Some time ago, I wrote a post highlighting the fact that Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is not properly understood in a physical way. Many found this post helpful, but others reacted quite strongly against this suggestion. For them, any suggestion that the eucharistic presence is not physical meant that it is not “real” or not “bodily.” Now Church teaching has always professed that Christ’s eucharistic presence is both real and bodily, but never that it is physical. In fact, it has insisted the opposite.
Despite this insistence, however, many Catholics today feel that physical language is not only appropriate, but necessary, to capture the Church’s faith in the Eucharist. One of the reasons for this is that, following the Protestant reformation and the Council of Trent, Catholic theology and piety went through a long period in which anyone who reflected on the reality of the bread and wine was immediately suspect of heresy. But, speaking in purely physical terms, the bread and wine remain unchanged. The physical reality of bread and wine came to be understood as a kind of disguise for Jesus’ presence. In reality, they are supposed to be a disclosure of that presence. In The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, Roch Kereszty, O. Cist. writes that:
“the average post-Tridentine theologians began to emphasize that after the consecration the bread and wine remained bread and wine only in appearance. Thus, most Catholics in no way thought it permissible to speak about bread and wine after consecration: the species of bread and wine lost all measure of reality. It was not taken into account that the consecrated bread and wine do appear to the senses as bread and wine precisely to reveal to the eyes of faith that Christ’s sacrificed and risen humanity become true food and true drink for eternal life.”
Indeed, though the Church does not use the adjective “physical” to describe Christ’s presence, it does use the word “sacramental” and, as every good Catholic knows, a sacrament is a symbol that achieves what it signifies. If we are to grasp what “sacramental” presence means, we need to have an appreciation of the symbols of bread and wine. We need to think a little about what it means to call something spiritual food and drink.
Now, most of the explanations I have heard for this in popular piety are quite sound, but incomplete. We are told that, as food sustains and strengthens the body, so the Eucharist sustains and strengthens the soul. This is certainly true, but it captures only the vertical aspect of the Eucharist. We call Eucharist “communion” for two utterly inseparable reasons: that it brings is into closer relationship with God by giving us the very life of God, and that it binds us in love to the community of the Church. The first is called vertical and the second horizontal, but neither can be achieved in isolation. As the Gospels never cease to point out, our relationship with God depends on our relationships with one another. If we want to understand the full value of the symbols of bread and wine as conveying to us the reality of Jesus as spiritual food and drink, we need to look at another, very basic, aspect of food:
We might think that an apt definition of food is that which can be eaten, but we can eat all kinds of things that aren’t food. We can eat rocks, or grass or poison, but we know that those aren’t food. And we know that because they simply cannot be assimilated to our bodies. Indeed, your body is constructed entirely from food. What makes something food is precisely that it can be used to make a body.
The Fathers of the Church were unequivocal that the relationship between the Eucharist and the Church is that of cause and effect. The Eucharist is the food that God uses to make the body of Christ, the Church. Physical food makes physical bodies; spiritual food makes spiritual bodies. Or, to use patristic language, mystical food makes the mystical body.
The horizontal aspect of the Eucharist should now be clear. We are brought into communion with our sisters and brothers, made one body with them, by sharing the Eucharist. And the body that we are made into is Christ’s body.
The Eucharist as the “body of Christ” is the means by which Christ gathers the faithful into his resurrected body (described as a “spiritual body” in 1 Cor. 15). As Augustine was told, “You will eat me, but you will not turn me into you. Rather, you will be turned into me.” Our own resurrection is utterly dependent on this incorporation. Our bodies can be raised because they have participated in the resurrected body of Christ. Augustine called the final product of this incorporation the totus Christus. The whole Christ, head and members, is Christ together with his body the Church.
Our bodies are nothing but food. The Eucharist is the “body of Christ” because it is the food that Christ uses to feed – that is, to make – his body.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.