“The Body of Christ.”
“The Blood of Christ.”
This brief and simple dialogue, shared between minister and communicant, contains a great richness of Eucharistic theology.
The “Body of Christ” and “Blood of Christ” refer in a specific sense to the consecrated elements before us, the host and chalice elevated to meet our gaze. These entities are indeed the Sacred Body and Precious Blood of Jesus. This belief is codified in the doctrine of the Real Presence, and each time we respond, “Amen,” we assent to this doctrine.
In addition, the “Body of Christ” and “Blood of Christ” refer to the whole Church and echo the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. … You are Christ’s body and individually parts of it.”
Here we encounter what is called the “Mystical Body” — the unity of all the faithful, the Church.
According to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” it is the sacrament of the Eucharist that brings the Church into being. We call this sacrament “Communion” because we who receive it are united more closely to Christ and to each other, including all the faithful at this Mass and everywhere in the world, as well as the whole communion of saints — past, present and future.
St. Augustine put it this way: “If you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the Lord; it is your sacrament that you receive. … For you hear the words, ‘the Body of Christ’ and respond ‘Amen.’ Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your Amen may be true.” In short, you are what you eat.
A full appreciation of the Eucharist embraces both the elemental and corporate aspects of the Body of Christ. Neither makes sense without the other; these are two sides of the same coin.
In last week’s teaching editorial, Father Tony Cecil noted that Christ’s Body is indivisible. We believe that Jesus is truly and fully present — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity — in both the Sacred Host and Precious Blood, in every particle and every drop, no matter how large or small. In each case, we receive all of Jesus.
Just as there is no division in Christ, there is no division therefore in the Body of Christ, the Church. The Mystical Body is not divisible into 110 separate parishes in the Archdiocese of Louisville, each with its own version of Jesus. Nor is it divisible into 194 dioceses in the United States, nor in any way throughout the whole world.
There is but one Jesus, present to us all, and no differences in language or worship style or ecclesiology or politics can break this unity. We affirm each week in the Creed that the Church is “one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.” The Church strives, though imperfectly, to be one — to bring everyone into this Body of Christ. Sectarianism, both within and outside of our Church, is a wound. It is a manifestation of human brokenness and sin. God never desires such division among us.
Incidentally, this is why the Church asks us to seek the sacrament of penance before receiving Holy Communion if we are aware of serious sin. It is not to impose more rules and regulations, but rather to make sure we are in a right relationship with God and with each other before saying “Amen” to the Body of Christ. It is like healing the wounds within the body so that it can function optimally.
The “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” properly calls the distribution of Holy Communion a “procession” — not a queue. We are not merely waiting in line for our turn to individually encounter Jesus. The Communion Procession itself is the movement of the Body of Christ. We attend to the procession by noticing one another, singing together and offering prayers of praise and thanksgiving as one.
The Eucharist fulfills our call to unity. The next time you receive Holy Communion, remember that while you move to the Body of Christ, you also move with the Body of Christ. This profoundly beautiful aspect of our eucharistic theology is one of the treasures of our faith. Let us go forth and share this gift.
Dr. Karen Shadle is director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of Louisville.