(from a talk I gave at the 1997 St. Benedict Center Conference)
I will begin this talk with a basic question, but a question I’m afraid most of us don’t think enough about: What was the purpose of the Incarnation? Strange question, is it not, since what we are talking about is not only the focal point of all human history, but the central mystery of our Faith? Let a Father and Doctor of the Church answer it: St. Athanasius tells us that God became man so that we might become deified, that is, made gods. Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, eternally begotten of the Father became man so that He could share a nature with us, and by that nature, lift us up to the Divine. Said another way, the Son of God became a son of Adam so that the sons of Adam might become the sons of God.
How was this union with the Second Person — this sharing in his Sacred Humanity and His Divinity to be effected? If we could synthesize the voice of the Fathers into modern techno-speech, we could say that the Incarnation is an interface between the Divinity and Humanity, like a computer interface which allows two dissimilar machines to communicate with each other. An interface has elements common to both machines and unites them in itself forming a bridge of communication. And in the Incarnation, Jesus unites two Natures into one Divine Person, so that a communication — or, better said, a communion, can be established between them. But this does not answer our question: How is the divinity united to Humanity — or more properly, to individual human persons? The answer is in the title of my speech: the union we have with Jesus in the Mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church.
Errors Regarding the Doctrine
Before I continue, I would like to introduce one of my sources for this speech: The Encyclical Letter of Pope Pius XII, Mystici Corporis. Promulgated on the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul in 1943, this letter was the first of Pius XII’s five major encyclicals, and will probably live on as his greatest accomplishment. The encyclical dealt with the doctrine of the Mystical Body and certain errors which were then being spread regarding the doctrine. These errors are reduced to three: First is a false mysticism leading to pantheism; second, an obscuring of the visibility of the Church; and third, an unhealthy quietism. For the next few minutes, I would like to talk about these errors, since they are still very much with us, and very much at the center of all of the problems in modern ecclesiology. Indeed, this science, Ecclesiology — the study of the Church, is the one science most under attack in this latter age of the Church’s history, as St. Robert Bellarmine attests.
The first of the heretical tendencies condemned by Pius was a “false mysticism leading to pantheism.” The Pope calls this tendency an “attempt to eliminate the immovable frontier that separates creatures from their Creator, [and which] falsifies the Sacred Scriptures.” What he means by this is the thought that, since we are united in Christ, we become Christ, not merely by adoption, but by identity. In other words, the faithful are so united to Christ that all of His perfections become theirs, and all of their imperfections become His. The faithful loose their identity and become one collective mass joined to Christ in a far too literal sense. It’s a form of spiritual communism which, carried to its logical end, makes man to be God, and God to be less than the omnipotent Creator of heaven and earth.
The second heretical tendency is an obscuring of the visibility of the Church. It has been a constant temptation throughout the history of Christianity to deny the visibility of the Church. In the early centuries, the various Gnostic sects, all of which had disdain for the material world, and therefore, whatever was perceptible to the senses, denied the visibility of the Church. After all, since (as they held) all matter is evil, and only the spiritual order can lead to the good god, we cannot trust or put faith in something as material and sensate as an organized and visibly perceptible Church. They were the ancient equivalent of those today who say, “I don’t believe in organized religion.”
The Gnostic seduction has been ever present with the Church in some form or another through the years, and has surfaced several times in the form of new and more perverse heresies. Today’s New-Age movement is but one more manifestation of the pagan gnosis attacking the Church.
But not since ancient times, has Gnosticism succeeded in being an organized, systematic, and persevering threat to the Church. In the Protestant Revolt, the devil succeeded in authoring a new religion — clothing itself in more Christian dress than the naked paganism of the Gnostics — and having as one of its primary tasks, the destruction of the Church’s visibility.
Nearly to a man the Protestant Reformers denied the necessity of the visibility of the Church. Of course, they had to, since their form of Christianity hadn’t ever been seen before. It was a convenient theology, but one in stark contrast to that of the true Church’s Founder, who likened His society to a “city seated on a mountain” which “cannot be hid.” Along with “sola scriptura,” and “sola fides” the “invisible Church” doctrine is one of the most consistent Protestant dogmas there is, being common to every major Protestant sect.
Since the Revolt of Luther, the visibility of the Church has been ruthlessly attacked, but in the modern age, Protestantism has found powerful and willing allies in this battle against the Church’s visibility: namely, philosophical rationalism, and its theological offspring: Modernism.
The third in the list of Pius’ errors is “unhealthy quietism.” The pontiff explains it as “the dangerous error of those who, from the mysterious union of all of us with Christ, try to deduce a certain unhealthy quietism by which the whole spiritual life of Christians and their progress in virtue are solely attributed to the action of the divine Spirit, excluding and setting aside our due cooperation.” As can be garnered from the pope’s words, quietism is a heresy which reduces the role of the will to being purely passive, undermining the necessity for any spiritual activity on the part of the will. Quietists refer to the state of “repose” or quietude that is achieved by a truly holy person. The heresy bears great resemblance to Hinduism, Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation. Probably having such pagan pantheistic origins (just as the “false mysticism” condemned in the first point), quietism became a Catholic heresy in the seventeenth century teaching of Molinos and Petrucci, and later evolved into the less radical form known as semi-quietism and advanced by Fénelon and Madame Guyon. In both of these forms it was condemned by the Magisterium.
All of these heretical currents swirled about in the period between the two world wars, as theological delving into the doctrine of the Mystical Body piqued the interest of both orthodox and heterodox writers. As the American Jesuit Father J.J. Bluett wrote in 1942, “Between 1920 and 1925, the quantity of literature on the argument amounted to the total produced over the previous 20 years. Between 1925 and 1930, this production doubled. During the following five years, we can see a five-fold increase over all that was written in the corresponding period of the decade before. The apex of this acceleration was reached in 1937. After that, material continued to grow but now at a much more moderate pace.”
One example of the heterodox works of the time is a volume published in 1939 by a German Parish priest named Karl Pelz: The Christian as Christ. In it, he dared to equate the union of Christ and the faithful to Eucharistic transubstantiation. In doing so, he brought to absurd limits the false mysticism that was to be condemned four years later.
On the positive side, the orthodox Belgian Jesuit, Father Emile Mersch wrote several works, among them, the weighty volumes, The Whole Christ and The Theology of the Mystical Body (written in 1933 and 1940 respectively). These works are among my sources for this presentation.
Something had to be done about the chaos that attacked the Church during this time. Conscientious clerics made noise about it. At least one, the German prelate Conrad Groeber petitioned Rome to settle the issue. Archbishop Groeber is probably best known to English speakers as the author of the book Athanasius and the Church of our Time. The same year that Groeber petitioned Pius XII, Mystici Corporis was promulgated.
This is all we will say regarding the history of Mystici Corporis.
So far, I have been explaining this doctrine negatively, that is, stating what is error, and therefore what is to be avoided. From this point forward, I would like to explain the doctrine positively, first explaining my terms correctly, then applying the doctrine to three important mysteries of our Faith: the dogma of Faith extra ecclesiam nulla salus, the doctrine of our Lady’s Spiritual Maternity, and the Holy Eucharist.
First, a few technical points on our terminology: What do we mean by “mystical body”? Obviously we aren’t talking about a physical body, though the physical body is what lends us the image we use in so many expressions of the dogma. The Mystical Body of Christ is distinct from the physical Body of Christ that was born of the Blessed Virgin, “suffered, died, and was buried,” rose again, and is now glorified in heaven and made present on our altars at Mass. No, we are not talking about that Body, though, as we will see, the two are really related. We are using the word “body” in a different sense. “A group of individuals regarded as a single entity” is a fair enough definition for the word “body” as we are using it. In this sense, a body can be any grouping of individuals with some common end, like a state, a political party, or a special interest group.
A political state is called a “moral body.” Unlike a physical body, a moral body has no other principle of unity than a common end, an end, we might add, strictly in the natural order. But the principle of the unity of the Church is something of the supernatural order, and is nothing less than the Spirit of God Himself. Therefore, over and above a moral body, the Church is called a “Mystical Body.”
Concerning the word, “mystical,” we must issue a warning. If it’s not redundant to say, there is a certain mystique about the word “mystical.” Unfortunately, this mystique easily reduces itself to the errors we spoke of above; therefore, the word mystical has a place of prominence in the new ager’s vocabulary. Father Mersch also warns us that the word, “is by no means synonymous with ‘nebulous’ or ‘semi-real’”
The American Heritage Dictionary defines “mystical” as follows: “Of or having a spiritual reality or import not apparent to the intelligence or senses.” This definition will do nicely for our purposes.
Historically, the phrase “Mystical Body of Christ” did not come into wide use until the early Middle Ages. The scholastics used the term Corpus Christi mysticum as an appellation for the Church as distinguished from the Corpus Christi verum (the true Body of Christ), which is the historical and sacramental Body of Jesus.
But long before the use of this term, the theology of the Church as the “Body of Christ” was in existence. It is found in Holy Scripture. Old Testament prophesies point to it, but it isn’t until the New Testament, when the Incarnation is revealed, that it appears in its clarity. It is to be found all throughout the New Testament, especially in the Gospels (particularly that of St. John) and in the epistles of St. Paul. The Church Fathers of the East and West developed its theology in their various schools and passed on the doctrine to future ages.
The Image of “Body of Christ,” of Jesus as our Head and the faithful His members permeates the writings of St. Paul. This is no small wonder, since it is no exaggeration to say that the Apostle was converted by this doctrine. On the road to Damascus, Saul the Pharisaical Jew, was knocked off of his horse and heard the terrible words “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” To Paul’s question “Who art thou Lord?” The voice thundered “I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest.” (Acts 22:7-8) But Saul of Tarsus never even set eyes on the historical Jesus, who had long since ascended to His Father, when the Pharisee, filled with false zeal for the traditions of his fathers ravaged the Church. How then could Jesus accuse Saul of persecuting Him? The question has an obvious answer: Paul was persecuting the Church, and in so doing he persecuted Christ Himself.
This lightening bolt revelation from God shook Paul to his marrow, and was to affect the Apostle’s teaching on Christ and the Church in his later preaching and writing. Paul calls this union by the singular title of “the mystery.” In his Epistle to the Ephesians, he says that it had been given to him, “the least of the saints,” to make clear “the mystery which from ages hath been hidden in God the Creator of all.” (3:9) According to Père Prat, this Mystery is the plan to save all men without distinction of race by identifying them all with His well-beloved Son in the unity of the Mystical Body. (Mersch 190) St. Paul expresses the Mystery in various ways, calling the Church the “Body of Christ,” the faithful the “members of Christ,” and Christ Himself our “head.” One of his most common expressions of the mystery is the simple prepositional phrase “in Christ,” which occurs 164 times in his 14 canonical epistles. He even takes liberties with the Greek language to express the mystery of our union with Christ. According to Paul, the faithful have “died-with” Christ. Similarly, we are “crucified-with” and “buried-with” Him. We will “live-with” and “reign-with” Him. Interestingly, each of these verbal phrases ending in the word “with” forms one word in the Greek original.
Some of the most difficult passages in St. Paul are rendered less so as long as the reader keeps in mind his obsession with this doctrine of the Mystical Body. It is speculated that St. Paul would have written almost exclusively of this mystery in his writings, had not pastoral concerns prevented him from doing so. But even then, when problems arise in the various local churches, their Apostle takes this occasion to exhort them to unity “in Christ,” thus applying very elevated theological concepts to concrete situations and laying the only sound foundation for Charity toward one’s neighbor. I will close this little section on St. Paul by citing one of these pastoral exhortations toward unity in which the Apostle uses the Mystical Body doctrine to teach a lesson in Christian Charity. In his first epistle to them, St. Paul tells the Corinthians the following:
“Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing and that there be no schisms among you: but that you be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment.
“For it hath been signified unto me, my brethren, of you, by them that are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.
“Now this I say, that every one of you saith: I indeed am of Paul; and I am of Apollo; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ.
“Is Christ divided? Was Paul then crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:10-13)
Our doctrine of mystical union in Christ could scarce be better expressed than it is in this terse, yet passionate rhetorical question of St. Paul, which isn’t discussing the Second Person of the Trinity in Himself, but refers to the Church: “Is Christ divided?”
I have spent so long on St. Paul that I will now leave Scripture and head to the Fathers, but not without giving a little hint of what is contained in the sublime revelations of the Beloved Disciple, St. John.
Soaring as he does, to great spiritual heights, the Eagle of the Evangelists relates to us those most stunning figures of our union with Christ which were uttered by the Savior Himself: “I am the vine: you the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.” (15:5) Further, it is through St. John that Christ asserts to us the Eucharistic bond of the Mystical Body: “He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me: and I in him.” We will dwell more on this subject of the Eucharist later.
The Earliest Fathers of the Church used the image of the Body of Christ to express the unity of the Church during its early trials. St. Clement of Rome, St. Polycarp, St. Ignatius of Antioch and the Didache all insist on this unity, in similar terms to the pastoral exhortations of St. Paul.
Polycarp’s disciple, St. Irenaeus, developed the teaching into a beautifully systematic theology of the Church. In his Adversus Haereses, he challenges the Gnostic heretics with a teaching he himself insists is Apostolic in origin, a teaching which practically unites all branches of theology into the Mystical Body. St. Irenaeus calls it the “recapitulation.” All things are recapitulated in Christ. All human history, from Adam to his last son are “recapitulated” in Christ so that what went wrong in Adam will be made right in the Second Adam.
While this “recapitulation” is too complex to outline here, let me cite one passage from the Saint which contains the whole teaching in seminal form. Here is the passage: “God willed to be born, to be with us, to descend into the lower regions of the earth in order to find the lost sheep that is His own creature; He willed to ascend into heaven, to present to the Father this man that He had found, and to offer in Himself the first-fruits of man’s resurrection. As the Head is risen from the dead, so the rest of the body of every man will rise again when the penalty of disobedience shall have been paid. This body will be united again by joints and sinews; it will be strengthened by a divine growth, and each member will have his own proper place in the body. There are many mansions in the Father’s house, since there are many members in the body.”
Although we are only up to circa 200 in the historical unfolding of the theology of the Mystical Body, I will stop here and proceed, as promised, to apply the doctrine to the three articles of Faith referred to above.
The Mystical Body and Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus
First, the dogma extra ecclesiam nulla salus. I begin here not just because this happens to be the core of our doctrinal Crusade, but because it is a logical, foundation starting point. If Jesus means “Savior,” and His mission was to save us; and if the union of the Mystical Body is the only true union we can have with Jesus, and further, if the Church IS the Mystical Body, then affirming “outside the Church there is no salvation” is the same as affirming “outside the Mystical Body there is no salvation.” Moreover, both of these statements are affirmations of the most obvious fact in the Bible: there is no salvation outside of Jesus!
Extra ecclesiam nulla salus is, then, a paraphrase of various utterances of our Lord: “Without me you can do nothing.” “No man hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.” “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “Unless you believe that I am he, you will die in your sins.” “No man cometh to the Father, but by me.” Who can hear these words knowing that the Church is the “Mystical Christ” and allow other ways of salvation?
There is nothing at all arbitrary about the exclusive claim the Catholic Church has when it comes to salvation. Comparing the love of a husband for his wife, St. Paul tells men “love your wives, as Christ also loved the church and delivered himself up for it…” What more can we say of the Church than what St. Paul said, “Christ delivered himself up for it.” Like the divine lover He is, Jesus dies for his beloved. And if he is a lover, Christ is a chaste lover; therefore his beloved is only one, as the Canticle of Canticles says. No human institution can claim His affections.
But still there are those who, hearing the teaching on salvation, will see little more than one institution among many claiming for itself a monopoly on heaven. These people have probably never noticed that among the articles of the Apostles Creed is placed “I believe in one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church…” This article of Faith isn’t astonishing until you realize what company it’s in. Faith in the Church is placed alongside Faith in the Omnipotent Trinity, the Incarnation, and Everlasting Life! Any Catholic who thinks our claim on salvation is arbitrary or rash should ask himself why the Apostles chose to place “I believe in the Catholic Church” right up there with “I believe in God.”
The Popes have taught us that the doctrine extra ecclesiam nulla salus is a corollary of that of the Mystical Body. Here is one pope: Beginning with a passage from the Canticle of Canticles, he says, “‘My dove, my undefiled is but one, she is the choice one of her that bore her’; which represents one mystical body, of which body the head is Christ, but of Christ, God.” The Pope is Boniface VIII speaking in Unam Sanctam. In the very same sentence (it’s a long sentence) he says “there is one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, outside of which there is neither salvation nor remission of sins.”
Similarly, after saying “One indeed is the universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved,” Pope Innocent III says “…the priest himself is the sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the species of bread and wine; the bread (changed) into His body by the divine power of transubstantiation, and the wine into the blood, so that to accomplish the mystery of unity we ourselves receive from His (nature) what He Himself received from ours.”
We should all see in this text a clear expression of the doctrine of the Mystical Body; for this teaching is the union that the pope describes of God and man through the sacred Humanity of our Lord. The importance of the Sacrifice of the Mass and Holy Communion is also included here by Pope Innocent to show us the sacramental bond that holds together the Church. As Mystici Corporis states: “…[I]n the Holy Eucharist the faithful are nourished and strengthened at the same banquet and by a divine, ineffable bond are united with each other and with the Divine Head of the whole Body.”
The sacramental unity of the Church is fully realized in the Eucharist, but no one can enter into the sacramental economy in the first place except by Baptism. Logically then, there is other entrance into the Mystical Body but the sacrament of Baptism. This is affirmed by Pope Pius XII in Mystici Corporis, when he says our Lord willed that “through Baptism those who should believe would be incorporated in the Body of the Church.” According to Pius, “only those are to be included as members of the Church who have been baptized and profess the true faith.” To these two requirements, he further adds that of adherence to the rule of the Roman Pontiff.
I quoted the words of our Lord above, which read “No man hath ascended into heaven, but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.” I argue, with St. Augustine, that this Christ who ascends into heaven is the Mystical Body of Christ or, as the Doctor puts it, the “Whole Christ,” the Catholic Church. For if no individual person but Christ goes to heaven, we are all lost. Interestingly, our Lord spoke these words to Nicodemus. In the very same dialogue He uttered the terms of entrance into the Mystical Body, which is also a Kingdom: “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
The Mystical Body and Our Lady’s Spiritual Maternity
Next we come to our Lady’s role in the Mystical Body. She is our spiritual Mother. The beautiful, Incarnational, way in which she became the Mother of God, also makes us her Children. In eternity, Jesus had no mother and in time he had no father, but in time he had a Mother, and by our incorporation into His Mystical Body, she becomes our mother. The Mother of the Physical Body of Jesus is also the Mother of the Mystical Body of Jesus, therefore, our only title to call her “Mother” is our membership in Christ.
As a matter of fact, if our only claim to calling the Mother of Jesus our Mother is the fact that we are incorporated into the Mystical Body, isn’t it true that we cannot call the First Person of the Trinity “Father” but on the same terms? No human person has the right to call God “Father” but those who are united to his only begotten Son by Faith and Baptism. God has only one Son, and Jesus is in every way a Son, a child who is eternally begotten from His Father. Our sonship is adoptive, and it is not natural, as our Lord’s Sonship. Our sonship is supernatural, because it is above our nature.
Only as members of the Church, then, can we call God our Father. We find this idea expressed in a famous passage from the writings of St. Cyprian of Carthage: “He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.”
Mary’s Spiritual Maternity is also of the supernatural order. Naturally, our race has one common mother, Eve. According to Scripture, Eve’s name means “mother of all the living.” Supernaturally, our race has one common mother too: Mary, the Second Eve. Mary too is the “Mother of all the Living,” Mother of those living as branches on the vine of her Son, those living in the order of Grace. The great apostle of Mary, St. Louis Marie de Montfort expresses this truth beautifully in his True Devotion to Mary, which I quote here:
“‘This man and that man is born in her’ (Ps. 86:5), says the Royal Psalmist. According to the explanation of some of the Fathers, the first man that is born in Mary is the Man-God, Jesus Christ; the second is a mere man, the child of God and Mary by adoption. If Jesus Christ, the Head of men, is born in her, then the predestinate who are the members of the Head, ought also to be born in her, by a necessary consequence. One and the same mother does not bring forth into the world the head without the members, or the members without the head; for this would be a monster of nature. So in like manner, in the order of grace, the head and the members are born of one and the same mother; and if a member of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ — that is, one of the predestinate — were born of any other mother than Mary, who has produced the Head, he would not be one of the predestinate, nor a member of Jesus Christ, but simply a monster in the order of grace.”
God’s union with man was not possible without Mary. For all eternity, God knew that there would be only one peerless Virgin who was worthy to be His own Mother. If God Himself could not have broken the barrier into humanity without Mary’s cooperation, how can men possibly break the barrier into divinity without Her?
The Mystical Body and the Holy Eucharist
Breaking the barrier into the divinity. This is a good segue into my final point: The Eucharist in light of the Mystical Body. Here we have, to borrow St. Irenaeus’ word, a recapitulation of our own. We are returning to the theme on which we started. The point of the Incarnation was to make us gods, to bring us to the divinity. To do this, God became Flesh — flesh he took from the Virgin Mary. This Flesh He offered up on the Cross to his eternal Father for our sins and to purchase for us all the graces we would need to be saved. This same Flesh he offered to us as food, and as the principle of our divinization.
Reviewing the teachings of the Fathers on this subject, notably Sts. Cyprian, Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Alexandria, John Chrysostom and Augustine, I have found that they commonly quote St. Paul’s beautiful passage in 1 Corinthians (10:16-17):
“The chalice of benediction which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? And the bread we break, is it not the partaking of the body of the Lord? For we, being many, are one bread, one body: all that partake of one bread.” In a footnote to these verses, Father Challoner comments, “For it is by our communicating with Christ, and with [one] another, in this blessed sacrament, that we are formed one mystical body; and made, as it were, one bread, compounded of many grains of corn, closely united together.”
St. Augustine asks, “Why is this mystery accomplished with bread?” He answers himself. “Let us offer no reason of our own invention, but listen to the Apostle speak of this sacrament, ‘We are one bread, one body.’ Understand this and rejoice. Unity, truth, piety, charity. ‘One bread.’ What is this one bread? It is one body formed of many. Remember that bread is not made of one wheat; at baptism water was poured over you, as flour is mingled with water, and the Holy Spirit entered into you like the fire which bakes the bread. Be what you see, and receive what you are.
“… Thus did the Lord Christ manifest us in Himself. He willed that we should belong to Him, and he has consecrated on His altar the mystery of our peace and unity.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria, the heroic defender of our Lady’s Divine Maternity at the Council of Ephesus, had much to say about her Son’s mystical members too, and how we are “one body.” He says, “For if we all eat of the one bread we all become one body, since there can be no division in Christ. For this reason is the Church called the body of Christ, and we severally His members, according to the teaching of St. Paul. Since we are all united with the one Christ through His sacred body, and since we all receive Him who is one and indivisible into our own bodies, we ought to look upon our members as belonging to Him rather than to ourselves.”
In the Mass, there are some beautiful references to this union we have with our Lord in the Eucharist. One is at the offertory, just before the chalice is offered. As a sacrament, the Blood of our Lord “effects what is symbolizes.” Listen to how the Mass itself explains the symbolism of the water and wine:
“O God, Who, in creating human nature, didst wonderfully dignify it, and still more wonderfully restored it, grant that by the Mystery of this water and wine, we may be made partakers of His divinity, Who vouchsafed to be made partaker of our humanity, Jesus Christ, our Lord, Thy Son: Who with Thee, lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God: world without end. Amen.”
Although the mingling of the water and wine has multiple allegorical meanings, the text of the Latin Rite itself seems to emphasize this mystery more than the others. The interpretation is probably very ancient. In a passage in the writings of St. Irenaeus, the Ebionites are chastised for their use of water only in the Mass. He says, “These heretics reject the mixture of the heavenly wine; they wish only the water of this world, and do not receive the God who has come to unite Himself with them.” (The Ebionites were also known by the name Aquarii, since they had an idolatrous worship of water as the source of life.)
Here we see the saint likening the water with “this world” and the wine to “God who has come to unite Himself with them.” In refusing the wine, the Ebionites have invalidated their consecration and have failed to Eucharistically unite themselves with Christ. Prescinding from the particulars of the Ebionite Heresy, we can learn the following lesson from St. Irenaeus: Since the Sacrament “effects what it symbolizes,” this symbol of our humanity being mingled with Christ’s divinity in the chalice is not only a symbol, but a true effect of the Blessed Sacrament.
Also of liturgical significance to our mystery is the placement of the “Our Father” in the Mass. By placing the prayer roughly midway between the Consecration and communion, the Church shows us the Eucharistic nature of our claim to call God “Father.” I already explained how we have no right to call God “Father” but by our incorporation into Christ. While I don’t wish to repeat myself here, I would like to point out that this sonship achieves its summit in the Eucharist. Think of when the Our Father takes place. The priest has effected the Sacrifice. While the Victim lies on the Altar and the people are preparing to receive It, the priest says that prayer most associated with the idea of being sons of God.
Two thoughts come to mind while considering this prayer in our present context. The first is the priest’s introduction, which impresses upon us how truly supernatural the prayer is. “Admonished by salutary precepts, and following divine directions, we dare to say…” Then follows the Our Father. In introducing the prayer this way, the priest reminds us not to take for granted the unique and inestimable privilege we in the Church have of calling God our Father. The second thought is that the Our Father beautifully unites the concept of our divine adoption as sons with the Eucharist. After all, the daily Bread — or, as St. Matthew puts it, the supersubstantial Bread — for which we ask the Father is the Blessed Sacrament.
I would like to mention something about the Father Mersch to whom I have referred so much and to whom I owe these beautiful patristic citations. It seems that in him, heaven wished to teach us a great lesson on the connection of the Mystical Body and the Eucharist. Early on in his priesthood, Father Mersch resolved to dedicate his intellectual life to the study and teaching of the theology of the Mystical Body. His effort produced at least three works on the subject.
At the end of his career, he was assigned to a Jesuit house near the Louvain to take care of elderly and infirm priests. World War II was raging. On May 23, 1940, Father Mersch was informed that in the town of Lens, there were some civilians dying alongside the Douai highway. He rushed to bring the sacraments to these people, and was killed by one of the German bombardments. That year, May 23 was the Feast of Corpus Christi — The Feast of the Body of Christ.
Permit me to finish with the words of another great priest of this century, also a Jesuit, and who also suffered martyrdom exercising his priestly duties, although his was a “dry” martyrdom. This priest is the great Father Leonard Feeney:
“No other sacrament unites us with the human nature of Jesus in substance — with His Body and His Blood. Our union with the physical Body of a Divine Person is what makes us members of the Mystical Body of Christ. The Word of God, antecedent to becoming flesh, had no body at all. He should not be spoken of as having one. When the Word became flesh, He took a Body — from the substance of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That Body is not yet the Mystical Body. When He assimilated the bodies of other men into His own, through the Blessed Eucharist in Holy Communion, when He made these bodies His members and Himself their Head — made them His branches while He remained their Vine — then, and only then, as the fruit of this sublime communion of Body with body, Flesh with flesh, and Blood with blood, can we speak of the Mystical Body of Christ…”