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According to Roman Catholic dogma, transubstantiation is the transmutation of the substance of the Eucharistic elements -- bread and wine -- into the body and blood of Christ (although they retain the physical "accidents" of bread and wine).

The idea that the elements of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ evolved over many centuries before crystalizing into the specific terminology of the doctrine of transubstantiation. Ignatius of Antioch would appear to have accepted the concept when, in AD 106, he criticized those who "abstain from the Eucharist and the public prayer, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ, which [flesh] suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness raised up again" (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6, 7). Similarly, Ambrose of Milan countered objections to the doctrine, writing "You may perhaps say: 'My bread is ordinary.' But that bread is bread before the words of the Sacraments; where the consecration has entered in, the bread becomes the flesh of Christ." (The Sacraments, 333/339-397 A.D. v.2,1339,1340)

Under the influence of Scholasticism in the early Middle Ages, this deeply held but vaguely defined concept became more technical in its terminology, as the scholastics inquired philosophically how and in what way the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. It was during this period that the term 'transubstantiation' was coined. Eventually, at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and again at the Council of Trent (1545-1563) the terminology of transubstantiation was officially defined as dogma.

Contrast the belief held by most Protestant churches that Holy Communion merely symbolically commemorates Jesus' Last Supper with the disciples; this belief is known as "symbolism," "commemoration," or "transignification."

Some churches (notably some Lutheran communions) profess the doctrine of Consubstantiation, which holds that both the body and blood of Christ and the bread and wine are present in substance in the consecrated Eucharist. This doctrine agrees with Transubstantiation, and disagrees with Commemoration, that the real presence of Christ is in the Eucharist.

Anglican Churches generally use the term "real presence" without necessarily being more precise. Some Anglicans hold views nearly indistinguishable from transubstantiation, while others hold views closer to consubstantiation or other Protestant views. This wideness has its roots in the sometimes violent controversies on religion during and after the reign of Henry VIII. During the reign of Elizabeth I, a more inclusive (some would say fuzzy) approach was adopted. Elizabeth's own response when questioned on this during the reign of Mary I is often quoted:

Christ was the word that spake it.
He took the bread and break it;
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.

The Eastern Orthodox Church, like the Catholic Church, teaches that the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ. (The four-syllable word "metabole" is Greek Orthodox for "transubstantiation". In modern Greek, the "b" is pronounced like a "v", and the word is sometimes transliterated as "metavole".) However, Orthodox theologians have tended to refrain from philosophical reflections such as those of the Medieval Scholastics. Rather, they prefer to refer to the Eucharist as a "mystery", with the full understanding beyond human comprehension. Most Orthodox theologians would prefer to say too little about the details and remain firmly within Holy Tradition, than say too much and possibly deviate from the truth.

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