In the Eucharist the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. This is the daily miracle that we celebrate especially on this week’s great Solemnity of Corpus Christi. The word transubstantiation, which sounds a lot fancier in English than it does in Latin, simply means, “it is changed.” What is “standing” (-stant-) “underneath” the apperances (-sub-), the real reality of the thing, is now “different” (trans-). When he says, “this is my Body” . . . well, all we can say is, yes, I guess it “isn’t” really bread anymore, it “is” his Body – even though it still looks like bread.
But in order to fully appreciate what that means, with this Sunday’s readings, I would like to spend some time pondering the opposite point. Yes, the bread has become his body – but it is also true to say that his body has become our bread. “I am the living bread,” he says in our reading from John 6. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh.”
The Jews ask, “how can this man give us his flesh to eat?” It’s not such a stupid question. The answer is, “transubstantiation.” But we do well to think about it a little.
Sometimes, when I emphasize Thomas Aquinas’s teaching about how it matters that Jesus comes to us under the form of bread, my students ask, “what if there was one of those Eucharistic miracles, and it became flesh?” They laugh – but I think it’s an important point – when I respond, “if it turns into flesh, don’t eat it.” In the Eucharist, he gives himself as bread.
In our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses teaches the people in a mysterious way. He says God wanted to “find out whether or not it was your intention to keep his commandments. He therefore let you be afflicted with hunger.”
Now, there’s two sides here, the spiritual and the physical. The ultimate point is their spiritual relation to God. But they learn through their physical relationship. The conclusion will be, “not by bread alone does one live, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.” But the way God teaches them is with manna, bread.
Just as they rely physically on the bread God gives them, they are to rely spiritually on his word, his commandment. The physical sign of bread reminds them of the deeper spiritual truth that God himself is the source of life – and above all, the life of their soul. He is the true bread. (Bread even for angels, who don’t need physical bread.)
Our reading from First Corinthians is Paul’s central teaching on the Eucharist. Paul knows not the obscure manna in the wilderness, but the real body and blood of Christ. But he continues to insist on the symbolic meaning of bread.
“The bread that we break,” he says, “is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” And the cup “a participation in the blood of Christ.” (Notice, by the way, the phrase, “the bread we break”: in the New Testament, “breaking bread” is the central phrase for the Eucharist. It’s not a normal expression in Greek.)
Now, this “participation” has three interrelated meanings. First, it means the Real Presence. The bread (he still calls it bread, though we know it technically isn’t) IS the body of Christ. It “participates,” shares in the reality of Christ’s body.
But second, and in fact even more powerfully, it gives us a “participation” in the Body of Christ. The Fathers of the Church said, “the [Eucharistic] Body makes the Body [which is the Church]” – in fact, they called the Church the “true body.”
Third, and consequently, this Body gives us communion with one another. The word translated “participation” is actually the Greek koinonia. Through the bread we have communion – union – with God, and because of that, we are also in communion with one another. Paul underlines this: “we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”
The bread symbolism remains important: because the Body of Christ has become bread, we can make it our source of life, and our act of table-fellowship. This only works because he has become bread for us.
John, instead of koinonia, uses the word “dwelling,” or “remaining.” “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.” But then he emphasizes life-giving: “Just as . . . I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”
Let us not forget that Jesus becomes our bread, our nourishment, our table of fellowship and our source of life.