There is a deep affinity between last week’s observance of Trinity Sunday and today’s Solemnity of the Body of Blood of Christ. Perhaps the most succinct way of describing the Most Holy Trinity is “one God in three divine persons.” The adjective “divine” is necessary to make it clear we are not talking about human personhood but something over and beyond our creatureliness. Just as the Blessed Trinity is a communion of persons, the Church, the Body of Christ, Corpus Christi, is a communion of persons, albeit human, often all too human, persons.
What is potentially confusing about this brief description is that three and one are both used to describe the same object. God, of course, is not an object. God is always a subject. But the question that arises is, How do the three persons of the Blessed Trinity relate in such a way as to be one God and not three? It will encourage you to know that the answer to this question consists of one word: agape.
In two verses of the fourth chapter of Saint John’s first letter, Sacred Scripture teaches “God is love.”1 In the original Greek, agape is the word in both verses and translated into English as “love.” It’s necessary to point out that this is not reversible. In other words, God is love but love is not God. Agape means something like selfless, self-sacrificing love, that is, Christlike love. Not to be narcissism, love requires and lover and a beloved. Because love, as Aquinas noted, is profuse, it is life-giving, it spills over one chalice, to use a Eucharistic metaphor, to fill another.
Because it is the very essence of divine life, love, agape, must also be the essence of Christian life. When Jesus teaches about the necessity of love: “love God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength,”2 “love your neighbor as you love yourself,”3 and even “love your enemies,”4 he isn’t simply making suggestions for your consideration. He is inviting you to experience the very heart of reality. He is inviting you into God's reign, which is reality itself.
The motto of the United States is E pluribus unum: “out of many, one.” Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, observed: “The one is made up of all things, and all things issue from the one.” What Heraclitus noticed has a serious theological implication: being itself is communion, albeit a fractured one. This goes from implicit to explicit with the revelation that God is a communion of divine persons. Without God's grace, the desired communion is impossible.
Because God is unity in diversity, creation, as Heraclitus grasped, is a similarly so. The unity of creation is brought to the fore when, after the gifts of bread and wine are placed on the altar, the priest says: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life” and continues with giving thanks for the wine, “fruit of the vine and work of human hands” that, by the Holy Spirit’s power, becomes “our spiritual drink.”5
Like God, The Church, Christ’s Body, is also unity in diversity. In his great high priestly prayer in Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus, praying to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, asks that those who believe in him will be one as he is one with Father.6 He goes on to indicate just how this unity is achieved when he says that the Father is in him and in turn he comes to be in those who believe in him.7
How does Jesus come to be in us if not by the power of the Holy Spirit? What is the Holy Spirit but the love between the Father and the Son personified? There’s a reason we call the Eucharist the sacramentum caritatis- the sacrament of love. Love is the Church’s communion, not dogma or doctrine, not rules and regulations. “Because the loaf of bread is one,” Saint Paul wrote, “we, though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one [bread].”8
In his monumental study, Corpus Mysticum, the great twentieth-century theologian Henri DeLubac noted that over centuries the Church's understanding of verum corpus (i.e., "real," or "true body") and corpus mysticum (i.e., mystical body) was gradually reversed. We still suffer the effects of this debilitating reversal. Before this mix-up, the consecrated bread and wine were understood to be Christ's “mystical body,” while the Church, in the concreteness of all her members, was understood to be Christ's “true body” in and for the world.
While the correction necessitated by DeLubac’s work has yet to be fully realized, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) and its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) remain our blueprint and roadmap respectively for making this retrieval. To this end, it bears noting, “the Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist.”
As our first reading makes clear, we do not live by bread alone “but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of the LORD.”9 Without words, without God’s word, there is no Eucharist. Unless you understand what our participation in Christ’s body and blood mean, which is more than a repetitive ritual act, you cannot respond in the way Christ calls you to respond. This, too, requires words, which is why preaching is part of the Eucharist. The proclamation of the scriptures at Mass is one of the four ways Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharist.10
In today’s Gospel, Jesus shocks his listeners by using very literal language. In addition to Jews being shocked by the suggestion not only to drink blood but human blood, something Torah forbids, living in a world saturated by Greek culture, they probably thought about theophagy- literally “eating god.”11
In the ancient Mediterranean world, theophagy was “associated with Greco-Roman mystery cults such as those of Demeter and Dionysus.”12 So, to Jewish ears, Jesus’s words had something of a pagan ring. When the Eucharist is understood in terms of the reversal DeLubac noted, the paganism about which Jesus’s hearers were so suspicious reemerges.
It is a mysterious thing for the God of the universe to become small enough to hold in your hand. But as Christ demonstrated by going to the cross, he is not afraid to make himself vulnerable. God is nothing if not a great risk-taker. God takes the risk of creating and redeeming you because God is love. By participating in Christ’s body and blood, you accept God’s invitation to take the risk of loving God with your whole being by loving your neighbor, especially the one who has not experienced God’s all-embracing love, as you love yourself.
1 1 John 4:8.16.↩
2 Matthew 22:37.↩
3 Matthew 22:39.↩
4 Matthew 5:43-44.↩
5 Roman Missal, “The Order of Mass, The Liturgy of the Eucharist,” sec. 23-24.↩
6 John 17:20-21.↩
7 John 17:23.↩
8 1 Corinthians 10:17.↩
9 Deuteronomy 8:3.↩
10 Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosanctum Concilium], sec. 7.↩
11 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, footnote to John 6:52-71, 190.↩