Today we celebrate the feast often called by the Latin name Corpus Christi, “the body of Christ.” As Paul suggests in 1 Corinthians 10, this term can have two meanings: the body of Christ that we share in the Eucharist, and the body of Christ that we form as the community of believers united with the risen Christ. The two meanings are related, and one gives depth to the other. Their combination reminds us that the Eucharist is profoundly social.
The sacrament of the Eucharist is rooted in ancient Israel’s social experience as the people of God. During its wanderings in the wilderness after the exodus, God fed his people with a mysterious breadlike substance called “manna.” By means of this food, God made it possible for Moses and the exodus generation to survive until they reached the edge of Canaan. As Deuteronomy 8 puts it, “[God] fed you in the desert with manna, a food unknown to your fathers.”
The responsorial psalm for today, Psalm 147, reflects a later period in biblical Israel’s history, when kings ruled in Jerusalem and God was worshiped in the Temple. In this relatively stable and prosperous setting, the psalmist evoked the image of God feeding his people: “He has granted peace in your borders; with the best of wheat he fills you.” As we celebrate the Eucharist as the sacrament of God’s ongoing presence and care for us, we make actual once again the biblical motif of God feeding his people.
Today’s selection from 1 Corinthians 10 is a concise but very rich statement about what we do when we celebrate the Eucharist as the people of God. For most of three chapters, Paul had been dealing with the attitudes of the new Christians toward food associated with pagan rituals and with their participation in rituals involving sacrifices offered to pagan gods. Paul’s advice is complex and somewhat meandering, but quite sensitive to the realities of the historical situation and to the issues of conscience they raised. Toward the end of his argument, Paul calls on the image of the body of Christ to appeal to the social bonds that exist among Christians and to their participation in the Eucharist.
Paul first reminds the Corinthian Christians (and us today) that as members of the body of Christ they constitute one body. The body is a natural symbol and a powerful image. Consider your own body, how all its parts must work together and how no part can be hurt without the whole body being hurt. In antiquity, as today, the image of body was often applied to cities (the body politic) and other social entities. But the body of Christ is not just another social organization or another coalition of like-minded persons united in a voluntary association. It is the body of Christ. Christ makes this body different. Christ comes first. Christ makes the body. His relationship to us forms us into the body of Christ. Our vertical relationship with Christ has as its necessary consequence our horizontal relationship with one another. In that social sense we are the body of Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul relates the body of Christ that we constitute as Christians and the body of Christ that we share in the Eucharist. Sharing the one bread and the one cup is a powerful sign of our oneness in Christ. By participating in the eucharistic meal we express our unity with Christ and with one another. As members of Christ’s body, we affirm our identity and unity when we receive the eucharistic body of Christ.
The Eucharist is profoundly social. In fact, Paul in his letters mentions the Eucharist only twice, here in 1 Cor 10:14-22 and in 11:17-34. In both cases it is in the context of dealing with social problems existing among the Corinthians. The social perspective does not diminish the sacredness of the Eucharist. Rather, it should enhance our appreciation of the sacrament and give greater depth to our identity as members of the body of Christ.
In today’s reading from John 6, Jesus identifies himself as “the living bread that came down from heaven,” thus linking himself with the manna in the wilderness and with “the best of wheat.” He goes on to promise that “whoever eats this bread will live forever.” In other words, participation in the life of Jesus, the living bread, is the first installment on or the inauguration of our eternal life with God. Our participation in the Eucharist concretizes and energizes our relationship with Christ and with one another. As members of the body of Christ, we share in the body of Christ.