As a more or less devout second grader, I could not wait for the day I’d make my first communion. Our little class of devotees eagerly received instruction from the parish priest on the meaning of the Holy Eucharist, as well as preparation for making our first confession, which was required before making that first communion. We were drilled on the difference between mortal and venial sin, and quizzed on questions of faith. As newly minted seven year olds, we were told we had reached the “age of reason” – The age when one was deemed morally responsible for their behavior.
The final step in our instruction included a mock Eucharist of sorts, where we lined up single file and practiced precisely how to hold our hands, receive the chalice, and properly cross ourselves. In what I thought was a stroke of genius, I had bought several rolls of Necco wafers – which to my untrained eye looked a lot like a sugar laden Eucharistic host – in hopes we could use them for the dry run. Sr. Lucia promptly shut that down, although she did, mercifully, let us eat them at lunch. Instead, for our trial run we were told we’d be using unconsecrated bread and wine, meaning the priest had not yet turned them into the body and blood of Christ.
Well, needless to say, after this kind of build up, I was rather underwhelmed by the tasteless texture of that little wafer. What the bread lacked in flavor, however, the wine certainly made up for in strength. Nearly every second grader struggled not to splutter on that tiny sip of wine.
After what felt like eternity (for a seven year old) the day of our first communion finally arrived. Other than having to dress up in a rather uncomfortable suit and tie, I don’t remember much about the ceremony because I was entirely focused on that moment I would receive not just a blessing and a pat on the head from the priest, but would be offered the real deal. After finally receiving the consecrated body and blood of my Lord, I turned to my best friend and whispered, “It even tastes better, doesn’t it?”
Over the span of centuries theologians have spilt oceans of ink trying to explain exactly what happens in order for ordinary bread and wine to change into the body and blood of Christ. In the 13th century St. Thomas Aquinas famously employed Aristotelian metaphysics (using terms like essence and accidents) to describe how the substance of the bread and wine is transformed into the substance of Christ – (hence the word “trans-substance-tiation”).
A few centuries later Martin Luther railed against the very idea calling it a “monstrous word for a monstrous idea – unheard of until the pseudo-philosophy of Aristotle became rampant in the Church” – all the while insisting on the real and objective presence of Christ in the Eucharist, something he called “sacramental union.”
Other reformers, such as John Calvin, all but gave up and described the Eucharist as a subjective symbol, a mere memorial to something Jesus did long, long ago.
Anglicans, as a result of the Elizabethan Settlement (which was an attempt to reconcile Catholic and Protestant practice) accepted the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, but refused to define it, preferring to leave it a mystery.
When exploring the biblical foundations of sacramental theology, we most often recall scenes of the last supper from the Gospels, or perhaps the Apostle Paul’s handing down of the Eucharistic tradition to the Corinthian church – and rightly so. These are some of the only primary sources we have from the first century regarding the Lord’s supper.
But the passage we read this morning, (also) from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, has something substantial to teach us regarding the real presence of Christ, not just in the Eucharist, but the real presence of Christ in one another.
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” he writes. “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
Now, as I mentioned last week, anytime Paul is writing to a body of Christians like this, he is using the plural form for “you.”
Y’all are God’s temple and God’s Spirit dwells in all y’all.
The reason the ancient Israelites are commanded to “be holy as God is holy,” the reason Jesus tells his disciples to be perfected “as your heavenly Father is perfect” is because God’s temple is holy, and we are that temple.
Remember, when the priest administers communion and says “The body of Christ” we mean not only that you are receiving the body of Christ, but that you simultaneously are the body of Christ. This is why I include in the invitation to communion St. Augustine’s sage admonition “Behold what you are, and become what you receive.” Behold what you are – the body of Christ; and become what you receive – the body of Christ.
All of what Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount speaks to this truth: it matters how we treat one another – it matters how we treat ourselves even – because whatever we do to the least of these, we have done unto Christ himself. To say that we believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but to deny him in our neighbor is incongruent. How we treat those who are different from us is exactly how we treat Jesus.
There is a beautiful expression buried in the “other prayers” section of the prayerbook that always captures my attention. The prayer, intended for use after receiving communion, asks God,
“Grant us, we beseech thee, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption…”
That we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption. Within ourselves, because we are God’s temple, and God’s Spirit dwells in us. Within ourselves because therein abides the real presence of Christ. Within ourselves because this is how God’s love is made incarnate to the world.
As the temple of God’s presence our physical bodies matter. Black bodies, immigrant bodies, Muslim bodies, female bodies…all uniquely bearing the image of God’s presence. In all of our amazing fragility, our bodies are a living, breathing temple wherein God’s spirit resides. When we take care of our bodies, we are taking care of God’s temple. When we take care of one another we experience the real presence of Christ. We are that temple. May we, indeed, so venerate the sacred mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of God’s redemption…”
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, year A