditional Western metaphysics [philosophy]. He rejects this philosophical system, within which the Church still continues to speak of Eucharistic Real Presence thereby weakening if not destroying its communal and trans-figurative potential.

What Marion seeks to create in the theology of the Eucharist is an openness for Eucharistic Real Presence by stating that Eucharist is an icon of God’s gift rather than an idol. The presence of God here inherently surpasses the category of Being and belongs wholly to an unintelligible action – Love.  For Marion, God is not limited to Being, as such intelligible notions are inherently created by us, humans, and hence are idols and idolatrous. In Marion’s theology, God is Love and, only Love gives without any expectation of return or exchange.

When referring to Eucharistic presence, Marion refers back to the traditional Orthodox theology of icons, because, icons both visibly and invisibly manifests an unintelligible, holy reality. An icon is a symbol which points outside of itself. It provokes vision, and is not the result of one. It accomplishes two basic actions in the relationship between the divine and those who gaze at it. Icons reduce distance and bestow visibility of the invisible God. In contrast to icon, an idol is a source of entrapment, captivity and restriction. It (idol) is an object which causes those who interact with it to lose sight of what lies beyond. The danger inherent in an idol is that it allows the divine to appear only according to human measure and tempts its viewers into a comfortable complacency of grasping the divine.  This was the temptation and the first sin of Adam and Eve.

For understanding the Eucharist, Marion replaces idol with icon. This means that the Cross (symbol of shame and suffering) is an icon of limitless love. In the light of the Cross, classical metaphysics is subverted and God appears in our speech as “not God”. For it is only the Cross that can signify pure Gift whose name is Love. Love is reinforced by suffering and absence; also love gives without any expectation of return; only love loves without condition simply because it loves. Only love has the power to go beyond the hellish circle of an order of exchange of obligation, a commerce based on calculation and exchange. The Eucharistic event or the great communal and iconic encounter with God is debased when subjected to categorical reasoning. Humans should therefore relinquish the control of the God of Love and instead learn to imitate God’s actions of love.

Marion criticises Eucharistic theologies concerning Real Presence. His position develops from the conviction that both time and space have become commodified. He says that this commodification came in the understanding of Real Presence from the classical metaphysics. For Marion, the classical metaphysics is ultimately a rationality of the present, a metaphysics of temporality which is solely understood as the present, here and now.

Marion writes: “Eucharistic presence must be understood starting… from the present, but the present must be understood first as a Gift that is given. One must measure the dimensions of Eucharistic presence against the fullness of Gift. The principle of weakness of reductionist interpretations [by conservatives or progressives] stems precisely from their exclusively anthropological … treatment of the Eucharist. They never… think presence starting from the Gift that theologically, constitutes presence in the presence.” For Marion, “what makes presence possible in the Eucharist is a Divine-Gift, rather than, the work of human hands.” Therefore, time itself needs to be understood “as meaning rather than measurement,” or “as content rather than chronology”.

Unlike our everyday routines in which the presence of things require a location within a temporal and spatial coordinates, Eucharistic presence does not result from time as it is ordinarily understood. Marion states that, rather than occupying a location within time and space the Eucharist disrupts and subverts time and is not determined, nor is it ordered by the present. Instead, in the Eucharist the present [here and now] is displaced from its powerful role as the dictator of time’s duration and significance.

Further, the concept of time in classical metaphysics which perceives the whole in terms of the present, Marion understands the present in terms of the whole. Marion stresses: “The past determines the reality of the present [not vice versa] – better the present is best understood as a today to which alone the memorial, as an actual pledge, gives meaning and reality.” Marion affirms that the Eucharist “anticipates what we will be, will see, will love…In this way, ‘sometimes the future lives in us without our knowing it’ [Marcel Proust].” Marion makes clear that what one understands as the present is determined by both the past and the future. For him, Eucharistic time has an integral eschatological dimension; thus, we cannot possibly possess the present when it is understood as Gift. For Marion, “What we may call Eucharistic time – Eucharistic present as moment and gift, temporalized from the past and the future, from the memorial and the anticipatory glory – is the paradigm of every present moment, of time as gift.” He emphasizes the eschatological time as not chronological, but as content. The Real Presence that we profess in the Eucharist is just as concerned with the future as it is with the past and the present.

By affirming the Eucharist as a ‘pledge of future glory’, Marion evokes time as a Gift and a future that lives in us, intensely, even when it cannot be seen, labelled or felt directly by us. Marion’s thinking enables him to speak of how the Eucharistic prayer can “make memorial” of a future that has not yet happened and of a past that is not past.  The past, as it is understood ordinarily, belong to the dead, but for Christians this understanding of time is subverted by the risen Christ. Such a radical understanding of the past is only plausible in the light of the crucified Christ who didn’t remain in the confines of death but rather rose from the dead, thus subverting time itself. Thus, in the Eucharistic celebration, “the reality of the present is determined by a past and a future that are always, already arriving. From this standpoint, it is clear that one must learn to contemplate presence as “the gift which is governed by the memorial and epektasis.”

Marion’s insights, especially his ideas of God as ‘Absence’, delve into his notion of Eucharistic presence. Marion develops a theology of “Absence” to avoid the pitfalls of metaphysics and evolve a Eucharistic theology capable of going beyond it. “Where metaphysics often thinks of God as the foundation of being…, Marion uses ‘distance’ (absence) as a figure of the interpretation of thought.” Distance operates to mark the non-coincidence of God with any concept of God. At the same time he uses “Absence” to provide freedom from metaphysical constraints, as well as to build a new ideological foundation for a thematic locus, the notion of gift. The gift of Eucharist establishes continuity: …the gift orders temporality. The Eucharistic gift orders the present according to both past [memorial] and future [advent], making a gift of each moment according to charity, and dispossessing the primacy of the [metaphysical] here and now.

Marion states that “each moment must befall us as a gift” as each instance of presence is imparted by charity from God. For Marion, this applies to the present time [gift given] as to manna.  The manna of time becomes a daily reality for us, according to Marion, in what “the Christian names his ‘daily bread’, firstly, because he receives the daily manna itself as bread, “a food whose reception, as a gift, no reserve will spare… [And so, therefore,] of time in the present…. one must receive it as a present, in the sense of a gift.”

For Marion, this implies that one should receive this present of the consecrated Bread as the gift, at each moment, of union with Christ. The eschatological future and the memorialized past find their true and embodied sign in the Eucharist. Furthermore, for Marion the act of giving, that is, giving self as “body and blood, offered up for you” must be spoken of as an action permeated by love. The Son took in the body of humanity only in order to play humanly the Trinitarian game of love, for this reason also, he loved ‘to the end’ (Jn.3:1), that is, to the Cross. In order that the irrefutable demonstration of the death and resurrection not cease to provoke us, Jesus gives himself with insistence in a body and blood that persist in each day that time imparts to us.

Therefore, for Marion, the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist becomes “the ultimate icon of love that delivers itself body and soul.” In the Paschal meal, this is the love which advances to meet us, even with the risk of being abhorred.  For Marion, Christ’s taking of a sacramental body brings to Trinitarian process, in the economy of salvation, begun in the birth of Christ, to completion.

Coming to the question of Transubstantiation, Marion states that the accepted term transubstantiation used to describe the change that occurs during Eucharist, was originally based on categorical reasoning of Aquinas. Its root meaning is “trans,” a prefix meaning change or across, and “substation,” meaning substance—literally, to change substance. But to us today substance means something entirely different than it meant to those who used metaphysics as a system of measuring reality in the thirteenth century. This term has its foundation in contemporary metaphysics’ ultimate referent, Being. Transubstantiation denotes that being is changed. This type of language is complex even in its own time. It is evident that the language of Aquinas and other scholastics makes active verbs into static nouns. So, the formulation of transubstantiation as more empirical than mystical presents an idolatrous temptation in our context. What Marion wishes to destroy is its metaphysical conceptions, not to end their contents, but to liberate them. Because such doctrines are central to Catholicism, Marion calls us to re-evaluate our perceptions and to cooperate with God, “who strikes out and crosses out every divine idol”.

From the above, it is clear that Marion reconfigures transubstantiation to circumvent the claims of a metaphysical [rational] critique. His presentation of transubstantiation has the merit of marking the unbridgeable difference between humankind and the divine Other. “…the theology of transubstantiation alone offers the possibility of distance, since it strictly separates my consciousness from Him who summons it. In the distance thus arranged, the Other summons, by His absolutely concrete sacramental body [a body that we cannot ‘produce’ or ‘invent’], my attention and my prayer.”

Having said this, Marion proceeds to speak of Eucharistic Devotion and Adoration.  He states that the purpose of the Eucharistic gift is consumption. “The Eucharistic bread… is given only in order to feed; it is made present only to permit its consumption.” Yet at the same time he attempts to leave things open for Eucharistic contemplation and adoration by making the important distinction made between ordinary food and the Eucharistic bread. When consuming ordinary food one transforms it into one’s self, but when one eats the Eucharistic bread one is transformed into what one eats. In the Eucharist we become Christ’s mystical body, His Church. Hence, what Marion calls the drama of Trinitarian oblation, does not reach its coda in the Eucharist body, thought of by itself, but in that “reality for which Christ’s body is given, the Church.” The body on the altar is there for the sake of those gathered at the table. He states that, “The bread and the wine must be consumed… so that our definitive union with the Father may be consummated in them, through communion with the ecclesiastical body of his Son.”

Hence, Marion speaks of a threefold Eucharistic presence which we encounter sacramentally in time and space. Firstly, Marion highlights the ‘present’ given to us as a succession of past events, which do not really belong to the past, the Paschal Mystery.  Secondly, he notes that ‘present’ is given to us as an “eschatological future that is always, already arriving” taking possession of our present. This future is referred to by Christ as God’s reign which may erupt in our midst at any or every moment of life. Thirdly, Marion outlines the ‘present’ which is the everyday gift of our days. This ‘present’ refers to time as a gift gratuitously given to us from God. Time flows from God’s love that continues to pour out upon humanity as a result of the Paschal Mystery. While all three of these interpretations of the present are included in Marion’s theology of real presence, they do not exhaust his understanding of the present as at the heart of presence is the risen Christ. It is with these insights that Marion perceives a legitimate or even necessary role for Eucharistic devotion, adoration and contemplation.


All said and done, it must be recognised that Marion’s desire to guarantee the irreducible exteriority of Christ’s Eucharistic Real Presence and Transubstantiation can be explained and communicated through the retrieval of mystery that emerges quite clearly in his thought. The mysteries of the Real Presence and Transubstantiation exceed the comprehension and linguistic capabilities of humankind. As was previously highlighted Marion argues that Eucharistic theology cannot continue apart from a radical critique of self and a discipline of being comfortable with ambiguity. He states that the theologian’s conversion “… first requires prayer. In this sense, what we understand by the term ‘Eucharistic Adoration…assumes its true meaning. In prayer only, an ‘explanation’ becomes possible, in other words, a struggle between human impotence to receive and the insistent humility to God to fulfil.” The one who prays undertakes to let his/her gaze be converted in it—thus, in addition, to modify his/her thought in it.” In conclusion Marion’s thought delivers an imperative to the contemporary world which demands no less than an active and open response to the incarnation and presence of God in the Eucharist in our midst. Through the lens of phenomenology, we have to identify the idols blocking our progression toward a true understanding of the Eucharist.


Rev. Dr George Therukattil MCBS

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s