Christ promised to be with us always, even unto “the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) Each time we walk into a Catholic Church and see a flickering red light we are reminded of how he continues to keep this promise, through his Eucharistic presence.
Growing up Catholic, attending a Catholic school, and very much immersed in Catholic culture, I didn’t have much opportunity to visit non-Catholic churches. I remember one of my first ecumenical experiences, visiting an Assembly of God church as an eleven year old. The diocese of Gary (the diocese I grew up in) was participating in ecumenical outreach and activities that year, and part of the program consisted in different denominations coming together to pray at different churches.
The congregation was kind and very welcoming, but I remember being struck by a strong sense of emptiness. Although Jesus was there spiritually, in the midst of these prayerful people, something was missing. With no tabernacle, I felt unsettled, lost for a direction to turn to.
Christ’s sacramental presence – under the appearance of bread and wine, but truly the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of the living God – is a compass with which to orient our lives.
However, there is another layer to this teaching on the Eucharist. Christ is really and truly present in the Eucharist. However, so is his mystical body.
The teaching on the mystical body of Christ is a beautiful one that isn’t discussed nearly enough outside of theological circles. I remember not really coming into contact with this teaching, in all of its fullness, until studying theology in college.
We are all familiar with Paul’s description of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). (Likely, my fellow children of the 1980s and 90s are also familiar with the Marty Haugen song about the mystical body, “We Are Many Parts.” I apologize in advance if that tune is now stuck in your head.) The body of Christ is made up of many parts, and each of us have a role to play in that body. Since, through baptism, we are all parts of that “mystical” body, we are all united in a unique, complementary way. (Just as body parts are.)
That bond is far stronger than we may realize, however. Through the mystical body, we are uniquely connected to all people in the Church. To use the classic terminology, we are bonded to the Church militant (those of us still fighting the good fight on earth), the Church suffering (those in purgatory, undergoing the final stages of purification before heaven), and the Church triumphant (those in heaven). Not only are we all united through the bond of baptism (including those who did not have the opportunity to receive the traditional Sacrament in this lifetime and were admitted to the Church via a “baptism of desire” or a “baptism by fire/martyrdom”) but we are all united through the Eucharist.
The Catholic musical artist, Danielle Rose, has a beautiful song that illustrates this reality, “See You in the Eucharist.” She wrote this song before briefly entering an extremely cloistered religious order, and it was meant to be a reassurance to her loved ones that they would never be truly separated, because they would always be united, in every liturgy, through the Eucharist. It’s been nearly a decade since I first heard those lyrics, but they have stuck with me.
When we gather at the table, we are closer than our breath.
Even nearer than the angels, when we touch his very flesh.
Dwelling in each other’s presence, I will hold you close inside.
Every soul in heaven and earth now is present in the Body of Christ.
The teaching sounds radical but is rock solid. Often, when receiving the Eucharist, we are focused on our intimate union with Christ in the Eucharist. However, the other aspect of Eucharistic teaching is just as important. In the Eucharist, all are made one in Christ. (This is where the other name for the Eucharist, “Communion”, comes from.) And when we receive Christ in the Eucharist, when we stand before the altar at each Mass, we are not only in Christ’s presence, but in the presence of all the angels and saints. Through the Eucharist, we experience perfect, beautiful union with all of Christ’s body – everyone from canonized saints to our fellow sinners in the pew.
What many may not realize, however, is that this is also another way in which God allows us to never be separated from our loved ones, especially our loved ones who have died. The great feast of Corpus Christi falls on Memorial Day weekend this year, and so those loved ones we have lost are on our minds in a particular way this weekend, and many of you may visit the grave of a loved one in the days to come.
In this life, we can delight in our closeness with loved ones – but the union we can know with them is nothing compared to the union we can experience with them in the Eucharist. This is the great desire of Christ – that all may be one (John 17:21). The oneness he longs for is not a superficial one, but rather the deep, intimate union only possible in the Eucharist, with Christ as our head.
This teaching has been especially on my heart in the past month. Recently, our family lost our third child, our sweet Gabriel, to miscarriage. Anyone who has ever lost a child, at any age, knows how devastating a loss it is. Because the Church has no official teaching on what happens to unbaptized babies who die (the theories range from that of “limbo” to heaven without qualifications and everything in between) we can hope in the mercy of God and the possibility of heaven for our child. We can hope in the goodness of God, and trust that the Masses, blessings in utero, prayers, and conditional Baptism offered our child, mean that he may very well be in heaven. Although we cannot know this with certainty in this life, we can trust in the merciful love of God.
The burial of our baby was one of the hardest things our family has ever undergone. It was absolutely heartbreaking, saying farewell to a tiny body that was, only a week earlier, still tucked safely in my womb. However, the funeral Mass that followed was one of the greatest comforts we have known. Although we could no longer be in Gabriel’s physical presence, we possessed the hope of possibly being in his spiritual presence at Mass. If Gabriel is in heaven, then that would mean that, at every Mass, our family is once again united. We are united in adoration of Christ, in the Eucharist.
I am sure that everyone who is reading this article has lost someone in their lives. Most of you reading this article have experienced the heartache of standing at the grave of a loved one, and know the perpetual ache of that separation and grief.
The power of the resurrection extends to the Eucharist. Through our hope in heaven and the resurrection, we can hope that we will never be truly separated from those we love. We can pray for the repose of their souls, and in doing so can continue to offer them our unconditional love via prayer. In return, once in heaven, they can pray for us. It is an exchange of love that goes deeper than any we can experience in this life.
The union of the Church in the Eucharist is a powerful reminder that love is stronger than death. This weekend, as we celebrate both Corpus Christi and Memorial Day, take hope in the depth of the doctrine of the Eucharist. Through Christ, we may all be one, in a union that will never truly end because of the love of Christ, stronger than death.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.