Posted by: mattcolvin | January 12, 2010

The Fruit of Consecrationism

I use the term “consecrationism” to mean any eucharistic theory in which the elements are changed by the activity of the officiant, whether Paschasius Radbertus’ crassly physical, or Thomas Aquinas’ subtler transsubstantiation; Lutheran “in, with, and under” language; and other views in which Christ’s presence in the eucharist is located in the elements.

Christopher Elwood’s book “The Body Broken: The Calvinist Doctrine of the Eucharist and the Symbolization of Power in Sixteenth-Century France” includes a helpful chapter surveying what happened to medieval eucharistic piety as a result of consecrationism:

This was the doctrine approved by the church at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and thereafter the realistic conception of the sacramental presence constituted the only orthodox option in Western Christian sacramental thought. These theological developments were accompanied by parallel developments in popular devotion. The emphasis placed upon the conversion of the elements into Christ’s true body was reflected in a popular fascination with the consecrated elements themselves and particularly with seeing the elements. The focus of the liturgy came to be the moment of transformation and the point at which the host was elevated for the congregation to see, a practice introduced early in the thirteenth century. The eagerness to see the consecrated host was abetted by the church’s policy of encouraging acts of devotion to the sacrament, particularly the adoration of the host. Seeing the host increasingly became far more important for most Christians than actual reception, which had become very infrequent, required by the church only once a year. According to some accounts, a majority of those who came to witness the miracle of the presence entered only when they heard the sance bell announcing the approach of the consecration, and then after having seen the host left immediately “running and fleeing, as if they have seen the devil.” Observations such as these testify not only to the popular fascination with seeing the divine present though hidden in the sacred wafer but also to a kind of fear or awe often associated with encounters with a numinous presence. The host was for most people a divine epiphany, and the infrequency of actual reception of the sacrament only increased the popular sense of reverence for the eucharist. The conception that regarded the sacrament as a powerful locus of the divine presence was further underlined by the policy of restricting the privilege of handling the sacred elements to the clergy. The great power and efficacy of the sacrament and the great benefits that could be obtained simply from glimpsing the consecrated host are suggested by the popular beliefs concerning its effects: that one is protected from sudden death and blindness on a day one has seen the sacrament, or that one does not age in the time spent regarding the host…

To meet the need created by the popular fascination with seeing and worshiping the sacred host, the church began to institute the practice of reserving the consecrated bread in a monstrance or tabernacle upon the altar for the adoration of the people outside of the Mass. From this practice developed other extraliturgical uses of the sacrament, most notably the processions in which the host was taken out of the church for the viewing of those who might gather for the occasion, for the hallowing of areas external to the church building – particularly spaces with special local economic importance, or for protection from the onset of natural calamities. These extraliturgical uses led naturally, in many cases, to magical applications of the sacrament…

[In the Corpus Christi festival, m]embers of guilds and confraternities, as well as the municipal magistrates, all joined in the cortege, usually in positions that reflected and reinforced the established hierarchy. The mood in many cases was celebrative and boisterous, but there are suggestions of a certain solemnity also, especially around the centerpiece of the procession – the corpus Domini, the body of Christ, hidden under the form of the consecrated wafer. The dominant thwar was the majesty of the hidden divine presence, and because the first Corpus Christi processions were probably modeled on earlier eucharistic processions on Palm Sunday there were many echoes of the entry of Jesus as Messiah into Jerusalem…Crosses were carried ahead of the sacred host, and many of those who processed carried the banners and seals of their parishes or corporations…The host, as the locus of the divine presence, required a suitably precious and ornate vessel, a costly monstrance or tabernacle that was carried by a clergyman. In the latter half of the fourteenth century it became customary to carry the host under a canopy of fine fabric, often richly decorated, and typically the canopy’s staves were carried by prominent layment who were prohibited from carrying the host itself but welcomed the honor of supporting this symbol of divine dignity…

By the late fourteenth century most municipalities had wrested control of the procession from the church and had deigned an observance that local leaders hoped would either reflect or create anew the conditions necessary for social peace and cohesion. Thus the several politically significant corporations, craft guilds, confraternities, and the local magistracy all took part in the procession and were arranged about the symbolic enter — the sacred host — in positions that testified to their relative social status. In general, those processing nearest to the host occupied the position of greatest dignity. Although the laity were forbidden from carrying the host itself, usually politically powerful laymen were granted the privilege of carrying the canopy that stood over the symbol of divine majesty. Frequently, however, the most prominent political figures took up a place next to but slightly separated from the contingent of clergy, candle and canopy bearers who stood about the sacrament, so as to call attention to their presence and their special position…

All this is perfectly consistent with transsubstantiationist theology. If Jesus is really in the wafer, then it is appropriate to worship it, not merely to chew it.

The graded positions of participants in the Corpus Christi processions are evidence that the rest of medieval society learned well the lesson that the Roman clergy were teaching them. By stressing the superiority of the priests, who alone could touch with their hands the sacred species, Rome instructed the medieval laity to understand the Eucharist as an instrument of social stratification. They were quick to imitate their clerical teachers.

Thus the stoicheia, the “weak and beggarly principles” (Gal. 4:9), triumphed in the very sacrament that was intended to put them to death.

By contrast, a Hebraic understanding of the Lord’s Supper would concern itself with Paul’s dictum: “We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” And indeed, though their Passover is devoid of Christ. the Jews at least got this much right. For the Talmud’s regulations of the Passover are not concerned with transformation or with spiritual “grace received” in the sacrament; nor even with the semiotic or theological “meaning” of the elements. No, the Talmud legislates on who must eat (everyone present who eats solid food), and how much bread (a minimum of the size of an olive).

This is an area in which the church would do well to imitate the Jews.


  1. I’ve formulated an argument in which Christ is truly present in the Supper, but not in the elements. He is the Host, the one who gives us the food and eats with us, as the HS draws us into the heavenly, true tabernacle (Heb. 12:24). He is there as the priest, and he gives us the bread of the presence, which has already been offered to God and is now given back to us. I’ve found that the crassly physical categories of medievalism were not totally escaped by even the 17th century confessions…

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