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The Principle of Analogy in Teaching the Incarnation and the Eucharist

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

As the Incarnation is the central doctrine of Christianity, so the explanation of its meaning and the realization of its importance in human life should be the focal point of Christian education. If “the product of Christian education” is to be “illumined by the supernatural light of the example and teaching of Christ,” [1] Christ Himself must first be known as the God-man who enlightens every man that comes into this world. By the same token, it is not only in the formal religion or theology classes that the Incarnation may be treated but in every discipline which deals with the subject of man and his relations with God. Much has been written of late on the subject of integration in education; how to make the truths of revelation permeate the whole curriculum of a Catholic high school or college. No matter how complicated the process may be in practice, in theory at least the person of Jesus Christ must somehow form the basic integrating medium.

The present study does not intend to examine how the various academic fields like history, modem literature and the classics may incorporate the Incarnation as part of their subject matter. A previous article on the classics suggested one method of approach, on the negative side, in answering infidel critics who use the ancient writers as weapons against the divinity of Christ. The purpose here is more theoretical, namely, to review just two aspects of the Incarnation - the hypostatic union and the Holy Eucharist - to see how this transcendent mystery can become more intelligible to students, who need to know a great deal about the doctrine if they are ever to become the supernatural men of character envisioned by Pius XI as the fruit of Catholic education.

Principal of Analogy in Teaching the Mysteries of Faith

Before entering on the Incarnation itself, it is well to recall that the Church has given us the pedagogical principles by which the mysteries of faith can be understood, however dimly, by the aid of divine grace. In treating of the relation of faith and reason, the Vatican Council declared that although divine mysteries can never be comprehended by reason alone, nevertheless, when enlightened by faith, “reason attains some, and that a very fruitful understanding of mysteries…from the analogy of those things which it naturally knows.” [2] Consequently, although revealed truths like the Trinity, the Incarnation and the supernatural life are beyond the capacity of the human mind directly to understand until the beatific vision, still, by means of comparisons and similarities with known things in nature, we can penetrate ever more deeply into the mysteries of the Christian faith. The foundation for the comparison must accord with Sacred Scripture and sound tradition, and the process should be guided by the Church’s teaching, telling us how far the correlation may go. Within these limits, however, the method of analogy is not only useful but indispensable for teaching the truths of revelation. The parables of the Gospel are applications of this principle: the kingdom of heaven is likened to a marriage feast; the Church is compared to a grain of mustard seed; the mercy of God is similar to the love of a father for his prodigal son; sanctifying grace is described as a wedding garment; and the just man is like to a house that is built upon the rock.

Basic Analogy of the Incarnation

The fundamental analogy which Christian tradition uses for the Incarnation is the union of body and soul in man. Arguing against the rationalists of his day, St. Augustine complained:

There are some who insist on an explanation of how the Godhead was so commingled with man's nature as to constitute the one person of Christ, since this had to be done once, as if they themselves could explain how the soul is so united to the body as to constitute the one person of a man, an event which occurs every day. For just as the soul is united to the body in one person so as to constitute man, so God is united to man in one person so as to constitute Christ. [3]

Augustine's point was that it is unreasonable to refuse to believe that God and man are united in Jesus Christ, when we do not fully understand how body and soul are united in ourselves. Obviously we do know a great deal about the latter union, which is natural, and this can help us to understand the former, which is supernatural. Also we read in the Athanasian Creed which is part of the Divine Office, “As the rational soul and the flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ.” [4] Given this similitude, therefore, the teacher is ready to use it as a key to explain the various aspects of the Incarnation which form an essential part of Christian education. Literally every phase of the hypostatic union can be clarified by applying analogously to the union of the two natures in Christ what we know from reason and philosophy about the union of body and spirit in a human being.

  1. The first question which presents itself to the student is how it was possible for God to have come down from heaven to become man and yet not have left heaven. Applying the analogy of body and soul, St. Augustine explains that our difficulty arises from a carnal conception of Christ’s divinity. Once we realize that the divinity is something spiritual, like man's soul, the mystery becomes more intelligible, seeing there is a parallel situation which is taken for granted in the natural order. Augustine wrote to his correspondent:
    I wish you to understand that the Christian teaching does not hold that the Godhead was so absorbed by the flesh in which He was born of the Virgin, that He either relinquished or lost the governance of the universe.... The nature of the soul is far different from that of the body; how much more different must be the nature of God, who is the Creator of both soul and body? [5]
    Two operations of the soul help us to understand how God could at the same time remain in heaven and become incarnate on earth. First we examine the soul's activity in sensitive perception. Although it is nowhere else except in its own body, yet the soul perceives many objects that are outside the body:
    For wherever the soul sees anything, there it is exercising the faculty of perception…and wherever it hears anything, there it is exercising the faculty of perception…. And are we to suppose that something incredible is told us regarding the omnipotence of God, when it is affirmed that the Word of God, by whom all things were created, did so assume a body from the Virgin and manifest Himself with mortal senses, as not to withdraw from the bosom of the Father, that is from the secret place where He is with Him and in Him? [6]
    On a higher plane, we examine the soul’s power of intellection and communication of spiritual thought, clothed in bodily words, and we gain a still deeper insight into the Word becoming flesh and yet remaining with the Father:
    I put some conception before my audience, and I keep it with me. You find what you have heard, and I do not lose what I have said…. When the conception is present in my heart, and I wish it to be in yours, I make use of a sound as vehicle to have it pass to you. I take up the sound and, as it were, put into it the conception, and I utter it, bring it before you, and teach it without losing it. If my conception could do this by my voice, could not the Word of God do it by His flesh? For behold, the Word of God, God with God, the Wisdom of God abiding immutably with the Father, that He might go forth to us, sought flesh to be as it were the sound, and implanted Himself in it, and came forth to us, yet did not withdraw from the Father. [7]
    This comparison between human thought and the Word of God also gives us the basic analogy for explaining, in human terms, how the Second Person of the Holy Trinity proceeds from the Father by intellectual generation.

  2. The divine maternity of the Blessed Virgin is another aspect of the Incarnation which gains in intelligibility by applying the analogy of body and soul in man as humanity and divinity m the hypostatic union. According to the teaching of the Church, Mary is not only the Mother of Christ but the Mother of God? How is this possible and what does it mean?

    We transfer the problem to the level of natural maternity and ask ourselves: Is the mother of any child born into the world only the mother of its body, or of the whole child, body and soul? Obviously she is the mother of the whole person. Yet we know that the human soul is not generated by the parents, father and mother. As a spiritual substance, it must be created directly by God every time a child is conceived. If therefore we commonly and logically attribute true motherhood to the mother of a human child, though she is not the maker of its soul, we may with equal justice attribute true maternity to Mary, as the mother of the Divine Child, although she is not, in any sense, the cause of His divinity.

  3. One of the deepest reaches of the Incarnation is the fact that in pointing to the human being, Jesus of Nazareth, we are describing and denominating, in the truest sense of the word, God Himself. We speak of God having been born in Bethlehem, living at Nazareth as a carpenter’s son, preaching, teaching and healing the sick, suffering His passion, dying on the cross and rising again from the dead. Fundamentally these predications are correct because one and the same historical individual was at the same time God and man.

    This is rendered more clear in the light of the Church's analogy. What do we see when we point to any person and call him by name? We see only his body. Yet we attribute all his actions, whatever he says and does everything down to the smallest detail of quality of voice and gesture of hand, to the whole man, body and soul combined. In a similar way, what men perceived by reason alone in Christ our Lord was only a human being; and yet everything He did, from the resurrection of Lazarus to the blessing of the children is attributed by faith not only to His divinity. So that as truly as we say that every action of our body is animated by the soul, we believe that everything which Christ did in His humanity, by reason of its union with the Second Person of the Trinity, was also divinized by God. [8]

  4. In order properly to appreciate the Incarnation, it is necessary to recognize wherein lay the difference between God's presence in the world prior to His becoming man, and His presence ever since. Evidently the Word of God had been in the world since the world was made; nevertheless we speak of His coming into the world at the time of the Annunciation.

    The full meaning of this truth is shrouded in mystery. But some clarity is afforded if we consider the different ways in which the human soul may be present in various places. It can, for example, be present in one place by reason of its influence, as the Holy Father is said to be present among Catholics, where his authority is respected and obeyed; it can also be present effectively, by reason of the works it produces, like the presence of St. Thomas in the Summa or of Michelangelo in the Pieta. All these and similar presences, however, are as shadows compared to the unique presence of the human spirit in the body which it animates. Here we have no mere influence, physical or moral, or mere effectiveness, but the soul itself, from which all the activity of a man proceeds. Analogous to this unique presence of the soul within the limits of its body, is the presence of the Word of God within the confines of His humanity. God is present in Christ Jesus substantially, in all the plenitude of His omnipotence and all the perfection of His divinity. He is no more perfectly present anywhere in creation than He is in His humanity, even as the soul is nowhere more completely present in the world than it is in the body which it informs.

  5. Finally it is the teaching of our faith that the humanity of Christ is the great sacrament of the New Law; through which the grace of redemption flows from God to the human race. In the time of Christ, it was through His human nature that He worked His miracles, preached the truths of revelation and underwent His passion and death. Again we are confronted with a mystery: why God should have so chosen to redeem mankind as to channel His graces through the humanity He assumed of the Virgin Mary. But again some help is found by reference to the basic analogy. The instrument which the soul uses to perform its functions, even the highest, here on earth is the body which it animates. The noblest operations of the soul are thought and volition, yet how completely dependent for their exercise on the body. The soul desires to understand the nature of things - it must use the body, through the senses, to acquire the material whence ideas can be formed. The soul wishes to share its thoughts and desires with other minds and hearts - it must resort to bodily sound and sensible movement to communicate its spirit to others. So intimate is the connection of body and soul in these functions that without the senses operating there would be no thought received, or conceived, or transmitted among men in the present order of providence, except by a miracle of God.

    In somewhat the same manner, God has chosen to associate the humanity of Christ and His divinity in our regard. Grace comes from the latter, but through the former. Being human, we receive, and God transmits, the grace of salvation through the human nature of Christ, assumed in Nazareth, sacrificed on Calvary, risen from the dead, and operating in the Mass and sacraments as arteries of mercy from the divinity with which the humanity is substantially conjoined.

The Eucharist—A Continued Incarnation

Since the Holy Eucharist contains the whole Christ, true God and true man, the attributes predicable of the Incarnate Word are also applicable to the Blessed Sacrament. As expressed by the present Pontiff, when we look upon the Eucharistic Species, we should say: “Death has not destroyed this body which was pierced by nails and scourged.... This is that body which was once covered with blood pierced by a lance, from which issued saving fountains upon the world, one of blood and the other of water.” [9] This identity of Christ in the Eucharist and the Christ of history was clearly stated by the same Pontiff when, as Cardinal Legate to the International Eucharistic Congress in Budapest, he told the assembled faithful that the Holy Eucharist is “that unsearchable mystery by which we believe that the earthly life of Christ our Redeemer, though apparently closed at His Ascension into heaven, still goes on and will go on until the end of time.... It is nothing less than the invisible continuation now of His visible presence in times past.” [10]

Consequently, the fundamental analogy of body and soul to humanity and divinity, which helps so much better to understand the hypostatic union, is equally valid when applied to the Real Presence, where “after the consecration of bread and wine, our Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, is truly, really and substantially contained.” [11] However, the Eucharist is not only the object of our worship and adoration; it is also the instrument of our sanctification - as the Sacrament of the Altar - to which another analogy is applied in Christian tradition.

Basic Analogy of the Blessed Sacrament

The Holy Eucharist as a sacrament of the New Law was given its basic similitude by Christ Himself. He described the Blessed Sacrament as food and drink for the soul, comparable to solid and liquid nourishment for the body. “My flesh,” He said, “is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” [12] And at the Last Supper, when instituting the sacrament of His love, He consecrated what normally serves as bodily food into His sacred Body, and bodily drink into His precious blood. The very manner of receiving the Blessed Sacrament, orally as food and drink, signifies the function which the Eucharist is meant to serve for the supernatural life of the soul.

When the Council of Trent defined the Catholic doctrine on the Eucharist, it repeated the teaching of Christ, with an explicit clarification which later events proved to be specially important. “Our Savior,” the Council stated, “when about to depart from this world to the Father, instituted this sacrament…(which)…He wished should be received as spiritual food for souls, whereby they may be nourished and strengthened, living by the life of Him who said: ‘He that eateth me, the same also shall live by me,’ and as an antidote whereby we may be freed from daily faults and preserved from mortal sins.” [13]

As with the Incarnation, the mystery of the Blessed Sacrament becomes more clear and it’s teaching correspondingly easier as we apply the similitude of food and drink to the function of the Eucharist in our spiritual life.

  1. Since the Sacrament of the Altar is compared to food and drink, we logically infer that just as nourishment is necessary for sustaining the life of the body, so the Eucharist is needed to retain the life of the soul. If we further analyze the two lives, we find that in both cases they mean the union of the thing living with the vital principle which gives it life. Thus the life of the body consists in its union with the soul, and the soul's life consists in union with God through sanctifying grace. To maintain this union sustenance is required, natural in one case and supernatural in the other. And just as truly as without nourishment the body will die by separation from the soul, so without its spiritual food in the Eucharist the soul will die by separation from God by mortal sin. Hence the warning of Christ, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you shall not have life in you.” [14]

    In the early Church, Christians were so conscious of this necessity that they gave Holy Communion to infants as soon as they were baptized. They also distributed the Sacred Particles left over from Mass, to the little children who were brought to the Holy Sacrifice. As late as the Council of Trent, the necessity of Communion for children was a vexing problem, which the Fathers of the Council finally solved by declaring that “…there is no necessity which obliges children who lack the use of reason, to receive the sacramental communion of the Eucharist, since, regenerated by the water of baptism and incorporated into Christ; they cannot, at that age, lose the grace of the sons of God which they possess.” [15] Here it should be noted that the analogy has only a qualified application, since infants need food as much as anyone; yet they do not need the spiritual food of the Eucharist. The fact is the analogy holds in general, since Holy Communion is morally necessary once a person reaches the age of reason and begins to exercise his spiritual powers with consequent danger to his state of grace.

  2. Because it is food and drink, the Eucharist can serve its purpose only where spiritual life is already, or still, present. Hence arises the need for sanctifying grace in the soul antecedent to Holy Communion, and the Church's condemnation of any practice, like the Protestant, which allows the Sacrament to be received, although a person is conscious of grievous sin. Against the Reformers, the Church has condemned the doctrine that “the principal fruit of the most Holy Eucharist is the remission of sins,” [16] and the corresponding error that “faith alone is a sufficient preparation for receiving the sacrament of the most Holy Eucharist.” [17]

  3. Furthermore as it is not enough to take food just once or rarely to maintain life in the body, so, in order to remain alive supernaturally the soul must communicate more or less frequently, otherwise debility, disease and finally death will set in. It was this conviction, founded on the analogy with bodily food that has prompted the custom of frequent Communion since apostolic times. During the first centuries of the Church, the practice was that everyone should communicate when he assisted at the Holy Sacrifice. The various documents that bear on the subject: the first epistle of Pope Anacletus, the tenth of the Apostolic Canons, and the writings of Gratian, prove that worthy reception of the sacrament was obligatory on all the faithful whenever they attended Mass.

    As time went on, the practice of frequent and daily Communion lapsed in the Church, until fifty years ago, in 1905, St. Pius X restored the custom. It is instructive to read how he appeals to the analogy of food as the doctrinal basis for renewing the daily frequentation of the Eucharist:
    Christ our Lord&3133;more than once, and in no ambiguous terms, pointed out the necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, especially in these words: “This is the bread that came down from heaven; not as your fathers did eat manna and are dead: he that eateth this bread shall live forever.” From this comparison of the food of angels with bread and with manna, it was easily to be understood by His disciples that, as the body is daily nourished with bread, and as the Hebrews were daily nourished with manna in the desert, so the Christian soul might daily partake of this heavenly bread and be refreshed thereby. Moreover, whereas, in the Lord's Prayer, we are bidden to ask for “our daily bread,” the holy Fathers of the Church all but unanimously teach that by these words must be understood, not so much that material bread which is the support of the body, as the Eucharistic bread which ought to be our daily food. [18]
    A further extension of this concept of the Eucharist as food is the proportion which is commonly recognized between the health and vigor of the body and the benefit which a person derives from the food he eats. If the body is strong and vibrant with energy, the food it takes will not only sustain life but profit the body immensely. On the other hand, if the body is weak and sickly, the appetite fails, food and drink become unpleasant to take, and the value derived is at a minimum. Comparably, in the supernatural order, the more virile the life of the soul and the better prepared ascetically for Holy Communion, the more benefit it receives from this spiritual food. In the words of the Decree on Frequent Communion:
    Although the sacraments of the New Law take effect ex opere operato [by the very fact of reception], nevertheless they produce a greater effect in proportion as the dispositions of the recipient are better. Therefore care is to be taken that Holy Communion be preceded by serious preparation and followed by a suitable thanksgiving according to each one's strength, circumstances and duties. [19]
  4. However, the Church compares the Eucharist not only to food and drink, but also to medicine, calling it “the antidote whereby we are delivered from daily faults and preserved from deadly sins.” Pursuing this analogy we find the reason for the Church's opposition to the Jansenist heresy which conceived the Blessed Sacrament exclusively as a reward for virtue and the privilege of high sanctity. The Jansenist Arnauld excluded from the Holy Table, “all those…who are not yet perfectly united to God alone …who are not entirely perfect and perfectly irreproachable.” [20]

    Contrary to this error, the Church teaches that as Holy Communion is spiritual food to nourish and sustain the soul, it is also medicine, like bodily medication in the natural order. St. Pius X used this medicinal function as the main argument for daily reception of the Blessed Sacrament:
    The desire of Jesus Christ and the Church that all the faithful should daily approach the sacred banquet is directed chiefly to this end, that the faithful, being united to God by means of the Sacrament, may thence derive strength to resist their sensual passions, to cleanse themselves from the stains of daily faults, and to avoid those graver sins to which human frailty is liable. So that it’s primary purpose is not that the honor and reverence due to our Lord may be safeguarded, or that the Sacrament may serve as a reward of virtue bestowed on the recipients. [21]
    Theologians commonly distinguished three ways in which the Eucharist may be considered medicinal: it restores to the soul spiritual strength, which had been diminished through previous sins; it remits both penalty and temporal punishment due to our daily venial faults; and it moderates the force of concupiscence, notably the risings of lust. All these effects are analogous to the natural effect of bodily remedies which may serve as a tonic to retrieve the energy lost through sickness or physical exhaustion; as an antidote to counteract the result of a poison that has entered the body; or as an antibiotic, to combat the spread of infection and assist the forces of nature in their resistance to bodily disease.


The foregoing analysis was only illustrative of the general principle stated at the beginning that as a teacher uses the method of analogy in explaining the mysteries of faith, to that extent will they become more intelligible, more distinctive one from another, and more vital in the spiritual life of the student. When we reflect that even in the natural order, the things of God must be explained by analogous concepts drawn from created things, it is only to be expected that divine mysteries need to be described by comparison with the world of nature.


[1]  Pope Pius XI, Christian Education of Youth (New York: The Paulist Press, 1939), p.36

[2]  Enchiridion Symbolorum (Denziger-Bannwart) 1796, (Hereinafter, this work is cited as DB.)

[3]  St Augustine, “Epistula 137,” translated in Augustine Synthesis, ed. Eric Przywara, S.J. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1945), p.51

[4]  DB 40.

[5]  St. Augustine, op. cit., pp. 48-49

[6]  Ibid., pp. 49-50

[7]  Ibid., “Sermo 28,” p.209

[8]  The analogy here in question is of the body in man to the humanity (body and soul) in Christ, and of the soul in man to the divinity in Jesus Christ. In the form of a proportion, this would read:

         Body and Soul in Christ          Body in man
         ----------------------------  =  ---------------
         Divinity in Christ               Soul in man

[9]  Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Letter on the Sacred Liturgy (Washington, D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, 1948), p. 48.

[10]  La DocumentationCatholique, XXXIX (June 20, 1938), coll. 710-714.

[11]  DB 874. Decree of the Council of Trent, Session XIII.

[12]  John 6:56

[13]  DB 875.

[14]  John, 6:54

[15]  DB 933.

[16]  DB 887.

[17]  DB 893.

[18]  The Decree on Daily Communion [Issued by the Sacred Congregation of the Council, it was approved by St. Pius X on December 20, 1905.] (London: Sands and Co., 1909), p. 25.

[19]  Ibid., p. 31.

[20]  Arnauld, Antoine, De La Frequente Communion (Lyon, 1683), p. 186.

[21]  [ed. - No Reference Cited]

Catholic Educational Review
Vol. 53 - #5, May 1955, pp. 217-229

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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