Faith of Our Fathers: Body of Christ or Bread?
From the beginning, the Church has desired to understand Christ's gift of Himself in the Eucharist. We hope to understand what exactly our Lord meant when He said this is my Body, broken for you... I am the bread of life... my flesh is food indeed. These are powerful words. I'm struck by the fact that Christ once sent Satan packing with His statement that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the Father." I have always thought that this statement was pure imperative, a kind of rebuke to we silly mortals who feed our bodies instead of delighting in prayer and fasting, or something like that. But I think that the more we reflect on the universe-altering fact that the Word of God is become flesh forever, the more we can understand that "man shall not live by bread alone" is Christ's impassioned promise that the curse is broken (in the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return).
You see, we can't live on bread alone. Christ will not permit we who could not live on bread alone to subsist without Him. We were made to be in Him, and He in us, such that we perish apart from Him, and so Christ shouts into the void, "you shall not live on Bread alone!" and then gives Himself to be the Bread of Heaven.
You see, we once really knew God. We lived on His vivid, joyous, recklessly tender life. You know the rest. We condemned ourselves to living by bread alone. We were made to have God's life within us, but we chose a vast distance. There was nothing left to sustain our life but... bread... alone. And God was gracious. Israel said it for centuries: Blessed are you Lord God of our Fathers, who bringeth forth bread from the earth. In pure mercy, God permitted His arrogant creation to perpetuate itself on the fruit of the earth that He called into being. He gave bread. In time of direst need, He even sent bread from Heaven, and they lived on it with gratitude. Life persisted. This bread was Heaven's gift, sure. It conveyed a basic grace. It healed, nourished, and provoked hearts to proper affection. But it was just bread alone, meant to sustain mortal life alone. But we were not made for life alone; we were made for Him. Try as we might, we could never really live on bread alone. We were made to draw exquisite being from every Word of God's. So the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. Then His flesh became food, and remains with us; take this all of you, and eat it...you need never live on bread alone again.
Ask the disciples: these are hard sayings- who can accept them? Maybe only the starving person can accept that the flesh of the Savior is food. (As I recall, Jesus had a special affinity for the starving). Since the beginning, whether in starvation or plenty, the Church has struggled to comprehend and accept the meaning of this strange, central feast of our faith. Modern anti-Catholics are not the first to blaspheme the Eucharist as quasi-cannibalism, nor are they the first to urge that Christ never meant to say that He would really give His flesh for our salvation. Certainly they are not the first to question how. What is clear is that from the beginning, Christians have confessed that Christ- body, soul, and divinity- is truly present and to be adored in the Eucharist. This is a datum of the Christian tradition, and there is none other. I've culled a few quotes from the tradition that is ours for your consideration:
“The flesh feeds on the body and blood of Christ in order that the soul may be nourished by God.” Tertullian of Carthage, 160-230.
“…the truth of His body and blood… effect that both we are in Christ and Christ in us… therefore He is in us through the flesh, and we are in Him.” Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, 310-367.
“Christ is in this sacrament because it is the body of Christ."
Ambrose of Milan, De Mysteriis, 337-397.
"CHRIST WAS CARRIED IN HIS OWN HANDS, WHEN, REFERRING TO HIS OWN BODY, HE SAID: 'THIS IS MY BODY.' FOR HE CARRIED THAT BODY IN HIS HANDS." (Ennartiones on the Psalms 33:1:10)...I turn to Christ, because it is He whom I seek here; and I discover how the earth is adored without impiety, how without impiety the footstool of His feet is adored. For He received earth from earth; because flesh is from the earth, and He took flesh from the flesh of Mary. He walked here in the same flesh, AND GAVE US THE SAME FLESH TO BE EATEN UNTO SALVATION. BUT NO ONE EATS THAT FLESH UNLESS FIRST HE ADORES IT; and thus it is discovered how such a footstool of the Lord's feet is adored; AND NOT ONLY DO WE NOT SIN BY ADORING, WE DO SIN BY NOT ADORING..." Augustine, Ennarationes on the Psalms 33:1:10, 98.9.
"What is eternally perceived here the figure or character… the whole truth and not its shadow that is internally perceived; and through this is opened up the very truth and sacrament of Christ’s flesh. It is indeed the true flesh of Christ which was crucified and buried, it is truly the sacrament of that flesh.” Abbot Radbertus of Corbie, De Corpore et Sanguine Domini, 831.