David Fagerberg, PhD
Associate Professor of Theology, University of Notre Dame
Senior Advisor of NDCL, Co-editor of Oblation
The third of a four part series on Living Christ’s Life by Sacrament originally delivered at the South Bend-Fort Wayne Eucharistic Congress in 2007.
Part I Part II
Christ shares with us the vital energies that he constantly draws from intimate communion with his Father in heaven. This is what it means to call Christ mediator. He is a personal union, a hypostatic union, of divine nature and human nature. And whereas he is in union with God as his only-begotten Son, and whereas he is in union with us as a fellow human being, he mediates our union with the Father. The only-begotten Son of God gives his Spirit to us that we also become sons of God (men and women share in the physis of the Eternal Son). We have physical union with Christ, not just a moral union. It is a physical union when the powers of x are found in y, when the power of flight is found in a horse, when heat is found in iron, or when the life of God is found in a human being. And the life of God lived by a new race on earth is the Church. The Church is a body composed of persons in physical union with Christ, who was himself the personal union of two natures, human and divine.
This union is initiated at Baptism into the Son of God, and confirmed with an anointing in the Holy Spirit. At Baptism we are plunged by sacramental imitation into a real participation of Christ’s paschal journey through death to new life. We are regenerated by being unified with Jesus the Christ through the same Spirit that anointed him in the Jordan– Christus means “anointed one.” This is the lead Cyril of Jerusalem takes in his mystagogy of baptism. He does not pull his punches when he compares Christian baptism to Christ’s baptism.
Hence, since you ‘share in Christ,’ it is right to call you Christs or anointed ones …. You have become anointed ones by receiving the sign of the Holy Spirit …. Christ bathed in the river Jordan, and having invested the waters with the divine presence of his body, he emerged from them, and the Holy Spirit visited him in substantial form, like come to rest on like. In the same way, when you emerged from the pool of sacred waters you were anointed in a manner corresponding with Christ’s anointing. That anointing is the Holy Spirit, of whom the blessed Isaiah spoke when he prophesied in the person of the Lord: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good tidings to the poor.’
We are not only Christ’s (apostrophe s), we are Christs (plural).
We become by grace what Christ is by nature. Divine adoption is dependent on baptismal regeneration, which unites and assimilates us to the natural Son of God. In Galatians 3:27 Paul writes, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ, you have clothed yourselves with Christ.” When John Chrysostom preached on this he said:
If Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and if you have put Him on, having the son in you and being assimilated to him, you have been raised to one and the same relation, one and the same form … you are all in Christ Jesus; that is to say, you only have one form, one figure, that of Jesus Christ. [Commentary on Galatians 3.5][i]
Same relation, one form, one figure, shared physis.
The various other sacraments protect or restore or nourish the divine life into which we are assimilated in baptism and which the confirming Spirit strengthens (confirmation). If that life is mortally wounded, the sacrament of reconciliation ties a tourniquet on the hemorrhage and restores the state of grace. When sickness of the body assails the spiritual life of faith, the sacrament of anointing administers spiritual medicine to the wounded soul. The union of Christ with his Church is sacramentalized in marriage, which also increases Christian society. And through Holy Orders men are set aside to consecrate the sacrifice of life, and nourish our divine life with divine doctrine. I am summarizing Pius XII in Mystici Corporis Christi when he compares the sacraments given to the mystical body with the various means given to the human body to provide for its own life, health and growth. He says, “The Savior of mankind out of His infinite goodness has provided in a wonderful way for His Mystical Body, endowing it with the Sacraments, so that, as though by an uninterrupted series of graces, its members should be sustained from birth to death, and that generous provision might be made for the social needs of the Church.” [para 17]
But the font leads most directly to the table, where, feeding on Christ, this assimilation is increased through Eucharistic communion. It is in the Eucharist that this divine life is especially nourished. Gregory of Nyssa says the Eucharist contains:
that body which proved to be stronger than death and which was for us the beginning of life. Just as a little leaven … is assimilated into all the dough, so the body made immortal by God, once having entered into ours, transforms it and changes it completely into itself, … into its own nature [pros ton eautou physin] [Gregory Nyssa, Or. Catech. 37] [ii]
In the Eucharist, his immortal body enters our mortal body, and his life transforms us into his own physis. When we eat his Eucharistic body, and Christ enters into us, then we are in him, as Paul stuttered 164 times. It is a dietary paradox, because normally if the tiger eats the man, then the man is in the tiger, not vice-versa. But this is different eating. In the natural digestive system of the body, what I eat turns into me. But in the supernatural digestive system of the Church, I become what I eat. Augustine marveled at it in his Confessions:
When I first knew thee, thou didst lift me up, that I might see that there was something to be seen, though I was not yet fit to see it...And thou didst beat back the weakness of my sight, shining forth upon me thy dazzling beams of light, and I trembled with love and fear…I realized that I was far away from thee in the land of unlikeness, as if I heard thy voice from on high: “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you shall feed on me…And you will not change me into you, like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into my likeness.”[iii]
I guess your Mother was right after all. Did she not always tell you that “you are what you eat”? At communion you are given the body of Christ to eat, and you will be changed into His body. The Church is the body of Christ.
There is, I believe, an intentional ambiguity in the language of the Church. The phrase “the body of Christ” is used about three things. It means the historical body of Jesus, the Eucharistic body, and the Church. Jesus had a body, the Eucharist is Christ’s body, the Church is the body of Christ. Sometimes you get a theologian or two who rediscovers one of the uses and emphasizes it to the exclusion of the other – like it’s more important to say we are Christ’s body than to say the Eucharist is Christ’s body; or the reverse happens, as if it’s more important to remember the Eucharist is Christ’s body than we are. But I think that using the same phrase for all three realities is a confession of faith in a physical union between the historical Christ, the sacramental presence, and the community of believers. Jesus saves, the Church is a hospital for sinners, and the Eucharist is the remedy of salvation. The historical, the sacramental, and the ecclesial body is one body. We become one with the one whom we eat, who was incarnate Emmanuel.
This train of thought has brought clarity to me about a teaching of the Church for which I hadn’t understood the purpose until now. The teaching is stated with precision in paragraph 1374 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but the passage I’m focused on is a quotation from the Council of Trent. It reads:
The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as “the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.” In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist “the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” “This presence is called ‘real’ – by which is not intended to exclude the other types of presence as if they could not be ‘real’ too, but because it is presence in the fullest sense: that is to say, it is a substantial presence by which Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present.”
Why mention this list of body & blood, soul & divinity? It can sound like we’re worried about missing something on a list, like one of the ingredients will be overlooked (flour & baking soda, milk & eggs). But in light of the language of union we have been engaging here, I can see this as an affirmation of connection, not a listing of discrete units. The Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ form one indivisible Person, and must be found together. They make up the one in whom we participate, and for full participation all elements of Christ must be affirmed present in the Eucharist. Fr. Cantalamessa summarizes them thus:
The word body does not so much indicate a metaphysical component of humanity as a state of life, and that is to say, life lived in the body. It indicates the whole person … In the Eucharist the word body designates Christ in his servant state, distinguished by possibility, poverty, the Cross…The same can be said for the word blood. It does not indicate a part of a part of a human being (blood is part of the body!) but an event: it indicates death. Not any kind of death but a violent one, and in the words of the covenant, an expiatory death (Ex 24.8).
This is an important consequence: there is no moment or experience in Christ’s life that we cannot re-live and share in Communion; in fact, his whole life is present and given in his Body and Blood. In the Eucharist we are “bodied and blooded with Christ,” as a friend of mine translates Cyril of Jerusalem’s language. And Christ is man and God inseparable, so we do not just receive his soul, and we do not just receive his divinity, but rather his soul and divinity are both present. What is present (truly, really, and substantially) is the whole Christ: body and blood, soul and divinity. It is as if he says “Take this and become what I am; attach these sacred elements to yourself to become like me. You will be one flesh with me.” We are in union with the full Christ, since he is fully human (body and blood) in hypostatic union with a divine nature (soul and divinity).
This is what I think it means to say the Eucharist makes the Church. The Eucharistic union feeds the life of Christ within us since baptism. Another one of Paul’s en Christo phrases says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” [2Cor.5.17] To say the Eucharist makes the Church is another way of saying Christ makes a new creation out of us when he feeds us himself. And this has a couple consequences on the doctrines of transubstantiation, and sacrifice of the mass, and the role of the Holy Spirit that I only have time to briefly touch upon. I will continue with this tomorrow.
[i] Taken from Jules Gross, The Divinization of the Christian According to the Greek Fathers (A&C Press, Annaheim California, 2002; originally published 1938 as La divinization du chretien d’apres les peres grecs), p 204.
[iii] Confessions book 7, ch 10. The last line is a mix of Chadwick’s translation and online.