“Here is God”: Ronald Knox on the Real Presence

“All the graces bestowed on our blessed Lady and the saints, all the visions and ecstasies and the power of working miracles, are not to be compared in value with what he gives us in holy communion; for that is himself.”

Detail from "The Last Supper" (1631-32) by Peter Paul Rubens [WikiArt.org]

The Solemnity of Corpus Christi proclaims the truth that the Incarnate Son of God, having ascended to His Father’s right hand in heaven, remains present and active in His Church “until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20).

The truth of Christ’s substantial presence in the Holy Eucharist involves two closely related—though not identical—doctrines, those of transubstantiation and of the Real Presence. Survey data tells the sad story that even many Catholics today do not believe in or even understand these doctrines.

In his sermons for the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, given over the course of three decades at Corpus Christi Church, London, and in his other writings on the Eucharist, Ronald Knox (1888-1957) sheds a great deal of light on the most important truths concerning the what St. Thomas Aquinas and the Catechism of the Catholic Church call the “Sacrament of sacraments.” Knox’s teaching is that of the Church’s Tradition, especially as expressed magisterially by the Council of Trent and theologically by St. Thomas.

Knox, one of the great preachers and apologists of the English-Catholic world during the first half of the twentieth century, wrote very often on the Real Presence. Knox explains the Eucharistic mystery with coherence, lucidity, warmth, and persuasion. The astounding truth of the Real Presence is always prominent in Knox’s sermons and other writings on the Eucharist. He never ceases to marvel at Christ’s condescension in coming to his people under the appearances of bread and wine. The startling and awe-inspiring fact of Christ’s presence constantly presses itself upon Knox’s imagination, and he tries in corresponding measure to share the wonders of Christ’s Eucharistic presence with his readers and hearers.

Knox accepts the doctrine of the Real Presence as part of the Church’s unbroken Tradition, guaranteed by the words of Christ himself.1 A starting-point in thinking about Knox’s understanding of the Real Presence is its distinction from the other ways in which God is present in the world. Of course, God is present everywhere, at all times. Having created us as sensory creatures, however, God gives himself to us in a way that appeals even to our senses. “Because he knows how much we all depend on our ordinary ways of thinking, he has not been content with all the ordinary gifts which he bestows on us.” No, he has left us the Eucharist, in which Christ is present in a manner different from that in which he is present everywhere. The Eucharist allows us to say concretely and directly, “Here is God” and even, “This is God.”2

For Knox, the whole sacramental life of the Church is a continuation of the Incarnate Christ’s presence and activity in the world. The Eucharist is an even more startling act of condescension on God’s part than the Incarnation: “And if, in his Incarnation, God stooped towards us and condescended to our level by uniting his Divine Nature with a human nature, which, though created, was created in his image, was part of his spiritual creation, how much lower he stoops, how much more he condescends, when he hides himself in the Holy Eucharist, veiled under the forms of material, insensible things!”3

In the Eucharist the whole Christ is substantially present: “In the sacred Host, in each sacred Host, the whole Body of Christ is present, his Body, his Blood, his Soul, his Divinity.”4 And this is so in all of the places where the Blessed Sacrament is throughout the world. “Christ is present; is present in space, though not under the conditions of space.”5 In his incarnate life, Christ assumed a full human nature, including the limitations of time and space.6

After his Ascension, Christ chooses to become present sacramentally in such a way that allows both for his full, substantial presence and for that presence to occur down through the ages and all over the world. Of all of the miracles Christ performed in his earthly life, the institution of the Eucharist was his greatest.7 It also was and remains an act of unfathomable mercy on Christ’s part: “We are not worthy of the least of his mercies, and he gives us—himself!”8 Knox continues in the same sermon, “And, above all, the grace of the Holy Eucharist, no transient influence of the divine mercy but God himself, is lavished upon us with reckless bounty; we have but to stoop to gather it, and it is ours!”9

In the Eucharist, Christ gives to his faithful not what is their due, since it is impossible for them to earn so great a gift, but rather he gives himself out of the greatness of his love and munificence. Christ allows for easy access to himself in the Eucharist, knowing the risks brought by familiarity and accepting them for the sake of giving himself to his people:

God forgive us, we despise his graces because he has made them so cheap for us; the heavenly bread which is offered us without money and without price we put down, for that reason, as not worth having! That is not the law of the divine economy. All the graces bestowed on our blessed Lady and the saints, all the visions and ecstasies and the power of working miracles, are not to be compared in value with what he gives us in holy communion; for that is himself. This gift, which is himself, is not for the few, but for everybody. O res mirabilis, manducat Dominum pauper, servus et humilis: we are all paupers in his sight, all slaves, all creatures of earth, and he will make no distinction between us. He only asks that we should purge our consciences of mortal sin, and so come to him, asking him to bring just what he wants to give us, just what he knows that we need. “I am he who bade this be done; I will supply what is lacking to thee; come, and receive me.”10

Knox emphasizes that the Eucharist is a gift given by Christ to his people, “a gift surpassing all the riches of the world, himself.”11 This truth is clear from the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In one sermon, Knox asks his hearers to contemplate the image of Christ holding the Sacred Host and chalice at the Last Supper, depicted in so many works of art. This image offers an intimate look at the relationship between the Incarnation and Christ’s sacramental presence:

Think, for a moment, of the paradox which that involves—the figure of our Lord at the last supper. You see before you what seems to be the form of a man; that man is Jesus Christ, his body, his blood, his manhood, his divinity. You also see before you what seems to represent a round disc of bread. That which looks like bread is also Jesus Christ, his body, his blood, his manhood, his divinity. Jesus Christ, then, holds himself in his hands. Host and banquet, priest and victim, are one.12

Another image Knox uses is that of a looking-glass. When a person looks into a looking-glass and sees his or her reflection, the appearance is exactly that of the person looking, but without any corresponding substance. In the Holy Eucharist, the substance of Christ’s Body and Blood is present, but without the corresponding appearances.13 Knox again considers the moment when Christ held the Sacred Host at the Last Supper:

His eyes were fixed on something that didn’t look like himself but was himself. It looked like an ordinary piece of bread; but the reality wasn’t just a piece of bread. The reality was something more real than that. It was himself, who is reality. What looked like a piece of bread was, you see, a kind of supernatural mirror—not reflecting, as other mirrors do, the appearance without the reality; it reflected the reality without the appearance.14

Knox compares, rather than contrasts, the Eucharist with a looking-glass insofar as each can be broken with the effect of multiplying the reality involved. A person looking into multiple broken pieces of a mirror sees his or her reflection in each one, rather than seeing his or her once integral reflection now divided amongst the pieces. So too, with the Eucharist, when the Host is broken each part contains the whole Christ, not some part of him: “The reality has reproduced itself in each broken fragment, the whole reality, and it remains real as ever.”15

The Real Presence is the fully concentrated presence of the Lord, who in return summons our fully concentrated attention. Knox compares the Eucharistic presence of Christ with the heat of the sun:

As the rays of the sun, whose heat is present everywhere, are caught and focused in a single point by the lens of a burning-glass, so our Lord will have these celestial visitations of his focused for us, crystallized and concentrated for us under the forms of outward things, when he comes to us through his sacred humanity in the Holy Eucharist.16

As with any such images, this one has its limitations, but Knox is making an attempt to describe a great mystery with as much truth, clarity, and vividness as possible. And he is careful to use such images with integrity, at times alluding both to the similarities and differences of the two realities he considers and not overstating their similarities for the sake of the preacher’s convenience. In this case, for example, the analogy “limps” at the point when one considers that not literally all of the sun’s heat is concentrated through such a lens, whereas the whole Christ is indeed present in the Eucharist.

Yet Knox’s point here is to help people understand that while Christ in his divinity is present everywhere, he is nevertheless fully present in a distinct and special way in the Holy Eucharist. And this Real Presence by its very nature calls for the central place in the lives, minds, and hearts of men.

“In a world of shifting values, there is one fixed point on which our hearts can rest, one fixed star by which our intellects can be guided,” Knox writes. “It is the personal presence of our Lord on earth, yesterday, today, and as long as the earth endures.”17

Endnotes:

1 Ronald Knox and Arnold Lunn, Difficulties: A Correspondence About the Catholic Religion Between Monsignor Ronald Knox and Arnold Lunn (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1952), 232.

2 Ibid, 134.

3 Ronald Knox, “Holy Hour—A Hidden God”, A Retreat for Lay People (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 95.

4 “Holy Communion”, 135.

5 “The City of Peace”, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 250.

6 “Where God Lives”, 260.

7 “Giving of Thanks”, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 264.

8 “The Gleaner”, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 277.

9 Ibid.

10 “Real Bread”, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 307-308.

11 “First and Last Communions”, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 336.

12 “A Priest For Ever”, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 368.

13 “The Mirror of Conscience”, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 385.

14 Ibid, 386.

15 Ibid. See also “Holy Communion”, 138, for a similar use of the same image.

16 “Self-Examination”, Pastoral and Occasional Sermons, 296.

17 “First and Last Communions”, 334.


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About Fr. Charles Fox 67 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren, MI.

9 Comments

  1. “Now this is what you shall offer upon the altar: two lambs a year old day by day continually. One lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer in the evening; and with the first lamb a tenth measure of fine flour mingled with a fourth of a hin of beaten oil, and a fourth of a hin of wine for a libation. And the other lamb you shall offer in the evening, and shall offer with it a cereal offering and its libation, as in the morning, for a pleasing odor, an offering by fire to the Lord.

    It shall be a continual burnt offering throughout your generations at the door of the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I will meet with you, to speak there to you. There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory.

    I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar; Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate, to serve me as priest. And I will dwell among the people of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them forth out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them; I am the Lord their God.
    — Exodus 29:38-46

    The New Covenant fulfillment of the daily sacrifice is indeed a continual offering throughout the generations; it is no longer offered twice a day but rather all day long every day:

    For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.
    — Malachi 1:11

    Mass, the “pure offering” pleasing to God foretold through Malachi, is always being offered somewhere on this planet, “from the rising of the sun to its setting.”

    The purpose of the New Covenant daily sacrifice is the same as the Old: that God might “dwell among” His people. There “I will meet with you, to speak there to you.”

    Yet something has happened since the times of the Old Covenant daily sacrifice: God has assumed human nature. God became one of us, so, if you think about it, it shouldn’t surprise Christians that in the New Covenant daily sacrifice God is present to His people in His humanity as well as in His divinity. God makes present to us and Himself the once and for all offering of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29) under the appearance of the flour and wine of the Old Covenant offering.

    The God-Man does indeed meet with us and speak to us from His Eucharistic presence. Allow me to share my personal experience of this:

    I had a very traumatic childhood. My father was an alcoholic prone to fits of rage. I am not going to go into the details, but trust me, there was a lot of trauma and wounds that I had suppressed as a child because, I suppose, I was unable to do anything else with them at the time.

    As a young married man with children I was, on the surface anyway, coping with the stress of life, yet all that suppressed baggage I was lugging around was taking its toll.

    Then it was announced that our parish was going to launch Perpetual Adoration. I signed up for an hour on Sunday afternoon. Quite unexpectedly, during my adoration hour the buried trauma and wounds of my childhood would rise to the surface. I would come home from my adoration hour totally bummed out. I didn’t want to do anything with the family the rest of the day. I just wanted to sleep.

    After weeks and weeks of this my saintly wife announced to me, “Harry, you don’t need a holy hour; you need a psychiatrist!”

    To make a long story short, as the months went by my adoration hour became a source of great joy and peace. The Master Psychiatrist knew I needed to deal with all that trauma as an adult. He brought it forth from deep within me so I could reflect on it as an adult, understanding my father’s sickness, and pray about it all, forgiving my father and others who had wounded me.

    I’m telling you, Christ, true God and true Man, is present in the Eucharist, willing and anxious to not only meet with us and speak to us, but also to heal us. Believe it.

    • Dear Harry,
      That man lying prostrate on the chapel floor was you? In years earlier, you would have seen me in the same position for similar reasons. Family wounds run deep, yet the salves of the Great Physician run deeper. John 4:10.

      Now. If only Nan and Joe could make their appointments and remove their shoes on entry.

  2. Thank you, Fr. Fox, for sharing the obvious love and wonder of Rev. Knox toward the gift of our Eucharistic Lord. All good, very good, and truly. Many thanks.

  3. When we refer to Jesus’ sacramental presence, most often the phrase
    “in the Eucharist” is used. The Eucharist is not a container—an
    object holding another object. There must be a better way of formulating the reality. Can you provide one? Thank you.

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