Today (though unfortunately in many dioceses moved to this coming Sunday), the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (or ‘Corpus Christi’), is when we celebrate our belief in Jesus’ being fully present – body, blood, soul and divinity – in the Eucharist. It is also the day we celebrate the Eucharist’s institution, as on Holy Thursday the focus is more on the departure of Christ from this world, with His ensuing Passion and death on the Cross looming in the foreground; as well as the washing of the feet, which directs us towards Jesus’ commandments to love and serve one another at the Last Supper.
Today’s feast is a more joyful occasion, as we remember the great blessing we have of being able to commune with Our Lord in the Eucharist, the great Sacrament of Love and Unity. Underpinning this joy though, is the faith that the bread and wine on the altar, once consecrated, are no longer in essence bread and wine, but have become the Body and Blood of Christ. Without this faith, Corpus Christi becomes at best an empty sham, at worst an exhibition of idolatry. So then, for today’s commemoration, I have chosen passages from two of the Church Fathers, which contain powerful exhortations to faith in the Real Presence, and may (I hope) increase the faith of anyone reading them.
The first is from Saint Irenaeus (130 – 202), in his great work Adverses Haereses (sections 17.5 – 18.6) where he emphasises the sacrificial nature of the Mass (basing many of his reflections on Malachi 1:10-11) and the need we have to partake in Holy Communion to receive the graces of redemption. He assumes throughout the real change in the elements – that whilst earthly appearances remain, the substance of the bread and wine have now become that of Our Lord:
‘Our Lord commanded his disciples to offer to God the first fruits of his own creation, not because God was in need of them, but to enable the disciples to bear fruit and show gratitude. He took a piece of creation – bread – and gave thanks, saying: “This is my body.” Similarly with the cup, also a part of creation to which we belong – he declared that it was his blood, and taught that is was the new oblation of the new covenant. This oblation was handed on to the Church by the apostles, and she offers is throughout the world to the God who gives us our sustenance, as the first-fruits of his gifts under the new covenant…
…Accordingly it is the Church’s offering, the offering that the Lord has taught us to make throughout the world, which is counted as a pure sacrifice before God and which is acceptable to him. He needs no sacrifice from us, but the offerer is himself glorified through his offering, if his gift is accepted…
…We offer him what is his own, and thereby proclaim the harmonious fellowship and union of flesh and Spirit. When the bread, which comes from the earth, receives the invocation of God, it is no longer ordinary bread; it is eucharist – composed of two elements, one earthly and one heavenly. Similarly, when our bodies partake of the eucharist, they are no longer corruptible; they have the hope of resurrection.’
taken from Documents in Early Christian Thought (2005), pp.183-184, 187, Cambridge University Press.
The next passage is from a later period in the Church’s life, but from another one of her most significant thinkers – Saint Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430). In an Easter morning sermon (number 272), preaching to the newly baptised, Augustine discusses the relationship between the Body of Christ upon the altar and the mystical Body of Christ, the Church. His discussion links in with that of Saint Irenaeus insofar as they share a sense that the Sacrifice that Jesus offers to the Father includes all the sacrifices of those who unite themselves to Him – it is a deeply participatory view of both the Eucharist and the Church, and again assumes a very realist sacramental theology throughout:
‘What you now see on God’s altar, you also saw last night. But you have not yet learnt what it is, what it signifies, or how great is the reality of which it comprises the sacrament. What you see is bread and a cup; that is what your eyes tell you. But what your faith (as yet uninstructed) insists is that the bread is the body of Christ and the cup the blood of Christ…
…Here too, let us not use any arguments of our own but continue to listen to the apostle himself and to what he has said about the sacrament: “One bread, one body we are, many that we are” [1 Cor. 10:17]. Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, virtue, love. “One bread.” Who is this one bread? The “one body many that we are”. Remember that bread is not made from a single grain, but from many…
…It is the same with the wine. Remember, my brothers, how wine is made. There are many grapes hanging on the vine, but the juice of the grapes is mixed up together in unity. In this the Lord Christ was giving us a picture of ourselves. He wanted us to belong to him; at his table he consecrated the mystery of his peace and of our unity. He who receives the mystery of unity but does not keep the bond of peace receives not a mystery that will profit him but a testimony that will witness against him.’
In these two passages we see the truth of the statement that the Eucharist is the ‘source and summit of the Christian life’ – it is the means by which we can offer ourselves up to God purely and efficaciously, and it is the bond which unites us together at a more profound level than we could ever possibly realise, in and through Jesus Himself. Therefore it is imperative that Christ is affirmed to be present in the Eucharist not just spiritually, but bodily as well – His whole nature as both man and God. Anything less is not the whole Christ, and we would no longer have any grounds for establishing this deep unity, or for offering up our sacrifices to God.
Furthermore, the Eucharist is the Sacrament of Charity, and of Peace – when received in a spirit of true faith and with a properly examined conscience, it will unite us further to the life of God, helping us to become more like Him and to exhibit the virtues of Peace and Charity. Again, if it is not the whole Christ that is present in the consecrated elements, we will not receive this new life within us. Thankfully though, through the guaranteed lines of Apostolic Succession and the preservation of Truth in His Church, God has made it so we can be sure that Jesus really is there – on our altars, and in the monstrance. As we look to Him there today, let us look with the eyes of faith, and know that Our Lord is with us.