The Solemnity of Corpus Christi proclaims the truth that the Incarnate Son of God, having ascended to His Father’s right hand in heaven, remains present and active in His Church “until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).
The truth of Christ’s substantial presence in the Holy Eucharist involves two closely related—though not identical—doctrines, those of transubstantiation and of the Real Presence. Survey data tells the sad story that even many Catholics today do not believe in or even understand these doctrines.
In his sermons for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, given over the course of three decades at Corpus Christi Church, London, and in his other writings on the Eucharist, Ronald Knox (1888-1957) sheds a great deal of light on the most important truths concerning the what St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church call the “Sacrament of sacraments.” Knox’s teaching is that of the Church’s Tradition, especially as expressed magisterially by the Council of Trent and theologically by St. Thomas.
Knox, one of the great preachers and apologists of the English-Catholic world during the first half of the twentieth century, wrote very often on the Real Presence. Knox explains the Eucharistic mystery with coherence, lucidity, warmth, and persuasion. The astounding truth of the Real Presence is always prominent in Knox’s sermons and other writings on the Eucharist. He never ceases to marvel at Christ’s condescension in coming to his people under the appearances of bread and wine. The startling and awe-inspiring fact of Christ’s presence constantly presses itself upon Knox’s imagination, and he tries in corresponding measure to share the wonders of Christ’s Eucharistic presence with his readers and hearers.
Knox accepts the doctrine of the Real Presence as part of the Church’s unbroken Tradition, guaranteed by the words of Christ himself.1 A starting-point in thinking about Knox’s understanding of the Real Presence is its distinction from the other ways in which God is present in the world. Of course, God is present everywhere, at all times. Having created us as sensory creatures, however, God gives himself to us in a way that appeals even to our senses. “Because he knows how much we all depend on our ordinary ways of thinking, he has not been content with all the ordinary gifts which he bestows on us.” No, he has left us the Eucharist, in which Christ is present in a manner different from that in which he is present everywhere. The Eucharist allows us to say concretely and directly, “Here is God” and even, “This is God.”2
For Knox, the whole sacramental life of the Church is a continuation of the Incarnate Christ’s presence and activity in the world. The Eucharist is an even more startling act of condescension on God’s part than the Incarnation: “And if, in his Incarnation, God stooped towards us and condescended to our level by uniting his Divine Nature with a human nature, which, though created, was created in his image, was part of his spiritual creation, how much lower he stoops, how much more he condescends, when he hides himself in the Holy Eucharist, veiled under the forms of immaterial, insensible things!”3
In the Eucharist the whole Christ is substantially present: “In the sacred Host, in each sacred Host, the whole Body of Christ is present, his Body, his Blood, his Soul, his Divinity.”4 And this is so in all of the places where the Blessed Sacrament is throughout the world. “Christ is present; is present in space, though not under the conditions of space.”5 In his incarnate life, Christ assumed a full human nature, including the limitations of time and space.6
After his Ascension, Christ chooses to become present sacramentally in such a way that allows both for his full, substantial presence and for that presence to occur down through the ages and all over the world. Of all of the miracles Christ performed in his earthly life, the institution of the Eucharist was his greatest.7 It also was and remains an act of unfathomable mercy on Christ’s part: “We are not worthy of the least of his mercies, and he gives us—himself!”8 Knox continues in the same sermon, “And, above all, the grace of the Holy Eucharist, no transient influence of the divine mercy but God himself, is lavished upon us with reckless bounty; we have but to stoop to gather it, and it is ours!”9
In the Eucharist, Christ gives to his faithful not what is their due, since it is impossible for them to earn so great a gift, but rather he gives himself out of the greatness of his love and munificence. Christ allows for easy access to himself in the Eucharist, knowing the risks brought by familiarity and accepting them for the sake of giving himself to his people:
God forgive us, we despise his graces because he has made them so cheap for us; the heavenly bread which is offered us without money and without price we put down, for that reason, as not worth having! That is not the law of the divine economy. All the graces bestowed on our blessed Lady and the saints, all the visions and ecstasies and the power of working miracles, are not to be compared in value with what he gives us in holy communion; for that is himself. This gift, which is himself, is not for the few, but for everybody. O res mirabilis, manducat Dominum pauper, servus et humilis: we are all paupers in his sight, all slaves, all creatures of earth, and he will make no distinction between us. He only asks that we should purge our consciences of mortal sin, and so come to him, asking him to bring just what he wants to give us, just what he knows that we need. “I am he who bade this be done; I will supply what is lacking to thee; come, and receive me.”10
Knox emphasizes that the Eucharist is a gift given by Christ to his people, “a gift surpassing all the riches of the world, himself.”11 This truth is clear from the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In one sermon, Knox asks his hearers to contemplate the image of Christ holding the Sacred Host and chalice at the Last Supper, depicted in so many works of art. This image offers an intimate look at the relationship between the Incarnation and Christ’s sacramental presence:
Think, for a moment, of the paradox which that involves—the figure of our Lord at the last supper. You see before you what seems to be the form of a man; that man is Jesus Christ, his body, his blood, his manhood, his divinity. You also see before you what seems to represent a round disc of bread. That which looks like bread is also Jesus Christ, his body, his blood, his manhood, his divinity. Jesus Christ, then, holds himself in his hands. Host and banquet, priest and victim, are one.12
Another image Knox uses is that of a looking-glass. When a person looks into a looking-glass and sees his or her reflection, the appearance is exactly that of the person looking, but without any corresponding substance. In the Holy Eucharist, the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood is present, but without the corresponding appearances.13 Knox again considers the moment when Christ held the Sacred Host at the Last Supper:
His eyes were fixed on something that didn’t look like himself but was himself. It looked like an ordinary piece of bread; but the reality wasn’t just a piece of bread. The reality was something more real than that. It was himself, who is reality. What looked like a piece of bread was, you see, a kind of supernatural mirror—not reflecting, as other mirrors do, the appearance without the reality; it reflected the reality without the appearance.14
Knox compares, rather than contrasts, the Eucharist with a looking-glass insofar as each can be broken with the effect of multiplying the reality involved. A person looking into multiple broken pieces of a mirror sees his or her reflection in each one, rather than seeing his or her once integral reflection now divided amongst the pieces. So too, with the Eucharist, when the Host is broken each part contains the whole Christ, not some part of him: “The reality has reproduced itself in each broken fragment, the whole reality, and it remains real as ever.”15
The Real Presence is the fully concentrated presence of the Lord, who in return summons our fully concentrated attention. Knox compares the Eucharistic presence of Christ with the heat of the sun:
As the rays of the sun, whose heat is present everywhere, are caught and focused in a single point by the lens of a burning-glass, so our Lord will have these celestial visitations of his focused for us, crystallized and concentrated for us under the forms of outward things, when he comes to us through his sacred humanity in the Holy Eucharist.16
As with any such images, this one has its limitations, but Knox is making an attempt to describe a great mystery with as much truth, clarity, and vividness as possible. And he is careful to use such images with integrity, at times alluding both to the similarities and differences of the two realities he considers and not overstating their similarities for the sake of the preacher’s convenience. In this case, for example, the analogy “limps” at the point when one considers that not literally all of the sun’s heat is concentrated through such a lens, whereas the whole Christ is indeed present in the Eucharist.
Yet Knox’s point here is to help people understand that while Christ in his divinity is present everywhere, he is nevertheless fully present in a distinct and special way in the Holy Eucharist. And this Real Presence by its very nature calls for the central place in the lives, minds, and hearts of men.
“In a world of shifting values, there is one fixed point on which our hearts can rest, one fixed star by which our intellects can be guided,” Knox writes. “It is the personal presence of our Lord on earth, yesterday, today, and as long as the earth endures.”17
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