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Eucharist:

Understanding Christ's Body


by William H. Shannon The way Catholics think about the Eucharist has a lot to do with the way we understand the body. Theologian Nathan Mitchell pointed this out a few years back when he wrote that in Christian tradition the human person is not simply someone who has a body, but is someone who is a body. That challenges us to think beyond a narrow understanding of the body as a collection of muscles, bones and organs where a soul resides. Mitchell challenges us to think of the body in a deeply traditional sense, as the whole person in relation to God. Christian teaching on the Resurrection focuses, for e ample, not on an immortal soul, but on a transfigured world of glorified bodies. That!s why the famous theologian "arl Rahner called the feast of the #scension $a festi%al of the future of the world.$ &or we belie%e that Christ!s body'and our bodies' will last fore%er, transformed by God. This %iew of the body affects how we understand the Eucharist'indeed e%en how we understand Christ. (rites Mitchell, $The body of Christ offered in consecrated bread and wine is not something, but someone....The ultimate intent of celebrating Eucharist is not to produce the sacred species for purposes of reser%ation and adoration, but to create the united body of Christ which is the Church.$ The body of Christ is not only on the table, but at the table and around the table.

2000 years of presence


)f we look at the history of the Mass from the days of the apostles to our own time, we shall see there ha%e been many changes in the way our Church has understood the Eucharist. *ut throughout that long tradition is the firm belief in the real presence of the risen +esus in the Eucharist and in the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church. ,ooking at eucharistic history in wide sweeps, we can see three periods in that history. &or the first se%en or eight centuries of the Church!s life, the Eucharist had been the people!s Eucharist. The Eucharist was people gathering in community -often in house.churches/ to e press their praise and thanks to God. This is precisely what the word eucharist means0 $gi%ing thanks and praise.$ Christians, gathered together for Eucharist, were conscious all the while that the risen +esus was in their midst as they did so. They ne%er e%en bothered to ask when Christ became present. )t was enough to know that he was with them. There was no ele%ation of the host and cup at the words of institution. The only ele%ation came at the end of the Eucharistic 1rayer. #fter the Eucharistic 1rayer, e%eryone shared in the meal. &ollowing the meal, Communion was taken to the sick. ,ater the custom de%eloped of reser%ing the 2oly *read in a special place in the church to take to the sick in case this was necessary when Eucharist was not being celebrated. E%entually it happened that people would go to the place of reser%ation for pri%ate prayer.

A change in emphasis
)n the Middle #ges'roughly between 344 and 5444'something happened to the Eucharist. )t became something 6uite different from what it had been in the beginning. &rom being the action of people, it became an act of God coming down among God!s people to be adored. ,et me try briefly to clarify how this happened'again in broad strokes. &irst of all, as the number of Christians grew -in the centuries after Constantine, the first Christian emperor/, Church buildings became much larger. The homey image of a community gathered around the ,ord!s table became less and less %isible. 7econd, in the age of Charlemagne -89:.359/, many people of non.Roman background were

bapti;ed without ade6uate preparation. They went to a liturgy celebrated in ,atin, a language they did not understand. Third, for a long time the Church had fought against the persistent heresy of #rianism. The #rians denied that +esus Christ was di%ine. )n reaction to this heresy, Christian thought emphasi;ed the di%inity of Christ so much that his humanity was almost forgotten< The result was that +esus became for many people a fearful figure. 2a%ing lost sight of the fact that +esus had truly become part of the human family, people began to think of him solely as God'and as God who is our =udge and who will punish us for our failings. The +esus who had said0 $Come to me, you who labor and are burdened, and ) will refresh you,$ had become 7omeone who was unapproachable and to be feared.

Priest's role changes


These factors working together brought about a different way of %iewing the Eucharist. The priest began to celebrate Mass with his back to the people. &ew recei%ed Communion. They were content to look at the +esus whom they felt now afraid to recei%e. More and more the priest did e%erything at the Mass. The people simply $attended.$ ,et me offer a parallel to what was happening to the Eucharist. 7uppose someone were to rewrite the Gospels and transform the image of +esus as presented in the Gospels. 7uppose that, instead of describing the +esus who mo%ed among people healing them, reconciling them, consoling them, in%iting them to choose the "ingdom -as the Gospels certainly do picture +esus/'suppose, instead, that the Gospels presented +esus as someone who sat in a house at Na;areth behind a glass window where anyone who wanted to could come and get a look at him. There would be +esus'not acting in the midst of people'but =ust sitting there day after day, on %iew for people. No one would dare rewrite the Gospels in this way. >et what no one would dare to do to the Christ of the Gospels is what the Middle #ges unwittingly did to the Christ of the Eucharist. They took away much of the awareness of Christ in the midst of people. The Mass had drifted from a human e perience of community in Christ, which called for people!s participation, to a di%ine reality that called for a priest to act in the name of Christ to bring him down from hea%en. The priest became the only one to be acting in the eucharistic celebration. The people watched as silent spectators. They said their prayers. They watched the host lifted up for them to see. ?n occasion they recei%ed Communion. &or the most part they were not really a community, but a collection of indi%iduals'watching something that was being done on their behalf. )f you look at the theology of the Eucharist that emerged from the Council of Trent -a theology that persisted down to the 7econd @atican Council/, it is clear that its approach to the Eucharist was that of medie%al theologians. &or them the essence of a sacrament was to be found in its matter and form. To gi%e an e ample, the matter of *aptism was waterA the form the words0 $) bapti;e you in the name of the &ather and of the 7on and of the 2oly 7pirit.$ #s long as the priest used water and said the proper words, the sacrament was %alid. ?ther parts of the ceremony might ha%e been edifying and $good for the faithful to hear.$ *ut it was the water and the proper words that really counted. The Eucharist was understood in similar fashion. The matter was bread and wineA the form, $the words of consecration$ said by the priest o%er the bread and wine. The priest was the celebrant. 2e really did not need the people to ha%e a Eucharist as it was understood. #ll he needed was bread and wine and the words of consecration that he spoke. The people were there largely as spectators, watching an action being performed on their behalf. They were especially attenti%e when the priest pronounced $the words of consecration.$ The rest of the time they were, by and large, occupied with saying their prayers. Recei%ing Communion had little to do with any kind of relationship with the rest of the people in the church. Communion was seen as something between $+esus and me.$ (hen we returned from Communion, we made this abundantly clear by burying our faces in our hands, to e clude from this e 6uisite moment all else, including the rest of the congregation.

Liturgical awa ening


That was the limited understanding of liturgy that e isted for most people prior to the 7econd @atican Council. ) say for most people, because the :4th century witnessed the de%elopment of a mo%ement that was to prepare for the liturgical changes initiated by @atican )). The small group of people interested in liturgical renewal were gi%en a basic liturgical principle by 1ius B in the %ery first document of his papacy, an apostolic letter on Church music -No%ember ::, 5C4D/0 $#cti%e participation in the liturgy is the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit.$ This became the watchword of a small number of priests and laity who sought to achie%e fundamental changes in the celebration of liturgy. This group came to be called the liturgical mo%ement. The unofficial publication of the mo%ement, published at 7t. +ohn!s #bbey in Minnesota, first called Orate Fratres, is now named Worship. )n 5CD3 the first Father Stedman Missals were published. They used a number system to guide people through the %arious parts of the Mass. ) remember buying my first Stedman missal for D3 cents. Thousand and thousands of copies were sold. )nstead of saying their rosary or reading their prayers, people were now able to follow the priest at Mass. This was not yet full participation, but at least a step toward it. >et another step occurred in the 5C94!s with the ad%ent of the dialogue Mass, in which people participated by making the responses that up to then had been reser%ed to the altar ser%ers. # most important step toward liturgical renewal occurred on No%ember 5E, 5CFF, when 1ope 1ius B)) restored the Easter @igil and then, later, the Triduum of 2oly Thursday, Good &riday and Easter. Recentering liturgy around the mystery of the death and, especially, the resurrection of the ,ord was a decisi%e preparation for the liturgical changes initiated by the 7econd @atican Council.

!nfluence of "atican !!
#t the time of @atican )) most people still carried with them the heritage of the past0 They said their prayers at Mass and fulfilled a religious obligation. Now, more than D4 years after the Council, some people continue to think of the Mass only as a 7unday obligation they must fulfill. &or them the Eucharist still means +esus as God being shown to us and recei%ed, rather than the earliest understanding of the Eucharist0 +esus as the Risen ?ne who became dynamically present among his people, doing things to us0 healing us, cleansing us, reconciling us, calling us, in%iting us to deeper and deeper in%ol%ement in proclaiming God!s "ingdom, calling us to be his body in the world. The Council!s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, as well as the liturgical documents issued after the Council to implement the directi%es of that Constitution, produced what can only be called an unprecedented and e plosi%e re%olution in liturgical understanding and practice. The most important thing the Council did was to gi%e the Eucharist back to the assembly, to the people of God. )t would be too strong to say that the Council took the Eucharist away from the priest and ga%e it back to the people. *ut it would not be too strong to say that it returned the Eucharist to what it had been in the beginning0 an assembly of God!s people come together, under the leadership of a priest, to praise God, to hear God!s (ord and to $break bread$ with the firm belief that the ,ord +esus was present among them. )n today!s Eucharist, though a priest presides, the central actor is the risen +esus present in our midst through the action of the 7pirit. The priest!s role remains essential0 2e is the presider who leads the assembly and, in the person of Christ and on behalf of the people, asks God to send the 2oly 7pirit on the bread and wine and also on the assembly.

#ew language$ new accents

The radical changes introduced by the Council introduced new language. (here we used to emphasi;e mainly the role of the priest, we now emphasi;e as well the role of the entire assembly. The priest presides o%er the celebration. (here we used to speak of the priest changing the bread and wine into the *ody and *lood of Christ, we now see his role as a humbler one. 2e acts in the person of +esus, asking God0 $,et your 7pirit come upon these gifts to make them holy, so that they may become for us the body and blood of our ,ord, +esus Christ$ -Eucharistic 1rayer ))/. )n other words, the priest asks God to send the 2oly 7pirit to do for us now what +esus did at the ,ast 7upper. #ll the reforms of liturgy that ha%e come out of @atican )) ha%e had as their ultimate intent to make the Mass once again a human reality, namely, something that people doA yet always a human reality that mo%es beyond the human to the di%ine. *y this ) mean that what people do at Mass, they do with a profound reali;ation that the risen ,ord is present in their midst. +esus calls us to eat his flesh and drink his blood. (e must a%oid an o%erly literalistic understanding of these words. (e do not literally eat flesh or drink blood. +esus! command to eat his body and drink his blood can only make sense if we understand the words body and blood as designating the whole person, the real glorified +esus as he e ists today. Thus to eat his body and drink his blood is to enter into a true encounter with the person of +esus. This is the full meaning of the Eucharist. )t is a dynamic meeting with the Risen ?ne. *ut it is not a solitary e perience. (e do not come to the Eucharist simply as isolated indi%iduals, but rather as persons who are members of a community, as persons who are the *ody of Christ. The Eucharist is not =ust +esus with me, but +esus with us, and all of us with one another. #nd we are not together hiding from the world0 (e are Christ!s body in the world God created, :9 hours a day. )n a word, +esus! presence is not static0 2e is not satisfied =ust to be there. 2e is there to act dynamically in order to change our li%es. #t Eucharist we meet Christ and are challenged by him in the assembly of his people. 2e is there to make us whole people. 2e is there to bring harmony and peace into our li%es, our families, our country, our world. 2e comes to make us e perience oursel%es as his body in the world. #ll too often our understanding gets re%ersed. (e think of the Eucharist as a kind of reser%oir we come to and get the grace that will carry us through the week. >et we need to look at the reality of God!s grace 6uite differently. The grace of God acts in the world, among people.

Liturgy of the world


?ur liturgies, therefore, must not be seen as isolated inter%entions of grace into our otherwise profane and graceless li%es. Rather these acts of worship are symbolic e pressions of what theologian "arl Rahner called $the liturgy of the world.$ The e perience of God is primarily to be found hidden in the midst of ordinary life, obser%es Rahner, in our e periences of hope and doubt, responsibility, lo%e and death. (e gather together in worship, not to $refuel$ li%es de%oid of grace, but because we need to celebrate all the grace.filled moments of our li%es, which are so easily o%erlooked or ignored. (e gather at Eucharist to be challenged to deeper awareness of what God is doing in our li%es, in this world, all week long. (e ha%e to keep remembering to ask the 6uestions0 $(ho are at the tableG (ho are around the tableG$ as well as the 6uestion, $(ho is on the tableG$ The Catechism of the Catholic Church 6uotes a mo%ing passage in which 7t. #ugustine relates the *ody of Christ in the Eucharist -on the altar/ to the *ody of Christ that is the Church -at and around the altar/. 7ays #ugustine at the turn of the fifth century0 $)f you are the body and members of Christ, then it is your sacrament that is placed on the table of the ,ordA it is your sacrament that you recei%e. To that which you are, you respond0 !#men! -!>es, it is true<!/, and by responding to it you assent to it. &or you hear the

words !The *ody of Christ,! and respond !#men.! *e then a member of the *ody of Christ that your #men may be true$ -H5DCE/.

%!LE#CE &as a Place$'oo


)f we are truly to celebrate our faith e periences in the liturgy, it is important that there be a contemplati%e dimension to our liturgies. (e can!t pray well if we are continually %erbali;ing and allowing no space for silence and reflection. # spirit of silence, contemplation, solitude, helps us reali;e that life is not =ust a stream of unconnected acti%ities that ha%e no center or point of unity. #t the right moments, to be silent at Mass can be e%ery bit as important as to sing at Mass. (e need both to raise our %oices in song and to raise our hearts to God in silence and reflection. #t the appropriate times during the Mass, silence can be a %ery important way of participating in the liturgy.

William H. Shannon, a priest of the Diocese of Rochester, is a free-lance writer. Msgr. Shannon is professor emeritus of history at Nazareth College, Rochester, New or!, an" foun"er of the #nternational $homas Merton Society.