By Will Brown
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11.23ff)
You may have heard the Mass described as “the source and summit of our faith,” and so it is. And it’s no coincidence that this feast, Corpus Christi, inaugurates the march of the Church militant through the “tempus per annum” —— the long season of the Church’s “ordinary time.” But what does this feast disclose to us? What are we meant to see — what are we meant to come to know — by keeping it?
It is, of course, the feast of the Body of Christ, and this term — “the Body of Christ” — evokes several overlapping and interrelated realities: firstly the physical body of Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, nailed to the cross, now sitting at the right hand of power; and secondly the “mystical body of Christ” — the Catholic Church, dispersed throughout the world and across time, into which we have been incorporated by baptism.
And thirdly, the Body of Christ that we receive in the Eucharist is the bridge connecting these realities, which are all in the end one and the same mystical contiguity — because by baptism and faith in the Name of Jesus, we are gathered up into one Body, reconciled to God and to one another, “in one Body through the cross” (Eph. 2:16) — just “as grain once scattered on the hillsides is in this broken bread made one” (cf. the Didache 9.8).
“In one body, through the cross.” It’s important to note where this reconciliation, this ending of all hostility, occurs. It occurs on Golgotha, on the cross. It is there and only there, at the center of the universe, on this hillside, outside the walls of Jerusalem, the axis mundi, that mankind fulfills his vocation as Son of God and comes to know what the Father had planned for us from the beginning: a divine peace that transcends discourse and passes all understanding.
St. Mark’s Gospel says that on the cross, “Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last,” (Mark 15:37). It’s in this place of desolation, as the Savior’s anguished cry recedes into silence, with his Mother and the disciple whom he loved — it is here on Golgotha that we discover the transfixed peace of God — the peace of God “manifested in the flesh … preached among the nations, believed on in the world,” (1 Tim. 3:16). Here on Calvary the words of the Psalm are fulfilled: “now I say to you, ‘You are gods, and all of you children of the Most High. … Nevertheless you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince’” (Ps. 82).
Jesus said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all men to myself” (John 12.32). “When I am lifted up from the earth.” The elevated Body of Christ is what calls together all people of good will, from every nation under heaven, and from every epoch of human history, past, present, and future: everyone with eyes to see and ears to hear, who has cultivated an open heart, a heart after God’s own heart, a heart willing to suffer for the sake of love. And by means of Christ’s Body, using the sacred host as though it were a lens, we are able to “plunge [our] vision into the Father’s” to see this sinful, broken humanity from the vantage point of eternity, “contemplating with [the Father] His … children just as He sees them, all illuminated with Christ’s glory, fruits of His Suffering, clothed by the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion” and to re-create this humanity in his own image and likeness (cf. “The Spiritual Testament” of Dom Christian Marie de Chergé).
Pope Pius XII wrote about the possibility of this transcendent vision, this dynamic reconciliation refracted in the blessed sacrament. He said that in the Eucharist, in this act of Sacrifice through the hands of the priest, by whose word alone the Immaculate Lamb is present on the altar, the faithful themselves, united with him in prayer and desire, offer to the Eternal Father a most acceptable victim of praise and propitiation. And as the Divine Redeemer, when dying on the Cross, offered himself to the Eternal Father as head of the whole human race, so “in this clean oblation” [Mal. 1:11] he offers to the heavenly Father not only himself as head of the Church, but in himself [he offers] his mystical members also, since he holds them all … in his most loving Heart (Mystici Corporis Christi, 82).
In the Eucharist, the Lord draws mankind together, he creates his Church, and he presents it acceptably to the Father. And this creative action, whereby we are drawn into the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is the same thing as our salvation. And here we can see why it is that “outside the Church there is no salvation.” Georges Florovsky said that “All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology.” One and the same motion, one and the same action, brings us into communion with God, and into communion with one another. Blessed John Henry Newman wrote that the Catholic Church allows no image of any sort, material or immaterial, no dogmatic symbol, no rite, no sacrament, no Saint, not even the Blessed Virgin herself, to come between the soul and its Creator. It is face to face, “solus cum solo” [alone with the One who is alone] in all matters between man and his God. He alone creates; he alone has redeemed; before his awful eyes we go in death; in the vision of him is our eternal beatitude (from his Apologia Pro Vita Sua).
Thus when we find ourselves “Solus cum Solo” — alone with the One who is alone — we find ourselves at last safe and at home, close to the heart of God — who, in the fullness of time, sent Jesus to be born of a Virgin. In Jesus this mystery, hidden since the foundation of the world, is made known: that God’s object in creating and renewing the face of the earth was the enlargement of his dominion of love — an outpouring of the divine communion. Because what we find in contemplating the face of Jesus is the eternally beloved of God, God’s only begotten Son.
And so we discover in Christ the mystery of God not merely as the transcendent — and therefore supremely distant — otherness with whom men yet have ritual dealings; but also, and more importantly, we discover an eternal communion of love, mutuality, and generosity. And we find, uniquely among all the religions of the world, that God does not demand retribution for our offenses, but that he has pursued us down through the ages, down through the history of each of our lives, in mercy — and that his unforeseen, unknown, and unknowable plan from before the ages, was to unite us to himself, to pour out his own inner life on the lives of men.
There is an irony in this solitude with the One who is alone, and it lies in its super-abundance, for it is a communion so intimate that it cannot remain self-contained. It is ecstatic. Alone with the One who is alone, we find ourselves also to be “alone with the ones who are alone with the One who is alone” (solus cum solis cum solo).
On Golgotha, at the place of this most public secrecy, and to the degree that we keep our focus — our love — fixed on Jesus, we begin to sense the presence of others, alone together with him. Our love begins to overflow with the super-abundance of his love — first encompassing his weeping Mother, and then the disciple whom he loved; but gradually, as we are consumed by his mercy, reaching out to a creation filled with saints, angels, and penitent thieves of every description.
According to St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words before his ascension were: “lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matt. 28:20). The Blessed Sacrament is the primary means by which Jesus fulfills this promise to remain with us. “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘This is my body which is for you. do this in remembrance of me.’”
“Do this in remembrance of me.” Dom Gregory Dix said that “one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. [But] best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God” (from The Shape of the Liturgy).
Jesus is tabernacled here with us today, on the altar. Very shortly we will follow him in procession. He is here to be perceived with the eyes of faith. He is here to be worshiped and obeyed, but mostly he is here prolonging the ecstasy of Golgotha, knocking at the doors of our hearts. He has come in compassion to this place, to this moment in history, looking for you. He is here to be received. To the desire of every longing heart Jesus speaks: “Take, eat.”
St. Paul said, “I received from the Lord … I delivered to you.” Jesus offers himself to us. He offers himself as the way to an authentic and integral life of communion (togetherness), of reconciliation and peace. And so on this day, “We give … thanks, [to the] Holy Father, for [his] holy name, which [he] has made to tabernacle in our hearts, and for the knowledge and faith and immortality which [he] has made known unto us through [his] Son Jesus” (from the Didache).
The Rev. Will Brown is associate rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Thomasville, Georgia.