Posted by: John B. Switzer, ObSB, PhD | June 1, 2015

The Body of Christ

thumbRNS-FACES-JESUS-139-426x640By my theological reckoning, there are three ways in which Christians speak of “the body of Christ.” Each is related to the others, but each is also distinct. The topic of Christ’s body has caused untold division throughout the church’s history, and that division is still to be seen when one surveys the multitude of communities and communions that make up contemporary Christianity. An appreciation of the distinctiveness of each way of speaking of Christ’s body would go a long way toward ending the divisions that divide Christians from one another.

1. The first way of speaking of Christ’s body actually serves as the foundation for the other two and is known as the Incarnation. In Christian understanding, God became human through the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As traditionally understood in the western Christianity, he is both fully divine and fully human. Using the language of the early christological councils, he is homoousios (consubstantial) with the Father in his divinity and homoousios with us in his humanity. To break down this confusing philosophical language just a bit, the point is that in the one person we encounter someone who is fully and completely divine while simultaneously being fully and completely human. He is not just God “in the flesh,” but God become flesh (incarnatus in Latin), a statement intended to mean that he is become fully human, like us in all things but sin. (Interestingly, you can see in the Latin word the root for the Spanish, Portugese, Italian and Romanian words for “meat,” carne.)

What we are speaking of in this case is, of course, the physical or natural body of Christ. To be human requires a physical body because humans are embedded in time and space. At any given moment we are locked in one particular place, at least physically. This is an expression of our finite nature. For instance, as I sit at the computer I often find my mind wandering back to my years of study in Rome, Italy. I’d like to return to Italy and plan to do so one day. But I cannot be there while also being here. My natural way of being human is limited by the reality of physics. I believe that this human fact of being finite and thus also being mortal (a limitation on the amount of time I can spend in the “here” and “now”) is the cause not only for much human anxiety but also the source for religion. And it is the nature of religion that it gives us the hope, perhaps even the expectation, that we can transcend the profound limits placed upon us as mortals.

2. A second way of addressing the topic is to be found in the Lord’s supper, also known as “holy communion” or eucharist (that latter term being derived from the Greek word for “thanksgiving” or “gratitude,” eukharistia). This is the sacred meal of Christianity, intended as a source of unity and fraternity. Here is was intended from the earliest times that Christians would commune not only with Christ, but with one another. Yet this sacrament has become the greatest of scandals due to the divisions among us related to our differing explanations of what is that we do when we gather for this event.

Here’s the eucharistic problem in a nutshell:  while all Christians agree that Christ is present at his supper with us, we disagree over the details of how that presence in accomplished, or how it should be explained. For some, these details have become an excuse to avoid the hard work of ecumenical dialogue. In addition, we often exaggerate the differences between us or misrepresent those differences (a common phenomenon from the eucharistic debates of the Reformation).

Whatever the eucharist is, and however we prefer to speak of it, the fact is that it’s a sacrament of transcendence. Christ whom we encounter there is the resurrected Christ. He is the same Christ who walked the Galilee, but he is not of the same condition as when he walked there. He has transcended all the finite limitations of his earthly, historical life. He now lives beyond mortality and beyond history. His presence in our eucharistic celebrations is as unlimited and as immortal as the fullness of his resurrected life. There is not even a way for humans to fully understand this reality, or to speak of it. Until we grasp this fact there is little hope of ecumenical advancement with regard to holy communion. We should be faithful to our own models of Christ’s eucharistic presence, but we must also realize that it’s a tragic error to lock his transcendence in the small boxes of our doctrinal understanding. No human conception of the divine can completely describe the divine.

3. In my opinion, the third manner of discussing Christ’s body is the most important because the first two were established in support of the third. And here is to be found the point of this blog post: the church is the body of Christ. It is the resurrected Christ who incorporates us as members of his body. It is Christ who continually strengthens and deepens that corporate identity with us through the eucharist. Speaking of the mystery that is eucharist, our focus should be upon what the eucharist accomplishes in us. Only during the second millennium did the focus change to emphasize how the church makes eucharist (rather than how eucharist makes the church).

This insight drives the requirement of ecumenical cooperation. None of us can be so parochial or insular that we fail to recognize the other parts of the body of Christ. St. Paul explicitly condemns this failure in 1 Corinthians 11:29. If we gather for eucharist but fail to recognize the body of Christ, he wrote, we gather for damnation. What was Paul saying to this community?

To understand his words to the Christians in Corinth, we must understand the situation of the community. Like many of our own churches today, the Corinthian church was composed of people of differing economic status. Eucharistic gatherings included the sharing of common food in a meal that was intended to bring them closer together in a bond of sacrificial charity (agape). Sadly, economic and social differences got in the way. The wealthier members of the community gathered earlier than the rest, empowered by their better economic situation to enjoy more leisure time, and to purchase food and wine of a higher quality.

Unable to complete their work until later in the day, the poorer Christians arrived to a celebration that was already in full swing. The inner rooms of the host’s home were already full, the best food and wine was being enjoyed by the rich, and the poor were left to their own devices in the outer rooms. If not explicitly rejected, they and their plight were certainly ignored by the wealthier Christians already filling their bellies and sipping wine. Paul insists that in this situation it was not the Lord’s supper being celebrated, but a private party where the poor were mostly overlooked and hungry while the wealthy were drunk (1 Corinthians 11:20-21).

Paul’s admonition to the wealthy was this: take note of the entire body … see the rest of the community! Eucharist enlivens, strengthens, and celebrates the fact that we are one body in Christ but we eat and drink a lie if our actions do not confirm this. If some Christians are ignored by others, how is the body recognized? How can it be built up? Paul’s particular point had to do with economic and social disparities, but his message rings true concerning other differences as well.

“So then, my brothers and sisters, when you gather to eat, you should all eat together” (1 Corinthians 11:33, NIV). This is the simple order given by Paul to the Corinthians. Wait until everyone is present, then share the food and wine together. In this way you will symbolize to the world what you already are in Christ.

Remember the old adage? “You are what you eat.” The early church could have coined that phrase. And although I have listed in this post three ways of speaking of Christ’s body, the fact is that they all represent parts of a unified whole. Christians are baptized into Christ’s body, made an intimate part of him, christened with holy oil and washed with holy water. We are “little christs” to the world, called to do as he did and to live as he lived. Christ acts upon the world through us. We are his hands. We are his feet. We are his heart, beating for the good of all. Christ is no longer in the world physically. His body is us. In eucharist he feeds, purifies, strengthens, perfects his body on the earth.

Perhaps it was said best by St. Augustine of Hippo. Pointing to the bread and wine upon the altar, he proclaimed: “Behold what you are. Become what you behold.” Amen.

The photograph on this post is by artist William Zdinak and is entitled “In His Image.” All rights are reserved to the artist. I believe Mr. Zdinak has beautifully captured in his portrait the mystery of the body of Christ.


  1. Thanks for a very interesting post. I have two observations. First – and this is just a minor point – you write that “[t]o be human requires a physical body because humans are embedded in time and space.” That’s the prevailing view (and I myself agree). However, not all philosophers/thinkers have thought so. The most obvious alternative is that we are fundamentally rational creatures (“thinking things”) who are only contingently embodied. On this view, it turns out that in this world, we are physical creatures, but there’s no reason why we always have to be embodied. Thinking does not obviously require a body, (obvious example: God) so in a future life we may not have one. (A Christian version of this view would be to identify us with our souls.)

    Again, that’s just a minor point. More interestingly, I observe that the first two ways of speaking of the body of Christ are non-metaphorical, while the third does seem to be metaphorical. I wonder if you could elaborate on this. I myself have always wondered what Christians mean when we say that we are (the church is) the body of Christ. What does it mean to say that Christ “incorporates us as members of his body?” What is this “corporate identity”?

    A comparison will help us to get a feel for my question. Obviously, Christians are all members of the same group (even if there are sometimes very cantankerous subdivisions within the group!). But the same thing is true of all the employees of a corporation or, say, a university. And yet we do not say that we are all members of “the body of Spring Hill College”! (Occasionally we do hear people speak of the “body of the faculty” at a university, but that’s clearly metaphorical language, and no one takes it in any deep or robust sense.) However, I suspect that Christians mean something more than mere group membership when they speak of being a part of the body of Christ.

    And… A further question. What happens when we, as members of the body of Christ, partake of the Eucharist? Clearly, reception of the Eucharist draws us into a more intimate relationship with Christ – and, I assume, with each other. But more specifically, what’s going on there?

    You know….just easy questions! 🙂

  2. John ~ Thanks for this. My seminary professor of some many years ago, Peter Fink, SJ, reminded us that when we talk about the “body” of Christ in the Eucharist, we need be very careful of what it is we are talking about. It is not the physical, fleshy, boney “body” but his resurrected that “has transcended all the finite limitations of his earthly, historical life. He now lives beyond mortality and beyond history.” It is a shame that the Reformations remained stuck limiting pondering the question “How can Jesus be here when he is with the Father?”

    • Beautifully said! Yet I am shocked by how often people still think physically about Christ and his presence. He has, as we agree, transcended the physical. His only physical presence in the world now is … US!

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