How the Eucharist Transforms Us (Not Bread) into the Body of Christ

One Loaf

Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: Exodus 24: 3-8; Psalm 116: 12-18; Hebrews 9: 11-15; Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26

This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).

It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.

That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.

That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:

“12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . .
You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.” The real presence is us.

The Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ: the Last Supper wasn’t a magic show

Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

Today is the feast of The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It used to be called “Corpus Christi.” And the Gospel reading (Mark’s account of the Last Supper) brings us into familiar territory. I mean we observed Holy Thursday just two and a half months ago. And here we are centralizing yet another account of Jesus’ final meal.

Of course, the emphasis on Holy Thursday and today is supposed to be different. On Holy Thursday the Last Supper was part of the account of Jesus’ final days. On Corpus Christi the focus is on the sacrament of the Eucharist itself, what we used to call “Holy Communion.” Today the spotlight is on the “Real Presence” of Jesus, body, blood, soul, and divinity in the “elements” which retain the appearances of bread and wine.

In the past, this was the time for sermons on “transubstantiation,” and the priestly powers conferred in ordination. Corpus Christi was an occasion for processions of the Blessed Sacrament even through town squares, for its “exposition” in “monstrances,” for solemn “benedictions” and “holy hours” of adoration.  

Historically, this feast has been a specifically Catholic affair implicitly contrasting Catholic belief with Protestants who since the Reformation denied the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence.

I won’t bore you by rehearsing the differences between Catholic “transubstantiation” and Protestant “trans-signification” and “trans-finalization.” Somehow it all seems rather quaint and beside the point, doesn’t it? I mean, who cares – except perhaps for a few brief moments on Sunday mornings between nine and ten o’clock? We have so many personal problems with our children, in our jobs, in our marriages. . . . Besides, the world is in such a dark state, who has time for such theological niceties?

And don’t even talk to me about the church; it is so problematic for most of us. How could we spend time and energy on inter-denominational disputes when we find the Mass itself increasingly meaningless? Each Sunday many of us end up struggling with the question, “Why am I still coming here?” Get real!

Well, getting real and retaining hope in the face of darkness on all fronts is actually what today’s account of the Last Supper is really about. It’s not about transubstantiation of bread and wine at all. It is we who need to be “transubstantiated” as people and specifically as Catholics. The Gospel calls us to fundamental change in our faith about Eucharist.

Consider what happened at the Last Supper and then what became of it over the years. Consider what we could make of it today.

For Jesus, this final Passover meal is wrought with anxiety to say the least. Jesus and his friends have now gone underground. After a demonstration in the Temple which turned violent, they are now being hunted. There is a price of 30 shekels of silver on Jesus’ head, and he suspects one of his inner circle is about to turn him in for the reward. The “safe house” Jesus has secured for the Passover meal has been located by a secret sign and a password.

In such dark circumstances, Jesus looks at the bread he breaks, and the action reminds him that his very body is under threat. The cup of wine he passes around becomes for him his own blood that soon could be whipped, nailed, drained and speared from his veins.

But he doesn’t lose hope. In effect amidst betrayal by a close friend, a price on his head, premonitions of his own death, and threatened failure of his entire enterprise, Jesus proposes a toast to God’s Kingdom. Despite everything he remains convinced God’s reign will soon dawn. In fact, takes a vow not to drink wine again until that happens. His fast from wine is another form of his familiar prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”  In the end, Jesus asks his disciples (come what may) to share bread and wine as he has done – with one another and across ethnic and other divisions (with Jew and gentile, woman and man, rich and poor, “clean” and “unclean”), and to do this specifically in his memory.

And that’s what the early Christians did. They broke bread in memory of Jesus, his values and the way he lived. In the early church, they called this a “love feast.” And people would come together with pot luck dishes and share with everyone. Until the 5th century women would often preside at the feast – as they usually do at meals in every home on the planet. Sometimes men would preside too. (It wasn’t until the 14th century that the Eucharistic “celebrant” had to be an ordained “priest.”)

And all would be invited, rich and poor. (In fact, one of the great attractions of early Christianity was the generosity with which Christians shared their bread with the needy.) Twice in the Book of Acts Luke describes the first Christians as leading what could only be called a “communistic” ways of life.  Acts 2:44 reads:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

That’s what the early Christians made of Jesus’ injunction to “Do this in memory of me.” They truly understood what later would be termed “The Real Presence:” bread is bread; wine is wine; when they are shared Jesus truly becomes present in his Holy Spirit. Early Christians understood that Jesus’ “Real Presence” could not be separated from the way he lived – at the service of the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the hungry and thirsty.

The rub however is that the Eucharist gradually turned into something else. That business about actually doing what Jesus commanded – you know “Sell what you have; give it to the poor; and come follow me” . . .  That was too much for church leaders after they sold out to Constantine’s Empire in the 4th century. They started living like kings and needed something more comfortable. 

So they transformed the Christian “love feast” into a “Mass.” And as the middle ages progressed, the Mass turned into a magic show. Before our very eyes, bread was transformed into the body of Jesus, and wine became his blood. The priest alone had the requisite magical powers. Belief in that magic act became what the Eucharist was about.

In all of this, focus shifted from transformation of those participating in the Eucharist to transformation of the bread, which eventually became a plastic-like wafer that looks nothing like the bread whose sharing so concerned Jesus.

We could change all of that beginning right now. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t have to be the dreary “hocus pocus” it became before Vatican II and threatens to become again today under extremely conservative church leadership. Like Jesus’ last meal, the Eucharist can reassume its character as an occasion for recommitment to God’s Kingdom, even as we experience a dark night of our Catholic souls and just as human beings. If Jesus wasn’t overwhelmed by his circumstances, how can we be crushed by ours?

In fact, if we open our eyes in hope, we can see many reasons to toast God’s Kingdom despite our many problems as believers. For instance, did you know that a group of Catholics and Protestants of various denominations are forming an alternative Eucharistic congregation right here in our own community? Its intention is not to replace our attendance at Mass, but to supplement it with a celebration that can provide experience of what inspired, life-connected worship can be.

Also, this fall Fr. Matthew Fox, the fiery spiritual teacher, liturgist and theologian will be speaking at Berea College.  He has already expressed a willingness to meet with our parishioners to discuss church renewal with us. Similarly, Sr. Joan Chittister, the Benedictine nun and spiritual leader, will be a Berea College convocation speaker this fall.

Additionally, next November 9th to 11th, the National Catholic “Call to Action” campaign will be holding its annual meeting in Louisville – at the Galt House. We could send a delegation of 20 people or more (including our pastor) to get inspired by world-class speakers and by what other churches are doing to revive the spirit of Vatican II.  Please mark your calendars for that event.  

Besides all of that, this October 11th is the 50th anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council. There will be observances of the occasion all over the world. We could mark the anniversary right here in our own parish with a “tent revival” with invited speakers, and with teach-ins on Vatican II. We could even pool our money to provide tuition for our pastor to update his theology in some progressive theological, liturgical or pastoral program.

All of these events have the potential to “transubstantiate” us as a community – to change us to the core as a community of faith.

So things might not be as dark as we might think. There may indeed be light at the end of this tunnel we’ve been struggling through for too long.

Jesus’ own faith in and hope for God’s Kingdom is our inspiration. If he could have faith and hope in his dreary circumstances, how can we not be hopeful? If he is for us, if we sup with him, who can stand against us? Let’s get on with it!