Why Doesn’t Bread Talk? The Troubling Silence of the Eucharist

A little over a year ago, I made a remarkable discovery. Like all truly great discoveries, it was one that countless others have made before me. I came to believe that the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist was true. As an Evangelical Christian, however, it troubled me. One aspect in particular was what I saw as the silenceof the Eucharist. Simply put, why didn’t the Eucharist, you know, talk?

It might seem strange to ask why bread and wine didn’t talk but in my tumultuous journey from Evangelicalism to the Catholic Church, it was just the sort of strange question that occurred to me. I knew that God could easily make bread and wine talk if He wanted to so why not?

On the face of it, the Eucharist does not literally speak because it remains, in all sensible (i.e. apparent to our senses) ways, bread and wine. Only it’s essence, it’s substance, it’s inner reality is changed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, just as He said “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood.” I hardly need to point out that bread and wine do not tend to actually talk, so neither would the Eucharist. Makes sense, right?

Yeah… But that common-sense answer left me just as troubled, however, as warnings against “mute idols,” echoed in my mind.[1]After all, if the Eucharist really was Christ, why shouldn’t it speak? And were these nasty Catholics just trapping Christ in silence under the appearance of venerating Him?

Jacek Yerka, The Silence, 1978

Jacek Yerka, The Silence, 1978

My fears about this silence derived from a misunderstanding (or at least an incomplete understanding) of what it means that Christ is the Word of God. It does not mean that Christ must always be talking. The Word of God, however, is not first and foremost the word as words but the Word made flesh.[2] As the Catechism makes clear, “the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book.’ Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, a word which is ‘not a written and mute word, but the Word which is incarnate and living.’”[3] Coming to understand that, I knew I had to re-evaluate the way I conceived of God ‘speaking.’

God ‘speaks’ through more than words. Indeed, in relation to God, ‘speech’ is something of a figure of speech itself that refers primarily to God’s self-revelation through “perceptible signs (words and actions) accessible to our human nature.”[4] The Eucharist is one such perceptible sign and in that sense, “speaks” insofar as it communicates meaning. The Eucharist, however, also enables us to have communion with Christ as we share in His life.

The sort of knowledge that comes through speech pales to nothing compared to the knowledge that comes through inter-personal communion, “a dynamic relationship of self-giving with others.”[7] The glory of Christian revelation is that it culminates, not in the giving of propositions, but in the sharing of persons as Christ gives Himself to us every day in the Holy Eucharist, communing and communicating with us. As such, the Eucharist could never be silent because in it, we have communion with Christ.

The Eucharist is also not silent because it is never estranged from the Word, spoken or otherwise. Word and Sacrament are deeply entwined and inexplicable without each other, for “the word of God sacramentally takes flesh in the event of the Eucharist.”[8] This interdependence is expressed in a number of different ways.

Firstly, the sacrament is always accompanied by the word. The Liturgy of the Eucharist itself is always preceded by the Liturgy of the Word, and Scriptural language saturates the entire Mass.

Secondly, it is through the word of God that we can, in faith, believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist.[9] Faith comes by hearing, and faith in the real presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist is no different. As St Thomas wrote in the great Eucharistic hymn Adoro te devote: 

Sight, touch, taste are all deceived

In their judgment of you,

But hearing suffices firmly to believe.

I believe all that the Son of God has spoken;

There is nothing truer than this word of truth.

Thirdly, through sacramental action, the Eucharist ‘speaks.’ In eating the bread and drinking the cup, St Paul says that we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”[10] This ‘word’ spoken through liturgical action is as powerful as any spoken word and the liturgical celebration “becomes the continuing, complete and effective presentation of God’s word”, both to believing participants, unbelievers and to the heavenly hosts above.[11]

Fourthly and finally, the Word of God makes the Eucharist possible. Although it is confected by the priest speaking the words of consecration, only God by the power of His creative word can affect Transubstantiation. In linguistic theory, such words are called speech-acts, words that by being spoken, affect what they proclaim.[12] The Bible attests again and again to this creative power of God’s word.[13] At the Last Supper, Jesus performed his most extraordinary speech-act, transforming bread and wine into His Body and Blood by the power of His Word, which penetrates even the deepest reaches of reality.[14] McCabe goes so far as to call the Eucharist “the creative language of God, his eternal Word made flesh.”[15]

Similarly at the Mass, the priest speaks these same divine words and in saying “This is my Body” and “This is my Blood”, the Eucharistic species truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. Such is the power of the Word of God. Even outside of the Mass, the Eucharist is “‘being constantly determined by the words of consecration, the words of explanation, which were pronounced over them.’ Even in the silence of the tabernacle, a divine word is being spoken.”[16] As such, even at its most silent, the Eucharist is never ‘wordless’ because it is contains and is sustained by the creative Word of God.

Odilon Redon, Christ in Silence, 1897 (Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon)

Odilon Redon, Christ in Silence, 1897 (Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon)

I was wrong to regard the Eucharist as silent but in another way, I was right to be troubled by its silence. That silence is the same silence of the Cross, which is a profoundly troubling thing. In His Incarnation, the Son of God humbled himself and became human, first in the absolute silence of his mother’s womb, then within the frustrating limits of human language, and finally in the silence of His Death.

The Synoptic Gospels all record how Jesus was silent before His accusers, both the Roman consul Pilate and the chief priests.[17] This is not incidental to the Passion narratives but an essential part of Christ’s sacrificial offering. In his silence, he fulfils the prophecy of the Isaiah about the Suffering Servant.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

    yet he did not open his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

    so he did not open his mouth.[18] 

This silence culminated in the silence of death, when Jesus “gave a loud cry and breathed his last.”[19] This is the word of the Cross, a word of deathly silence.

The word of Cross is silent because, while speech is power and words are powerful, silence is a form of submission, an embrace of weakness, humility, renunciation and ultimately of death.[20] Muers states notes that silence “can mark a withdrawal or separation from “the world,” a radical interruption of it, or a submission to its demands.”[21] In offering Himself up, Christ both dies to the world and radically disrupts its deadly logic: by “dying he destroyed our death, rising he restored our life.”[22]

This word of the Cross is also silent because in dying for us, Christ held nothing back. He offered everything up to God and completed His mission. His last words were “It is finished.”[23] The Word has spoken and now He is silent. “The word is muted; it becomes mortal silence, for it has “spoken” exhaustively, holding back nothing of what it had to tell us.”[24] His silence is not for a lack of words but a sign of the Word having completed His mission.

As the memorial of His Passion and Death, it is only fitting that the Holy Eucharist, the Hostia or Victim, is silent too. In the paschal mystery, Jesus humbled himself, embracing death and giving up all. Now, He continues to humble Himself by hiding in humble bread and wine, utterly passive and at our disposal. This is the scandal of the Cross, and nothing could be more fitting than for Christ to be silent in the Blessed Sacrament.

His silence is the same silence of the Cross, and that silence, St Paul assures us is the “wisdom of God.”[25] For God chose the foolish, weak, lowly and despised things – the “things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.”[26] God chooses silence, the archetypal thing which is not, to shame all the empty talk of the world. In this silence, I hear that same ‘word of the Cross’ being spoken – and it is both a comfort and challenge.

Francisco de Zurbaran, Angus Dei, 1640 (San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego)

Francisco de Zurbaran, Angus Dei, 1640 (San Diego Museum of Art, San Diego)

Finally, the silence of the Eucharist is supposed to be somewhat discomforting because it is not yet complete. Although the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life”,[27] the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is still ‘veiled’ or ‘hidden’ beneath bread and wine. We receive the Eucharist as “a pledge of future glory.”[28] As a pledge, we can only receive it in our condition as those who have not yet reached our future glory. Turner argues that it follows that “we can enter into that communication only on the condition of its ultimate failure; and on the further condition of our acknowledgement of its failure.”[29]

I would not characterise the Eucharist as “failed” communication, yet there is a sense in which the Eucharist is supposed to ‘fail’ precisely because it is a sign and an anticipation of future glory.[30] For even Christ’s sacramental presence in Holy Communion is a sacrament of that perfect communion when we, “with unveiled faces”, will see God face to face.[31] No doubt, we will have much to speak of.

Because really, if bread and wine had mouths and could speak as Christ to us, what need would we have of faith now or Heaven beyond?

__________

I began this reflection by noting that the Eucharist is not silent because as a sign, it is communicates meaning. Now I must also conclude that the Eucharist is silent for the very same reason; it is a sign and although Christ is truly present therein, He is still veiled in silence before us. The Eucharist is also more than a sign, however, for it is the presence of Christ. As the Sacrament of Christ, it contains, and is both effected, sustained and surrounded by the Word of God, and is thus never ‘wordless’ even in deepest of silences. At the same time, it is the Sacrament of the crucified Christ, which sacrificially memorialises His Death in its very silence.

In reflecting on these silences, I can see that the paradox of the Eucharist is the same paradox that resounds through Christianity: that the Word of God willingly became silent and through that, His Blood “speaks a better word”[32] and His glory reverberates throughout the universe.


[1] 1 Co 12:2, Hab 2:18

[2] John 1:14

[3] Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. (Vatican: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 2000), 108. (Hereafter CCC)

[4] CCC, 1084.

[5] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Fides et Ratio (September 15, 1998), 16. (Hereafter FR)

[6] FR, 13.

[7] FR, 32.

[8] Pope Benedict XVI, Apostolic Exhortation Verbum Domini, (September 30, 2010), 55. (Hereafter VD)

[9]

[10] CCC, 1084.

[11] VD, 52.

[12] “Speech Acts”, The Encyclopaedia of Literary and Cultural Theory.

[13]By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, / and all their host by the breath of his mouth. […] For he spoke, and it came to be; / he commanded, and it stood firm. (Ps 33:6, 9)

[14] Robert E. Barron, Eucharist, p. 130.

[15] Herbert McCabe, ‘The Eucharist as Language’, Modern Theology, Vol. 12, Issue 2, 1999, p. 132.

[16] Barron, op. cit., p. 132.

[17] Mt 27:11-14; Mk 15:1-5; Lk 23:9-11.

[18] Isa 53:7.

[19] Mt 27:50.

[20] Scripture frequently makes this connection, as when King Hezekiah cries “Sheol cannot thank you, death cannot praise you.” (Isa 38:18.) In our own idiom, we say is “as silent as the grave.”

[21] Rachel Muers, Keeping God’s Silence: Towards a Theological Ethics of Communication, p. 3.

[22] Rom 8:2; CCC, 1067.

[23] Jn 19:30.

[24] VD, 12.

[25] 1 Co 1:24.

[26] 1 Co 1:28

[27] CCC, 1324.

[28] CCC, 1323.

[29] Denys Turner, ‘The Darkness of God and the Light of Christ: Negative Theology and Eucharistic Presence’, Modern Theology, Vol 15, Issue 2, 1999, p. 153

[30] CCC, 1402.

[31] McCabe, op. cit., p. 141; 2 Co 3:18; Rev 22:3-4.

[32] Heb 12:24.

9 responses to “Why Doesn’t Bread Talk? The Troubling Silence of the Eucharist

  1. Is it silent? You raise an interesting question about communication, I think. I cannot put my finger on how the Body and the Blood speak to me, but I do know who it is I encounter at the Eucharistic feast, and Iknow that whenI go back to my owe after receiving, I am lost to the world and it is to me.

  2. Also, I like to imagine a Gerard Manly Hopkin’s world “charged with the grandeur of God”. In this world on an altar in any Catholic Church is the Tabernacle, the dwelling place for the Blessed Sacrament. It is full of His Eucharistic Presence. His living Word comes to me…

    “I will not leave you as orphans…” John 14: 18

    HIS silence is deafening in the Eucharist. “THIS IS MY BODY”. HE is with me.

    Speak, Lord, I am listening.

  3. Pingback: Transubstantiation? (Answering ‘Nothing In My Hand I Bring’) | Catholic Cravings·

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