The Great Conversation:
Sign & Symbol—Part III
By Gabriel Blanchard
There is one symbol that has, perhaps, wielded more influence and caused more strife than any other in Western thought ...
Go here for Part I (signs in general) and Part II (symbols in general).
In the first post in this series, we went over what signs are: things that stand for or indicate other things. In the second, we discussed the specific kind of signs we call symbols, which have some built-in relationship to what they symbolize. Art and religion are of course laden with signs and symbols, and in some cases, the exact nature and role of art has caused substantial debates and developments in the history of religion (like the Iconoclasms of eighth and ninth century Byzantium). But one religious symbol has, by itself, driven centuries of philosophical, literary, military, and mystical history: that symbol is the Eucharist.
Not all Christians refer to this rite by the term Eucharist, or take the same view of its nature and purpose—a topic we shall be returning to. Whatever the earliest Christians called it, and however they understood it, the Eucharist clearly dates to the most ancient period of Christianity. It is often difficult to rigorously prove what this or that ancient writer believed about the sacrament, because it is easy to argue that language like “He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall live forever” must be a metaphor, since taken literally it is rather off-putting! But at some point (whether it was decades later or right from the start), Christians began to take this language literally, a belief known as the Real Presence. This is where the intellectual importance of the Eucharist begins.
We need not linger over the exact formulas by which the Real Presence was eventually defined (transubstantiation being only one of them), which belong more to questions of metaphysics than semiotics. But the concept of the Real Presence, if accepted, does imply certain unique ways the Eucharist works. For instance, when we speak of a sign “conveying” meaning, this conveyance is along the lines of how a text conveys information, rather than how a vehicle conveys its contents. A text only conveys information to someone who can read the text (which is why even though we possess texts in, say, Linear A, we don’t know what they say); a vehicle conveys what is inside it in a more absolute sense, without any kind of specialized fitness-to-receive on the part of the destination. Now, signs in general work in the “text” way, including symbols. Symbols—as we’ve been using the term—do have a natural or inherent link to what they symbolize, so that a clever reader may be able to guess their meaning correctly; but they may make a different guess, one which is plausible but incorrect. Or there may be no single meaning the symbol is meant to convey. But on the premise of the Real Presence, the Eucharist is a symbol of Christ that also is Christ; it conveys him in and of itself, regardless of the receptivity of the person taking part in the sacrament. (Indeed, this holds true even if an animal were to get hold of the consecrated elements, something early catechists warned the faithful to be careful about.) The summary set forth by the Catholic Church is that “this sign is what it signifies.”
The Catholic consensus of the Middle Ages was never absolute; the twelfth to fifteenth centuries saw a number of dissidents appear—Peter Waldo in France, John Wycliffe in England, Jan Hus in Bohemia—who argued that the Lord’s Supper was not his Body and Blood, but only a memorial of him: a sign (as everyone agreed) and not a symbol (a very contentious claim). But it was in the sixteenth century, with the Protestant Reformation, that the dispute became white-hot.
The Reformers questioned not only the lavish ritual surrounding the sacrament, but the doctrine that defined what the ritual illustrated. Exactly what was true about the Eucharist was a matter the Reformers were not united upon; beliefs ran the gamut, from Huldrych Zwingli, who took the “memorialist” view, to Martin Luther, whose belief in the Real Presence (albeit defined in slightly different terms) was as resolute as the Council of Trent. Many Protestant divines, like Calvin, took some middle-of-the-road view, accepting that Christ was present in some sense while repudiating transubstantiation as such. A special spiritual presence in the elements, or a presence in the act of communing but not in the bread and wine themselves, were notions adopted by some. What is particularly interesting is that in some quarters, the nature of signs was marshaled as an objection to the Catholic view. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (the doctrinal guide of Anglicanism, issued in 1571) state that “Transubstantiation … overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament”—the argument being that a sign is, by definition, something other than the thing it signifies, rendering the Catholic view of the Eucharist internally incoherent. This was part of the general Protestant basis for rejecting the Mass, and accordingly became a source of religious wars and persecutions across Europe for more than two hundred years.
In our own day, this connects with some rather interesting questions in a field of philosophy called phenomenology. Beginning with the work of German professor Edmund Husserl, phenomenology is not so much a defined body of beliefs as a particular body of questions: principally, what is consciousness and how does it work? Like semiotics, this is bound to have implications for practically every field, but the way it relates to the Eucharist is rather intriguing. Let’s take an example: imagine an opaque cup. Now imagine setting that cup on a table and looking at the cup while walking around it, a full 360 degrees. You have now seen every side of the cup; but was there any moment at which you “saw the cup”? saw not just a side of the cup, but the cup as it really is, in its completeness? The answer is naturally no; yet when we look back at the cup, our minds do not bring forth the thought “Oh, a side of a cup.” Even though we never sense the cup in all possible ways at once, our minds process or experience the cup as a single and coherent object. So—is the side of a cup, in reality, a symbol of the cup? Perhaps even a sign that is what it signifies?
But outside of theology and philosophy, the Eucharist has also made a major impact upon Western literature. Which relic is the most illustrious in Christendom is a hard question to answer; the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, and the Shroud of Turin are all claimants, but the one we are concerned with is the Holy Grail. The story of King Arthur, also known as “the Matter of Britain,” has existed in some form since the ninth century; alas, we have no time even to summarize it! It was taken up by French poets in the twelfth, and made into a vehicle for two ideas then at the zenith of their popularity: courtly love and the Eucharist. Through the former we get the tragedy of Guinevere and Lancelot; through the latter, the quest for the Grail. Some faint halo still lingers upon the Arthurian cycle even now, even in parodies. For instance, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a thoroughly ridiculous film, yet it stops short of mocking the Grail or making it out to be a nonsensical concept: the knights themselves are mocked aplenty, and decoy grails do appear, but the actual relic is kept sacrosanct even at this late date. The conviction may long have vanished, but the habit of reverence is still traceable, the atmosphere of a place where once the Eucharist was housed.
*Deivirilis is a Latin term meaning “God-man,” one of many titles of or circumlocutions for Christ.
St. Augustine, Sermon 227
Perlesvaus, or the High History of the Holy Graal
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.18
James Frazer, The Golden Bough
Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy
Charles Williams and C. S. Lewis, Arthurian Torso
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance author and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
If you liked this series on signs and symbols, you might enjoy some of our other posts here, like this profile of St. Benedict, this essay on the pitfalls of utopianism from one of our top-scoring students, or this two-parter on the idea of ideas. And be sure not to miss out on our podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder, Jeremy Tate.
Published on 29th September, 2022. Page image of a monstrance from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Annapolis, MD.