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Eucharist: The Mystical Body
by John Gallen, S.J.

Last month we reflected on Jesus in his ministry of table-fellowship. We noted how he carried out that ministry during the course of his public life and how this table-fellowship with Jesus continues to this day. We observed that Jesus is really and truly present in his body, blood, soul and divinity in the sacrificial meal which is the celebration of Mass today—the sacrifice of the Mass that continues to make present the sacrifice of the Cross, the whole paschal mystery of Jesus' death and rising.

Is there some way to find contemporary words and thought patterns that will help us deepen our appreciation of this holy mystery? How can we come to a more precious grasp of the connection between what Jesus was doing in his public ministry, described in the New Testament, and what Jesus is doing now when we come together to celebrate the Eucharist today?

'One body in Christ'

The key to our process of reflection is an image offered to us by holy Scripture. St. Paul made rich use of an image that we have come to call the Mystical Body of Christ. Paul writes: "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 6:15). Paul is suggesting that we are all connected to Christ the way body parts are connected to the whole body. And, he continues, this radical union that each one has with Christ likewise connects the members with each other: "We, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another" (Romans 12:5). The body of Christ is a fundamental reality that connects us all with Christ, and in Christ with one another.

The U.S. Army has had a very provocative recruitment poster for some time. It reads: "Be All That You Can Be." That pithy slogan suggests that potential applicants to the Army have a rich treasury of gifts in their very persons, and that it is important to get in touch with those gifts. Get in touch with who you really are, and begin to live the richness of who you truly are! The Army suggests it can help in the process.

St. Paul is basically taking the same approach, pointing to the truth of our self-identity in Christ. Paul wants us to realize who we really are, that is, the body of Christ, joined to Christ and one another, alive in the one life. If we are "to be all that we can be," we must recognize that our calling transcends any possibilities that human imagination can produce. It is the divine imagination that is at stake and at work here, calling us to union and life with Christ and our vocation to be Christ's presence in the world, "all that we can be" by the gift of the Lord.

The counsel offered by therapists in our own day similarly goes straight to the heart of this basic human insight: It is crucial to get in touch with the fundamental reality of our being, our own selfhood, to discover what is there and begin to address its implications for our life. St. Paul grasped the same wisdom and brought its richness to his ministry: "You are the body of Christ."

Christ present among us

It is this body of Christ that gathers to celebrate the Eucharist. If we realize who we truly are, we are thrilled to recognize that, by God's gift, Christ is truly present in the members of his body who gather for Mass. There are several manifestations of Christ's real presence at Mass, as St. Augustine wrote centuries ago: "If then you are the body of Christ and his members, it is your sacrament that reposes on the altar of the Lord. It is your sacrament which you receive. You answer 'Amen' to what you yourself are and in answering you are enrolled. You answer 'Amen' to the words 'The body of Christ.' Be, then, a member of the body of Christ to verify your 'Amen'" (Sermon 272).

Augustine's words are compelling as they reveal what Christ does in us by transforming us into members of his body. We remember St. Athanasius as he reflected on the mystery of the Incarnation: "God became human so that humanity might become divine." The humanity of God in Jesus Christ has gathered us into himself and made us share in his own divine life. When the eucharistic bread is offered to us with the words, "the Body of Christ," we are stunned to realize that what is said of the transformed bread is said likewise of the transformed recipient! In both cases, there is the real presence of Christ. We answer "Amen" to what we ourselves are, as Augustine explained.

The Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Liturgy (#7) reminds us that Christ is present "in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of his minister, 'the same one now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,' but especially under the eucharistic species. By his power he is present in the sacraments, so that when someone baptizes it is really Christ himself who baptizes. He is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in Church. He is present, finally, when the Church prays and sings, for he promised: 'Where two or three are gathered together for my sake, there am I in the midst of them'" (Matthew 18:20).

This abundance of Christ's real presence surrounds us with divine love and transforms our humanity more and more entirely into Christ. The fourfold real presence of Christ—in the eucharistic bread and wine, the word, the minister, and the assembly—is the steady commitment of the God who is Emmanuel, God-with-us.

From observer to actor

Some of us grew up at a time in the Church's history when we thought that what we did at Mass was to go there and, with sincerity and piety, watch what happened. We were, as we put it, "assisting at Mass," prayerfully focusing on what the priest said and did. We followed along from our place in the pew, sometimes with the help of prayer books and missals, or other devotional practices like the rosary. But the Mass was what the priest did and what we followed. Now, in these days of liturgical renewal which have just begun, we are recognizing that we do not go to Mass to watch what happens. We go there to make it happen!

How is this possible? Because we are the body of Christ, and what happens at liturgy happens when and to the extent that we do it. As the Council taught in its liturgy document, "every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of his body the church, is a sacred action surpassing all others" (#7). The celebrant at Mass is Christ himself, and the sense of Christ that the Church means us to understand is the whole Christ, head and members, all united in this priestly action of prayerful worship.

It is for this reason that the liturgical renewal has continually called for the whole assembly's full, active, conscious participation in the liturgical action. Everyone in the assembly is a member of Christ, united to Christ in the one life and united to all the members of the body as we all share that one life. Because liturgy is what Christ does, the whole assembly, in its diversity of roles, is called to exercise its priesthood by participating in the action of Christ as we give praise and thanksgiving to the Father and surrender with Christ to the Father's transforming power. Participation by everyone in the assembly is at the heart of this vision that the Church has of liturgy.

Is there any connection between the real presence of Christ in the assembly, the body of Christ, and the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread and wine? What is the relationship between what we call the Mystical Body of Christ and the eucharistic body and blood of Christ?

'Plunged' into mystery

We, members of the assembly, are by God's touch and our holy Baptism plunged into the mystery of God, entirely transformed by the divine mystery into Christ's Mystical Body. Our very persons are energized by this gift of Christ-life that goes to the root of our deepest being, rising and surging in us, carrying us to new places of vibrant vitality, bringing our hearts to a new openness.

We begin to see what we had never dreamt of seeing and hear words that we had never imagined. New secrets of life's reaches are revealed to us. Transfigured by the embrace of Christ's loving arms, fire leaps from our eyes and holy energy from our fingers as we gaze upon the world with Christ's tender affection and reach out to touch its struggling peoples. "Behold," says their Lord, "I make all things new," and we know that this mission has been committed to our fragile and sinful hands. Our mission is the transformation of the world and its people.

When we gather for liturgy as this mystical assembly, that same divine power leaps from our prayerful hands and the word spoken is Christ's own word. Turning to one another, we offer "the peace of Christ" because, wondrously, it is ours to give, not because of any merit of our own but because of God's own gift. Everything we touch becomes alive with Christ. We are alive with Christ! This life is ours to give, shared with Christ himself and with each other. So bread is transformed into Christ's body, blood, soul, divinity. Wine is transformed into Christ's body, blood, soul, divinity. All this transformation is because of the powerful, shimmering, vibrant and real presence of Christ really and truly present in us, the members of his body, our priest leading us in praise and thanksgiving. The ordained priest, necessary to the assembly and its celebration, lovingly serves in this ministry of leadership.

Transforming powers

Everything that is touched is transformed and made new. When priest and people take the bread and sweep it up into the arms of the mystical Christ, the bread becomes the body of Christ, brought back again to us, the members, as the eucharistic body of Christ. We say our "Amen" to what we are! When the wine is taken into the arms of the mystical Christ, living and real, so does this new wine become the real Christ, touched and transfigured by Christ's mystical presence.

This happens because Christ truly and really lives in us, his members. We "proclaim the mystery of faith" as the mystical Christ, head and members, delivers the divine presence to the world in this eucharistic meal and likewise responds to the Abba in the wholehearted surrender that Jesus makes to his Father. The connection between the Mystical Body of Christ and the eucharistic body of Christ is thus circular. It is the mystical body, head and members, that celebrates Eucharist and transforms bread and wine into Christ. And that eucharistic bread and wine in the sharing then makes us, members of the assembly, more and more completely into the Christ that we are.

"Lord," we pray in the eucharistic prayer (IV), "look upon this sacrifice which you have given to your Church; and by your Holy Spirit, gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one body of Christ, a living sacrifice of praise." This prayer of petition is quite particular, asking that the eucharistic sharing will prove fruitful for all of us who partake of bread and cup in this celebration. We pray that the active power of the Spirit be at work in this celebration and produce the unity of the Mystical Body which arises from sharing in the eucharistic bread and cup.

The real presence of Christ in the members of the Mystical Body, produced by the Holy Spirit, gathers up the bread and wine to transform us into Christ's own body and blood. As the eucharistic bread and cup are then shared in our assembly, the Holy Spirit draws us all into ever deeper unity, making us one body. We are made into "living sacrifice," participants in Christ's sacrificial death and rising, a new creation. Eucharist is at the center of God's loving embrace of our world.*

Jesuit Father John Gallen is founder of the North American Academy of Liturgy. He holds a doctorate from the University of Trier in Germany.

 


 

Chiara Lubich 

War was raging in Europe. Chiara Lubich, then a college student, often took refuge in a shelter—up to a dozen times each day. While bombs fell all around Trent, Italy, in the mid-1940's, Ms. Lubich routinely encountered her classmates and friends underground.

In that unlikely place and under those improbable circumstances, a movement was born. As the young women huddled together and prayed, they heard God speak to them in a new way through the Gospels, particularly in Jesus' commandment "that you love one another, even as I have loved you." It was as if "we were reading them for the first time. God seemed to be explaining them to us," Ms. Lubich would recall years later.

The call to love of neighbor that Ms. Lubich heard anew spawned a revolution. She founded the Focolare movement, whose members agreed to devote themselves to the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Today Focolare (which comes from the Italian word for "hearth"), claims more than 100,000 committed members and up to two million adherents in almost 200 countries. And its founder, now an octogenarian, is an ambassador of goodwill and faith known for inspiring millions of people—through her words and actions—to find God in all places, at all times, in all people.

Over the decades, Chiara Lubich has had the ear of popes, won countless awards, traveled the globe and gathered into the Focolare movement a rich mixture of people committed to universal brotherhood and sisterhood. Pope John Paul II has recognized Focolare for its work in promoting family, community and ecumenical activities. The movement Ms. Lubich founded continues to attract followers from the Catholic Church, members of Protestant denominations and persons of other faiths, including Muslims and Jews.

Through it all the focus of Chiara Lubich has never changed: unity among humankind, love of the poor, forgetfulness of self, charity to all. As she sees it, her vocation is "to bring God where he is in want." Divisions between and among members of God's family are, she believes, "a gaping wound in the Body of Christ."

The third millennium offers Chiara Lubich and the Focolare movement a new challenge to build a world inching ever closer toward unity among people of various religions, cultures and nations.*

— by Judy Ball



 
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Bread of Life

When Pope John Paul II opens the 47th International Eucharistic Congress in Rome on June 18, he will be fulfilling his wish to make Jubilee Year 2000 a celebration of Jesus Christ who continues to nourish us as living bread and calls us to renewal. The Holy Father will also be following in the footsteps of popes dating back to Leo XIII, who was pontiff in 1881 when the first International Eucharistic Congress was held at the University of Lille in northern France.

The designer of this year's Eucharistic Congress logo is Italian-born Vito Patera, 29, a member of the Congregation of the Passions of Jesus Christ. He has placed the logo of the Great Jubilee at the center of his work. The Eucharist is represented by the symbols of wheat and grapes, while the doves represent the continents of the world. Taken as a whole, the logo is meant to evoke the vital energy coming from Christ, the Bread of Life. The spikes and branches extend toward the infinite as a sign of hope.

Opening and closing ceremonies for the congress are to be held at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral Church of Rome. Until the early 1300's, popes resided there.

 

 
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