By Sara Hulse Kirby, M.T.S, Assistant Professor of Theology, DeSales University
In Catholic theology, the term “body of Christ” is used in varying contexts and to refer to distinct realities.
The first usage refers to the historical body of Jesus Christ who lived 2,000 years ago. This physical “body of Christ” was born of the Virgin Mary, crucified on Calvary, died, was buried, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven. Indeed, Catholics believe that the glorified body of Christ exists in heaven, and that we, too, will be embodied in heaven with Christ.
The second usage refers to Christ really present in the Holy Eucharist. Catholics believe that the Holy Eucharist is the true sacramental presence of the entire Christ: body, blood, soul, and divinity. For this reason, before Communion, the Eucharistic minister holds up the host to the communicant and declares, “the body of Christ.” The communicant responds, “amen,” which affirms, “yes—it is so,” and then receives Jesus in the Holy Eucharist in to his or her body.
The third usage of “body of Christ” refers to the Church. St. Paul describes the Church in this way, declaring that the faithful make up the body of Christ, in all of Christ’s parts with Christ at the head. The Catechism says likewise, proclaiming, “The comparison of the Church with the body casts light on the intimate bond between Christ and his Church. Not only is she gathered around him; she is united in him, in his body.” (CCC #789) In addition to being Bride of Christ, the Church is also the “Body of Christ.”
The question arises, then, how all of these “bodies of Christ” relate to one another. Specifically, how does the physical body of Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father, relate to the sacramental body of Christ? Are Catholics taking away from or harming Christ’s glorified body when consuming the Holy Eucharist? Second, how does the sacramental body of Christ relate to the ecclesial body of Christ (the Church)?
To the first question: Does the Holy Eucharist take away from or harm the physical, glorified body of Christ in heaven? Thomas Aquinas says no. As Fr. Thomas Petri summarizes, in the Holy Eucharist, “the physical Christ is present,” insofar as the communicant receives Christ’s body, however, “not in a physical way.” Christ’s physical, historical body exists in heaven; yet the Holy Eucharist gives us the real Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity sacramentally.
An interesting example of the physical and sacramental body of Christ existing together is when Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. There, he was with his disciples in two ways: in his physical, historical body and in his sacramental, Eucharistic body. Both are his real presence. According to Pope Benedict XVI, one reason for the institution of the Holy Eucharist on the night before Christ’s passion was so that Christ would continue to be with us, even after his death, resurrection, and ascension. As Christ says, “Behold, I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age…” (Matthew 28:20) While we do not have access to his glorified body in a physical way on this side of heaven, we do have access to his body in a sacramental way through the Holy Eucharist, which is Christ’s real presence, under the appearance of bread and wine.
The second question also arises, namely, what is the relationship between the Eucharistic, sacramental body and the Church? Why are these both called “the body of Christ”?
When thinking of this relationship, the axiom, “You are what you eat” seems helpful. Catholic theology teaches that receiving the Holy Eucharist is not just a matter of individual piety or checking a box. Rather, when each of the faithful receives Jesus in Holy Communion (the Holy Eucharist), this Communion actually effects a communion between the faithful and Christ, and the faithful and one another, gathering all into the Church—which is also the “body of Christ.” Specifically, by consuming Christ, the faithful become the “body of Christ”—the very body St. Paul talked about, with Christ at the head—since, “you are what you eat.”
For this reason, St. Augustine said, “The Holy Eucharist makes the Church.” While it is true that the Church is the means by which we receive the Holy Eucharist (at Mass, with transubstantiation confected by a priest), the reverse is also true: By receiving Jesus in Holy Communion, the faithful are put in communion with God and each other. Indeed, our faith teaches that the Church is one, holy, Catholic and apostolic. This fact does not stand apart from the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, but is effected by it (as well as through Baptism). In the Holy Eucharist, through receiving the same Christ, the diverse members of the Church are united and sanctified.
In conclusion, while the various usages of “body of Christ” can seem many and varied, they are, in fact, all intrinsically related. When we receive Jesus in Holy Communion, we are receiving the real Christ, body, blood, soul, and divinity, in a sacramental way. Through the reception of Christ in the Holy Eucharist, we become what we eat, that is, the Body of Christ, the Church. The Holy Eucharist is, then, not simply an individual affair, but truly meant to effect communion between the faithful, God and one another.
Ms. Sara Hulse is an assistant professor of theology at DeSales University, and a 2009 graduate of this institution. She holds a master’s degree in theological studies from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, and is currently a doctoral candidate at Marquette University. Her doctoral dissertation is entitled, “Person and Society: The Trinitarian Anthropology of Henri de Lubac,” and her areas of specialization include the writings of John Paul II, the Trinity, and theological anthropology.