9

Becoming Christ

Melkite priests, bathed in light, pray at the altar

“Let us rejoice then and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ Himself. Do you understand and grasp, brethren, God’s grace toward us? Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ.”

This exuberant declaration, bold bordering on outrageous, comes not from some starry-eyed New Age huckster, but from a pillar of Catholic orthodoxy, St. Augustine of Hippo (On the Gospel of John, 21:8). These words, wondrous and joyful, were brought to mind by Friday’s epistle reading, which hails the mystical Body of Christ:

And He gave some as apostles, others as prophets,
others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers,
to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry,
for building up the Body of Christ,
until we all attain to the unity of faith
and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,
to the extent of the full stature of Christ.

Ephesians 4:11-13

The Body of Christ: How we fail to adequately study this most sacred reality, which is the source of our salvation! Our minds shy away from searching its heights and depths, for it is too vast and confounding a truth to be studied lightly. To properly appreciate this doctrine, with its “sublime dignity” (Mystici Corporis Christi, 1), we must bring all our graces to bear.

Show me Thy ways, O Lord, teach me Thy paths.
Lead me in Thy truth, and teach me:
For Thou art the God of my salvation;
On Thee do I wait all the day.

Psalm 25:4-5

Let us begin by recognizing that there is no such thing as an individual Christian. To be a Christian is, by definition, to be united in Christ with one’s fellow disciples. “The body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body” (I Corinthians 12:12). In the words of St. Cyprian, Christ “bears us all in one” (On the Lord’s Prayer, 8).

After Baptism, the mechanism by which this mystical union is effected is the Eucharist, that sacrament of charity, by which we are “knit together in love” (Colossians 2:2), so that we abide in Christ and He in us (cf. John 6:56). By gathering around the table of the Lord, the Church becomes “of one heart and of one soul” (Acts 4:32).

Through the spiritual feast of the altar, Christians are bound to one another and collectively grafted into Christ the Head. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ. For we being many are one bread, and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread” (I Corinthians 10:16).

This language is not figurative. St. John Chrysostom speaks of a degree of unity comparable to the incarnation itself: “It is not merely a matter of sharing and partaking, but of being united. In the same way as a body was united with Christ, so we are united with Him.” St. Gregory the Great puts it more bluntly: “Our Redeemer has shown Himself to be one with the holy Church whom He has taken to Himself…Therefore because the same person that in the Head is the Bridegroom, is in the Body the Bride, it follows that when, at times, anything is spoken from the Head, there must be a turning down by degrees or even at once to the voice of the Body, and again when anything is said that is of the Body, there must be presently a rising to the voice of the Head” (Morals in the Book of Job, Preface 14).

Indeed, judging from Friday’s epistle, we might go so far as to say that Christ is only really complete, only really at “full stature,” when joined to His Body, which is the Church. Explains St. Augustine: “For if He is the head, we are the members; He and we together are the whole man…The fullness of Christ then is the head and the members. But what does “head and members” mean? Christ and the Church” (On the Gospel of John, 21:8).

In this light, the oblation of the Mass takes on a new dimension of mystery and wonder. For on the altar, we are all offered up to the Father and to one another in Christ. St. Augustine perceives as much, writing, “Such is the sacrifice of Christians: the multitude is one single body in Christ. The Church celebrates this mystery by the sacrifice of the Altar, well known to believers, because in it, it is shown to her that in the things which she offers, it is she herself who is offered” (The City of God, Book X:6). And again: “If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying ‘Amen’ to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith” (Sermon 272).

The Eucharist is the mortar by which the “spiritual house” of the Church is constructed: every communicant is a living stone, quickened by the Spirit. Through the heavenly meal we are joined together, and together joined to Christ. And not just joined, but transformed—into a Christian, that is, into Christ.

Unsurprisingly, it is St. Maximus the Confessor, brilliant theologian and ponderous mystic, who paints the most sublime picture. “The Logos,” he writes, “enables us to participate in divine life by making Himself our food … He transmutes with divinity those who eat it, bringing about their deification” (On the Lord’s Prayer). No wonder St. Augustine says of these sacred mysteries: “Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love” (Sermon 272).

In our dour and disenchanted age, Christianity is too frequently reduced to a sterile matrix of abstract ideas, or at best a dry series of devotions. The faith is “practiced”: dogmas are blindly embraced, services deafly attended, prayers mouthed without thought.

Even those who are enthusiastic fail to understand the faith’s central truth: that we have become “partakers of the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1:4). The priest announces this glorious truth each and every Mass: “By the mystery of this water and wine, may welcome to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”

Of course, despite the almost impossibly intimate nature of our union with Christ, we never “become God” in a literal sense. We are eternally creatures; He is eternally Creator. We partake of the Divine Nature, as St. Peter tells us, but we never possess it.

Nevertheless, the dogma of the Body of Christ speaks directly to the fact that our Christian faith carries an exceptional and utterly unique message: Man is not made simply to be God’s servant, but to be His friend, His family, His very Body.

We are called not only to be Christlike: We are called to be Christ, in whom we are crucified; in whom we die; in whom we are reborn; in whom we are hidden forever, abiding in love and communion.

Glory to God for all things!


Philip Primeau is an associate editor at Catholic Lane. He also blogs at a-heart-of-flesh.blogspot.com. He may be contacted by email at philipryan.primeau@gmail.com.
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  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    Are we all priests? Are there women priests? Yes. “But you are a chosen race, a
    royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (NRSV 1 Pet 2:9).

    Are we all
    individuals and not responsible for the moochers and the deadbeat? We are not only
    individuals, but we are part of the mystical body of Christ. So it is really true to say “Let us begin by
    recognizing that there is no such thing as an individual Christian.”

    Did Paul say “The body is one, and has many members, and
    all the members of that one body, being many, are one body” ? That was then, but
    this is now. What was true then is true
    now.

    “The mechanism by which this mystical union is
    effected is the Eucharist”. Is this
    really so? No. Baptism makes us members of Christ’s body.

    I read ” it is she herself who is offered”. No. At the Eucharist, as at Calvary, Christ is
    the victim. We are part of the mystical body, but nor Christ.

    “By the mystery of this water and wine, may welcome to
    share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled Himself to share in our humanity.”

  • Philip Jude Primeau

    Noel,

    I figured baptism was taken for granted. But, technically, you are of course right. Really, baptism without the eucharist is vain, and vice versa. This is why St. Augustine called them the “twin sacraments.”

    “I read ” it is she herself who is offered”. No. At the Eucharist, as at Calvary, Christ is the victim. We are part of the mystical body, but nor Christ.”

    This is a fearfully truncated notion of the eucharist and the sacrifice of the Mass, though unfortunately all too common.

    The Catechism is quite explicit:

    “1368 The Eucharist is also the sacrifice of the Church. The Church which is the Body of Christ participates in the offering of her Head. With him, she herself is offered whole and entire. She unites herself to his intercession with the Father for all men. In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.”

    The exact same quote is in the Catechism, too, following this section.

  • Philip Jude Primeau

    Noel,

    I’m surprised and saddened to see you write “we are … not Christ.” As the Catechism relates, “A reply of St. Joan of Arc to her judges sums up the faith of the holy doctors and the good sense of the believer: “About Jesus Christ and the Church, I simply know they’re just one thing, and we shouldn’t complicate the matter.” Just one thing. How wonderful! This intimacy, beyond comprehension though it may be, is the central message of Christianity. Read the fathers: It is what they come back to again and again. We are not identical with Christ, just as the head is not identical with the body, but the two together constitute the whole form, and apart they are incomplete. And, most importantly, whatever happens to the Body affects the Head, and whatever affects the Head affects the Body. They are united. So when the Head is sacrificed, so is the Body. When Christ is sacrificed, so is the Church. This is the true glory of the Mass!

  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    i am
    pleased you took so much time to answer me.
    Your article definitely challenges.

    You wrote “we never “become
    God” in a literal sense.”. So we are not Christ, who is God. we are not Pantheists.

    You wrote “1368 The Eucharist
    is also the sacrifice of the Church. The Church which is the Body of Christ
    participates in the offering of her Head. With him, she herself is offered
    whole and entire. She unites herself to his intercession with the Father for
    all men. In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of
    the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings,
    prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering,
    and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it
    possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his
    offering.”

    Our sufferings are united with
    Christ in the Mass, represented by the drop of water added to the wine, But
    there is only one Savior, JC, and our participation does not make us Saviors.

  • Philip Jude Primeau

    That paragraph speaks of much more than our sufferings. It says “the Church … is offered whole and entire.” Whole and entire. The Head cannot be offered without the Body.

    And yes, we are indeed Christ. We are His Body; He is our Head. Just as St. Augustine and myriad other fathers affirm. If we are not one with Christ, then we have no salvation. Or, at very least, our salvation is radically unlike that which is depicted in Scripture and Tradition.

    You are thinking far too narrowly, Noel. You want a rigid dichotomy. And either/or. But that is not orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is “paradoxy.” It is mystery.

    Your difficulty reveals a problem with popular Catholic understanding of the Eucharist. Commonplace Eucharistic devotion portrays the Body of Christ somehow distinct from, well, the Body of Christ. Our whole conception of the liturgy is therefore flawed and impoverished. The Mass is about the offering up of the whole Church in and through Christ: the Body with the Head. St. Augustine’s brilliant phrase is apt here: totus Christus. The “whole Christ” is the Head and Body.

    Your fears of pantheism are unfounded. Of course Christ is the Savior. He is the Head. He is the Mind of the Body. But we have been incorporated into Him. Indeed, we were always in Him, from the foundation of the world, as St. Paul tells us in Ephesians. We are Christ’s co-heirs and co-workers; we are His brothers. We are sons in the Son; logoi in the Logos.

    You say that my essay is challenging. Indeed it is. I was challenged by the fullness of the Eucharistic mystery as I began to encounter it, especially in Sts. Chrysostom and Augustine. I bid you to keep meditate upon it. God bless.

  • Noel Fitzpatrick

    Philip,

    thank you for a brilliant and thoughtful article. It makes me think and challenges my beliefs, while
    encouraging me to distinguish clearly.

    I agree with you that we are a both/and church.

    At
    Mass bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. I do not, even though I am part of the Church,
    the Body of Christ. Communicants do not
    eat me.

    We
    can join ourselves and our intentions to the offering of Jesus, not become part
    of it.

    You
    wrote “we are indeed Christ”.
    No! we are not God. As you said creator and creature differ.

    Christ
    is the head of the Body if Christ, we are not. In a corporate body members remain distinct.

    In
    1 Cor 12 (NRSV) we read:

    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. 13 For
    in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or
    free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

    14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If
    the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,”
    that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if
    the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that
    would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole
    body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing,
    where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God
    arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If
    all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is,
    there are many members, yet one body.

  • Philip Jude Primeau

    Noel,

    You are, as I said before, truncating the mystery of the Eucharist.

    “We can join ourselves and our intentions to the offering of Jesus, not become part of it.”

    I don’t know how you can write this, when it is clearly contradicted by the Catechism, which makes plain that the Church is offered *WHOLE AND ENTIRE.*

    Your restricted notion of the Eucharist is precisely what the last two popes, following the fathers, have sought to remedy.

    Consider the words of John Paul II:

    “In giving his sacrifice to the Church, Christ has also made his own the
    spiritual sacrifice of the Church, which is called to offer herself in union
    with the sacrifice of Christ. This is the teaching of the Second Vatican Council
    concerning all the faithful: ‘Taking part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which
    is the source and summit of the whole Christian life, they offer the divine
    victim to God, and offer themselves along with it'” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia).

    “Communicants do not eat me.”

    That is a rather brusque way of putting it. I would say, rather, that we receive one another spiritually in the Eucharist. This is why it is called “communion.” We are joined together, made one Body, by participating in one bread.

    Again, Ecclesia de Eucharistia: “Eucharistic communion also confirms the Church in her unity as the body of
    Christ. Saint Paul refers to this unifying power of participation in the
    banquet of the Eucharist when he writes to the Corinthians: “The bread which
    we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one
    bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1
    Cor 10:16-17). Saint John Chrysostom’s commentary on these words is profound
    and perceptive: “For what is the bread? It is the body of Christ. And what do
    those who receive it become? The Body of Christ – not many bodies but one
    body. For as bread is completely one, though made of up many grains of wheat,
    and these, albeit unseen, remain nonetheless present, in such a way that their
    difference is not apparent since they have been made a perfect whole, so too are
    we mutually joined to one another and together united with Christ”.

    I also refer you again to St. Augustine: “So
    if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the apostle
    telling the faithful, You, though, are the body of Christ and its
    members (1 Cor 12:27). So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and
    its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the
    Lord’s table; what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to
    what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your
    assent. What you hear, you see, is The body of Christ, and you answer,
    Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen
    true.”

    And Pope Benedict XVI: “Let us cast a glance back over what we have said. In his
    definition: sacrifice equals love, Augustine rightly stresses the saying, which
    is present in different variations in the Old and in the New Testament, which
    he sites from Hosea: “it is love that I want, not sacrifices” (6,6;
    St. Augustine, City of God X, 5). But this saying does not merely place an
    opposition between ethos and worship – then Christianity would be reduced to a
    moralism. It refers to a process which is more than a moral philosophy – to a
    process in which God takes the initiative. He alone can arouse man to start out
    towards love. It is the love with which God loves, which alone makes our love
    towards Him increase. This fact of being loved is a process of purification and
    transformation, in which we are not only open to God, but united to each other.
    The initiative of God has a name: Jesus Christ, the God Who Himself became man
    and gives Himself to us. That is why Augustine could synthesise all that by
    saying: “Such is the sacrifice of Christians: the multitude is one single
    body in Christ. The Church celebrates this mystery by the sacrifice of the
    Altar, well known to believers, because in it, it is shown to her that in the
    things which she offers, it is she herself who is offered” (Ibid. X, 6). Anyone
    who has understood this, will no longer be of the opinion that to speak of the
    sacrifice of the Mass is at least highly ambiguous, and even an appalling
    horror. On the contrary: if we do not remember this, we lose sight of the
    grandeur of that which God gives us in the Eucharist. ”

    “No! we are not God. As you said creator and creature differ.”

    Of course we are not God in His Triune fullness, but we are partakers of the Godhead. As St. Thomas wrote, “The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us
    sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might
    make men gods.”

    I must say, your strict insistence on the Creator-creature distinction seems more like that of a Muslim or Jew, or perhaps a Calvinist, than a Catholic.

    The shocking — and definitely the central — claim of traditional Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, and Oriental) is that, to quote St. Athanasius, “[T]he Son of God became man so that we might become God” (On the Incarnation).

    Christ unites creature and Creator in one Person. Through the holy mysteries, especially Baptism and the Eucharist, we are made one with Him. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me.” We are truly — albeit mystically — transformed into Christ by the Spirit. “For those whom He foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son.” “Christ is all, and in all.”

    We do not “melt” into Christ, losing our own personality. Rather, through becoming one with Him, our personality is purified and enhanced. But that paradox does not change the intensity and intimacy of our union with Him through the Spirit, to the glory and for the pleasure of the Father.

    • Noel Fitzpatrick

      Hi Philip,

      I really am most grateful for the work and time you put into
      replying to my concerns. I did not reply
      again to you until now, Sunday, as I wanted to think and reflect on your posts. As is obvious I am out of my depth and it is
      with trepidation I send you my views.

      I am not sure of the meaning of terms such as historicity,
      unicity, subsist, conform etc. but I think it is better to use technical terms,
      which have precise meanings, rather than
      everyday terms which have a range of meanings. For me Logos = Word = Jesus
      Christ.

      [Even the term Eucharist causes me problems. When I was in school it referred to one of
      the seven sacraments, now it is used for the Mass, which is essentially a
      sacrifice. I am studying the Didache at present. Does it refer to a Eucharist, even though there
      are no words of consecration? But this is not the issue here.]

      I read here “The sacrifice of Christ is not situated behind

      us as something past.” Yet we read “We know that Christ, being
      raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over
      him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he
      lives to God. NRSV, Rom 6:9,10). Again I
      learned that the mass is the same sacrifice as Calvary. I find it hard to grasp that the pagan
      Melchisedech before Christ celebrated the Eucharist.

      You criticize the “The Thomistic Scholasticism of Trent”. This is where we get transubstantiation. I have sympathy with the Orthodox and some
      Anglican (Episcopalians), who believe the bread and wine become the body and
      blood of Christ, but do not seek to explain the mechanism.

      Thus I seem to agree with your conclusions.

      ****************************************

      POST TO ME.

      Basically I reject Pantheism.
      I am a creature, not a creator. I
      am not God. Christ is the head of the Church.
      You quote “they offer the divine
      victim to God, and offer themselves along with it”. To me this means we participate, not offer ourselves along with Jesus at Mass. In the Mass Christ offers himself, the priest
      acts as another Christ. Again we are made one body at baptism. I would disagree
      with John Chrysostom, as (I think) for him bread became the body and wine the
      blood of Christ. Not so.

      So as you can see I am confused.

      ???? ????? ?? ??? ????????? ?????????·

      Look
      at http://www.santorosario.net/english/mass/3.htm. Has Catholicism changed since St Pius X?

  • Philip Jude Primeau

    If you want a really challenging and truly brilliant article, then read “The Theology of the Liturgy” by Pope Benedict, available here: http://www.piercedhearts.org/benedict_xvi/Cardinal%20Ratzinger/theology_liturgy.htm

    Consider these musings on sacrifice and unity:

    “Here
    too, it is a question of something quite different from a mere moralism,
    because man is so caught up in it with the whole of his being: sacrifice
    [consisting] in words – this, the Greek thinkers had already put in relation to
    the logos, to the word itself, indicating that the sacrifice of prayer should
    not be mere speech, but the transmutation of our being into the logos, the
    union of ourselves with it. Divine worship implies that we ourselves become
    beings of the word, that we conform ourselves to the creative Intellect. But
    once more, it is clear that we cannot do this of ourselves, and thus everything
    seems to end again in futility – until the day when the Word comes, the true,
    the Son, when He becomes flesh and draws us to Himself in the exodus of the
    Cross. This true sacrifice, which transforms us all into sacrifice, that is to
    say unites us to God, makes of us beings conformed to God, is indeed fixed and
    founded on an historical event, but is not situated as a thing in the past
    behind us, on the contrary, it becomes contemporary and accessible to us in the
    community of the believing and praying Church, in its sacrament: that is what
    is meant by the “sacrifice of the Mass.”

    The error of Luther lay, I am convinced, in a false idea of historicity, in a
    poor understanding of unicity. The sacrifice of Christ is not situated behind
    us as something past. It touches all times and is present to us. The Eucharist
    is not merely the distribution of what comes from the past, but rather the
    presence of the Paschal Mystery of Christ, Who transcends and unites all times.
    If the Roman Canon cites Abel, Abraham, Melchisedech, including them among
    those who celebrate the Eucharist, it is in the conviction that in them also,
    the great offerers, Christ was passing though time, or perhaps better, that in
    their search they were advancing toward a meeting with Christ. The theology of
    the Fathers such as we find it in the canon, did not deny the futility and
    insufficiency of the pre-christian sacrifices; the canon includes, however,
    with the figures of Abel and Melchisedech, the “holy pagans”
    themselves in the mystery of Christ. What is happening is that everything that
    went before is seen in its insufficiency as a shadow, but also that Christ is
    drawing all things to Himself, that there is, even in the pagan world, a
    preparation for the Gospel, that even imperfect elements can lead to Christ,
    however much they may stand in need of purification.”

    I wrote this essay to help reveal the limits of popular Eucharistic piety among Catholics. The Thomistic Scholasticism of Trent — which is the basis of popular Eucharistic piety — is by no means wrong, but it has weaknesses, including its dependence upon Aristotilean metaphysical structures and categories. It is time to go beyond Trent by returning to the fathers and to the Scripture. “Trent did not make a mistake, it leant for support on the
    solid foundation of the Tradition of the Church. It remains a trustworthy
    standard. But we can and should understand it in a more profound way in drawing
    from the riches of biblical witness and from the faith of the Church of all the
    ages. There are true signs of hope that this renewed and deepened understanding
    of Trent can, in particular through the intermediary of the Eastern Churches,
    be made accessible to protestant Christians.”