The Body of Christ Is Us

Proclaim Sermons
June 2, 2024
Reproduced with Permission
Proclaim Sermons

Summary: Since the time that Jesus presided at what the church came to call the first celebration of the Eucharist, Christians have argued over many aspects of the sacrament. However, it's clear that when we ingest the body and blood of Christ, the purpose is to give us strength and a commitment to minister to the very ones about whom Jesus spoke so often - the poor, needy, bereft and victims of injustice.

For those of you who may be new to Catholicism, please know that the Feast of Corpus Christi - meaning the feast of the body of Christ - which we celebrate today, has no direct connection to any special banquet in Corpus Christi, Texas, though no doubt lots of Catholics there will be commemorating the feast today, too.

Rather, as any decent encyclopedia, such as the Britannica, can tell you, the Feast of Corpus Christi originated in 1246 when Robert de Torote, the bishop of Liege, in Belgium, ordered the festival celebrated in his diocese. It spread from there and by the 15th century had become one of the principal feasts of the church.1

So why is it important to continue to think, talk and learn about the body of Christ today, some 2,000 years after his crucified body was resurrected? The answer, of course, has to do with our own relationship to - and participation in - Christ's body today and what we call his Real Presence in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

But to think about that relationship, let's spend just a little more time with the passage of scripture we read today from the Gospel of Mark. In it, we learn about how, near his death, Jesus celebrated Judaism's annual Passover meal. What he said and did there came to be understood as the first celebration of Holy Communion, or the Eucharist.

As he gave his disciples the bread he said "Take; this is my body." And as he passed around the cup next, he said, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." The "many," by the way, included Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him.

Over the centuries, there has been a lot of argument among Christians from different branches of the faith about how we are to understand what Jesus meant by "this is my body" and "this is my blood." No doubt part of this is because, in a sense, all words - even those in scripture - are metaphors, pointing beyond themselves to some truth or meaning that the words themselves can never fully express.

What's Aristotle got to do with it?

In the Catholic tradition, the Fourth Lateran Council back in 1215 began to use the word "transubstantiate" to explain how bread and wine could turn into Christ's blood and body. You may know what I'm about to say and, beyond that, you may never need to have to explain this to anyone else. But to answer the question of how bread and wine become body and blood, it's helpful to know that the doctrine of transubstantiation is based on the science of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher who lived several hundred years before Jesus was born.

Aristotle divided the world into what he called "accidents" and "substance." The smell, touch, taste and appearance of things in the material world he called "accidents." On the other hand, he referred to the core nature of what we are seeing, smelling or touching as the "substance" of those things, meaning a book's core "bookness" or a piece of bread's essential "breadness."

So in transubstantiation, the bread and wine of Communion retain their accidents. Which is to say that from beginning to end in the sacrament, they look, taste and feel like ordinary bread and wine. What changes in the Mass is not their accidents but what Aristotle called their substances. That is, the substance of the bread changes, in a divine mystery, into the substance of the body of Christ. Similarly, the substance of the wine changes, in another divine mystery, into the substance of the blood of Christ.

This doctrine was, in some ways, a refutation of the charge that Christians are cannibals, eating the actual physical body and blood of Jesus. As you can see, thanks to Aristotelian science, it's more complicated than that.

But why does any of this matter? Some other branches of Christianity - the Presbyterians, for instance - also believe in what's called the "Real Presence" of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. It's just that they don't use transubstantiation to explain it. They just call it a mystery and move on.

In some ways, getting into such theological weeds may seem like a waste of time and simply a game for scholars who get paid to explain all of this. But this sacrament is at the center of church life, and each of us should have some idea as to why it's so important and what it means for us as individuals and for the church, which we also call the body of Christ, or Corpus Christi.

You and I become the body of Christ here

In fact, the idea that the church itself is also called the body of Christ - the hands, the feet and the heart of Christ - is crucial to what we mean today by Corpus Christi.

We individually, but also as part of an institutional church, take in the body and blood of the living Christ not so that we can feel good about having met an obligation of the faith but so that we can metabolize that body and blood and turn them into acts of ministry to aid the very people Jesus loved and served - the poor, the needy, the marginalized, the downtrodden, the victims of injustice.

If we keep this nourishment for ourselves, we miss the whole point of the Mass. And we miss why Jesus comes to us in the sacrament - comes to us from the future, in many ways, because Jesus always points to the future and to the coming of the kingdom of God. The Real Presence in the sacrament reminds us of what he said at the very beginning of his ministry, which is that the kingdom of God is at hand, is dawning. And though the reign of God is not yet fully here, we still can live in that kingdom by adopting kingdom values - love, charity, justice, compassion, mercy, forgiveness. And did I mention love?

God's reign, which Jesus promised, isn't yet here in full bloom. But our faith insists that it's coming, even if it seems delayed. What we must not do, however, is to replace that faith with what Pope Francis has called "ideology," by which he meant strict adherence to a particular brand of secular politics. In other words, the constancy of the church's message about the coming reign of God is a vital means of preventing us from confusing our faith with any particular political party. If we do that, we will have lost what it means to be the church.

The part that grace has to play

Friends in Christ, the immediate goal here is not perfection. Humanity has shown from the very beginning that, strive as we might, we are not capable of perfection on this side of heaven. As the apostle Paul says, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God.2

In fact, if we had kept reading in the 14th chapter of Mark today, we would have discovered demonstrations of human failure almost immediately after the disciples had first ingested the body and blood of Christ.

We would have found Peter promising that he would never falter in his faithfulness to Jesus. But, of course, he did.

Next, we'd have found the disciples incapable of doing a simple thing Jesus asked of them - to stay awake while he went off to pray in Gethsemane. And in that same chapter we'd have found Judas betraying Jesus and we'd see Peter, whom the church honors as the first pope, denying Jesus three times.

So it's clear that receiving the elements of Communion does not guarantee that we won't disappoint or even betray and deny Jesus, maybe even on the very same day we ingest Corpus Christi.

But it does remind us that, in the end, grace wins. Our sins, our failures are no match at all for the astonishing showers of grace that can - and do - flood our lives. Sin simply doesn't have the last word. Death doesn't have the last word. Grace and resurrection have the last word. And that word is love.

The gospels don't tell us whether the disciples had another Eucharistic meal with Jesus before his crucifixion. But we do know that the Catholic Church and several other branches of Christianity offer Communion at every worship service. Why do we do that? Shouldn't it be sufficient to ingest the body and blood of our Lord just once? Shouldn't that last us a whole lifetime?

For an answer to that, let's turn to the late and famous Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton. In his book The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton writes that "the need to worship and acknowledge (God) is something deeply ingrained in our dependent natures, and simply inseparable from our essence."3

The very center of Catholic worship, of course, is the Mass and its offer of the body and blood of Christ to participants. So we acknowledge our need for worship, as Merton describes it, and we come again and again, sometimes even daily. We come to take into our bodies the very body and blood of Jesus so that our bodies can become Christ's ambassadors, his servants, his companions for the world today.

One of the primary reasons to participate in Christian worship is to get us attuned to God's presence in the world, for as Merton writes, "the only way to live (is) to live in a world that (is) charged with the presence and reality of God."4 That very presence and reality are what Corpus Christi offers to us. Thanks be to God.