7th Sunday of Easter – Being Christ’s Real Presence

Stained glass window in the Cenacle (Upper Room)
Cenacle Window 2, Onceinawhile (CC BY-SA 4.0)

When [the apostles] entered the city
they went to the upper room where they were staying.[…]
All these devoted themselves with one accord to prayer,
together with some women,
and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
(Acts 1:13–14)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Church Fathers
Seventh Sunday of Easter
St. Augustine
May 21, 2023

The weekly commentaries after Easter have examined the Eucharistic writings of some of the greatest theologians of the early church whom we now call the Fathers. The Chuch Fathers are always worth reading but especially during the “Year of the Eucharist”. As we have seen, the Fathers have offered wonderful insights and I must admit regret that very few of the copious materials prepared for the “Year of the Eucharist” have included their wisdom. A notable exception is Cardinal Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark. The central section of His Pastoral letter on the Eucharist “Returning to Grace” is on St. Augustine, the most brilliant of the all the Fathers and the one to whom we now turn:

St Augustine (354-430 AD) is so complex a figure that providing even a superficial biography would be impossible for our present purposes. Most simply, he was a man of his time and place and wished to address contemporary questions. As we have seen, one of them was the consequences of being bodily creatures. Christians held the Jewish view that we did not have a body, we were our bodies. They are good, that the fullness of the Kingdom would be bodily, and we were not just ghosts in a machine.

All our authors offered an understanding of its reality and importance but I find Augustine the most profound. He saw the whole created world as a sacrament. We of a certain age will remember the old definition from the Baltimore Catechism: “A sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace”. (Question 574) The seven sacraments of the church are the clearest example of this, but everything communicates the reality of God and can ultimately only be understood with this relationship.

The Eucharist of all the sacraments connects us most intimately with God. For Augustine this is because it is a sacrifice. A sacrifice is an offering that creates or maintains a covenant. Therefore, a sacrifice forms our relationship with God and our neighbor. For Augustine, a sacrifice is “any action directed to that final Good which makes possible our true felicity”. (The City of God 10.6)

In the Eucharist “it is shown to the Church that she herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God”. (City of God: 10.6) This is because “the Church, being the body of which he is the head, learns to offer itself through him”. (Civ. Dei 10.20) When Jesus offers himself on the cross, he offers us with him and as the bread and wine are changed into Jesus so are we and “where it is shown to the Church that she herself is offered in the offering which she presents to God” (City of God 10.6). Augustine says plainly that “this is what he even made us ourselves into as well” (Sermon. 229.1) and more bluntly “so that by being digested into his body and turned into his members we may be what we receive”. (Sermon 57.7) Augustine realized that unless we see our lives as sacrificial, we will not understand why the world is sacramental and the Eucharist is essential.

Cardinal Tobin chooses one letter of St. Augustine that is particularly relevant. (Sermon 272) He lets Augustine speak for himself.

How can bread be His Body? And the cup, or what the cup contains, how can it be His Blood?

The reason these things, brethren, are called Sacraments is that in them one thing is seen, another is to be understood. What can be seen has a bodily appearance, what is to be understood provides spiritual fruit.

So, if you want to understand the Body of Christ, listen to the Apostle [Paul] telling the faithful: You are the Body of Christ and its members.

So if it’s you that are the Body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery, meaning you, that has been placed on the table of the Lord; what you receive is the mystery that means you.

It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent.

Cardinal Tobin does however place one section in bold:

What you hear, then, is The Body of Christ, and you answer, Amen. So be a member of the Body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true.

And then provides a brief overall commentary:

What we receive when we receive Holy Communion is the same “Body of Christ” that St. Paul tells us we are. When we say “Amen,” we are committing to truly reflect the presence of our Lord in our daily lives and to share Him with everyone we encounter. In other words, when we receive the Eucharist, we receive Christ and agree to be Christ with and for others.

(Returning to Grace, page 5)

We say Amen not only to proclaim that we believe here and now that the bread and wine are the body of Christ but that we pledge ourselves to work for the good of others, particularly the poor and marginalized. Visiting the sick, volunteering in a food pantry, or tutoring a numerically challenged student are as real and true a fruit of the Eucharist as the most profound pious emotion.

My own favorite Eucharistic homily of St. Augustine provides a different nuance (Sermon 227)

That bread which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That cup, or rather what the cup contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ. It was by means of these things that the Lord Christ wished to present us with his body and blood, which he shed for our sake for the forgiveness of sins.

He clearly states that the bread and wine are changed but note that it is for our sake.

If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive. You see, the apostle says, We, being many, are one loaf, one body (1 Cor 10:17).

St. Augustine connected the Body of Christ that is the Eucharist with the Body of Christ that is the Church. He did so to emphasize the unity of mind and heart which members of the Church needed to show If they were to act in this name:

That’s how he explained the sacrament of the Lord’s table; one loaf, one body, is what we all are, many though we be.

Augustine was as we said a man of his time and place. There were many divisions in the Church some personal, some theological. He saw that the Church would never be what she needed to be if they continued and so he felt the need for unity in his very bones. In another homily he said: “in order not to be scattered and separated, eat what binds you together” (Sermon 228)

He knows that Jesus is really present in the Eucharist but that the Eucharist’s ultimate meaning is the unity of the whole body of Christ and our incorporation into it. The body of Christ which we receive transforms the Church into Christ’s real presence in the world.

(Although I will be at St. Charles a few weeks longer, I will end these reflections today as Augustine, as so often in my life, expresses my own thoughts, beliefs, and feelings better than I can.)