For the Feast of St. Augustine: August 28

Author: Vittorino Grossi

For the Feast of St. Augustine: 28 August

Vittorino Grossi

Knowing and becoming the Body of Christ

When we use the expression "theological keys" we mean the reference points on which we Christians base a discourse. In this case they refer to the Eucharist as attested to in St. Augustine's writings.

These reference points were and are the Sacred Scriptures, the traditio evangelii, that is, the tradition or transmission of the Gospel around which the Magisterium of the Church gravitates. They constitute the life of the Church, from rites to faith confessed, to prayer and the forms of Eucharistic celebration which developed in the context of the respective liturgical traditions.

We are attempting here to explain St. Augustine's Eucharistic thought. To understand this mystery in which he was daily nourished, we have drawn above all from his Commentary on John's Gospel, in which the relationship of Church and Eucharist stands out, indeed, the Christian's sense of "being Church".

Theology of the Eucharist

Thanks to his faith, Augustine deduced the secrets of the Eucharist from his knowledge of Sacred Scripture. For this reason, he devoted numerous tracts to explaining Chapter 6 of St. John's Gospel to the people.

Moreover, these mysteries were entrusted solely to the baptized on the day they professed their faith, that is, the day of their Baptism. Consequently, only the baptized as guardian of the secret entrusted to him could live the Eucharistic mystery appropriately (in Io. Ev. tr. 24).

Augustine based each one of his reflections on the Eucharist by explaining that Christians-being-Church is like being a family which celebrates the Lord's Pasch.

Often, a Christian is unable to experience sociologically the Eucharistic reality in and with one's family because not all its members are believers, and the family of faith does not deny believers the experience of sharing the Eucharistic Bread. The believer is a member of the Church and thus one with Christ; no one can be allowed to approach Christ without the Church and vice versa.

Believers experience birth in Christ through Baptism, which makes them part of the Body of the Church and thus the Body of Christ. This was the essence of Augustine's Eucharistic theology that was closely connected with the sacraments of initiation.

The relationship between the Eucharist and the Church is justified in general by a "certain resemblance between them"; without this there can be no sacrament.

The principle of resemblance was used in ancient times to solve the problem of the possibility of knowledge. This idea was applied to the Christian sacraments by St. Ambrose in particular (cf. Sacr. III, 1, 2, with an allusion to Rom 6:3-11 and Sacr. VI 1, 2ff.) and by St. Augustine. Augustine, in fact, explained it precisely in the interaction between the Eucharist and the Church.

A famous homily by St. Augustine, the 26th in his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, on this close relationship, refers not only to the controversy but to understanding the Eucharistic mystery.

In it, commenting on John 6:51 ("The bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world"), the Bishop of Hippo offers us one of the most famous syntheses of the Eucharist. Its beautiful words known by all have made it popular: "O sacrament of devotion! O sign of unity! O bond of charity!" he said, addressing the Eucharist.

This homily can be dated to after the year 413 (but no later than 421), in other words, to after the famous Conference of Carthage in 411 that put an end to the schism in the African Church. It already shows a Church united around one Eucharist, apart from the few surviving Donatists on the fringes.

Consequently, Augustine's reflection is peaceful, free from the passion for the Church's unity that is found in his writings from the Donatist period. It is therefore broader and deeper.

There are two principal structural categories: unity and the Body of Christ.

The Bishop of Hippo refers to the Body of the Lord both as the Eucharistic Bread and as the Church, creating between the two a unity that would be hard to understand were we to attempt to think of the two components as distinct and separate. Any reader who failed to take this unity into consideration in reading Augustine's thought on the Eucharist would find himself in difficulty, in a blind alley. We can briefly sum up both these dimensions.

Ecclesial unity

The unity of the Church for which Jesus prayed (cf. Ag., in Io. Ev. 107, 5, 8; 110, 1) is a mystery concerning the recovery of the unity lost in Adam when our first parents rebelled against the One God (ibid., 110, 2). This process covers the whole span of human history, creating communion among the members of the Church as a fruit of the gift of love infused in the hearts of believers by the Holy Spirit (ibid., 27, 6; 32, 7).

The unity of the Church takes the form of social harmony and spiritual concord, expressed in everyday life in the communion of goods (ibid., 32, 8). It develops reciprocal love to the point that believers share the same thoughts (ibid., 18, 4); to preserve this unity, it tolerates all things and avoids increasing factions within the Church.

Ecclesial unity includes the sacraments and visible charity, constituting, as it were, a visible sign of reciprocal love between brothers and sisters in the faith (in lo. Ev. 1, 12; 2, 3-4).

Indeed, division among believers shows an absence of love that drains any other Christian value of meaning, even the ability to work miracles (in lo. Ev. 13, 7 and 17).

'The Body of Christ'

When Augustine speaks of the Body of Christ and the Eucharistic Body, he is always referring to the Church: in fact, together, Christ the Head and the Church-Body form the "total Christ". Augustine's understanding of the Eucharistic Bread increased considerably in the everyday life of the history of the Kingdom of God and of the Church; it is depicted as the bread of justice and a gift of the Holy Spirit who, in making people believe in Christ, makes the believer a new person; as prayer, which brings men and women freely to approach the sacrament of the altar from the inmost depths of their hearts; as heartfelt joy, possible only for those who are capable of love; as bread of harmony; as satisfaction through Christ, although in history this cannot yet be complete; as ecclesial unity, ever subject to being rebuilt through forgiveness, asked and given in every celebration of the Eucharist.

On the other hand, the Eucharist only bears fruit if its visible Bread is eaten with the love of spiritual knowledge of the Bread of Life, that is, with the understanding of Sacred Scripture that the Holy Spirit imparts to Christians. This knowledge brings all the faithful to understand the Body of Christ in the dimension of the Church, Body of Christ.

Augustine speaks of the Eucharistic treasure that Christians enjoy most tenderly; yet he also emphasizes the aspect of history on the move, of growth, of striving for a fulfilment whose epilogue lies beyond the time available to human beings.

Moreover, the preaching of the Bishop of Hippo conveyed considerable ecclesial experience. Indeed, he knew and lived in close contact with the African Christian communities (particularly those of Carthage and Hippo) and the Italian communities (particularly those of Milan and Rome). Both Churches converged in ancient times with many other Christian traditions, especially the Oriental tradition, such as the Church of Milan, and the Asian tradition, such as the Churches of Africa and of Rome.

In his own words...

We end these brief comments on the Eucharistic thought of St Augustine with some passages from his preaching:

"Where can the soul be satisfied?" St. Augustine asks. "Where is the supreme good to be found, the total truth, full abundance? Here on earth, even though upheld by authentic hope we can more easily go hungry than be satisfied.... Where? In the resurrection of the dead.... What matters is that one eat internally, not only externally: that one eat with the heart, not with one's teeth" (cf. lo. Ev. 26, 11-12).

"Believers show they know the Body of Christ if they do not neglect to be the Body of Christ. Let them become the Body of Christ.... It is for this that the Apostle Paul, expounding on this bread, says: 'Because the loaf of bread is one, we, many though we are, are one body' (I Cor 10:17). 'O sacrament of devotion! O sign of unity! O bond of charity! He that would live has where to live, has whence to live. Let him draw near, let him believe; let him become part of the Body, that he may be made to live. Let him shrink not from the structure of the members; let him not be a rotten member who deserves to be cut off; let him not be a deformed member whereof to be ashamed. Let him be a fair, fit and sound member; let him cleave to the Body.... The Jews...strove among themselves, since they understood not, and neither did they wish to take the bread of concord: 'for those who eat such bread do not strive with one another; for we being many are one bread, one body'. And by this bread, 'God makes people of one sort to dwell in the same house (cf. Ps 68[67]:7)'" (ibid., 26, 13-14).

"Thus, the Lord would have this food and drink to be understood as meaning the fellowship of his own Body and members, which is the holy Church.... The sacrament of this reality, namely, of the unity of the Body and Blood of Christ, is prepared on the Lord's table in some places daily, in others at certain intervals of days, and from the Lord's table it is taken, by some to life, by some to destruction: but the reality itself, of which it is the sacrament, is for every man life, for no man destruction" (ibid., 26, 15).

"For we have said, brethren, that this is what the Lord had taught us by the eating of his Flesh and drinking of his Blood, that we should abide in him and he in us. But we abide in him when we are his members, and he abides in us when we are his temple. But that we may be his members, unity joins us together. And what but love can effect that unity?... These considerations must inspire in us a love for unity and a horror of separation. For there is nothing that a Christian ought to dread so much as to be separated from Christ's Body" (in Ev. lo. 27, 6).

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
23 August 2006, page 8

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