is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?
The bread that we break,
is it not a participation in the body of Christ?
1 Cor 10:15-17
There are so many powerful images in the readings the church offers for us on this feast today, the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. Even as I was reading listening to them again as they were read and I was reading them at Mass I was tempted to deviate from what I had panned to preach on. But still I was struck by those lines from St Paul’s letter to Corinthians, and was asking myself, “What does it mean, to ‘participate in the body and blood Christ?’” This feast of course would be a good occasion to speak about the doctrine of the real presence or other traditional doctrines in the church. I’d like to just assume the belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist––body, blood, soul and divinity. But what does it mean to participate in that?
I ran into these same two citations twice in the past week, and they convinced me that this is what I wanted to preach about. The first is from the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 4, where it describes the early Christian community thus:
The community of believers was of one heart and mind, and no one claimed any of their possessions as their own, but they had everything in common… There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses, would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need. (Acts 4:32, 34)And the other is this phrase from the great third century Christian writer Tertullian who wrote how the unbelievers were struck by the Christians' concern for the needy of every sort, so much so that they said, “See how these Christians love each other!”
If we take the example of the earliest followers of Jesus seriously––and I think we should––, then we learn that there is something that goes with the breaking of the bread: fellowship, friendship, community. Because of the Eucharist, they were like family. Because of the Eucharist, they held all things in common; they sold their possessions and shared the proceeds with everyone so that no one among them had any needs. Because of the Eucharist, they made sure everyone was taken care of, the hungry, the sick, the jobless, the lonely, the sad, the friendless.
The Eucharist is not an individual thing; it’s not just about me and Jesus. It’s about me being a part of us, and us being a part of each other, and about us being a part of Jesus, like one body––a participation. I like to think of this as the “economics of the Eucharist,” a phrase I got from Nathan Mitchell. There is an economics to the Eucharist; there is an entrance fee or at least membership dues of sorts, and it’s not just right doctrine and dogma. The Eucharist, as every sacrament, is a commitment to a way of life––this way of life, family, fellowship, friendship.
There is a reason why we always maintain the tension between the Eucharist as meal and the Eucharist as sacrifice. I asked some second graders last week if they knew what the word sacrifice meant (Mind you, it’s always a dangerous enterprise, asking second graders questions during a homily, but this time it turned out pretty well.), and one bright little man nailed it. He said, “A sacrifice is when you give something away.” Yes, I said, but a little more. Sacrifice also means that we believe that when we give something away it becomes holy.
Before the eucharist is the sacrifice of Jesus, it is our sacrifice. What do we give away? We give us away. One of those little often overlooked moments in the Mass is this: it is very important that the gifts––the bread and the wine––be brought up by somebody in the assembly, and not just be here on the altar beforehand. This bread, as we know is made up of individual grains, smashed and molded together, and then changed into something else. And those grains, we hear from ancient tradition, are symbols of our lives. This wine is made of many grapes, smashed and dissolved, changed into something else. Those grapes too are symbols of our lives. Smashed, broken, our borders between each other dissolve and we become one something else. And that is what we offer on the altar, that is our sacrifice––our lives, our loves, our works, our joys, are sufferings, our hopes and dreams, our disappointments and accomplishments. That is what we lift up. I often say that before this is the real presence of Jesus, this bread and this wine are supposed to be the real presence of us. Before Jesus comes into this bread and wine, we need to be in this bread and wine, and really in our hearts put our lives on this altar and allow them to be sacrificed, lifted up and pray that they be accepted by God. And they will be and are. And that is what is changed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. Me, you, I, we get changed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. And when I receive it back, I am receiving my life back––body, soul and spirit––transformed. That’s what it means to participate in the body and blood of Christ.
Of course, it doesn’t end there either. That bread, that wine, that is Christ and that is me transubstantiated then gets broken, then gets poured out. We can’t just stay on top of the mountain, we can’t just stay in front of the tabernacle, we can’t just sit here in mutual admiration. We then get sent out to be the real presence of Christ in our world. And that too is what it means to participate in the body and blood of Christ. As the Holy Father wrote in his first encyclical Deus Caritatis Es (#22) “love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential” to the Church––corporately and individually––“as the ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel.” As essential as the ministry of the sacraments and the preaching of the Gospel! “The Church cannot neglect the service of charity,” he says, “any more than she can neglect the Sacraments and the Word.”
So, if we dare to approach this table, if we dare to say Amen, let us remember that we are committing ourselves to a way of life, to be a community of believers of one heart and mind, to fellowship, friendship, and community. Because of the Eucharist we are committing ourselves to be like family, holding all things in common; sharing our wealth in such a way that no one among us has any needs, so that everyone is taken care of, the hungry are fed, the sick have health care, the jobless have jobs, the lonely, the sad and the friendless are comforted. So much so that they would say of us, “See how these Christians love each other.”
That’s what it means to participate in the body and blood of Christ.