Eucharist: the Medicine for the Flesh of Man

Thursday 3rd week of Easter

The Eucharist is not only the food of immortality but also the medicine of the fallen flesh. The Ethiopian eunuch was brought to Christ through the evangelization of the word. This is the first stage of Christian conversion that culminates in baptism, the bath of regeneration. But this Ethiopian’s Christian education and formation was just beginning. If the father brought him to Christ for the living Word of the looks preaching, it would also be the father who brings him further into Christ by the gift of the Eucharist. The Eucharist contains the food of Angels, the word made flesh, but likewise the food and medicine for the complete human person.

St. Irenaeus presents a very vivid and realistic understanding of the holy Eucharist and the life of Christians. “We are his members and we are nourished by creatures, which is his gift to us … He affirmed that the bread, which comes from his creation, was his body, and he makes it the nourishment of our body. When the chalice we mix and the bread we bake receive the word of God, the Eucharistic elements become the body and blood of Christ, by which our bodies live and grow.” But, in what sense do they make our bodies “live and grow”? What life is he speaking about and what growth is he promising? He is speaking about real life and real growth applies to our bodies, but it is obviously not the kind of bodily life and growth we normally are speaking of in this world.

In today’s gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the bread of life, but again, what kind of life is he speaking about here? This life is clearly connected with his promise that those who come to him, drawn by the father, will be raised from the tomb by him on the last day. And then, at the end of the gospel, he connects this “new life of the resurrection” with the gift of his body and blood in the Eucharist, “the bread that I will give is my Flesh for the life of the world.” The bread of life is simultaneously the body of Christ and the gift of that body in the Eucharist. Our natural life will end in the tomb where the body is laid to rest, but the life that Christ gives us in his body and threw his body will never end, “whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

So the newly baptized Ethiopian eunuch, and all Christians, possess two distinct and different forms of life, the natural life of the body, which will end in death, and the supernatural life proper only to the Body of Christ, but into which Body the baptized is inserted by baptism. But if the Christian lives in a real sense “in Christ” and in his Body, it is also true that Christ lives in the Christian, and it is true that this “life in the Christian” does not belong only to the soul but likewise to the body. Thus we have the final confirmation not only of the goodness of the flesh freed from sin but love the eternal destiny of the whole person, body and soul, in Christ.

Why God should choose to communicate His Life to man in this very creaturely way, by means of the Eucharistic flesh and blood of the crucified and risen Lord is a mystery. But we can perhaps see one of the dimensions of that mystery revealed in the writing of St. Irenaeus. The text quoted above is taken from Irenaeus’ great work, Treatise Against Heresies, where he does combat with the Gnostic heresies of his day.

Gnostic Christians and Gnostic pagans both had (have today) a problem with the flesh being saved, that is, participating in the spiritual order of reality. In this same passage, Irenaeus writes, “How then can it be said that flesh belonging to the Lord’s own body and nourished by his body and blood is incapable of receiving God’s gift of eternal life?”  There you have the key to the Eucharist in all its realism. The Eucharist drives home the truth that man has a tendency to deny in every age, that the body, as St. Paul says, is made “for the Lord,” that is, is made to share God’s gift of eternal life, and “the Lord is for the Body.” (1 Cor. 6:13) Gnostics would deny this great truth about man, and the result inevitably is a degradation of the body, the practical and theoretical denial that the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the Body.

In this Pauline passage, we come to recognize in the Eucharist not only its life giving power for the body, but also its healing power for the body. The body is for the Lord, indeed, the body is the temple of the Lord, of the Holy Spirit, of the father. But to be truly “for the Lord” or “in the Lord” the body needs to be healed. That is why the sacrament of penance alone is not sufficient, for even though the guilt of sin be removed by that sacrament, the wounds of sin still remain. Thus, the new Christian life cannot be fully lived in the body without the healing of those wounds, and this healing most powerfully takes place in the gift of the Eucharist. It is the grace of the Lord’s body that heals the wounds of man’s flesh so that he can live a fully Christian life in body and soul in this world.

Where the Eucharist is absent, discarded, or neglected, this bodily healing, the healing of its spiritual dimension, is far more difficult if not impossible. The result is the inevitable degradation of the flesh in its many forms. Fornication, adultery, pornography and all lustful actions degrade the body; drugs degrade the body; drunkenness degrades the body; and on and on as we see today. The grace of the Eucharist – and above all the gift of divine charity – penetrates even the flesh and heals it spiritually. As St Irenaeus teaches, the body also is destined for eternal life because the whole person is saved by the whole of Christ. And because the body shares in this destiny, it also shares in the healing and transformation made possible by the grace of Christ already in this world. Gnosticism is a great lie, and the Eucharist is the great contradiction of that lie and the remedy for its consequences. Praised be Jesus Christ who died not only for our eternal salvation but to make us whole men already in this life.

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Categories: Weekday reflections

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