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Monday, June 12, 2017

Being Augustine's "infantes" as we prepare for Corpus Christi

Over the last year and a half, I've been writing a weekly piece in our parish bulletin, The Clarion, going through the liturgy from beginning to end, just offering a little catechesis on the parts of the mass. In a happy coincidence, the communion piece is about to end on the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord next week. I did about six weeks on communion itself, with another four or so on other aspects of the Communion Rite, beginning with the Lord's Prayer. On three of those communion weeks, I shared my blog post on "Real Presence" in three installments—I needed a break from trying to be original. 😁

So I thought it would be a good opportunity, in this week after Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, preceding Sunday's solemnity, to expand those shorter articles a bit here, and share them more widely. You've already seen the "real presence" article because I repost it every year during Holy Week, so I'll just work with the new essays from the Clarion.

Notice, in the imaginative exercise I give below, how it is that the great St. Augustine teaches about real presence in the Eucharist, in a clean and pristine form. Christ is present in the Eucharistic meal in order to transform the many into one. The transformation is real, Augustine says, so act like it! There is, thus, already present in Augustine's teaching a nascent sense that the healing (salvation) of the world is a participatory event. It is announced, prepared, and nourished by God, but requires our opting-in. In Tutu's words, "Without God, we cannot. Without us, God will not." (see endnote)

I’d like to invite you to a little exercise for your imagination to begin this reflection on the Eucharist.

It’s early in the fifth century CE in northern Africa, in the cathedral of St. Augustine, on Pentecost, the fiftieth day of Easter. Augustine is gathered with his people at the end of the Easter season. Try to imagine the joy in the room, the noise and wonder of the infantes, not babies, but new Christians, people we'd call neophytes or the newly baptized, and the joy of everyone that the austerity and fasting of Lent, and now even the seven weeks of Easter celebration are coming to an end. There may even have been more baptisms during the vigil overnight before Pentecost, we don’t know, but the homily may refer to them. If so, the room would be redolent with the smell of chrism scented with frankincense, and maybe the honeyed fragrance of new candles.

I think that presupposition is that there was not much direct catechesis on the Eucharist before baptism because, in its pristine form, catechesis comes after experience. The word "catechesis" even shares a root in the word "echo"—catechesis catches our experience and interprets it in the light of the gospel, letting God's word and the gospel bounce around inside of us like an echo, reverberating off the walls of our days. Early catechesis would happen after the liturgical experience, like the best catechesis does today. Rather than say, "This is what's going to happen to you, and this means this, and that means yadda yadda &c &c", the style would have been to say, "what just happened? How did you feel? What did the word, the community, and the meal say today?" The catechist, in this case, the homilist-bishop of Hippo and, later, Doctor of the Church, would then do some teaching based on the experience and the people's reactions.

Augustine, their popular bishop, speaks to them with his famous voice, and this is what they hear:
What you see on God's altar, you've already observed during the night that has now ended. But you've heard nothing about just what it might be, or what it might mean, or what great thing it might be said to symbolize. For what you see is simply bread and a cup - this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ's body, the cup is Christ's blood. Faith can grasp the fundamentals quickly, succinctly, yet it hungers for a fuller account of the matter. As the prophet says, "Unless you believe, you will not understand." [Is. 7.9; Septuagint] So you can say to me, "You urged us to believe; now explain, so we can understand." Inside each of you, thoughts like these are rising: … “How can bread be his body? And what about the cup? How can it (or what it contains) be his blood?" 
My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: "You are the body of Christ, member for member." [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying "Amen" to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear "The body of Christ", you reply "Amen." Be a member of Christ's body, then, so that your "Amen" may ring true!  
But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: "The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body." [1 Cor. 10.17]  Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. "One bread," he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the "one body," formed from many? Remember: bread doesn't come from a single grain, but from many.… Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. So too, what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. … 
Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated. All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them. So let us give God our sincere and deepest gratitude, and, as far as human weakness will permit, let us turn to the Lord with pure hearts. With all our strength, let us seek God's singular mercy; it will deepen our faith, govern our minds, grant us holy thoughts, and lead us, finally, to share the divine happiness through God's own son Jesus Christ. Amen! (from Sermon #272, Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, [354-430]).
The great bishop and teacher's inspiring words ring down the ages. We are meant to live in peace, meant for unity and mutual love. The mystery of the Eucharist is an invitation to be made more and more aware of the innate unity-in-diversity that is the human race, made in the image and likeness of the triune God, whom we celebrated yesterday as unity-in-diversity. We've got the diversity part down, all right. We're nations, races, belief systems, non-belief systems, states, families, and individuals, all clamoring for our rights to be separate and free agents of our own happiness. But the Eucharist teaches that happiness isn't true unless it's happiness for everyone, and while diversity is clear and true, unity is equally true, but more difficult to achieve, because it requires surrender. Unity requires service to one another, care for those considered to be "outside" of our circles of belonging and support, and ultimately, love of our enemies. The gift of diversity is given, like all gifts, for the good of the whole, of unity.


Endnote: from God at 2000, quoted in Marcus Borg (ed.), page 131. Tutu may have been quoting or paraphrasing St. Augustine's sermon 169, Qui ergo fecit te sine te, non te iustificat sine te. ("So he who made you without you will not justify you without you."