More good stuff from James Alison (previous posts 1 | 2), this time in relation to the Lord’s Supper, where he uses a lovely analogy to explain transubstantiation – though, as we will see, I think his analogy works equally well with the Lutheran understanding of the Supper.
The analogy Dr Alison uses is that of “Magic Eye” images: those “glossy, colourful, two-dimensional pictures of what appear to be a series of wavy lines or patterns” which, upon being looked at in the right way, suddenly resolve themselves into a 3D image. (Or, if you’re me, don’t. But let’s not let that spoil a good analogy!)
As Dr Alison points out:
there is no magic trick here at all. The 3-D image is embedded in the wavy-lined pattern by an artist, and there is nothing subjective about what can be seen. It is not that some people looking at a “Magic Eye” picture see Dolphins, and others a Wensleydale cheese. Nor do the eyes need to be strained in order to see the image. The stereoscopic functioning of the brain will pick up what is there if given half a chance by the viewer, which may mean that the viewer must learn to un-strain their gaze.
Dr Alison describes a similar process occurring during the Eucharist:
[A]s we relax into our thanksgiving, so the apparent pattern which we are seeing, and taking part in – words of scripture, prayers, priest, gestures and symbols of bread and wine – becomes the contour of something else, something 3-D, and we find ourselves actually participating in the heavenly liturgy which we know to be just there, but cannot usually see.
What occurs is a “shift from the perception that it is we who are doing something, to the realisation that someone is doing something to, and for us”:
The 3-D picture kicks in. Not dolphins, but a Great High Priest, who is also a slaughtered lamb, coming out of the veil-less Holy of Holies, and giving us his body and sprinkling us with his blood.
What’s more, with a Magic Eye image, we come to realise that “there are not two separate pictures present simultaneously, one picture consisting of wavy lines, and another consisting of 3-D dolphins”. Rather, we realise that the wavy lines are merely “the contours which make possible the presence of the 3-D dolphins”.
Dr Alison argues that this is why the Roman Catholic Church teaches transubstantiation rather than consubstantiation:
Once the elements have been made alive to the reality of which they have become the living sign, their “breadness” and “wineness” are nothing but the contours of that reality, and not a “thing” in themselves at all. […]
Jesus’ showing forth his self-giving is not something hidden by the elements of bread and wine; the elements of bread and wine are the manifestation of what that self-giving looks like and is.
This may appear to contradict the Lutheran understanding of the Supper, which is not “consubstantiation”, but which does assert that the bread and wine continue to exist while also being the body and blood of Christ.
However, I’d argue that the Lutheran understanding actually fits Dr Alison’s analogy slightly better than transubstantiation. After all, the wavy lines are still there; the point is that they are no longer significant to what is happening. In the same way, the bread and wine in the Supper are still there, but that’s not where our attention should lie.
Rather than focusing on the 2D wavy lines of the bread and wine, Jesus’ word calls us to relax our gaze and look upon (and eat and drink) the 3D presence of his body and blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.