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Eucharist:
Understanding
Christ's Body

by William H. Shannon

The way Catholics think about the Eucharist has a lot to do with the way we understand the body. Theologian Nathan Mitchell pointed this out a few years back when he wrote that in Christian tradition the human person is not simply someone who has a body, but is someone who is a body. That challenges us to think beyond a narrow understanding of the body as a collection of muscles, bones and organs where a soul resides.

Mitchell challenges us to think of the body in a deeply traditional sense, as the whole person in relation to God. Christian teaching on the Resurrection focuses, for example, not on an immortal soul, but on a transfigured world of glorified bodies. That's why the famous theologian Karl Rahner called the feast of the Ascension "a festival of the future of the world." For we believe that Christ's body—and our bodies—will last forever, transformed by God.

This view of the body affects how we understand the Eucharist—indeed even how we understand Christ. Writes Mitchell, "The body of Christ offered in consecrated bread and wine is not something, but someone....The ultimate intent of celebrating Eucharist is not to produce the sacred species for purposes of reservation and adoration, but to create the united body of Christ which is the Church." The body of Christ is not only on the table, but at the table and around the table.

2000 years of presence

If we look at the history of the Mass from the days of the apostles to our own time, we shall see there have been many changes in the way our Church has understood the Eucharist. But throughout that long tradition is the firm belief in the real presence of the risen Jesus in the Eucharist and in the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church.

Looking at eucharistic history in wide sweeps, we can see three periods in that history. For the first seven or eight centuries of the Church's life, the Eucharist had been the people's Eucharist. The Eucharist was people gathering in community (often in house-churches) to express their praise and thanks to God. This is precisely what the word eucharist means: "giving thanks and praise."

Christians, gathered together for Eucharist, were conscious all the while that the risen Jesus was in their midst as they did so. They never even bothered to ask when Christ became present. It was enough to know that he was with them. There was no elevation of the host and cup at the words of institution. The only elevation came at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. After the Eucharistic Prayer, everyone shared in the meal. Following the meal, Communion was taken to the sick. Later the custom developed of reserving the Holy Bread in a special place in the church to take to the sick in case this was necessary when Eucharist was not being celebrated. Eventually it happened that people would go to the place of reservation for private prayer.

A change in emphasis

In the Middle Ages—roughly between 800 and 1000—something happened to the Eucharist. It became something quite different from what it had been in the beginning. From being the action of people, it became an act of God coming down among God's people to be adored.

Let me try briefly to clarify how this happened—again in broad strokes. First of all, as the number of Christians grew (in the centuries after Constantine, the first Christian emperor), Church buildings became much larger. The homey image of a community gathered around the Lord's table became less and less visible. Second, in the age of Charlemagne (742-814), many people of non-Roman background were baptized without adequate preparation. They went to a liturgy celebrated in Latin, a language they did not understand.

Third, for a long time the Church had fought against the persistent heresy of Arianism. The Arians denied that Jesus Christ was divine. In reaction to this heresy, Christian thought emphasized the divinity of Christ so much that his humanity was almost forgotten! The result was that Jesus became for many people a fearful figure. Having lost sight of the fact that Jesus had truly become part of the human family, people began to think of him solely as God—and as God who is our judge and who will punish us for our failings. The Jesus who had said: "Come to me, you who labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you," had become Someone who was unapproachable and to be feared.

Priest's role changes

These factors working together brought about a different way of viewing the Eucharist. The priest began to celebrate Mass with his back to the people. Few received Communion. They were content to look at the Jesus whom they felt now afraid to receive. More and more the priest did everything at the Mass. The people simply "attended."

Let me offer a parallel to what was happening to the Eucharist. Suppose someone were to rewrite the Gospels and transform the image of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. Suppose that, instead of describing the Jesus who moved among people healing them, reconciling them, consoling them, inviting them to choose the Kingdom (as the Gospels certainly do picture Jesus)—suppose, instead, that the Gospels presented Jesus as someone who sat in a house at Nazareth behind a glass window where anyone who wanted to could come and get a look at him. There would be Jesus—not acting in the midst of people—but just sitting there day after day, on view for people.

No one would dare rewrite the Gospels in this way. Yet what no one would dare to do to the Christ of the Gospels is what the Middle Ages unwittingly did to the Christ of the Eucharist. They took away much of the awareness of Christ in the midst of people. The Mass had drifted from a human experience of community in Christ, which called for people's participation, to a divine reality that called for a priest to act in the name of Christ to bring him down from heaven. The priest became the only one to be acting in the eucharistic celebration.

The people watched as silent spectators. They said their prayers. They watched the host lifted up for them to see. On occasion they received Communion. For the most part they were not really a community, but a collection of individuals—watching something that was being done on their behalf.

If you look at the theology of the Eucharist that emerged from the Council of Trent (a theology that persisted down to the Second Vatican Council), it is clear that its approach to the Eucharist was that of medieval theologians. For them the essence of a sacrament was to be found in its matter and form.

To give an example, the matter of Baptism was water; the form the words: "I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." As long as the priest used water and said the proper words, the sacrament was valid. Other parts of the ceremony might have been edifying and "good for the faithful to hear." But it was the water and the proper words that really counted.

The Eucharist was understood in similar fashion. The matter was bread and wine; the form, "the words of consecration" said by the priest over the bread and wine. The priest was the celebrant. He really did not need the people to have a Eucharist as it was understood. All he needed was bread and wine and the words of consecration that he spoke. The people were there largely as spectators, watching an action being performed on their behalf. They were especially attentive when the priest pronounced "the words of consecration." The rest of the time they were, by and large, occupied with saying their prayers.

Receiving Communion had little to do with any kind of relationship with the rest of the people in the church. Communion was seen as something between "Jesus and me." When we returned from Communion, we made this abundantly clear by burying our faces in our hands, to exclude from this exquisite moment all else, including the rest of the congregation.

Liturgical awakening

That was the limited understanding of liturgy that existed for most people prior to the Second Vatican Council. I say for most people, because the 20th century witnessed the development of a movement that was to prepare for the liturgical changes initiated by Vatican II.

The small group of people interested in liturgical renewal were given a basic liturgical principle by Pius X in the very first document of his papacy, an apostolic letter on Church music (November 22, 1903): "Active participation in the liturgy is the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit." This became the watchword of a small number of priests and laity who sought to achieve fundamental changes in the celebration of liturgy. This group came to be called the liturgical movement. The unofficial publication of the movement, published at St. John's Abbey in Minnesota, first called Orate Fratres, is now named Worship.

In 1938 the first Father Stedman Missals were published. They used a number system to guide people through the various parts of the Mass. I remember buying my first Stedman missal for 38 cents. Thousand and thousands of copies were sold. Instead of saying their rosary or reading their prayers, people were now able to follow the priest at Mass. This was not yet full participation, but at least a step toward it. Yet another step occurred in the 1940's with the advent of the dialogue Mass, in which people participated by making the responses that up to then had been reserved to the altar servers.

A most important step toward liturgical renewal occurred on November 16, 1955, when Pope Pius XII restored the Easter Vigil and then, later, the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter. Recentering liturgy around the mystery of the death and, especially, the resurrection of the Lord was a decisive preparation for the liturgical changes initiated by the Second Vatican Council.

Influence of Vatican II

At the time of Vatican II most people still carried with them the heritage of the past: They said their prayers at Mass and fulfilled a religious obligation. Now, more than 30 years after the Council, some people continue to think of the Mass only as a Sunday obligation they must fulfill. For them the Eucharist still means Jesus as God being shown to us and received, rather than the earliest understanding of the Eucharist: Jesus as the Risen One who became dynamically present among his people, doing things to us: healing us, cleansing us, reconciling us, calling us, inviting us to deeper and deeper involvement in proclaiming God's Kingdom, calling us to be his body in the world.

The Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, as well as the liturgical documents issued after the Council to implement the directives of that Constitution, produced what can only be called an unprecedented and explosive revolution in liturgical understanding and practice. The most important thing the Council did was to give the Eucharist back to the assembly, to the people of God.

It would be too strong to say that the Council took the Eucharist away from the priest and gave it back to the people. But it would not be too strong to say that it returned the Eucharist to what it had been in the beginning: an assembly of God's people come together, under the leadership of a priest, to praise God, to hear God's Word and to "break bread" with the firm belief that the Lord Jesus was present among them.

In today's Eucharist, though a priest presides, the central actor is the risen Jesus present in our midst through the action of the Spirit.

The priest's role remains essential: He is the presider who leads the assembly and, in the person of Christ and on behalf of the people, asks God to send the Holy Spirit on the bread and wine and also on the assembly.

New language, new accents

The radical changes introduced by the Council introduced new language. Where we used to emphasize mainly the role of the priest, we now emphasize as well the role of the entire assembly. The priest presides over the celebration.

Where we used to speak of the priest changing the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, we now see his role as a humbler one. He acts in the person of Jesus, asking God: "Let your Spirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ" (Eucharistic Prayer II). In other words, the priest asks God to send the Holy Spirit to do for us now what Jesus did at the Last Supper.

All the reforms of liturgy that have come out of Vatican II have had as their ultimate intent to make the Mass once again a human reality, namely, something that people do; yet always a human reality that moves beyond the human to the divine. By this I mean that what people do at Mass, they do with a profound realization that the risen Lord is present in their midst.

Jesus calls us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. We must avoid an overly literalistic understanding of these words. We do not literally eat flesh or drink blood. Jesus' command to eat his body and drink his blood can only make sense if we understand the words body and blood as designating the whole person, the real glorified Jesus as he exists today.

Thus to eat his body and drink his blood is to enter into a true encounter with the person of Jesus. This is the full meaning of the Eucharist. It is a dynamic meeting with the Risen One.

But it is not a solitary experience. We do not come to the Eucharist simply as isolated individuals, but rather as persons who are members of a community, as persons who are the Body of Christ. The Eucharist is not just Jesus with me, but Jesus with us, and all of us with one another. And we are not together hiding from the world: We are Christ's body in the world God created, 24 hours a day.

In a word, Jesus' presence is not static: He is not satisfied just to be there. He is there to act dynamically in order to change our lives. At Eucharist we meet Christ and are challenged by him in the assembly of his people. He is there to make us whole people. He is there to bring harmony and peace into our lives, our families, our country, our world. He comes to make us experience ourselves as his body in the world.

All too often our understanding gets reversed. We think of the Eucharist as a kind of reservoir we come to and get the grace that will carry us through the week. Yet we need to look at the reality of God's grace quite differently. The grace of God acts in the world, among people.

Liturgy of the world

Our liturgies, therefore, must not be seen as isolated interventions of grace into our otherwise profane and graceless lives. Rather these acts of worship are symbolic expressions of what theologian Karl Rahner called "the liturgy of the world."

The experience of God is primarily to be found hidden in the midst of ordinary life, observes Rahner, in our experiences of hope and doubt, responsibility, love and death. We gather together in worship, not to "refuel" lives devoid of grace, but because we need to celebrate all the grace-filled moments of our lives, which are so easily overlooked or ignored. We gather at Eucharist to be challenged to deeper awareness of what God is doing in our lives, in this world, all week long.

We have to keep remembering to ask the questions: "Who are at the table? Who are around the table?" as well as the question, "Who is on the table?" The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes a moving passage in which St. Augustine relates the Body of Christ in the Eucharist (on the altar) to the Body of Christ that is the Church (at and around the altar).

Says Augustine at the turn of the fifth century: "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. To that which you are, you respond: 'Amen' ('Yes, it is true!'), and by responding to it you assent to it. 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" (#1396).

 

SILENCE Has a Place,Too

If we are truly to celebrate our faith experiences in the liturgy, it is important that there be a contemplative dimension to our liturgies. We can't pray well if we are continually verbalizing and allowing no space for silence and reflection. A spirit of silence, contemplation, solitude, helps us realize that life is not just a stream of unconnected activities that have no center or point of unity.

At the right moments, to be silent at Mass can be every bit as important as to sing at Mass. We need both to raise our voices in song and to raise our hearts to God in silence and reflection. At the appropriate times during the Mass, silence can be a very important way of participating in the liturgy.

William H. Shannon, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, is a free-lance writer. Msgr. Shannon is professor emeritus of history at Nazareth
College, Rochester, New York, and founder of the International Thomas Merton Society. His books include
Exploring the Catechism of the Catholic Church and 'Something of a Rebel': Thomas Merton, His Life and Works—An Introduction (both by St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Next: Lent, Day by Day (by Elizabeth Bookser Barkley)

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