For the first thousand years of Christianity, bishops, priests, and all the faithful would talk about the Christian Community as the “real” body and blood of Christ. They referred to the change that took place in the bread and wine at the Eucharist as the food and drink becoming “mystical” Body and Blood of Christ. For them, the primary understanding of the Eucharist was that by sharing in the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, we were all made one in Christ. We were the “real”, the “true”, body and blood of Christ in this world.
Then in the 12th century some theologians and preachers began to teach that the bread and wine did not become the “real” body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist, it was said, was simply a memorial of what Jesus said and did at the Last Supper, and it was by sharing in this mystical experience we became the “real” body and blood of Christ. But for them the bread always remained just bread and the wine remained just wine.
It was in the 13th century that the Church condemned this teaching as heretical and taught that the bread and wine really did become the body and blood of Christ. They could not explain how this happened, but they knew that it was the traditional interpretation of the Eucharist. From earliest times non-believers would call Christians cannibals. Some enemies of the Church said that at their feasts they took a baby, rolled it in flour, killed it and ate it. Flesh and blood were consumed. The true belief of the Christian could not be explained, and for this reason they reluctantly talked about “eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ”.
The Church then decided to institute the liturgical celebration of Corpus Christi –- the Body of Christ. The Pope asked St. Thomas Aquinas, the outstanding theologian of the time, to compose the prayers and hymns for the liturgy. In his hymn Pange Lingua he wrote: Praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui – Our Faith supplies for the “defects” of our senses. He recognised that the bread still tasted like bread and the wine still tasted like wine after the consecration at the Mass, but our faith tells us that in receiving the bread and wine we are receiving the body and blood of Christ.
This is indeed a great mystery. This was brought home to me at the time of my ordination. The night before I was ordained I was practicing saying the Mass. I said all the words of the Mass, even the words of consecration, but I knew it was just bread and wine that I was taking that evening. Two days after ordination I was saying Mass for my family. When I turned around (I was ordained in the period when we still said Mass with our backs to the people) to give my Mom and Dad Holy Communion I could see in their faces that they knew they were not just receiving bread and wine from their youngest child but they firmly believed they were receiving the body and blood of Christ.
In some ways this emphasis on the bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ has distracted us from the real purpose of Communion. It is by sharing in the body and blood of Christ that we become one in Christ and we become the “real” body and blood of Christ in this world.
I heard a priest tell a true story about a young boy who understood this. He had been born with some brain damage. But his parents taught him about the Catholic faith. At a certain point the parents and the catechist who worked with them thought that he understood enough about the Eucharist to make his First Holy Communion. The parish priest was not convinced of it, but in the end he gave in to the parents and the catechist. When the boy came up to receive Communion his mother accompanied him. The priest gave him the host saying: the Body of Christ. The boy said: Amen. Then the boy broke the host in half and gave one half to his mother. At that moment the whole Christian community present recognised that he had grasped the true meaning of the Eucharist.