Today is a very special day, indeed, as we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi.
Corpus Christi literally means the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ can refer to a couple of different definitions that are all equally true. On one hand, the Body of Christ can mean the Church, of which He is the head. Each and every one of us, united under the head, make up the members of His body. However, today we will focus on the Body of Christ as it exists in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
The Catholic Church teaches that the Eucharist is the full and real presence of Jesus – His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – contained under the appearance of bread and wine (CCC #1375). Just as Jesus turned water into wine – one substance into a completely different substance – He miraculously turns the bread and wine into His Body and Blood through the priests’ hands at the altar each time a priest performs the rite of consecration. This miracle is referred to as transubstantiation, or the turning of one substance into another. The Catechism quotes St. John Chrysostom to explain how this miracle takes place: “It is not man that causes the things offered to become the Body and Blood of Christ, but he who was crucified for us, Christ himself. The priest, in the role of Christ, pronounces these words, but their power and grace are God’s. ‘This is my body’, he says. This word transforms the things offered.” (CCC #1374). It is important to highlight here that Jesus Himself is performing the miracle through the priest and that the priest has no miraculous power of his own.
Sadly, not everyone believes in this very special miracle, including some Catholics. Rather, they see the wine and host as mere symbols of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. However, we have a few clues that inform official Church teaching on the matter to assure us that Jesus really did intend to communicate to us that he literally gives us His Body and Blood in this Sacrament.
The first, and most obvious clue, is in His words at the Last Supper when He first instituted the Sacrament. All three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) record Jesus using the exact same words, “This IS my body.” and “This IS my blood.” in their account of the Last Supper. He did not say, “This is a symbol of my body.” Therefore, it is not a far reach to take Jesus at his literal word.
You might agree that, while you accept that Jesus said what He meant and meant what He said, there were other times in Scripture when He was certainly speaking metaphorically. For example, He referred to Himself as a vine in John 15:5, and as a door in John 10:9. Are we to assume that Jesus was referring to Himself as a literal vine and a literal door? Well, we have another scriptural clue that shows us how His disciples knew when he was speaking literally versus when he was speaking figuratively. In John, Chapter 6, Jesus is explaining to his disciples how He is the bread of life which has come down from heaven and that they must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood if they are to have life. Confused, the Jews ask how this can be and Jesus doubles down. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him on the last day.” (John 6:53-54). What immediately follows is crucial to the Church’s understanding of Jesus’ words. First, many disciples said aloud, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). Jesus asks them if what he has said has offended them and then tells them that there are those who will not believe in what he has just taught about the eating of his flesh (John 6:61-65). Finally, those who did not accept the “hard saying,” those who were offended, and those who did not believe in what he just taught, “drew back and no longer walked with him” (John 6:66).
When Jesus refers to Himself as a vine, or a door, or any other metaphor, no one is offended, has trouble understanding, or leaves Him. It is only when He says they must eat of His flesh that many are shocked and compelled to abandon Him. This tells us that the disciples understood Jesus to be speaking literally and not figuratively.
Knowing that the Catholic Church draws from Tradition to develop her teachings, we get more clues on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist by examining the writings of the earliest Christians to see how they understood the Eucharist to be the real flesh and blood of Jesus and not simply a symbol. There are way too many examples to list here, so I will list only a few. As you read them, note the years and consider how these men were in much closer proximity to Jesus, the Apostles, and the early Church trailblazers than we are today.
“For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus” (First Apology 66 [A.D. 151]). – St. Justin Martyr
“The bread and the wine of the Eucharist before the holy invocation of the adorable Trinity were simple bread and wine, but the invocation having been made, the bread becomes the body of Christ and the wine the blood of Christ” (Catechetical Lectures 19:7 [A.D. 350]). – St. Cyril of Jerusalem
“Perhaps you may be saying, ‘I see something else; how can you assure me that I am receiving the body of Christ?’ It but remains for us to prove it. And how many are the examples we might use! … Christ is in that sacrament, because it is the body of Christ” (The Mysteries 9:50, 58 [A.D. 390]). – St. Ambrose of Milan
“What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the body of Christ and the chalice is the blood of Christ” (Sermons 272 [A.D. 411]). – St. Augustine
As you can see, our early Church Fathers understood that Jesus performed an actual miracle at every Mass and changed the bread and wine into His flesh and blood through the priests’ hands. As a matter of fact, many men and women died for that belief as we know through the stories of the martyrs. It wasn’t until much later in our Church’s development that the understanding became distorted and the idea that the Eucharist is a symbol was introduced.
On this feast of Corpus Christi, contemplate the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. If you struggle to fully accept it or believe it, ask God to open your heart to a deeper understanding of this gift He is trying to give to you. He wants very much for you to have Him in His fullness and will grant you understanding if you allow Him to enter in and give it to you.