The Body of Christ

Many years ago Dom Helder Camara was a much beloved bishop in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Recife, Brazil. He lived in the sacristy of the church. One early morning Helder Camara was awakened by an urgent knock on his door. Opening the door, he found a woman from the parish terribly upset. “Padre, the Body of Christ has been desecrated. There are hosts spilled all over the floor by the tabernacle.” Helder Camara looked at her and replied: “Are you telling me that it is only now that you notice how the Bof Christ is being desecrated?!”

What did the dear bishop refer to? He rightly replied from multiple understandings of the term “The Body of Christ.” After all, as we share the bread and the wine at the Eucharist, we say to one another “The Body of Christ, broken for you; the Blood of Christ, shed for you.” And so I got musing on these multiple meanings as if looking at a diamond from different angles and through different light sources.

First and foremost, the “Body of Christ” refers to Jesus, the historical person who lived some 2,000 years ago in Palestine. It is this person who was first given the title “Christ” meaning the “Anointed One.” Jesus revealed to us the face of God – the Source of love and mercy which draws us irresistibly into the fullness of our human potential, of all that God desires us to become as His sons and daughters made in His image and likeness.

Secondly, the “Body of Christ” refers to the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine, the simple fruits of the earth and the work of human hands transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharistic celebration. Next to the historical Jesus, the Eucharist is the second expression of the Incarnation and God’s sacramental presence among us. “This is my body, this is my blood,” Jesus commanded us to do in his memory.

Thirdly, the “Body of Christ” refers to those who are baptized into the death and  resurrection of Jesus Christ. Together we are united in Christ and form his holy body on earth, the Church. This “Body of Christ” extends beyond any one denomination and constitutes the community of salvation.

The most beautiful description of this body is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12: “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 in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body (…) and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. … Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 27)

And last, but certainly not least, the “Body of Christ” refers to the poor. When asked when do we see him, feed him, clothe him and visit him, Jesus replies in Matthew 25:45:  “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do it to me.” I’m quite sure that it is this meaning Dom Helder Camara had in mind when he replied to the distraught woman.

The anguished words of a Sri Lankan bishop shed more and similar light on the connections between the various meanings of the “Body of Christ”: “Why is it that in spite of hundreds of thousands of Eucharistic celebrations Christians continue as selfish as before? Why is the gap of income, wealth, knowledge, and power growing in the world today— and that in favour of the Christian peoples? Why is it that persons who proclaim Eucharistic love and sharing deprive the poor of the world of food, capital, employment, even land?” Dom Helder Camara was right; the Body of Christ is indeed desecrated routinely and massively every day in the plight of the poor.

What if we look at Eucharist not only as Jesus’ Body and Blood.  What if, when Jesus said, ‘Do this in memory of me,’ he was also telling us, ‘Now go break your body and shed your blood in the service of others.'”

The Eucharist calls us to transformation, so that we leave church “a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), determined to live differently and to contribute to the (w)holiness of the world. The Eucharist is to give us new eyes and different priorities. It is to affect what we do with our time, how we spend our money, how we look for a job, how we vote, whom we regard as our neighbour.

Every Sunday the Body of Christ gathers to celebrate and share the Body of Christ in the Eucharist, in order to be sent out to BE the Body of Christ in the world, especially to the Body of Christ in the poor and destitute. In this way, the Body of Christ is both a reality and a revelation, an invitation and a challenge: “Do this in memory of me.”

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The Outside Story

Note to Readers: This is the fourth post inspired by my current experience of denominational transition. Other entries can be found under:

A Time of Transition
Transition Continued
Transition: The Inside Story

God is not afraid of new things!
That is why he is continually surprising us,
opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways.
He renews us: he constantly makes us “new.”
A Christian who lives the Gospel
is “God’s newness” in the Church and in the world.
How much God loves this “newness!”

(Pope Francis, homily, October 19, 2014)

Just like those who shook their heads at the biblical Ruth as she made her uncommon choices, members of the abandoned faith community may well shake their heads also. Except for some personal confidantes, very few people may be aware initially of the deep intra-psychic process which can take place in the person contemplating a denominational move. There is a time delay between the shifting of tectonic plates at the bottom of the ocean and the waves appearing on the surface of the water. By the time external signs of the move become apparent, an extensive inner process of letting go and redefinition has already been well underway in the person making the move. Reactions of surprise and shock in those left behind are not uncommon.

Those who have no personal experience of a crisis of meaning, and who have always been comfortable in their denominational affiliation, may find it nigh impossible to understand another’s need to make a denominational switch. Disbelief, judgment, denial and rejection may be heaped upon the one breaking denominational ranks.  These feelings will be particularly strong if the self-understanding of the abandoned denomination encourages convictions of denominational superiority, exclusive and absolute in faith and doctrine.

Then there are the people who show support and understanding because they live their own struggles of faith vicariously through the departing person. Connected to this group are those who feel threatened in their own belonging by the departing person. They may have doubted their own denominational affiliations, but have been afraid or are simply incapable of contemplating being anywhere else. A friend who left the Roman Catholic Church once told me of a person whom she had considered a friend who reduced contact to a minimum once she discovered my friend was considering changing denominations. Asking her the reason why, this woman had replied, “Your denominational exploration is too close for comfort; you are raising all the questions which I am trying hard to keep at bay so I can stay. I get very nervous every time I talk to you.”

Finally, there will be those – and God-willing they will be numerous – who will genuinely understand, respect and support the departing person’s decision to transfer denominational homes. These are the women and men who most likely are well-grounded and secure in their faith and denominational identity, who may have experienced similar transitions, and whose heart can appreciate a diversity of expressions with joy and peace. Some of these individuals may even show up on the Sunday of formal reception into the new denominational home to celebrate this significant passage. Such individuals become a vital source of affirmation and support, embodying the continuity between one’s past-present-future. For the past is not gone and life has only changed, not ended. If the denominational transfer can be done in a healthy fashion, and can be expressed in meaningful ritual with elements from both faith traditions, the past goes with us into the future as a valuable resource and a treasured legacy.

Jesus himself said, “In my Father’s House there are many rooms.” (John 14:2) Denominational transition is a move from one room in the Father’s house to another. It does not mean leaving God’s house! If this remains hard to grasp, then I wonder if all our ecumenical dialogues and agreements of the past 50 years has been for naught. My transition is not caused by a weakening of faith, but rather its opposite: my transition is driven by a deepening and an expanding of faith.

I decided to make my transition public in the wild hope that it could serve the greater good of the church catholic. My commitment to ecumenism and Christian Unity will go with me and will continue to find creative expression. It is, as I see it, part of our call as Christians to heal and restore our churches into one Body. I hope and pray that we will continue to grow together to see our unity in God through Jesus Christ before stumbling over our divisions: Look not on our sins but on the faith of your people, O God. Let us never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. Each in our own way, we are all seeking the radiant peace of God’s face.

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said,
“for whoever is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50)

When I was a child, I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly;
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

(1 Cor. 13:11)

Prairie Encounters

Thank you for reading this reflection. For private comments, use the Contact Form below; for public comments scroll down further and use the space below “Leave a Reply.”