The Union of Covenant Keepers: The Church as Eucharistic Community
“Drink ye all of this…this is my blood of the new covenant.”
When Cardinal Avery Dulles calls for models by which “the Church’s fundamentally mysterious character may be understood,” he refers to de Lubac’s idea of “the Church as sacrament” as an appropriate way of describing the Church’s functions, roles, and mission. A sacrament is an outward sign of invisible grace, instituted by Christ for sanctification; thus understood as “sacrament,” the Church makes Christ present to her members and to the world. De Lubac’s proposal of the Church as effective representation of Christ in the world draws upon principles from Cyprian, Augustine, and Aquinas to demonstrate the following: the necessary interdependence between the individual and the communal or institutional in the life of the Church; the inseparability of the divine and the human in the life of the Church; and the Church’s role of representing Christ in the world, and making Christ truly present as “a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind; that is, she is a sign and instrument of such union and unity.”
Such evocative language, it seems, leaves issues to be explored: why do the seemingly “individual transactions” of the sacraments that join individual persons to Christ also make him a member of that corporate body of Christ that functions en toto as an effective sign of grace to the world? How does this incorporation occur, which is so vital for that unity that makes the Church’s evangelical mission possible?
Dulles provides us with a possible clue to the resolution of these questions in his discussion of “the Church as Sacrament.” Christ, the consummate sacrament of God, is prefigured in the people of Israel: “already in the Old Testament, Israel as a people constitutes a sign that historically expresses a real (though imperfect) yes-saying to God and no to idolatry.” Israel’s “yes-saying” to God in her response to God’s covenant anticipated Christ’s ultimate yes-saying to the Father. As Aquinas has elaborated, Israel-as- sacrament confirmed the sum total of her people’s respective assents to God in the common sign of circumcision, which Aquinas calls “the sacrament of the Old Law.” In virtue of each individual’s assent to God by the marking of his flesh, the corporate body of Israel kept covenant with God. The circumcised was thus linked juridically to his fellows and to Christ by their common assent to the historical covenant for all, and by the physically visible, confirming ontological change that confirmed their covenant. God and Israel were thus joined by their covenant and by the individually appropriated, juridically effective signs that confirmed it. In this way, a multitude of yes-saying individuals became corporate Israel, capable of presenting God to the world and representing God among the nations.
As Aquinas clarifies further, there is a profound change for the individual and corporate arrangement with God’s incarnation in Christ. Christ contains in Himself the grace that He signifies; and it is in the yes-saying of His own flesh and blood to the Father that the individual Christian must participate for his justification. I will suggest that on the model of Israel, we can understand the Church as the community that keeps covenant with God in virtue of each individual’s assent to God by participating in Christ’s flesh. The truly corporate “body” of the Church is formed as the communicants are linked ontologically to their fellows and to God both by their common assent and by the confirming ontological change of the sacramental character upon the Christian soul. In this way, and in this way only, there is fulfillment of the Messianic prophecy of the sacramentally formed “new heart” on which the Law is inscribed “within them;” and just as the individual, physical “inscription” of circumcision resulted in the holy people of Israel, so the individual, physical “inscription” of the Eucharist in individual souls ontologically results in the community of the Church.
As I hope to show by drawing on Aquinas, Congar, and Cavanaugh in conversation with Rahner, such an understanding of the Church as the union of those who keep covenant with God in the Eucharist allows for a vision of the Church that can vividly address De Lubac’s noteworthy criteria. 1) The necessary interdependence between the individual and the communal/institutional life of the Church is manifest in the communicant’s free request and reception of the sacrament that the Church confects and extends, even while she, as a body, is being constituted by her members when they receive and bear in their bodies the same body of Christ. 2) The inseparability of the divine and the human in the life of the Church is enhanced by a strong emphasis on the ontological effects of the Eucharist as the Real Presence of Christ; and 3) the Church’s role of representing Christ in the world and making Christ truly present as “a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind” is enhanced by the understanding of his called community that is joined through both the freely effected covenant, and by the ontological changes brought about by the gifts from His body.
I propose that an adequate vision of the Church (one that appreciates her mission in the world and her very nature as the creature of the New Covenant anticipated in the Old, and is, as Ratzinger puts it, “in a way that is theologically valid and fully in accord with the New Testament concept of faith” ) is only possible if the Eucharistic nature of the true body of Christ is appreciated. These considerations of the Church as the consummation of the juridical covenants of Israel in the Church’s ontological communion with Christ’s body are affirmed by the conjunction of these ideas in one concise passage of Lumen Gentium I.6:
The Church, further, "that Jerusalem which is above" …is described as the spotless spouse of the spotless Lamb, whom Christ "loved and for whom He delivered Himself up that He might sanctify her," whom He unites to Himself by an unbreakable covenant, and whom He unceasingly "nourishes and cherishes," and whom, once purified, He willed to be cleansed and joined to Himself, subject to Him in love and fidelity, and whom, finally, He filled with heavenly gifts for all eternity, in order that we may know the love of God and of Christ for us, a love which surpasses all knowledge.
In sum, this paper proposes that an adequate ecclesiology of the Church’s nature, union, and mission is based on the Eucharist, by which the Church is ontologically brought into being and formed, as the body of Christ, from the body of Christ. As Pius XII held in Mystici Corporis Christ, the nuptial Church, as a visible and united body, “comes forth from the side of the second Adam in His sleep on the Cross;” here, it should be remembered that Aquinas applied this image to the sacraments themselves. The New Covenant has its effect and its ensuing community in and through Christ’s very blood.
Israel as the Union of the Circumcised Covenant Keepers
This proposal, involves the idea that the union of the Church is anticipated in the union of Israel, or, to be more apropos to the modern context, that the union of individual Christians in the community of the Church was anticipated by the union of individual Israelites in the nation of Israel. Congar insists that St. Paul’s idea of “the mystical Body of Christ” as a mode of relationship between the individual and the group has a distinctively Jewish background, which rests on the Old Testament’s vivid account of the solidarity of the members of Israel with God and with one another, as a kind of mystical body; “Israel is a people, a single blood, ‘those of my blood,’ says St. Paul.” Accordingly, Congar notes St. John speaking of the Church as “a (single) form of life,” and St. Paul referring to the Church as “the new creation, the restoration of all things… wholly in a single individual and yet also a people, a multitude.”
This unity of Israel begins with an alliance: The gathered people of God in the Old Testament “began with God’s promises to Abraham, and the alliance entered into with him and his descendents,” which alliance was confirmed in the rite of Abraham’s circumcision as described in Genesis 17:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." Then God said to Abraham, "As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."
The beneficiaries of this covenant are Abraham’s promised descendents, who are prophesied in Daniel 7 to enjoy an eternal Kingdom, as a multitude who are at once “as a an individual being;” as Congar puts it, “the destiny and call of each person is bound up with the destiny of the group, and this destiny may be summed up and realized in the Fathers of Israel, in consideration of whom and in the person of whom God looks with favor on His people.” Accordingly, Aquinas held that as a community, Israel is united to God and to one another by the circumcision of her individual members. As Lumen Gentium 2 accords,
The eternal Father, by a free and hidden plan of His own wisdom and goodness, created the whole world. His plan was to raise men to a participation of the divine life. Fallen in Adam, God the Father did not leave men to themselves, but ceaselessly offered helps to salvation, in view of Christ, the Redeemer ‘who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature’…Already from the beginning of the world the foreshadowing of the Church took place. It was prepared in a remarkable way throughout the history of the people of Israel and by means of the Old Covenant.
It is from this indisputable and historical account of God’s calling a collective people to be His sacrament in the world that Lumen Gentium concludes that God, however, does not make men holy and save them merely as individuals, without bond or link between one another. Rather has it pleased Him to bring men together as one people, a people which acknowledges Him in truth and serves Him in holiness. He therefore chose the race of Israel as a people unto Himself. With it He set up a covenant. Step by step He taught and prepared this people, making known in its history both Himself and the decree of His will and making it holy unto Himself.
Thus the actual wording of the Bris ceremony for the circumcision of an infant involves language of a (juridically) covenanted and physically confirmed union:
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to enter him into the Covenant of Abraham our father. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, who sanctified the beloved one from the womb, set His statute in his flesh, and sealed his descendants with the sign of the holy Covenant. Therefore, as a reward of this (circumcision), the living God, our Portion, our Rock, has ordained that the beloved of our flesh be saved from the abyss, for the sake of the Covenant which He has set in our flesh. Blessed are You Lord, who makes the Covenant…. Sovereign of the universe, may it be Your will that this (circumcision) be regarded and accepted by You as if l had offered him before the Throne of Your Glory. And You, in Your abounding mercy, send through Your holy angels a holy and pure soul to (name) the son of (name) who has now been circumcised for the sake of Your great Name.
As such, the Christian tradition has long held that Israel’s confirmations of the Old Covenant constituted valid though imperfect ‘sacraments.’ Aquinas holds that the sacraments of the Old Law, unlike those of the new, could not of themselves contain and confer sanctifying grace; they could merely signify the faith by which Israel was justified and set in the state of sanctifying grace, and with which Israel relied on the covenant confirmations that God had prescribed in the rite of circumcision, which, as such, sufficed to remit original sin and conferred grace as an anticipatory sign of faith in Christ’s coming Passion. As Congar summarizes, “it is not to be expected that there was once a time in which no such things as sacraments existed; circumcision, for instance, conferred grace and justification; but it is essentially different from the new covenant, which is “the visible manifestation of the final grace of God:”
…the former (Israelites) were indeed related to Christ by faith, but they came into contact with Him in a manner belonging to the order of intention (a legal system). Since the Incarnation, it is by means of a direct or indirect (in the sacraments) physical contact with his human nature that Christ acts and communicates grace.
In virtue of the covenant that had been formed in the individual bodies of the Israelites, Gods’ very presence dwelt in the assembled nation of Israel. Congar notes that in the priestly tradition, the tent of meeting in which the Ark of the Covenant was kept, (corresponding to the future Temple) was called “The Dwelling Place,” suggesting the place where God “dwelt” above the Ark of the Covenant; and the Ark was the locus of God’s dwelling because it housed the basic terms of Israel’s “covenant” with God in the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Here, Congar elaborates on a “profound difference between the manner of God’s presence and the way His gifts are given under the former Dispensation and…(their) issuing from the Incarnation of the Son of God.” Congar refers to St. Stephen’s quotation of Isaiah in Acts 6 to highlight the Church’s comprehension of the reality of God’s presence in the messianic times, underscoring the absolutely decisive point that the Most High no longer dwells in temples made by men’s hands. The implication is that the Temple that cannot be built with men’s hands- that consummate Temple which is the flesh of the Son- has been established, such that the former Temple and manner of God’s presence has become obsolete in comparison: “destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
The prophets themselves had sternly critiqued the formalism of the Temple worship that did not effectively aim at personal reconciliation with God Himself; Jeremiah in particular had prophesied that Jerusalem, though deprived of the Ark of the Covenant, would nonetheless still know the presence of YHWH, because God Himself would dwell there. Throughout the accounts of the Old Testament, the over-riding theme is that the consummation of the covenant is in God’s dwelling with His people, in a way that is not reducible to prescribed time or place:
The prophets’ mission was to throw light upon and also to further the realization of God’s plan, which by successive stages, was moving towards its final consummation in Jesus Christ. They were to prevent this movement from a fixation at one or other of its stages or in one or other of its characteristics. By the time of the apostolic writings, the absence of any mention of the destruction of the Temple indicates that “the Church had modified her vocabulary in order to express the perfect awareness that she had acquired the new state of things resulting from the death and resurrection of her Lord.
Congar finds in the words of Jesus a constantly repeated assertion that the Jerusalem Temple, in which Christ dwelt, would be transcended by the Messianic fact of the Son of God made flesh in His “personal and substantial coming into the world,” and the consequent fact of the new Temple, which is His body:
Henceforth the true Temple, the true dwelling-place of God among men is none other than the person of Jesus Himself…the foundation of the new economy, the sacraments and the Church, is the death and resurrection of our Lord.
In other words, God’s presence, as the reward of the Old Covenant, was to progress from God’s mere cohabitation with humanity in the Old, to the fullness of His incarnation in human flesh in the person of Jesus in the New.
It is significant here to recall several other prophesied characteristics of this new economy. First, the prophet Jeremiah forecasts the formation of a new heart as part of the participation in the new covenant. One recalls that while Abraham “believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” under the old covenant, the new covenant promises a heart that has righteousness inscribed upon it; an ontological change is assured. Such a distinction between the juridical relationship of the circumcision and the ontological relationship that is literally “characterized” in the heart by the grace-containing sacraments corresponds exactly with the prediction of the new, circumcised heart, the law-inscribed heart that is ontologically changed and characterized by the infusion of Christ’s grace in the sacraments. This infusion and characterization of individual souls forms the ontologically real and united “body” of the Church as the gathering of souls that are identically “marked” by divine grace:
The Church is only complete when the Holy Spirit, by His presence as efficient cause, infuses in her through Christ, the grace that is fully Christ’s and is able to make us fully other Christs, the sacramental grace… it is then only that the community dwelling-place of God in historic time begins to be perfectly established, it is at this moment that the indwelling presence of the Trinity becomes absolute and complete.
Congar continues “in the New Testament, (even) the Holy Spirit is an active Presence dwelling in and really sanctifying persons. The order of the New Covenant is an order of inwardness, in which God’s action is directed towards and reaches man himself.” To illustrate further, Congar cites Hoskyn’s commentary on John 1:
The law was a gift separable from the agent by which it was given. Grace and truth, however, came not only by but in Jesus Christ, who is the truth embodied. In the new and eternal covenant, God is not separated from His gifts, the spiritual reality of grace accompanies the sacraments… the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us; the Temple of the New Jerusalem is the Lord God almighty, its Temple is the Lamb.
Accordingly, Christ’s Paschal offering of His flesh founds the Church, the new Jerusalem.
The Eucharist as the Union of Covenant Keepers
Israel was the community of the circumcised, who kept covenant with God by obedience and were united to Him by faith and the gestures that confirmed their faith. Israel could be said to be united as one as a people because she was called to perform in common identical acts of consecration oriented to the one God. The Church is the community that keeps covenant with God through the sacraments, by which God fulfills the prophecy that (through the ontologically effective means of grace) God will inscribe His law in their hearts and re-constitute their hearts through real union with Himself; “the Church is one because Christ is one, of whom it is the body.” The continuity between Israel’s unified covenant-keeping and the union of the Church, as unified by the ontological effects of her covenant-keeping is obvious in such Scriptural statements as Galatians 3:26-29: “if you belong to Christ, you are indeed Abraham’s children.” Congar follows suit: “besides being sacramental… the Church is also social… (because) the Church is the new Israel… a people of God with its own corporate life.” Congar finds warrant for the Church’s corporate life in the account of the life of the earliest Church in the book of Acts, a distinct “fellowship” of those who “occupied themselves continually with the breaking of bread,” which activity resulted in there being “one heart and one soul in all the company of believers.”
As the Genesis account of the beginning of salvation history describes, God’s covenant with one man (Abraham) tends to a community, whose members are made by the participatory signs which mark them for God. Accordingly, the Scriptural language of ecclesial unity revolves around the theme of Christ’s one body. It is this kind of ontological, essential union that St. Paul and his following anticipate in the pastoral writings that address the unity of the Church. Having established the central principle that in Christ “we who are many form one Body” in Romans 12, I Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4, the epistle writers clarify that this union is the expression of a basic, ontological relationship between the members that results from their mutual union with Christ, the Head of the body: “each member belongs to all the others.”… “the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; the many parts form one body; so it is with Christ,” etc.
Here, if we accept Congar’s statement that “the Church is the realization of the New Covenant,” which as such, “was already in part realized and made known in the Old Testament by the formation of a people of God,” we must ask what God’s New Covenant, consummated in Christ, involves of the participatory signs that mark the participants for God and forms the collective chosen people of God. It is the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist that unites us both to each other and to God in the Body of Christ: “it is the Eucharist by which we are made a single body in Christ.”
This fact of the life of the Church accentuates the continuity between the Old Covenant and the New. Both covenants involve divinely bestowed benefits. The common destiny received from God in the old alliance was the land, by which the community of Israel was established within discreet spatial boundaries. In contrast, the benefit of the new alliance is “none other than the patrimony of God Himself,” namely, access to His very throne, life, and person. As Cavanaugh reminds us, this can be nothing less than the enjoyment of Christ’s very person and the consequent formation of the community of the consummated covenant: “the Eucharist makes present our destiny in communion by incorporating us together into the body of Christ.” Congar continues that “this wonderful transformation of our inheritance is perforce accompanied by an equally profound change in the person receiving, and in this way the promises made to Abraham are fulfilled.”
This new alliance, by which humanity is “brought near through the blood of Christ,” is signified by the sacraments and especially by the Eucharist: “the sacraments are signs of the Alliance.” By means of the sacraments, humanity performs “all that is needed for us to make effectual, in our own regard, the mystery accomplished for our sakes, to associate ourselves with Christ in his passing to the Father, in order to become in Him, sharers together in the good things of God.” Dom Anscar Vonier suggests that these sacraments should be read as “sacraments of the covenant” in juxtaposition with the covenant-confirming gestures of the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the Gospel authors could be read as assuming the same idea in the narrative of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple; when Simeon and Anna see the human body of the incarnate God within the Jerusalem Temple, they immediately recall God’s covenant with Israel; when Zacharias hears news of the incarnate God, he recalls God’s covenant; when Mary receives the Annunciation of the Incarnation of God in her womb, she recalls God’s covenantal promises to Abraham. The incarnation of God seems to its immediate witnesses to resonate with such passages as the prophecy of Ezekiel 37:
I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people. Then the nations will know that I the Lord make Israel holy, when my sanctuary is among them forever.
Congar concludes that the sacraments that flow from and contain the effects of Christ’s Incarnate Passion constitute both the new covenant of the Incarnation, and, consequently, its ensuing community: “the juxtaposition of the idea of covenant and the sacraments are the means by which Christians are placed in contact with Christ Himself… they receive the life-giving sap that proceeds from the tree of the cross; in short, the life by which they are to live is the very life of Christ.” Thus we see that the Church is the consummate covenant community, which enjoys the consummation of God’s covenant in the very body of Christ, and, from her ontological participation in His body, somehow becomes a Body united herself.
St. Paul even clarifies how this unity by incorporation is effected, namely, by baptism and by the unifying ministry of the one Holy Spirit: “for we were all baptized by one Spirit into one Body… and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” In another striking passage St. Paul tells us why we form one Body: “because there is on bread, we who are many are one body, for we all are partakers of one bread.” In a similar way, the Gospel passages in Luke 13 and Matthew 8 depict the union of gathered peoples around a central meal: “people from east and west, from north and south, will come and sit down at the feat in the kingdom of God.” In this way, the Church has throughout the ages identified the sacramental theme of the Eucharist, as “the sacrament of the Church’s unity,” as summarized in Lumen Gentium:
All these things, however, were done by way of preparation and as a figure of that new and perfect covenant, which was to be ratified in Christ, and of that fuller revelation which was to be given through the Word of God Himself made flesh. "Behold the days shall come saith the Lord, and I will make a new covenant with the House of Israel, and with the house of Judah . . . I will give my law in their bowels, and I will write it in their heart….Christ instituted this new covenant, the new testament, that is to say, in His Blood, calling together a people made up of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh but in the Spirit. This was to be the new People of God. The Son, therefore, came, sent by the Father. It was in Him, before the foundation of the world, that the Father chose us and predestined us to become adopted sons, for in Him it pleased the Father to re-establish all things…The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world. This inauguration and this growth are both symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of a crucified Jesus, and are foretold in the words of the Lord referring to His death on the Cross: "And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself". As often as the sacrifice of the cross in which Christ our Passover was sacrificed, is celebrated on the altar, the work of our redemption is carried on, and, in the sacrament of the Eucharistic bread, the unity of all believers who form one body in Christ is both expressed and brought about.
Thus, just as the physical act of circumcision signified an effective covenant, the Eucharist signifies an effective covenant that not only binds the communicant to God, but to one another as well. Relying primarily on the Scriptural account, Dom Anscar Vonnier writes that “nothing is easier to demonstrate” than the connection between the Eucharistic sacrifice and the new covenant in Christ. Vonnier cites the historical references in Scripture to blood being required for the making of a covenant between God and humanity, and refers further to the effects of the blood (and with it, the bread of the Eucharist) of Christ as “an active power, bringing about in the Church and in souls the full effects of the New Testament.”
The Church from the Sacraments
At this point, having established that the paramount sacrament of the Eucharist consummates the Old Covenant’s provisions by securing the presence of God, we are left to wonder what all of this means for the way we understand the Church. Karl Rahner frames the issue nicely: given that the connection between the Church and the sacraments is not very clear at any level of theology, a common notion tends to emerge of the Church merely dispensing sacraments as the means of grace for the salvation of the individual. Consequently, the relationship between the Church and the sacraments is often perceived in the most superficial and external way, such that it could be believed that God might have entrusted their administration to any given institution, including the Christian home or the Christian state. After all, one could turn to the dispenser of grace to obtain the means of personal salvation, but then might just as easily turns away as soon as the means have been supplied, without ever having identified himself as one member within the whole body. Congar in particular acknowledges the need to “examine this reality of Christ in us, of the mystical Body… of baptism into a single body, and all this multitude of organs goes to make up one body” and to ask, literally, “how does this all come about?” In other words, given the promise of the new covenant in Christ’s blood, what is it about the sacraments, and especially of the Eucharist, that forms the community of the Church in the same way that circumcision formed the community of Israel?
Rahner explains the relationship between the individual and with the sacrament-dispensing community as covenant keepers with regard to the Eucharist:
Acceptance itself, however, can only take place in the individual, for victorious grace is only present where the subjective holiness of an individual is achieved through it…the Church only attains the highest actualization of her own nature when grace is victorious in the individual and also is tangibly expressed and really occurs for the individual’s sanctification. That is exactly what happens in the sacraments.
Thus the life of the individual is always oriented to the Church, as the single, superceding Individual: “the Christian life is a life in Christ which is nourished, maintained and expressed in a spiritual life of a social and strictly ecclesiastical nature; union with Christ, which is the interior life of the individual soul, is lived and acquired socially, in the Church.” Rahner’s solution to the posited question is to emphasize the Church as the enduring presence of Christ in the world, and thus as truly the fundamental sacrament, the source of all other sacraments; in this way, the sacraments are “acts fundamentally expressive of the nature of the Church,” and the Church experiences and fulfills her nature in the sacraments that flow from her. The Church, then, is the Church of the sacraments in as much as the Church signifies and effects the grace that brought her into being in the first place: “in the Church God’s grace is given expression and embodiment and symbolized, and by being so embodied, is present.” As such, she dispenses the sacraments; the sacraments thereby have an “ecclesiological origin,” and sacramental character follows from the nature of the Church. Thus, the individual is united to the whole in as much as the grace which he receives personally in the sacraments is the same grace which calls the Church as a whole into being.
At this point, in holding that the sacraments merely extend the primary grace which calls the Church into being in the first place, Rahner’s theory struggles to address the causality of the sacraments. On the notion of their ecclesiological origin, the sacrament’s causality would operate (in Rahner’s words) by way of a “making good of a legal claim on someone who has contracted to perform something,” or in a “juridical” sense by which the sacrament is “considered to confer on the recipient a legal title.” Thus Rahner offers the language of “natural symbols” or “intrinsically real symbols” to avoid a purely juridical tone, and to express the idea that the sacraments as signs are still causes of grace, by which the sign is intrinsically linked to its phenomenon:
The Church in her visible historical form is herself an intrinsic symbol of the eschatalogically triumphant grace of God; in that spatio-temporal visible form, this grace is made present. And because the sacraments are the actual fulfillment, the actualization of the Church’s very nature…precisely in as much as the Church’s whole reality is to be the real presence of God’s grace, as the new covenant, these sacramental signs are efficacious. Their efficacy is that of the intrinsic symbol. Christ acts through the Church in regard to an individual human being by giving his spatio-temporal embodiment by having the grace gift of his grace manifested in the sacrament. This visible form is itself an effect of the coming of grace; it is there because God is gracious to men; and in this self-embodiment of grace, grace itself occurs. The sacramental sign is cause of grace in as much as grace is conferred by being signified. And this presence (by signifying) of grace in the sacraments is simply the actuality of the Church as the visible manifestation of grace…. The relationship is one of reciprocal conditioning… The sign effects grace, by grace producing the sacrament.
Thus throughout the sacramental dynamic, the sacrament becomes the Church’s act, when the Church acts as the primary sacrament of Christ’s grace in the world. Rahner thus holds that the sacraments follow from the nature of the Church, to the extent that one could “infer” sacraments from the nature of the Church by a strict deductive proof; the sacraments are “acts fundamentally expressive of the Church’s life…acts flowing from her nature (that are) fundamentally and unconditionally the accomplishment of that nature.”
In contrast, Congar holds that the Church, in as much as she emerges from the very body of Christ, emerges from the sacraments, and is the Eucharistic body: “the unity of the mystical body is the effect proper to the Sacrament of the Eucharist.” Rather than producing the sacraments as her natural and ontological self-expression, the Church derives from them:
The words of institution speak of the new and eternal covenant that was concluded in the blood of Christ; Christ is present in the sacrament under these words. He is therefore present as a bond of unity, as the foundation of the covenant between God and man, as the Church’s unity therefore. Because He really gives Himself in ever new sacramental manifestations as sacrifice for the Church, and as sacrifice of the Church, because He exists in the Church in visible and tangible sacramental form, there is the Church. She is most manifest and in the most intensive form, she attains the highest actuality of her nature, when she celebrates the Eucharist. For here everything that goes to form the Church is found fully and manifestly present.
Congar’s perspective highlights the possibility that when discussing the nature of the Church’s being and unity, a stronger, more ontological understanding of her foundation is needed. I propose that such an understanding is available in the idea of the Church emerging from the sacraments, or, in the idea of the sacraments as the acts which constitute the Church. In Congar’s words, “what makes the Church is our faith and the sacraments in which it takes visible form. The Church is, of its essence, sacramental.” As mentioned prior, this essay is in search of an adequate ecclesiology that reflects the nature of the Church as the consummation of the Old Covenant, and that reflects the nature of the Church as the visible creature of the re-creation of all things in the Incarnation of God.
To resolve the argument, I turn to the contemporary work of theologian William T. Cavanaugh. Referring to standard references to “the mystical body of Christ” in the early twentieth century in Maritain and Popes Pius XI and Pius XII, Cavanaugh’s complaint is that “the designation of the Church as (the) ‘mystical’ rather than (the) ‘true’ body of Christ has often served the imagination of a disincarnate Church which merely hovers above the temporal, uniting Christians in soul but not in body.” Here, Cavanaugh wishes to identify the Church as God’s redemptive, visible new creation in the fallen world. Rahner would agree with him:
We can and must say that participation in the physical Body of Christ by the reception of this sacrament imparts the grace of Christ to us in so far as this partaking of one bread is an efficacious sign of the renewed, deeper, and personally ratified participation and incorporation in (the) Body of Christ… the Church. In other words, res et sacramentum, first effect and intermediary cause of the other effects in this sacrament is the more profound incorporation into the unity of the Body of Christ.
The notion of the radical, ontological effect of the Eucharistic body of Christ upon His ecclesial body for her vivification and formation as an institutional community are vividly highlighted in contemporary usage by Cavanaugh’s emphasis on the Eucharist as the sacramental event that constitutes the human person and the human community, in contrast with the oppressive political regimes that destroy both. Here, Cavanaugh’s proposals echo Congar’s idea that the Church is not a body only in the sense of a corpus politicum, but also, in a mysterious fashion, in that of a corpus organicum or biologicum: “it is not only a unity of order or of cooperation, like a natural society, but a unity of life, rather like that of a living body.” Accordingly, Cavanaugh presumes to “explore nothing less than the actual and potential impact of the Eucharist,” because “for Catholic Christianity there is nothing more real than the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.” Thus, in as much as the real presence of Christ is in the body of communicating believers, the Church truly becomes the very body of Christ.
In short, for our purposes, we emphasize Cavanaugh’s insistence that the Eucharist ontologically makes and reconstitutes people into Christians when they really share in His life, flesh, and blood, and hence the Eucharist “makes” the Church, in the obverse way in which torture deconstructs persons and “makes” them into broken victims. The Eucharist is thus the means by which the Church is constructed, in the vivifying and constituting of its individual members, and gathered as the community of those who have consumed the same loaf and been inscribed with the same Eucharistic character:
Isolation is overcome in the Eucharist by the building of a communal body which resists…attempts to eradicate it… the Eucharist thus realizes the true body of Christ, a body which is neither purely mystical (qua invisible community juridically bonded by faith) nor simply reducible to the modern state.
Throughout this argument, Cavanaugh is responding to de Lubac’s worry that an over-emphasis on the Church as “mystical body” could imply that it did not belong to the Church to be a real, organic, and social body in any sense. Worst of all, such notions risked attenuating the Church’s link to Christ Himself. Cavanaugh thus explains that the Eucharist is much more than a ritual repetition of the past. It is rather a literal re-membering of Christ’s body, a knitting together of the body of Christ by the participation of many in His sacrifice… the Eucharist conforms the followers of Christ to be the true body of Christ, (a body able to provide a counter-discipline to state abuses.)
Cavanaugh’s vividly ‘ontological’ view of the Eucharist also includes the reminder that “one of the peculiarities of the Eucharistic feast is that we become the body of Christ by consuming it.” The eaters are assimilated to that which is eaten; the Church, by virtue of her members’ reception of Christ in the Eucharist, is literally changed into Christ. It is perhaps only in this way that the fullest and richest possible import of St. Paul’s one hundred sixty-four Scriptural references to the immanence of the living Christ in the Church- Christ in us and we in Christ- comes to bear. In this way, the recognition of the Church as a “body” identified with the true body of Christ becomes much more than metaphor, and hence rings all the more clearly with the words of St. Paul: “you are the body of Christ.”
Congar would likely affirm this theandric, ontological emphasis in considerations of the nature of the Church with his own reference to the Patristic notion of the Church as the new creation, in whom Christ wills to continue His life in men. As he states,
…in a truly theandric way…the body of the second Adam is formed, by the gradual communication of His spirit to all that is material, to the whole range of human actions that proceed throughout the world from the increasing progeny of the first Adam.
At this point, overlap with Rahner’s notion of the Church as Sacrament is again possible where Rahner admits that “in the Eucharist the Church is called to be what it eschatalogically is.” But it is Congar who reminds us again of the full weight of the Scriptural language: “the formula in Christ Jesus signifies receiving life and movement from Christ.” Although such language seems to resonate with Rahner’s idea that the Church exists as pure derivation from God’s grace, and hence the grace of the sacraments follow from her nature as such, it must be remembered that in as much as the Church comes into being and is animated by the Holy Spirit only in Christ, she comes into being in his body; “the formula ‘in Christ Jesus’ … amounts to saying ‘in his body.’” Conversely, the corresponding formula ‘Christ in us’ can refer Eucharistically to His really being, in His body, in us, as our life. As Congar concludes, we fully realize this fullness of Christ “in us” in connection with the sacraments. Those who have so fully realized Him in the sacraments and especially in the Eucharist are thus made real sharers in one another by sharing the same Lord within; and thus the Church is formed.
This paper has explored an understanding of the Church from the model of ancient Israel, the people of the Old Covenant. On this model of a community of covenanting individuals enjoying the presence of God, we see that the Church is the union of individuals who participate in the consummated covenant through the very flesh and blood of Christ, and who commune with one another because they participate together in His flesh and blood. Literally, their souls bear the same Eucharistic mark or character, just as the bodies of Israelites bore the same mark of circumcision; and it is in this ontological way that the Church is really “one body.”
In this way, we have perhaps addressed why, given the data of Christ’s incarnation and Passion, we have a community that emerges from these events; obedience to the form of the covenant results in a community inevitably, since (in a crude way of putting it) we are what we eat. As with Israel, God gives Himself to us in fulfillment of His covenant when we accept His offer bodily, but now His body is the Temple where we meet Him, and obedience to this covenant (“take, eat”) naturally results in the Church.
Understanding the emergence of the Church in this way, we can understand more about the Church herself. Rahner holds that “the Church is the fundamental sacrament and that the opus operatum is the radical self-expression and actualization of this Church.” However, such a statement must be qualified by the recollection that the Church is never self-existent and always refers back to the moment of her birth; Calvary is a more fundamental sacrament than she, and (as Rahner would agree) the doctrine of the opus operatum is fundamentally the radical “self expression and actualization” of her Lord and His grace. The Church is nothing more nor less than the “historically visible form of eschatalogically victorious grace” of Calvary. In an even more fundamental way, just as the Church was once and for all born from the side of the Bridegroom who died for her, she is always being constituted by His Eucharistic body. I proposes that this is the best vein in which to embrace Rahner’s statement that “the sacraments, precisely as events in the spiritual life and sanctification of the individual, have an ecclesiological aspect.”
Several implications for contemporary ecclesiology might emerge from these ideas. First, in the area of Catholic apologetics regarding the sacraments, it might be noted that if there is no real presence nor ex opere operato in the sacraments, then there can be no ontologically joined Church in reality. There may be a communion of love and fellowship, or a juridical union of mere community; but such a fellowship certainly falls short of the strong sense of Paul’s references to a community of diverse parts so united as to constitute one body capable of monogamous “nuptial” union to Christ, and of Christ’s language of a fellowship of believers being as closely knit to one another in the same way that the Father and Son, who are united by being one in substance. As St. Paul states in I Corinthians 11, it is the failure to discern the body of Christ that results in uncharitable disunity; those who truly discern the body are then incorporated into it together, with charity following. It is not the other way around.
Secondly, the language of “covenant” by which many reformed traditions conceive of their ecclesiology, is shown neither to do justice to the Old Covenant, nor to allow for a sense of continuity with it, since such an interpretation certainly falls short of the practice of Israel, whose covenantal response to God and union with one another was “inscribed” on their very bodies. According to Christ’s own words of institution, we must understand our fellowship in Him as a revision of the Old Covenant that remains in continuity with the New. For Israel, the divine covenant is inscribed in the flesh and anticipates God’s inscription upon the human heart. As we know from the model of Israel, the first people of God, whose covenant is inscribed in their very bodies, the real life of the Church is not internalized; rather, the life of the Church is Christ Himself, who may be internalized for the inscription of the heart when the gift of His very self is received by the communicant into the body.
In the words of Louis Bouyer, an over-emphasis on the Church as the mystical body of Christ to the exclusion of its ontological basis results in the (disastrous) result of the adjective swamping the noun. Where the Church begins to locate its source not in the sacrament of the Lord’s body but in mere theological concepts, the idea of the Church’s ontological link to Christ fades away into relatively colorless, sociological, organalogical, or juristic notions that stress legal fictions and the merely juridical bonds that link the Church to its Head. Rather, an adequate ecclesiology should emphasize the Eucharist as the communal re-membering of the body of Chris, as each Christian takes the same life of Christ into himself; the body of Christ is individualized and commodified in the Host, and its effects become a reality in the hidden in the interior life of the individual heart. The union of many identically characterized hearts becomes the Church. The Eucharist constructs, makes, and makes visible the Church; the Eucharist makes unity. As Cavanaugh puts it, “to participate in the Eucharist is to be caught up into what is really real, the body of Christ. Human persons, body and soul, are incorporated into the performance of Christ’s corpus verum.”
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the Church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Hebrews 12:22-24
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes…for the old order of things has passed away." Revelation 21: 2-4
It is truly the one, identical Lord, whom we receive in the Eucharist, or better, the Lord who receives us and assumes us into himself. St Augustine expressed this in a short passage which he perceived as a sort of vision: eat the bread of the strong; you will not transform me into yourself, but I will transform you into me. In other words, when we consume bodily nourishment, it is assimilated by the body, becoming itself a part of ourselves. But this bread is of another type. It is greater and higher than we are. It is not we who assimilate it, but it assimilates us to itself, so that we become in a certain way “conformed to Christ”, as Paul says, members of his body, one in him.
We all “eat” the same person, not only the same thing; we all are in this way taken out of our closed individual persons and placed inside another, greater one. We all are assimilated into Christ and so by means of communion with Christ, united among ourselves, rendered the same, one sole thing in him, members of one another.
Pope Benedict XVI
Cavanaugh, William T. Torture and the Eucharist: Theology, Politics and the Body of Christ (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), Part III. “Eucharist”, p. 205- 278.
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