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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