This article originally appeared in the July 21, 2021, edition of La Croix International. We are grateful to the author and editors for permission to reprint it here—Ed.
The Christian Church is at a stage in its history where the need to develop, listen to, and learn from new languages to speak of ancient mysteries is once again critical to its mission.
This is because our ecclesial and theological language has developed over centuries. What was understandable, and made sense of our environment, for 750 years is now less so, and hence less adequate to the task. We need to recognize that, and to find those who may be best equipped and encouraged to develop the language, and the answers, appropriate for today. Allow me to give a personal example.
As a child of Belgian immigrants to Canada, Flemish was the language initially spoken in our home, English following quickly behind.
When, in 1970, I first travelled to Belgium, I found that, within a day or two, I relatively easily spoke the language of the towns from which my ancestors came. From time to time, however, it became evident that I was using words and understandings that my cousins were aware of, but no longer used, were no longer applicable. They were speaking the language of today; I was speaking the language of 1910, when my parents and grandparents emigrated. I now faced a choice. I could attempt to persuade them that my language and understanding were the correct ones to be applied to reality, or I could learn their language and understanding. The former was an academic exercise, for those interested in museums and archives. The latter was a way of holding a conversation in which minds and hearts could be nourished, lives (theirs and mine) changed.
The language we use to speak about the Eucharist
It is with that in mind that we turn now to the task of speaking about the Church. While we will include other developments in language, we will focus on the Eucharist in particular. How we interpret our experience of eucharistic eating is determined to a great extent by the language we use in speaking about it. It is also because the Eucharist is a prime example of how changes in language alter the way we interpret its reality.
We understand that sacraments cause what they signify and signify what they cause. Or, as that oft-repeated statement says, “The Church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the Church.” Where the Eucharist is, then, the Church must also be, both making and being made by it. While that appears self-evident, we must also ask what we mean by “Eucharist”.
An awareness of changes and development in language and understanding over centuries can point our way to a future understanding. In Latin, we speak of sacramentum et res. The sacramentum or mystery is the action, the sign. The res we know to be the fruit of the sacrament, the reality which it brings about. Yet res literally means “thing”. It is valuable to remember this. We can talk about reality, but reality is beyond the capacity of all language to define it, encapsulate it.
The Scriptures and our developing understanding of language
We have new interpretations of reality because new experiences lead to new understandings, with new language being developed to speak about that reality as experienced. Scripture gives us some good examples. The OT Hebrew bāśār and the Aramaic word biśrî, both meaning “body”, were at different times understood as body and as self. Likewise, the Aramaic dĕmî or bidmî were understood as blood, but also as life itself. Similarly, the Greek sōma was understood not only as body but also as self. Whichever words were used, we were dealing with something beyond the merely physical. Body and self, blood and life were somehow synonymous. When the blood was gone from the body, life and indeed the self was gone. The connection was obvious and easy.
Our language and understanding have changed. We now know that while the body is necessary if the self is to have earthly expression, the self is more than the body. We know that blood, while necessary for animal life, is not itself life. As Bernard Prusak points out, Jesus used the term “body” to express what we intend to express when we use the term “self” or “person”. Language not only develops, its understanding today may well differ from what it was. Words such as body, blood, self, and person all become caught up in the term “eucharist”. It’s helpful, then, to see how our understanding and language surrounding it has changed over time.
Words to express a reality
Joseph Martos has shown that the noun ευχαριστια appears nowhere in the New Testament as the name of a Christian ritual. Instead, forms of the verb ευχαριστειν are used to express the giving of thanks, especially over food. Eucharist, in the days of the early Church, was understood as something one does. People gathered, not “to receive the Eucharist”, but “to eucharist”. There is a physical dimension to expressing this, as well.
For example, in Canada the bishops chose, in the English-language liturgy introduced in 2011, to have us remain standing after Communion. The result is that, instead of retreating to our individual acts of piety, we kinesthetically indicate that we are involved in a common meal and continue that involvement until all have eaten. As Gerard Kelly states, “It is not simply a matter of getting the ritual gestures right; it is rather a matter of the ritual gestures being indicative of a reality beyond the liturgical assembly.” This in no way suggests that people who gathered in the early Church to eucharist did not believe that they received Christ. Rather, receiving Christ present was part and parcel of the God-given fruit of eucharisting, of giving thanks.
What Latin has wrought
Translating the Bible into Latin brought about a significant change. The word Eucharist was transliterated, incorporated into Latin as a loan word—and took the form of a noun, morphing in meaning. The Greek word had meant thanksgiving and it referred to what Christians did when they worshiped. Now the Latin word became a proper noun—the Eucharist—and referred to the consecrated elements that were distributed to the faithful. There was still a sense of action, but the action was now relegated to the person with priestly powers, with the baptized standing by watching. The Eucharist became centered, not on the act of eating but on the real presence of Christ in that which was eaten.
Even today, we tend to think of Eucharist in noun form. And it’s a capitalized noun, because we are referring to a divine person, not a liturgical action. This has led to some mysterious twists, painfully experienced by many interchurch couples, who have been made one by God in the sacrament of marriage. Such couples will often find the non-Catholic spouse welcome to actively join in worship by way of the liturgy, including the Eucharistic prayer—i.e., “eucharisting”—but then not welcome to receive “the Eucharist”. The later transliterated Latin noun thus takes precedence over the earlier, scriptural verb.
The language of the eucharist/Eucharist/Mass changed in other ways, too. From the very first it had been called a sacrifice, a thusia, and commonly associated with a fellowship meal.
Thomas Aquinas and the medieval Aristotelians
Centuries later, when the full meal had evolved into a symbolic meal of bread and wine, the concept of sacrifice was still applied to Christian worship, but the meaning shifted, the emphasis being put on the sacred food rather than the meal. The Greek thusia was translated into the Latin sacrificium, literally something made sacred. From offerings to God through a fellowship meal, we moved to Christ being the pure sacrifice. This was the language and understanding that the schoolmen of the Middle Ages inherited.
In the Middle Ages, too, questions arose about what happens in the Eucharist. If we were receiving Christ, should we refer to what was happening as substitution, consubstantiation, or (eventually) transubstantiation? Aquinas and the Aristotelians were aware that something happened in the Eucharist, something changed in their presence, giving them an experience of the real presence of Christ, even if they did not yet have the words to explain it. They eventually developed that language from the works of Aristotle. And so, transubstantiation became an apt (even if not the only) way to speak about Eucharist.
No longer is the language of today
Yet, for more than half of its lifetime the Church did not know the word transubstantiation. Here again, a development in understanding led to a development in language, which led, in turn, to a new way of interpreting reality. The understanding of substance and substantial today may differ from that of Aquinas. In Aristotelian understanding, a substantia was a thing-in-itself; today, it is predominantly understood in adverbial or adjectival form. For example, this item is substantially different from that one, or perhaps one item or body of work is more substantial than another. Such language—used to speak about sacraments in general, and Eucharist in particular—was in common use and intelligible for some 750 years, until the middle of the twentieth century. It is no longer the language in use today, and to a great extent is no longer intelligible.
The language of Aristotle and the Scholastics has given way to a contemporary language that ranges from similar words with different understandings and nuances, through to entirely different words that speak about experiences of the realities, perhaps casting new light and new understanding on those ancient rituals and realities. It is that new understanding which must now be explored, and in some sense even developed. And it is in this development that the young people of today, and especially the children of interchurch families, may have something very significant to offer, if we will expend the time and energy to listen to them.
Ray Temmerman (Catholic) and his wife Fenella (Anglican) are active in the Interchurch Families International Network. Ray administers the Network’s website, available here. He offers a fuller exploration of the topic covered in this article here.