Just the other day I had a discussion with a friend over the term consubstantial. He had difficulty with its inclusion in the new English translation of the Nicene Creed. His bone of contention was the Church’s inclusion of a word that many laypeople would have a hard time understanding. We both agreed that a better education of the laity was needed (both from the ecclesial hierarchy and from the laity taking responsibility for themselves), and I passed along a booklet on the New Translation of the Roman Missal.
What piqued my interest further about the term consubstantial was that I came across two similar terms in the following days in Fr. Robert Barron’s book simply entitled Eucharist: transsubtantial and supersubstantial.
To understand all three terms properly, we need to understand their root word: substance. When defining these three terms, Church fathers used the Aristotelian definition of substance – the invisible part of a being that defines what that being is; its essence. In other words, a being’s substance (what it is) can be quite different from a being’s accidents (what it looks like). To use Fr. Barron’s example, we know that a horse is a horse because of the essence which has formed the animal; however, we recognize it as an individual horse by its accidents of height, colour and temperament.
Giving the term substance the synonym of essence, we can now tackle the three substantial words of consubstantial, transsubtantial and supersubstantial by looking at their individual prefixes.
The prefix con means with. Thus, in the Nicene Creed when we say that the Lord Jesus Christ is “consubstantial with the Father,” we are reiterating our belief in the Holy Trinity. With the word consubstantial we recognize that there is only one God in divine essence, but that his accidents are changed depending on how He interacts with His creation. This is God the Father Creator. There is God the Son who came to save us from our sins. There is also God the Holy Spirit who guides us in our faith development.
The prefix trans means to change, and when used in the context of transsubtantial, it refers to the changing of the essence of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. In the case of the Eucharist, when the priest recites the words of consecration, the essence of the sacrificial gifts on the altar change, even if the accidental properties of bread and wine remain. What we need to remember is that the priest offers the sacrifice of the Mass in persona Christi – in the person of Christ – so it is no longer the human priest who is saying the words of consecration, but rather Christ himself, descended upon the priest through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The final prefix super means above or greater than. Thus, for something to be considered supersubstantial is to mean that its essence is above or greater than the physical realm of creation. We’re not in the habit of using the term supersubstantial in Christianity, but it is a term we invoke each time we say the Lord’s Prayer. The verse Give us this day our daily bread is written ton arton ton epiousion in the original Gospel Greek. A more precise translation can thus be seen as a request of the Lord to give us what we need for our daily sustenance. Since Jesus is the bread of life, of which if we eat we will not hunger, then the Eucharist can thus be referred to as supersubstantial, a substance that exists on a higher plane than our physical realm. A substance whose essence if far greater than anything we can understand.