Skip to main content

Corpus Christi - Where is the Body of Christ?

Sr Ann Catherine Swailes o.p

Ave Verum Corpus, natum de Maria Virgine: hail, true body, born of the Virgin Mary. When we hear these words, we think automatically of the Blessed Sacrament - as their anonymous Medieval author intended that we should. But in earlier centuries, the phrase “true body” was a way of referring less to the Eucharist than to those who gathered together to celebrate the Eucharist

. A much more common way of speaking of the Blessed Sacrament was as Christ’s “mystical body”: words that later came, of course, to be a synonym for the Church. And the way these two phrases came to swap places within the vocabulary of Catholic theology points to a profound, even a life-changing truth. It’s this. Our understanding of Christ present in the Eucharist, and our understanding of the Church are, or ought to be, inseparably bound up with each other.

When we call the Church the “body of Christ”, we are using language in a much more exciting way than when we speak of the “governing body” of a college or a sports federation. In those cases, we are simply using a metaphor, reminding ourselves (if we stop to think about it) that just as the different limbs and organs in a body cooperate together to ensure the smooth functioning of the organism, those who sit on committees do, or ought to do, the same. That’s true of the Church, too, of course. When St Paul writes to the Christians of Corinth he reminds them: the hands, feet, eyes and ears that make up this body need each other in order for the community to flourish. But St Paul doesn’t tell the Corinthian Christians, interestingly enough, that they are like a body: he tells them that they are a body, the body of a person with a name: you are the body of Christ, and members of it. And how does this come about? Through their reception of the Eucharist together: “you are one body because you all share in one bread.”  Eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood builds us up into Christ. As the great 20th century Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac puts it: the Church makes the Eucharist, and the Eucharist makes the Church.

And this has certain consequences. Thus, for instance, St Paul chastises the Christians of Corinth both for the laxity of their sexual ethics and their lack of charity towards the poorer brethren: if we are the body of Christ, as truly as is the consecrated altar bread, we should behave towards ourselves and each other with a similar kind of awe. This is why there should never be anything remotely prissy or puritanical about Christian chastity, which, rightly understood, is an acknowledgement of the beauty of Christ in ourselves and each other.  It is also why the lives of the saints abound in stories of encounters with the hidden Christ who appears in the guise of the destitute beggar.

The feast of Corpus Christi, the feast of the true and mystical body of Christ, then, is an occasion of both celebration and challenge. In the first place, it is an opportunity to rejoice and give thanks for the great gift of God’s on-going presence with us in the Mass, unclouded by the thoughts of Christ’s impending suffering and death that are inevitable on Holy Thursday. It is right, on this day of all days, as St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, to sing with hymns of exaltation in praise of the Blessed Sacrament, to dare to give our all in worshipping Christ in the Eucharist. But it’s also a chance for a kind of examination of conscience. Do I treat myself, do we treat each other, with the loving reverence due to those in whom God himself has come to dwell? Do I do my part to make the Christian community to which I belong a worthy dwelling place for him?  As Bishop Alan Hopes reminded us when he came to preach in Michaelmas Term, next to the Blessed Sacrament, the holiest thing in all of creation is our neighbour. And both are holy for the same reason: in both, we encounter none other than creation’s Lord.

Happy feast!