The Body of Christ has yet another meaning and here we are indebted to St. Paul. The union that exists between Christ and his people (since their baptism into Christ by the waters of the sacrament) is identified as the Body of Christ by St. Paul. Looking at 1 Corinthians 12:27, we read: “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” St. Paul refers to the Church as the Body of Christ. He likens all of us, united to Christ and to each other, as in an intimate union. At Baptism, each of us, if you will, becomes a cell in that body and at the same time participating in the life of the whole body with its head, Christ. That union is not a physical union as in nailing two boards together, nor is it a moral union as when people are united as members of the same club or organization. This union of Christ and his members is unique; so much so, that we have to make up a new phrase to help us understand it. We call it the Mystical Body of Christ. All of us are united to Christ and to one another. Christ tried to inform us of this union with the parable of the vine and the branches. As the branch must adhere to the vine to live; we must adhere to Christ. Life must flow through Christ, the vine, to the branches, bringing about the fruit of our lives. St. Paul, back when he was Saul, persecuted the early Christians. Our Lord called out to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord responded, “I am Jesus the one you are persecuting” (see Acts 9: 4-5 and Acts 22: 7-8). Again, our attention is called to the union between Christ and his people. Christ also said, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me” (Matthew 25: 40). Modern social concerns tell us to see Christ in the poor, underprivileged and handicapped persons. We see in these references a reality telling us of the union that is likened to the human body. Christ is the head. We are the members. All of us are important. St. Paul says, “Does the hand say to the foot, I have no need of you?” (see 1 Corinthians 12: 15). All of us have our mission in the Church, the gathered-together people with Christ. Each of us has a mission. It may be very different from another’s mission; but, each of us is important. When we say in the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” or in the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in … the holy catholic Church,” this does not refer only to the hierarchy but to the whole Christ. At Mass, we beseech God, not to look on our sinfulness, but on the faith of the Church. When I hear this, I think of the known and unknown sacrifices being made by missionaries and martyrs, the unseen raising of children, care for the poor and the sick, and the elderly praying with gnarled hands. This Mystical Body has a structure like the human body with its skeleton; otherwise, it would collapse. Our structure is the Pope, bishops, priests and lay people. The union of people is composed of the saints in heaven, the ones who are striving to get to heaven (pilgrim people) and those waiting for perfection so as to be entirely one with Christ. While Jesus has a human body, a resurrected body; now, he also has the Church as his Mystical Body, where we are united spiritually in its members to Christ and to one another. At baptism we became children of God, members of the divine household and family. We are in union with Christ, both when we pray alone and when we worship together.
As we consider the incarnation of Christ as human, truly having a physical body and soul, we embrace the truth that he was like us in all things but sin. His body did not remain simply a physical body as we know ours. Something special happened to it. After Christ grew in wisdom and grace for thirty-three years, he died, was buried and rose again. That resurrection did something wonderful to his body. This resurrection was not just a return to life as usual as it was for poor Lazarus, even though it was Christ’s same body that suffered and died. It was a resurrected body. Perhaps a little hint of what it may have been like could be gleaned from reading about the Transfiguration of Christ (Luke 9:28-36)? This is perhaps why Mary Magdalene did not recognize Christ at first after the resurrection? This is why the apostles were hesitant in their recognition. St. Thomas was invited to put his hands into the wounds as a proof for him that it was really Christ in a new way. Likewise, this is why the apostles were slow to recognize him on the shore after the resurrection preparing breakfast for them. We can never know the physical body of Christ by sight, touch and voice in this life; but, we will spend all eternity gazing on the resurrected Christ in his human body, drinking in the beauty, the splendor, the loveliness, and glory of that resurrected body. But there is more. In the funeral Mass, the prayer is said, “Christ will raise our mortal bodies to be more like his own in glory … we hope to share in your glory … on that day we shall see you as you are, we shall become like you….” This is the destiny of our bodies to share in the glory that is Christ. This is the reason we are buried in consecrated ground for while we are the temple of God, as St. Paul calls our body, it has not yet appeared what we will be. It is on account of this that we respect our bodies; they are good in themselves, but destined for glory where every tear, disability and shortcoming will be wiped away. This is our reason for respect for life born, unborn and aged; the human body will rise again when Christ calls out to us, as he did to Lazarus, to come forth. We will enter into the resurrected life of Christ. When we receive Communion, it is the resurrected Christ— body, soul and divinity— that we receive. The scars and wounds have become badges of glory which prompt us to say, “Praise to you, resurrected and glorified Christ!”
The Body of the Lord is referenced in our Liturgy, in the Scriptures and in our Theology. What is the meaning of this “body” in our faith? The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became human— one of us— without losing what he was, and yet becoming what he was not. Jesus Christ is truly human. He took his humanity from Mary as she was overshadowed by the Holy Spirit. Christ is really one of us. He bled. He was hungry. He was beaten physically. But, he also enjoyed the happy moments of his life with us as he engaged in family life at Nazareth. He said “My delight is to be with the children of men” (Proverbs 8: 31). He enjoyed the food of the Last Supper, at Cana, and at his home away from home, with Martha, Mary and Lazarus at Bethany. He also ate with sinners, not to countenance what they do wrong, but to let them know he had come to save them from their sins. He suffered the frustration and failure to be understood. In other words, he did not say to all of us, “do as I say,” as much as “do as I do.” Pick up your cross and follow me. He walked the walk. When we go to Communion, we receive Christ, body and soul, as well as the Divine Christ. He is our friend, as he called himself at the Last Supper. He is our brother, truly, in sharing our humanity. When the celebrant offers us Communion, he says, “the Body of Christ,” to which we respond, “Amen,” firmly and out loud, as our profession of faith in Christ present in his humanity, and not in some spiritual sense only. Did it ever occur to us that before Christ took on our humanity, he could never suffer. Prior, he had no human nature, no body to feel pain. Yet Christ opened himself up to suffering by taking on our humanity as a testimony of his love for us. Christ did not just appear to be human as early heresies tried to say. He was not just play acting, not just resembling us— he was truly human. He became human not just for thirty-three years and during his ministry on earth, but forever— for all eternity. This is why Christ prays, because he is human as well as divine. He prayed to his Father. He sought refuge in strength and prayer. He taught us to pray, “Our Father,” not just “my” Father.
Turning to the other element used at Mass, the priest says these words, “for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you….” Wine was the common table drink of the people to whom Christ was speaking at the Last Supper. Most of the Jewish people at that time had a little vineyard of their own. It was prefigured by Melchizedek who offered bread and wine to God. Now Christ uses the same elements at the Last Supper to give us himself under the appearance of bread and wine. Christ used the elements of creation, which God found good, when he created the world. Since wine is an expression of man’s need for drink, it tells us that we should be offering ourselves and our lives to God. The Scriptures direct us to take a little wine for our stomach’s sake. In this case, the wine becomes Christ and we take it for our souls’ sake. Like the wheat that has been crushed, so is the grape crushed. The word to crush is the same word for contrition, since in offering our life to God we have to crush our selfishness, pride, desire for revenge, inclination to lie, and so forth. At the funeral Mass, when the body is received at the door of the church, the prayer that is said includes, “if we die with Christ, we will rise with Christ.” That dying is not our “last breath dying,” but dying to self so that we can, by conquering those faults and others like them, die to self and make our offering to God more sincere. The dying to self is painful as well, but offering it with, in and through Christ, who, while not suffering again, re-presents his passion in each Mass that is offered. The wine is a good symbol of our lives because it involves in its making much patience and care, and those two elements are predominant in our lives, too. If we were to receive only the precious blood, we would receive the whole Christ as we would in any portion of the consecrated blood or bread. What better sign can be used to signify the death of Christ, apparently only, than the separate consecration of the bread and the blood? We remember that Christ is truly present to us as he makes his passion, death and resurrection present in each Mass without suffering again. The sign of apparent separation of body and blood, and I repeat, apparent, is the sign of the Lord’s passion and death. Later in the Mass, a portion of the consecrated bread is broken off and united to the precious blood, reversing the sign of death to signify the resurrection of Christ. Christ is present not only in his death but also in his resurrection at each Mass. It is the risen Christ that we receive. It is the risen Christ we present to the Father. May the mingling of the body and blood of Christ bring those who receive it to everlasting life.
The phrase, “work of human hands,” occurs twice in the Offertory prayers, first over the bread (hosts) and then the wine. The priest speaks for the people who present these gifts to God. No matter whether spoken audibly or softly, these orations touch our interior and exterior participation in the Mass. We do not give back to God just what he has given us. Like the servant in the parable of the talents, God expects us to use the gifts he gives us. A brief examination of where we get this bread may help you to see what I mean. We do not give wheat back to God; we give bread, the work of human hands. First there is the work of plowing, planting and cultivating. Then there is the hope that the seed will take root and produce. Then there follows the harvest, a time of joy and thanksgiving. The chaff is separated from the wheat, which is a sign of our rejecting in our lives that which is bad and holding on to that which is good. The wheat is then taken to the baker, and with the addition of the yeast (not used in the bread at Mass), and the heat of the fire, we have bread. Can you see how the finished product is the work of human hands? That bread sums up our lives of work and hope and gratitude. The bread stands for what we have in life; and that which we have, we offer to God from what he has given us— and our own life and work put into this finished product. The bread stands for life— that which we need to sustain our natural existence. But in the Mass, it also contains the promise of the Eucharistic bread which sustains our spiritual life. We are pilgrim people. We walk to the communion station for the Eucharistic bread (the whole and complete living Christ substantially present). It is Christ himself we receive. This special food gives us the strength we need so as not to falter on our pilgrim way to the Father’s house in eternity. What a destiny for the small seed we plant! It becomes the means by which Christ gives us his very self and presence. It is no wonder that at the beginning of the prayer we say, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation….” Blessed means thank you. We have this bread to offer, fruit of the earth and fashioned by human hands. There is co-operation, co-creation or participation with God’s creation. The bread carried in procession is supposed to express our giving of ourselves to God— does it really? Have we shared the fruit of our labors with God’s Church? Do we surrender a decent gift that expresses our livelihood? Have we given ourselves truly to the service of the community? The Gospel tells us first to “leave your gift at the altar” (Matthew 5:24) and go and reconcile with your brother— does the gift we leave (signified in the gift of bread) reflect reconciliation with one another and conform to the self-donation of our lives to God?
The altar occupies the central position in the church building and in the liturgical ceremonies. When we walk into God’s house, the prominence of the altar is quite clear. Why is this? It is because the altar represents Christ. The Eucharist is the “summit and source” of our relationship with God. This emphasis is fitting since all things are directed in, with and through Christ. All graces flow from Christ. Thus, it is only fitting that the place, the altar, where all this takes place, should be treated with honor. After God speaks to us in the Scriptures of the Mass, the altar is dressed for the re-presentation of Christ’s death and resurrection. Whenever possible, the corporal (where the sacred species rests), the chalice, the purificator, and the pall, are placed on the altar. Just as the apostles prepared the upper room, so we prepare the altar to do what Christ commanded us to do at the Last Supper. Wine, water and bread are brought to the altar so that the ritual of the Last Supper can be celebrated and the great mystery made present. Jesus took bread and then the chalice to consecrate, giving us his sacramental presence. When the whole ceremony is finished, the altar is cleared for the closing rites and the dismissal of the people. “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” We are now sent out on mission to carry what we did and received into the world of everyday life. Sometimes the altar is incensed, particularly on special solemn occasions. Incense was the sign of honor reserved for the VIPs of old who could afford servants carrying incense before them as they walked the smelly streets (before sewers were invented). It would later go before processions of the Blessed Sacrament, honoring Jesus Christ. Now it is a mark of honor for the altar and also a sign that our prayers ascend (like smoke) and with pleasing fragrance to God. The people on occasion are also incensed as a sign of their own high dignity at being one with Christ in the Mystical Body. It is also a sign that God is pleased with our prayers which ascend to him. The altar is kissed before and after the Mass, signifying our greeting Christ which the altar represents. The altar can be fashioned in such a way that it resembles a table from whence the food which is Christ comes to us. It can also be shaped like a coffin or tomb to remind us of the death-resurrection of Christ that is made present. Relics of the saints and martyrs are imbedded in the altar, sealed in the altar stone, to remind us that martyrs resemble Christ in laying down their lives and are in a profound union with him. “Greater love than this no man has when he lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). When you enter a church, look to the altar and believe what happens there.
One of the potentially deceptive phrases we use with each other is, “Did you go to church today?” or a variation of that question. As Americans, we like terseness and speed in our talk and in religious matters. I understand why people do not ask you, “Did you hear Christ speaking to you in the Gospel this Sunday?” “Did you enter into the death-resurrection of Christ internally and externally by participation in the Mass?” “Are you open to Christ coming to you in Communion?” Both the asking and the answering of these questions is longer and more complicated than the mere, “Did you go to church?” If we really believe in what we profess to believe— namely, that the living Christ, body and blood, comes to us in Communion— that the death and resurrection is re-presented to us in the Mass— that the living Christ speaks to us now in the Scriptures— would we behave as some of us do? Are we late for the Son of God coming into our midst? Do we dress properly for the occasion? Do we sing because our faith is strong, or at least follow the lyrics? Do we stay for a few extra minutes to thank God for coming to us in Holy Communion, including everything else that he gives us? St. Paul asks us, “What have you that you have not received, and if you receive it, why do you act as if you didn’t receive it?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Do we have a priority in our lives that regulates everything else that we do in order to come to Mass on the Lord’s Day? In evaluating our privileges in this free society, I am reminded of St. Maximilian Kolbe and of the bishops and priests who clandestinely offered Mass in Chinese, Soviet and Vietnamese prisons; at great personal risk; prisoners surrendered their meager rations and bribed guards for a bit of bread and wine so that they “could go to church.” Their courage and fidelity stands in stark contradiction to our own casual attitude towards the Eucharist, which is the source and summit of all we do and are about in the Church. I am reminded, too, of the Protestant minister who said, “If I believed what you believe about the Eucharist, I would come down the aisle on my hands and knees to receive Christ.” How does our attitude compare? Do we simply, “go to church?”