The Mystical Body of Christ and the Eucharist

Michael Hull

February 28, 2005

There are numerous appellations used for the Church in the New Testament. For example, St. Peter refers to the Church as the "people of God" (1 Pet 2:9–10), and St. John alludes to the Church as the bride of Christ (Apoc 21:9). But perhaps none is more profound than that of St. Paul when he describes the Church as the "body of Christ" (1 Cor 12:27; cf. Eph 1:22–23; 4:15–16; Col 1:18, 24; 3:15). As Pope Pius XII states so eloquently in his encyclical letter Mystici corporis Christi: "If we would define and describe this true Church of Jesus Christwhich is the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Churchwe shall find nothing more noble, more sublime, or more divine than the expression "the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ"an expression which springs from and is, as it were, the fair flowering of the repeated teaching of the Sacred Scriptures and the Holy Fathers" (no. 13).

To speak of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ is most fitting because it encapsulates both what the Church is and what the Church does. The Second Vatican Council reminds us in Lumen gentium (no. 3) and Pope John Paul II repeats in Ecclesia de Eucharistia (no. 21), "As often as the sacrifice of the cross by which ‘Christ our Pasch is sacrificed’ (1 Cor 5:7) is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried out. Likewise, in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of believers, who form one body in Christ (cf. 1 Cor 10:17), is both expressed and brought about." In other words, in the highest form of worship, the sacrifice of the Mass, the Eucharistic sacrifice, we find the surest manifestation of the Church, formed by the Eucharistic body.

For this reason, Vatican II’s Presbyterorum ordinis says that all "other sacraments and indeed all ecclesiastical ministries and works of the apostolate are bound up with the Eucharist and are directed towards it"; that the Eucharist is the "source and summit of all preaching of the Gospel"; and that "the faithful who have already been consecrated in baptism and confirmation are fully incorporated in the body of Christ by the reception of the Eucharist" (no. 5). Presbyterorum ordinis also reminds us: "No Christian community is built up which does not grow from and hinge on the celebration of the most holy Eucharist" (no. 6).

Thus, the need for a Year of the Eucharist—to foster greater devotion to the Mass and Eucharistic adoration outside the Mass—is acute. It is only with such devotion that the Church brings a deeper holiness and unity to herself and shines as "the light of the world" (Matt 5:14; cf. John 8:12; 9:5). As John Paul points out, "The seeds of disunity, which daily experience shows to be so deeply rooted in humanity as a result of sin, are countered by the unifying power of the body of Christ. The Eucharist, precisely by building up the Church, creates a human community" (EE, no. 24 [italics original]). The Church is not only the perfect paradigm of human community, but also the Mystical Body of Christ (cf. LG, no. 1), wherein we "proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes" (1 Cor 11:26).