Monday, January 09, 2006

Party of Christ of Church of Jesus Christ? : Part Three- The Body of Christ

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…

(I Corinthians 12:12-13a)

The description of the Church as being “the body of Christ” is an aspect of ecclesiology that has been forgotten in the minds of many modern Catholics. I think that we all hear this term so often that we’ve forgotten – or have never truly understood – what it means to be part of the body of Christ. Often, we limit this understanding to that of a “community” in which we are all “members.” Though the idea of community is certainly inherent in the concept of the Church being a body, the New Testament passages that cover the institution of the Eucharist shed more light on what is meant by the term, “body of Christ.”

The Holy Father, in Called to Communion, gives his exegesis of New Testament passages that describe the foundation of the Church, the link between this foundation and the institution of the Eucharist, and the implications of this institution on our understanding of what it means to be the body of Christ. To quote the Holy Father at length:

“The Our Father was the first stage on the way toward a special communion of prayer with and from Jesus. On the night before his Passion, Jesus took another decisive step beyond this: he transformed Passover of Israel into an entirely new worship, which logically meant a break with the temple community and thereby definitively established a people of the “New Covenant.” …both the Synoptics and John’s Gospel, though each in a different way, make the connection with the events of Passover…With Passover and the Sinaiatic covenant ritual, the two founding acts by whereby Israel became and ever anew becomes a people are taken up and integrated into the Eucharist. …
(emphasis mine)

(Called to Communion, pgs. 26-27)

The implications for how we must understand the institution of the Eucharist is as follows:

“The sense of all this is clear: “Just as the old Israel once revered the temple as its center and the guarantee of its unity, and by its common celebration of the Passover in its own life, in like manner this new meal is now the bond uniting a new people of God.”

(Called to Communion, pg. 27)

The Holy Father drives home the fact that the institution of the Eucharist is more than just an event which we are to re-enact in order to “remember Jesus” and to celebrate the fact that we are His “community.” The deeper aspect of this event is revealed in its Old Testament parallels with the institution of the Passover Meal: Jesus, in His role as the new sacrificial Lamb, is establishing an event in which the new body of believers will establish their unity; Jesus, as the sacrifice, has moved the center of unity from Temple worship to Himself. Just as the Passover Meal was so central to the founding of the nation of Israel, likewise, the Eucharist is central to the foundation of the people of the New Covenant – The Church.

But there is also an even deeper aspect we can glean from this by use of the Old Testament texts. The Holy Father goes onto to explain what is meant by the Church’s description of herself as the “ecclesia”:

“The Greek term that lives on in the Latin loanword ‘ecclesia’ derives from the Old Testament root ‘qahal,’ which is ordinarily translated by “assembly of the people.” Such “popular assemblies,” in which the people was constituted as a cultic and, on that basis, as a juridical and political entity, existed both in the Greek and the Semitic world…

This typically biblical conception of the popular assembly is traceable to the fact that the convocation on Sinai was regarded as the normative image of all later such assemblies; it was solemnly reenacted after the Exile by Ezra as the refoundation of the people. But because the dispersion of Israel continued on and slavery was reimposed, a ‘qahal’ coming from God himself, a new gathering and foundation of the people, increasingly became the center of Jewish hope. The supplication for this gathering – for the appearance of the ‘ecclesia’ – is a fixed component of late Jewish prayer.”

It is thus clear what it means for the nascent Church to call herself ‘ecclesia’. By doing so, she says in effect: This petition is granted in us.”

(Called to Communion, 30-31)

In short, the Church becomes, in effect, the New Israel.

The glue that holds all this together is St. Paul’s treatment of the topic of the Body of Christ. There are some certain conceptions that this apostle, being a true Israelite, would have had in mind in his understanding of what he meant by the term “body.” The Holy Father spells these out as follows:

“In the first place, the Semitic conception of the “corporate personality” stands in the background; this conception is expressed, for example, in the idea that we are all Adam, a single man writ large…the Pauline formula has in addition two more concrete roots. The first lies in the Eucharist…the Lord becomes our bread, our food. He gives us his body, which, by the way, must be understood in light of the Resurrection and of the Semitic linguistic background of Saint Paul. The body is a man’s self, which does not coincide with the corporeal dimension but comprises it as one element among others. Christ gives us himself – Christ, who in his Resurrection has continued to exist in a new kind of bodiliness. …Hence, Communion means the fusion of existences; just as in the taking of nourishment the body assimilates foreign matter into itself, and is thereby enabled to live, in the same way my “I” is “assimilated” to that of Jesus, it is made similar to him in an exchange that increasingly creaks through the lines of division. This same event takes place in the case of all who communicate; they are all assimilated to this “bread” and thus are made one among themselves – ‘one’ body.

The second of the two “concrete roots” the Holy Father speaks of is the idea of “nuptiality.” After quoting Genesis 2:24 the Holy Father comments:

“One flesh – hence, a single new existence. Paul also takes up this idea that man and woman become one flesh in a bond at once spiritual and physical in the First Letter to the Corinthians, where he states that this word is fulfilled in communion: “He who cleaves to the Lord becomes one spirit with him” (I Cor 6:17)

(Called to Communion, pg. 38)

In describing the conception of the Body of Christ in these terms, the Holy Father makes it clear that our communion with Christ and each other through the Eucharist is no less significant than the intimacy expressed by a married couple. This is why the divisions within the Church are so scandalous. Rather than looking at the intimate connection we have through the Eucharist, we instead focus on our agendas that, in the long-run, completely ignore the foundational and nuptial aspects of the Eucharist cited above. Along with a renewed focus on what Jesus meant by the phrase, “The Kingdom of God” we also must recapture a true sense of what we are as a Church in the Eucharist. We are, quite literally, the Body of Christ. We are assimilated into Him, and He into us. Any “reform” that would seek to undermine these foundational and nuptial aspects of the Eucharist and replace it with a mere “communal gathering” understanding in which all parties of all stripes mold the Church according to their whims rather then receive the Church does a great disservice to the message of the New Testament text and, not least of all, to the Lord in Whom we are incorporated. Just as we did no create but, instead, received Christ, we also cannot create but can only receive, and be incorporated into, His Body, the Church – and it is He, not we, who He defines what the Church is.

I’ll wrap with some of the Holy Father’s words expressing the intimacy of our union with Christ through the Eucharist:

“…Christ and the Church are one body in the sense in which man and woman are one flesh, that is, in such a way that in their indissoluble spiritual-bodily union, they nonetheless remain unconfused and unmingled. The Church does not simply become Christ, she ever the handmaid whom he lovingly raises to be his Bride who seeks his face throughout these latter days.”

(Called to Communion, pg. 39)