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 Body of 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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