Every year when we come to celebrate the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, or Corpus Christi, I am reminded of one of the great sermons of St. Augustine on the nature of the Eucharist (272). It’s an ancient exhortation that reminds us that how we participate in the Eucharist can never be divorced from how we engage in the world or how we conduct ourselves in our lives.
So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: "You are the body of Christ, member for member." [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying "Amen" to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear "The body of Christ", you reply "Amen." Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your "Amen" may ring true! But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: "The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body." [1 Cor. 10.17] Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. "One bread," he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the "one body," formed from many? Remember: bread doesn't come from a single grain, but from many.”
With these words, the saint and doctor of the Church reminds us that being part of the Body of Christ is intrinsically relational. To be part of the Body of Christ is to be in relationship with others, with the other members of the Body. This powerful reality of the communal has been eclipsed, at times, in our history. Our rituals and our practices reflect the tension that has resulted. For example, when we gather for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on Sunday and we approach the altar to partake in the Eucharist, we might often see people doing things individually, entering into private reverential practices, sometimes leading to the neglect of the community. People can be so focused in their personal prayer that they “leave” the community, instead of praying “with” the community, in gesture and in song. Personal and private devotion duels with communal and shared praise. It can be a struggle that highlights the tragedy of a community divided at a time when we are called to profound “communion”. St. Augustine’s insights are quite challenging for us, all these years later.
“When you received exorcism, you were "ground." When you were baptized, you were "leavened." When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were "baked." Be what you see; receive what you are.”
The saint goes on to remind us that our becoming part of the Body of Christ involves a breaking-down and a re-making of our lives. As we prepare for baptism we experience the great power of conversion and reconciliation (exorcism). Upon our baptism, we are conformed to Christ and we are born into discipleship of our Lord and Savior (leavened), growing to be more Christ-like with each passing day. Our confirmation, then, is about our commitment to that which we have come to know and understand as members of Christ’s Body. It is in the power of the Spirit of God we grow into the maturity of faith and the fruitfulness of Christian living. And all of this happens in the context of the other members of the Body, the community of believers we call “Church”. It is not something that we engage in or do in isolation. On the contrary, it is in our being part of the greater body that we find our life in Christ and are sustained in that life.
In the time of St. Augustine, the common practice was Adult Baptism, and Baptism was received along with First Eucharist and Confirmation. The implication was that when we were fully initiated into the life of faith, it marked a new beginning for the mature, adult, Christian. For different reasons throughout history, our Church struggled to maintain that focus. The implications for us, in our own time, are not insignificant. It’s good to hear the encouragement of St. Augustine reach to us across the ages.
(To be continued…)