Mass of St Gregory, unknown artist.
‘The flesh [of Christ] is the hinge of salvation’ - Tertullian, On the Resurrection
Corpus Christi. The feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. This was the first feast to be instituted universally, across the Latin Church by a Pope. It had already been celebrated in a small diocese – the Pope’s own – but not universally. The occasion for it seems to have been a Eucharistic miracle in the town of Bolsena, in Italy. A priest had started doubting whether the bread and wine really became the Body and Blood of Christ. One day, as he celebrated Mass, the Eucharist transformed into real flesh, and blood started pouring out from it, staining the corporal and the floor. The priest was deeply convicted of his unbelief and reported it to the Pope who was staying nearby at the time. This miracle would lead to the institution of Corpus Christi.
This incident is quite relevant today, unfortunately, for the wrong reasons. In 2019, a Pew research found that almost 70% of Catholics in the U.S did not believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Many believed that the Eucharist is only a symbol of Jesus. That is a shocking statistic. I’m not sure Europe would fare better. Just to revise the basics, therefore: during consecration, the bread and wine are changed in their very substance into the body and blood of Christ. Catholics call this transubstantiation – a transformation of ‘substance’. This is technical language, borrowed from Aristotelian philosophy. Both the species, bread and wine, becomes fully, the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ, i.e., both the species become Christ himself. Aristotle described things in terms of substance and accidents. Another way of talking about it is in terms of ‘reality’ and ‘appearance’. The substance denotes what is real about the thing in question. The substance then, is transformed, even though the accidents (what is accidental to it) – the colour, smell, taste and so on, remain. They still seem like bread and wine.
There could be several reasons why a number of Catholics might have fallen away in their belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I want to touch on one particular thing which is not emphasised enough. The materialism of Christianity. Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, is the most carnal of religions. This might come as a surprise, putting it this way, especially because the term ‘the flesh’ often has a negative meaning in the Scriptures. Paul talks of how the Spirit is opposed to the works of the flesh and even, how, nothing good dwells in his flesh (Rom 7:18, 8:9, Gal 5:21-23). Paul is however, not talking about the physical as opposed to the spiritual. Jews were not dualists in this way, and Paul was fully a Jew. Paul means the rebellious principle in man, under the power of sin. He will elsewhere talk of how Jesus abolished sin in the flesh (‘flesh’ being good/neutral here, Eph 2:15). Christianity has never negated the material world, after God declared it was good. We can turn the things of this world into gods, which is idolatry; but matter is not evil for its own sake. Matter, on the other hand, was created to bear spirit. There is one, or rather, a family group of heresies which repeatedly come to attack this materialism, called Gnosticism. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you would have come across it in some form or other. The Church has had to fight this all through its life. The name, which came about much later, is rooted in the idea of gnosis, or knowledge as the source of salvation. Gnosticism is complex and takes different forms. One of its core tenets, however, is that spirit is good, while matter is evil.
This heresy is taught even by some Catholic religious. The Franciscan priest and popular writer, Fr Richard Rohr immediately comes to mind (see a good critique here). Jesus, in this heresy, was simply most aware of being God himself. We can be the same; we can achieve it through meditation or other esoteric means. The bodily suffering and death of Christ, so important for the gospel writers, does nothing for such theology because there is nothing from which we need be saved. We don’t need any confession of sins or freedom from them, or the actual practice of loving our neighbour; all of it will change when we realise who we truly are – we are enlightened.
We live in a culture which is completely conducive to the flourishing of this heresy.In the West, the mind is valued at the expense of, or even in opposition to the body. We spend more time in the online world, rather than the embodied, real world. All this contribute to how we understand our own embodiedness. There are darker consequences. We live in a culture saturated by pornography. It’s directly correlated to the devaluation of the body. We might not view such material (please God!), but what passes for a lot of mainstream viewing today would have been unacceptable, even a decade ago. Game of Thrones, anyone? When we are bombarded by such images, we lose respect for the body. And steeped in this gnostic culture, it is very difficult, even for faithful Catholics to come for one hour on Sunday and believe that this consecrated bread, the body of Jesus can actually save us.
But we are not spirits living in a body, you are somebody. It is also not unrelated to the explosion of the gender problems we are faced with today, as we forget more and more what it means to be embodied. We believe in the resurrection of the body. This body and its problems will not be done away with, this body will be transformed, raised and glorified. This is great news! And the even more amazing news is that this transformation happens right here, in the Eucharist on Sunday. The Mass is the place where the daily ‘stuff’ of our lives – the good, bad and ugly – can all be taken up, and transformed into something beautiful. But for that, we need to be present, with our joys, fears, brokenness and sins to give them to Christ at the Eucharist. The bread then is a symbol – of our lives – which is offered on the altar. Bread represents the most basic of foods we need to survive. It is also the most common of foods, being found across time, with rich and poor alike. We are called to bring to the altar, all of our lives, lived in the real world. Here, is Calvary. This is what is transubstantiated, changed in its very substance, to become truly, the Body of the Risen Christ. The power of sin in our lives, is broken by the sacrifice of Christ at Calvary. As the great theologian of the early Church, Tertullian put it, the flesh is the hinge on which our salvation turns.
In sharing Christ’s flesh that we find salvation. This is not something we can receive of, online – notwithstanding the great gift Mass on TV has been, at this time. The answer to our bodily suffering is not a rejection of the body, but a transformation of the body. When we receive the Eucharist, Jesus comes to us, bodily, to be with us, in the very ‘stuff’ of our lives. For that we need to be present first and foremost to ourselves. We can be bodily present but elsewhere and not fully meet Christ, who comes to us, in the present. But when we come, humbly, with everything that we are, knowing that only Christ’s sacrifice can save us, our lives begin to be changed. The new life of the Resurrection, begins here, already. Our circumstances might remain, but we are changed as Christ comes to us, in his glorified humanity, with the power of His Spirit. We are not alone. This is Love. This is Hope. And with Christ always with us, there is joy, as we await the final resurrection of our body.