Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Week: The Body of Christ

I'm not sure there's a more fitting time to reflect on the Church as the Body of Christ, as specifically that day in Holy Week that commemorates the body of Christ broken for us.

Instead of my usual essay-length reflection on a single theme, I want to reflect briefly on multiple themes that are drawn from this single image.

The Body of Christ is Eucharistic. This is the heart of the sacrament, the essence of our communion. "Take, eat; this is My body" (Matthew 26:26). When we eat of the bread and the wine, we partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

It is for this reason that Romans 8:1 speaks of "those who are in Christ Jesus" and Romans 8:29 states that "those whom [God] foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn of many brethren." It is for this reason that 2 Peter 1:4 calls us to "become partakers of the divine nature." It is for this reason that Catholics speak of divine filiation -- our divine sonship -- and the Orthodox speak of deification and theosis -- literally "becoming God."

The sacrament of Eucharist is the centerpiece of our Christian identity: it defines us as a Church and as followers of Christ. Every other meaning and attribute given below flows from this central point.

The Body of Christ is empowered by the Holy Spirit. At the inauguration of His public ministry, Jesus was baptized by his cousin John. At this point, Scripture records that "while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Hi in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, "You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased" (Luke 3:21-22). In the same way, Catholics celebrate the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, Protestants celebrate the conversion experience of being "born again," and certain Pentecostals and charismatics elevate "speaking in tongues" (glossolalia) and "baptism in the Holy Spirit." There is a profound connection within the Church connecting the Body of Christ with the "soul" of the Holy Spirit.

The Body of Christ is invisible. We assert this at a Christological level in the doctrine of the Ascension. We also find in Scripture references to "vast cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) that demonstrate that the Church is comprised not merely of the Church Militant -- we who fight and persevere on this Earth -- but also the Church Triumphant that has entered eternal life. Even in the Eucharist, we bear witness to the "marriage supper of the Lamb" (Revelation 19:9) that unites all the saints, both the quick and the dead.

The Body of Christ is begotten of God. Jesus Christ was set apart from birth, born blameless and holy before God. To repeat a point from a previous note, this is why Catholics insist on the Immaculate Conception of Mary. She is preserved from the stain of original sin and is perfected by faith so that Jesus might inherit a perfect and fully human nature Himself. As far as this applies to the Church, we assert that the Body of Christ is spotless and without fault. The Church is clothed only in the righteous deeds of the saints (Revelation 19:8): our failures do not diminish it.

The Body of Christ is visible. As a purely historical matter, Christianity asserts the fact of the Incarnation. From an eschatological point of view, Christianity asserts that Creation will be restored: that we will enjoy eternal life in the New Earth. This principle, that the Church is essentially visible, may strike Protestants as a particularly Catholic notion. But even Protestants accept that the Church is defined in the visible communities of believers that abide by the Gospel. "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst" (Matthew 18:20).

In my opinion, Protestants tend to be fairly gnostic in this regard, though perhaps 'Neoplatonic' is the better word. We prefer the glorified Body ascended into heaven over the incarnate Body that is torn all to hell, as it were. We prefer an invisible Church, if only because the visible Church is such a mess. It is for the same reason that Protestants use crosses instead of crucifixes -- we emphasize the Resurrection over the Passion, and therefore point to the empty cross

Recently Pope Benedict issued a statement in which he referred to Protestants as "ecclesial communities" rather than a full "sister Church." Some Protestants take offense at the perceived slight, but I wonder if this isn't exactly what Protestants have defined themselves as being. Isn't this why so many Protestants go "church shopping"?  We don't consider the Church to be intrinsically visible, and must therefore search for a visible community in which to ground ourselves. Ironically, it is the Catholic emphasis on the invisible Church that lets us move beyond 'church shopping,' for we will readily endure horrid music, botched liturgies, and tedious homilies in order to celebrate Mass with the Church Triumphant.

There are a number of other elements and attributes that I might also cover, that are more explicitly salvific: for instance, the Body of Christ as both suffering and resurrected. However, I want to keep the discussion of Catholic views on salvation and atonement for a later series of posts.

May God bless this Maundy Thursday and the rest of your Holy Week.

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