The Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament
The Church of the first millennium knew nothing of tabernacles. Instead, first the shrine of the Word, and then even moreso the altar, served as sacred “tent”. Approached by steps, it was sheltered, and its sacredness underscored, by a “ciborium”, or marble baldacchino, with burning lamps hanging from it. A curtain was hung between the columns of the ciborium (Bouyer, pp.46–48). The tabernacle as sacred tent, as place of the Shekinah, the presence of the living Lord, developed only in the second millennium. It was the fruit of passionate theological struggles and their resulting clarifications, in which the permanent presence of Christ in the consecrated Host emerged with greater clarity. Now here we run up against the decadence theory, the canonization of the early days and romanticism about the first century. Transubstantiation (the substantial change of the bread and wine), the adoration of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, eucharistic devotions with monstrance and processions—all these things, it is alleged, are medieval errors, errors from which we must once and for all take our leave. “The Eucharistic Gifts are for eating, not for looking at”—these and similar slogans are all too familiar. The glib way such statements are made is quite astonishing when we consider the intense debates in the history of dogma, theology, and ecumenism undertaken by the great theologians in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. All that seems now to be forgotten.
It is not the intention of this little book to enter into these theological discussions in detail. It is plain for all to see that already for St. Paul bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, that it is the risen Lord himself who is present and gives himself to us to eat. The vigor with which the Real Presence is emphasized in John chapter 6 could hardly be surpassed. For the Church Fathers, too, from the earliest witnesses onward— just think of St. Justin Martyr or St. Ignatius of Antioch—there is no doubt about the great mystery of the Presence bestowed upon us, about the change of the gifts during the Eucharistic Prayer. Even a theologian of such a spiritualizing tendency as St. Augustine never had a doubt about it. Indeed, he shows just how far confession of faith in the Incarnation and Resurrection, which is so closely bound up with eucharistic faith in the bodily presence of the risen Lord, has transformed Platonism. “Flesh and blood” have received a new dignity and entered into the Christian’s hope for eternal life. An important finding of Henri de Lubac has often been misunderstood. It has always been clear that the goal of the Eucharist is our own transformation, so that we become “one body and spirit” with Christ (cf. I Cor 6:17). This correlation of ideas—the insight that the Eucharist is meant to transform us, to change humanity itself into the living temple of God, into the Body of Christ—was expressed, up to the early Middle Ages, by the twin concepts of corpus mysticum and corpus verum. In the vocabulary of the Fathers, mysticum did not mean “mystical” in the modern sense, but rather “pertaining to the mystery, the sphere of the sacrament”. Thus the phrase corpus mysticum was used to express the sacramental Body, the corporeal presence of Christ in the Sacrament. According to the Fathers, that Body is given to us, so that we may become the corpus verum, the real Body of Christ. Changes in the use of language and the forms of thought resulted in the reversal of these meanings. The Sacrament was now addressed as the corpus verum, the “True Body,” while the Church was called the corpus mysticum, the “Mystical Body”, “mystical” here meaning no longer “sacramental” but “mysterious”. Many people have drawn the conclusion from de Lubac’s careful description of the linguistic change that a hitherto unknown realism , indeed naturalism, was now forcing its way into eucharistic doctrine, and the large views of the Fathers were giving way to a static and one-sided idea of the Real Presence.
It is true that this linguistic change also represented a spiritual development, but we should not describe it in the slanted way just mentioned. We can agree that something of the eschatological dynamism and corporate character (the sense of “we”) of eucharistic faith was lost or at least diminished. As we saw above, the Blessed Sacrament contains a dynamism, which has the goal of transforming mankind and the world into the New Heaven and New Earth, into the unity of the risen Body. This truth was not seen so vividly as before. Again, the Eucharist is not aimed primarily at the individual. Eucharistic personalism is a drive toward union, the overcoming of the barriers between God and man, between “I” and “thou” in the new “we” of the communion of saints. People did not exactly forget this truth, but they were not so clearly aware of it as before. There were, therefore, losses in Christian awareness, and in our time we must try to make up for them, but still there were gains overall. True, the Eucharistic Body of the Lord is meant to bring us together, so that we become his “true Body”. But the gift of the Eucharist can do this only because in it the Lord gives us his true Body. Only the true Body in the Sacrament can build up the true Body of the new City of God. This insight connects the two periods and provides our starting point.
The early Church was already well aware that the bread once changed remains changed. That is why they reserved it for the sick, and that is why they showed it such reverence, as is still the case today in the Eastern Church. But now, in the Middle Ages, this awareness is deepened: the gift is changed. The Lord has definitively drawn this piece of matter to himself. It does not contain just a matter-of-fact kind of gift. No, the Lord himself is present, the Indivisible One, the risen Lord, with Flesh and Blood, with Body and Soul, with Divinity and Humanity. The whole Christ is there. In the early days of the Liturgical Movement, people sometimes argued for a distinction between the “thing-centered” view of the Eucharist in the patristic age and the personalistic view of the post-medieval period. The Eucharistic Presence, they said, was understood, not as the presence of a Person, but as the presence of a gift distinct from the Person. This is nonsense. Anyone reading the texts will find that there is no support anywhere for these ideas. How is the Body of Christ supposed to become a “thing”? The only presence is the presence of the whole Christ. Receiving the Eucharist does not mean eating a “thing-like” gift (Body and Blood?). No, there is a person-to person exchange, a coming of the one into the other. The living Lord gives himself to me, enters into me, and invites me to surrender myself to him, so that the Apostle’s words come true: “[I]t is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Only thus is the reception of Holy Communion an act that elevates and transforms a man.
“He is here, he himself, the whole of himself, and he remains here.” This realization came upon the Middle Ages with a wholly new intensity. It was caused in part by the deepening of theological reflection, but still more important was the new experience of the saints, especially in the Franciscan movement and in the new evangelization undertaken by the Order of Preachers. What happens in the Middle Ages is not a misunderstanding due to losing sight of what is central, but a new dimension of the reality of Christianity opening up through the experience of the saints, supported and illuminated by the reflection of the theologians. At the same time, this new development is in complete continuity with what had always been believed hitherto. Let me say it again: This deepened awareness of faith is impelled by the knowledge that in the consecrated species he is there and remains there. When a man experiences this with every fiber of his heart and mind and senses, the consequence is inescapable: “We must make a proper place for this Presence.” And so little by little the tabernacle takes shape, and more and more, always in a spontaneous way, it takes the place previously occupied by the now disappeared “Ark of the Covenant”. In fact, the tabernacle is the complete fulfillment of what the Ark of the Covenant represented. It is the place of the “Holy of Holies.” It is the tent of God, his throne. Here he is among us. His presence (Shekinah) really does now dwell among us—in the humblest parish church no less than in the grandest cathedral. Even though the definitive Temple will only come to be when the world has become the New Jerusalem, still what the Temple in Jerusalem pointed to is here present in a supreme way. The New Jerusalem is anticipated in the humble species of bread.
So let no one say, “The Eucharist is for eating, not looking at.” It is not “ordinary bread”, as the most ancient traditions constantly emphasize. Eating it—as we have just said—is a spiritual process, involving the whole man. “Eating” it means worshipping it. Eating it means letting it come into me, so that my “I” is transformed and opens up into the great “we,” so that we become “one” in him (cf. Gal 3:16). Thus adoration is not opposed to Communion, nor is it merely added to it. No, Communion only reaches its true depths when it is supported and surrounded by adoration. The Eucharistic Presence in the tabernacle does not set another view of the Eucharist alongside or against the Eucharistic celebration, but simply signifies its complete fulfillment. For this Presence has the effect, of course, of keeping the Eucharist forever in church. The church never becomes a lifeless space but is always filled with the presence of the Lord, which comes out of the celebration, leads us into it, and always makes us participants in the cosmic Eucharist. What man of faith has not experienced this?
A church without the Eucharistic Presence is somehow dead, even when it invites people to pray. But a church in which the eternal light is burning before the tabernacle is always alive, is always something more than a building made of stones. In this place the Lord is always waiting for me, calling me, wanting to make me “eucharistic”. In this way, he prepares me for the Eucharist, sets me in motion toward his return.
The changes in the Middle Ages brought losses, but they also provided a wonderful spiritual deepening. They unfolded the magnitude of the mystery instituted at the Last Supper and enabled it to be experienced with a new fullness. How many saints—yes, including saints of the love of neighbor—were nourished and led to the Lord by this experience! We must not lose this richness. If the presence of the Lord is to touch us in a concrete way, the tabernacle must also find its proper place in the architecture of our church buildings.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, regarded as one of the world’s foremost theologians, has written numerous books and articles on theology and spirituality. He currently serves as His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI.
This article can be found as Part II, Chapter 4 of Pope Benedict XVI’s book The Spirit of the Liturgy, available from Ignatius Press.