"Neither saw nor touched": Augustine on St Thomas and the Eucharist

He saw and touched the man, and acknowledged the God whom he neither saw nor touched; but by the means of what he saw and touched, he now put far away from him every doubt, and believed the other - Augustine on John 20:27-28, Tractate 121.

While he does not here refer to the Eucharist, Augustine's account of Saint Thomas's encounter with the Risen Lord has echoes of a theme which recurs throughout his eucharistic theology: the contrast between sign and thing signified, between sight and faith. For example, in Sermon 229A, he contrasts the meaning of bread on the Lord's Table with that on the domestic table, even though both are to sight the same:

What you can see on the Lord's table, as far as the appearance of the things goes, you are also used to seeing on your own tables; they have the same aspect, but not the same value.

Sermon 272 similarly emphasises the contrast between what is seen and what cannot be seen:

For what you see is simply bread and a cup - this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ's body, the cup is Christ's blood ... What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit.

At the heart of the contrast is between sight and faith, is the Lord's Ascension.  Now dwelling in heaven, it necessarily means that there is a contrast between what is seen and what is received.  Again, from Sermon 272:

he ascended bodily into heaven whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. There he dwells even now, seated at God's right. So how can bread be his body? And what about the cup? How can it (or what it contains) be his blood?" My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped.

This is why, for Augustine, the sursum corda is of such signficance.  It ensures that we approach the sacrament by faith, not by sight.  In the words of Sermon 227:

Where has our head gone? What did you give back in the creed? On the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father. So our head is in heaven. That's why, after the words Lift up your hearts, you reply, We have lifted them up to the Lord.

However, this does not mean that the bread and wine after the - using Augustine's word in Sermon 229A - sanctificatio are of no account.  According to Sermon 272, it is precisely because of what they signify that the bread and wine have meaning beyond what is seen: 

Don't let yourselves think that what you can see is of no account. What you can see passes away, but the invisible reality signified does not pass away, but remains. Look, it's received, it's eaten, it's consumed ... So what is signified will remain eternally, although the thing that signifies it seems to pass away. So receive the sacrament in such a way that you ... that you always fix your hearts up above.

Or, in the words of Augustine's description of Thomas encountering the Risen Lord, "by the means of what he saw and touched, he now put far away from him every doubt, and believed" he was encountering God.

The contrast here with medieval Latin theology and piety is stark.  As Duffy puts it in The Stripping of the Altars:

for most people, most of the time the Host was something to be seen not consumed ... seeing the Host became the high point of lay experience of the Mass.

Against this background, Reformed eucharistic theology was a retrieval of the dynamic Augustinian emphasis on the contrast between sight and faith, sign and thing signified. To quote Jewel:

One thing is seen, and another understood.  We see the water, but we understand the blood of Christ.  Even so we see the bread and wine, but with the eyes of our understanding we look beyond these creatures:  we reach our spiritual senses into heaven, and behold the ransom and price of our salvation.  We do behold in the Sacrament, not what it is, but what it doth signify.


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