The show American Pickers features professional antique collectors that travel the county rummaging through people’s junk in hopes of finding valuable riches. While many times their picking yields no treasure, there are those special moments they find significant fortunes among the clutter of trash. This show illuminates the dramatic story that at times what most people perceive as mundane, ordinary stuff is really valuable treasure in disguise waiting to be discovered.
In a similar vein, the Catholic Church asserts that what appears to be common bread and wine holds the biggest treasure of them all – the God of the universe. What separates Catholicism from every religion is that Catholicism boldly declares that despite what our human senses suggest, after an ordained priest consecrates bread and wine during the Mass, the substance changes from bread and wine into the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ while remaining under the physical appearance as bread and wine.
Thomas Aquinas coined the phrase “transubstantiation” to describe this teaching. Transubstantiation means a change of substance has taken place while appearing not to change to the human senses. Now, there are many instances in the Bible where bread and wine are used to connect man with God. Additionally, Jesus asserted that bread and wine are his body and blood with such statements as “This is my body”. . . . “This is my blood” (Matthew 26: 26-28) and where the Apostle Paul confirmed this teaching (see 1 Corinthians 10:16, 11: 23-25, 27-29). Additionally, there is the famous discourse where Jesus spoke to the crowd as coming down as bread to be consumed in which he becomes present:
“I am the bread of life” (John 6:32, 48) . . . “and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6: 51).
“The Jews then disputed among themselves saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat? So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life . . . For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. . . This is the bread which came down from heaven . . . he who eats this bread will live forever” (John 6:52-58).
Despite these verses and the testimony from the early Church, the concept of transubstantiation is where most people get off the Catholic bus. Internally, they will say, “You mean to tell me after the words of consecration the bread and wine go from ordinary bread and wine to the actual body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus while at the same time looking and feeling like bread and wine?” Yes, hard to grasp but this is exactly what the Church is asserting. As we naturally become puzzled by this teaching, allow me to demonstrate how this is possible.
Words can alter reality
First, let’s consider the power of words. Our puny human words can be enormously powerful. Cognitive Dissonance Theory in psychology illustrates that words people say to you (whether positive or negative) affect your moods and perhaps can change the outlook of your whole life. Anyone can think of a time when words spoken to them altered their attitude and thoughts. Moreover, the higher degree of authority in which these words are spoken, the more the words affect reality. If a man is on trial for a crime and he says, “I’m innocent,” his words hold little influence on reality. However, as the authority increases to a judge and jury in a court of law stating, “Guilty,” these words actually change reality. Whether the accuser likes it or not, the jury’s words dramatically alter his reality. By stating the words, “Guilty” that man’s world is transformed as he now has to spend the rest of his life in prison. However, if the jury stated the words, “Not guilty” these words would have a profound impact on reality. Therefore, certain people’s authority allows their words to significantly transform reality.
Let’s take another example. If I were watching a football game at home and after seeing a sideline catch in the end-zone yelled, “Touchdown,” my words do not have the authority to affect reality in that the play becomes a touchdown and points are added to the scoreboard. If, however, a referee who stands in position of higher authority says “No touchdown,” whether I like it or not, the referee’s words of “No touchdown” means no points will be added to the scoreboard. So, in many instances we see that words spoken by those in position of authority change reality.
Now, if our feeble human words can affect reality think how much more God’s words can alter the world. In Genesis, the author is showcasing how God speaks creation into existence. God says, “Let there be light,” and then there was light. Throughout creation God speaks, and his authority creates, and impacts reality in a profound way. In fact, if God is ultimate reality and words describe and affect reality, we can say that God is the Word – that which is reality. The Apostle John, in fact, does say this directly when he declares, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Then, John illuminated that Jesus is this very Word (God) in human form, when he stated, “The Word [God] made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Here, the Word becomes physically present with all of humanity. Not only does the incarnation make God present, his presence has God’s authority. Jesus stated plainly, “All authority on heaven and earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28: 18). Therefore, Jesus comes with the exact same authority as God the Father.
When Jesus speaks, real things happen. Jesus said, “Lazarus come out,” and the dead man came out. Jesus declared, “Little girl, I say to you rise” And what happened? The authoritative words Jesus said affected reality because it reads, “And immediately the girl got up and walked” (Mark 5:42). We see how words from the ultimate authority, God, can dramatically affect reality. What is fascinating is that Jesus passed this power and authority to have words alter reality to his apostles when he declared, “As the Father has sent me so I send you.” (John 20: 21). How did the Father send Jesus? With all authority of heaven and earth in which his words had a powerful affect on reality. So, now Jesus is transmitting his power to the apostles in which he breathes on them the Holy Spirit (see also Luke 10:16, Matthew 28: 18-19).
Additionally, the apostles themselves passed on this privilege to their successors (see 1 Timothy 6:20, 2 Timothy 1:6, 13-14, 2:2, Acts 1:20). Moreover, if you go back to the letters of the early Church Fathers, you’ll come to the conclusion that this powerful authority has been transmitted in an unbroken chain of succession that is found today with Catholic priests. That is, Jesus power of words when he said “This is my body” and “This is my blood,” is transferred down through the ages in the Church precisely so his priests can “do this in memory of me” as he instructed them to do. Given all this, we now come to the dramatic conclusion that an ordained priest’s words have the power to alter reality when he speaks during the Mass just as Jesus words altered reality at the Last Supper.
The Errors of Human Senses
Now, most people will concede, yes, Jesus’ words and the words of his priests through the centuries have the power to change reality. Our real hangup with transubstantiation is that we don’t see it with our senses. A common phrase you’ll hear from Protestant ministers is, “It’s just a wafer.” When they say this, they are basically saying, “According to my human senses, I don’t see Jesus. I see and taste a piece of wafer.” They are basing their entire belief on their human senses over and above Biblical and historical testimony. However, to put your trust on flawed human senses is like putting your trust in a monkey to solve a math problem for you – it’s incredibly unreliable. Let’s go through some basic examples to show how limited our human senses are. There are over a million microbes of bacteria in your ears, mouth, and nose right now. Do you feel it or see them? Right now the earth is moving around the sun at a velocity of 66,600 mph. Add to that dizzying notion the fact that we are spinning (at the equator) at a 1,000 miles-per-hour clip. Do you feel this? You have millions of electromagnetic waves traveling through your body right now. Do you know this with your senses?
In fact, when we zoom in on objects in the world, our senses very much deceive us about what these objects really are. Take a quarter for example. A quarter looks and feels like a solid object. However, if we put a quarter (or any object) under a microscope do you know what science tells us? This quarter is not solid at all. A quarter is 99.9999999% empty space. If you distilled the matter in this quarter down to its essence, you couldn’t see it. It would have no solidness. The elementary particles, the most basic element of a quarter consists of atoms. Within an atom is empty space in which tiny quarks come together as protons, electrons, and neutrons. The reason a quarter looks solid is because there are millions of electrons moving at the speed of light. Now, this mind numbing fact is true of all objects – a quarter, a car, even your own body! We may recognize that an object has mass, but when we zoom in on this object, the mass that we perceive is an illusion of our senses. (the mass is a result of the resistance in the interaction of billions of atoms).
Also, the color of that quarter appears to be silver. However, did you know that objects do not possess a true color? Rather, they reflect wavelengths of light that are interpreted as a certain color when cone receptors send signals to the human brain. However, certain animals have more types of cone receptors in their retina, which enable them to see more vivid colors in ultraviolet light. Therefore, to a bumblebee those roses we see are not red after all. Do we begin to see how our senses fail to pick up the full reality in the physical world?
In fact, modern science can only detect 4% of all matter and energy in the entire universe. Of this 4%, our 5 limited senses detect approximately 0% of this. Think about this. If our senses don’t even understand the real substance of a quarter from its color to its physical elements, do you think our senses can grasp the real substance of a consecrated host that comes from a man ordained with Jesus’ power? Therefore, if a person is basing his whole theological and faith perspective on his senses this makes about as much sense as investing your entire financial savings on the advice of a seven year-old.
We only have 5 modes to grasp the reality of the external world – sight, hear, smell, touch and taste. As we can see, these 5 modes represent an imperfect vantage point in which we miss much. Trying to see full reality with our human senses is like trying to watch an antenna television with bad reception – it won’t give you a clear picture. As Paul indicated, “For now we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). And in this dim setting we live, Paul makes it clear that we must “walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
Shakespeare as well articulated this in Hamlet when Hamlet told Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed up in your philosophy.” Loosely translated this statement communicates there is much more going on in reality than your mind can comprehend. In other words, your human senses won’t come close to grasping ultimate reality.
Similar to what Shakespeare is suggesting the Catholic Church teaches in a way that suggests there are many realities that we don’t see but very much exist. Perhaps one of the most substantial is the real presence in the Eucharist. Much like God’s words affect reality, and much like physical reality is hidden from our senses, reality is altered at the Mass in a way that our human senses cannot pick up but only a humble seeker can see (cf. John 9:39, Matthew 11:25, 13:13-15, 2 Cor 4:18).
Aquinas famously said, “Sight, touch, and taste in thee are each deceived; the ear alone most safely is believed; I believe all the Son of God has spoken, than through his own word there is no truer token.” Much is packed into God’s word. Moreover, this Word most literally became flesh and still gives us his flesh in the Eucharist.
So, next time you’re at Mass, realize that while your senses may suggest the bread and wine are “no big deal,” the reality is you’ve just stumbled upon the greatest treasure in the world. And this is a much bigger find than anything you’ll see on American Pickers.