Christopher Smith draws on some thoughts of E. L. Mascall as we celebrate Corpus Christi
Why do you go to mass? What is it that draws you to the altar of God? What do you think you are doing when you receive what the priest tells you is the Body of Christ, and the Blood of Christ? What has gone on in the interval in time between the beginning of mass and the moment of your coming to the altar rail?
Some of these are personal questions, and some are questions of the whole Church, and we have always had a slight problem as a church of the Reformation in that the two types of question tend to become confused. For some Christians, questions about the Eucharist have become so personalized that a kind of self-centred spirituality has taken the place of an act of worship by and on behalf of the whole Church. ‘My moment with Jesus’ is only a short step from believing that the mass is something that I do for the Lord, rather than something he does for us.
Of course, what Jesus does for us is entirely bound up with the sacrifice of the Cross, and it is important to remember that, although the Eucharist is unique among the sacraments in that we can offer it for someone else, apply it to an intention outside ourselves, the sacrifice itself is the same every time, because it is the sacrifice of the Lord himself. And what we receive when we come to the altar is not the lifeless body of a newly re-executed man, but the living and ascended Saviour, fully present in his human-ness and in his God-ness, his humanity and his divinity.
When our Jewish forefathers used the term ‘flesh and blood’, or ‘body and blood’, they were describing something that nowadays we might call the ‘whole person’ rather than merely the physical stuff. A familiar example for us might be when the Lord said to Simon Peter, ‘Flesh and blood hath not revealed this unto thee, but my Father in heaven’: in other words, ‘No human agency has revealed this to you’. And St Paul says to the Galatians at one point, ‘I conferred not with flesh and blood’ (Gal. 1.16) before embarking on his apostolic work. That’s often nowadays translated as something like, ‘I didn’t consult any human being…’.
In other words, when we talk about the Body and Blood of Christ in a sacramental context, we are not talking about mere bone and tissue, and mere plasma and blood cells. We really mean the whole person of Jesus, who is human in his flesh, blood and soul, and divine in his one substance with the Father. Indeed, Jesus is very explicit about this in St John’s gospel, where he says not only ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him’ (6.56), but also ‘he who eats me shall live because of me’ (6.58). As Eric Mascall says,
‘Here he is quite clearly not telling his disciples that they must enter into a spiritual relation with him by faith… What he is saying is that they, as living men of flesh and blood, must feed upon him who is a living man of flesh and blood… If this phrase sounds shocking, it is relevant to observe that our Lord’s own words shocked his hearers; but he was not prepared to mitigate their force, even when many of his disciples went back and walked no more with him.’ (Corpus Christi, p.115)
And of course, if our consuming the Body and Blood of Christ really means consuming the whole, risen and ascended, Jesus, then we must also bear in mind that it must have an effect on us in our entirety. The effect of the Sacrament is not merely ‘spiritual’ – its work is not confined to our personal spirituality – but (if you will forgive my use of a word I don’t really like) holistic. It works not just on part of us, or even on the sum of our parts, but on the whole of us, without condition or qualification.
In all this, we can understand why the charge of cannibalism was laid at the door of the early Christians. Clearly, even some of those original hearers of Jesus at Capernaum thought that he was proposing to give his followers pieces of the body they could see as he went about among them. But it is, of course, the risen and ascended Lord – Jesus as he is now – whom we receive under the sacramental signs. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not, therefore, dependent on size or quantity. We don’t pretend that there is ‘more Jesus’ in a large host than a small one, or a full chalice rather than a half-filled one: ‘Christ is whole to all that taste’, as St Thomas said in the hymn. So we can see that Christ, the whole Christ, ‘is present in an altogether different way [in the Eucharist] from the way in which substances are ordinarily present in space’:1 but we know that from using our common sense!
We also know it because it is implied in that familiar story of the feeding of the five thousand. If Jesus is not limited by time and space in the way he comes to us, neither is he limited by our human understanding of his abundance. And he gives us a glimpse of the reality of that abundance, as five thousand and more are fed by five loaves and two fish. Those first followers of Jesus are given a glimpse of the heavenly banquet, at which all those who seek him can be fed. How privileged we are to be able to give honour to our Saviour in the abiding memorial he has left us of himself – his whole self – until the end of time.
Fr Christopher Smith is the Vicar of St Alban the Martyr, Holborn, and a member of the General Synod.