Volume > Issue > The Threefold Body of Christ

The Threefold Body of Christ


By David Vincent Meconi | October 2021
Fr. David Vincent Meconi, S.J., a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor of Patristics and Founder of the Catholic Studies Centre at Saint Louis University in Missouri. He is the Editor of Homiletic & Pastoral Review.

At the heart of the Catholic faith is the perduring truth that the Word became flesh and still dwells among us. Who promised that He would never leave us orphans? Which Divine Person of the Sacred Trinity vowed to be with us on earth until the end of the age? It was God-made-flesh who spoke such literal, unalterable words; it was the incarnate Son who vouchsafed His real, and thus physical, presence to those who would live after He ascended to the Father.

The entirety of the Christian faith, most obviously and faithfully expressed in the Catholic Church, hinges on the fact that God assumed creation to Himself in an unmatchable and eternal way. In fact, Christianity must be seen as the most materialistic of all creeds: At creation, the Triune God invented matter; in the Incarnation, the Son of God hypostatically united matter and all that is human to Himself; and at the end of all the ages, the same God promises an eternity that does not discard creation but is best described as a new Heaven and a new earth.

Many years ago, as a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, I was walking down Wisconsin Avenue when a young man approached and asked me if I was saved.

“I certainly hope so,” I replied, giving him the only orthodox Catholic answer. Then I goaded him, “Surely you’re saved?”

To which he replied, “Of course.”

“How are you saved?” I inquired.

“By the body and blood of Jesus Christ.”

I probed further, asking where he encountered this body and blood.

“Encounter?” he wondered.

“Yes, encounter! Body and blood are the kinds of things you can touch and see and even taste.”

“Oh, no,” he assured me, “you don’t ever meet Christ that way. He comes to us spiritually.”

“Whoa,” I interrupted. “It is the Holy Spirit’s role to come to us spiritually, for that is His nature, pure Spirit. But the enfleshed Son of God must come to us as He now is, as an embodied Savior whose very self He gives us as our only true food and drink.”

We argued, we disagreed, we parted.

From there I walked a few steps into the basement crypt of Marquette’s beautiful Gesù Church and broke down crying for joy. For the first time, I finally understood what Sister Pam was trying to teach us in second grade about the Mass and our celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist. This is how the incarnate Son of God keeps His promise to be with us always (cf. Mt. 28:20), never to leave us orphans (cf. Jn. 14:18). Challenge your non-Catholic Christian friends on how Jesus Christ comes to them. How do they commune with the Word-made-flesh? Is it only spiritually? Then how is the presence of the Holy Spirit different in their lives than the presence of Jesus Christ?

Early in the life of Christ’s Church, speculation arose regarding the proper sense of the term Corpus Christi. When reading the Church Fathers, one encounters the term “Body of Christ” in three different senses. The first and most obvious describes the Son of Mary, whose body she conceived, swaddled, nursed, and raised. The second comes from the Lord’s institution of His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist on Holy Thursday. The third is the most ethereal: the Mystical Body, the Church made up of stumbling sinners like us. These three different appearances of Jesus Christ all point to the same reality: God became man out of love for us.

This threefold Body of Christ is found throughout the great Catholic Tradition. St. Ambrose captured this tension succinctly, preaching on the translation of Christ’s body: “We have no doubt as to what is meant by ‘body,’ especially if we remember that Joseph of Arimathea received the Body from Pilate…. But the Body is also the subject of his saying, ‘My flesh is real food indeed’ (Jn. 6:55)…and this Body is also that of his Church” (Homily on Luke, no. 17.37).

Ambrose’s best-known parishioner, St. Augustine of Hippo, developed this insight into a rich psychological and spiritual invitation, in which we see ourselves, members of the Body of Christ, in the celebration of the Body of Christ at the Sacrifice of the Mass:

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! (Sermon 272)

Augustine’s genius is in asking his flock not to attend Mass simply as spectators but as other Christs who see “their own mystery” being re-enacted on the Altar of Praise. Imagine how parish life could be invigorated if those who come to Mass prayed over how in the past week they had been taken, blessed, broken, and then given. Imagine how eucharistic adoration would come alive if we could help people see their own faces in the monstrance, their own families and concerns, their own prayers and desires poured out in the Son’s perfect oblation to the Father.

This meeting of Christ’s life and our own was not relegated to the West. St. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, challenged his hearers, admonishing them for constraining their Christian charity to the sanctuary and thereby refusing to see Christ alive outside the visible walls of His Church:

Do you want to honor Christ’s body? Then do not scorn him in his nakedness, nor honor him here in the Church with silken garments while neglecting him outside where he is cold and naked. For he who said: This is my body, and made it so by his words, also said: You saw me hungry and did not feed me, and inasmuch as you did not do it for one of these, the least of my brothers or sisters, you did not do it for me. What we do here in the Church requires a pure heart, not special garments…. Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs?… Do not, therefore, adorn the Church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all. (Homily on Matthew, no. 50:3-4)

What a needed reminder to root our almsdeeds in our own Holy Hours, and to let our Holy Hours lead us to charitable acts of service to the beggars and homeless in whatever neighborhood or community our heavenly Father has placed us. For this to happen, we must amplify how we conceive of Christ’s Body and that which is worthy of our time and attention: He is not confined to the monstrance, and without deep sacramental prayer, our almsdeeds dwindle into ordinary social work.

In the Middle Ages, the debate over how best to apply the term Corpus Christi arose with renewed force. The three different usages of Christ’s Body — the Corpus Natum, the born or biological body of Christ; the Corpus Eucharisticum, or Eucharistic Body; and the Corpus Mysticum, the Mystical Body of Christ’s Church — all capture some of Jesus’ continued enfleshment among us. Honorius of Autun, a rather obscure 12th-century French writer, astutely recognized the importance of keeping these three modes of Christ’s Body present before our senses:

The Body of Christ is said to be of a triple kind: first, it is the Body incarnate of a Virgin, offered for us upon the altar of the Cross, raised to heaven after having conquered death, seated on the right hand of God; second, they call the Body of the Lord the promise given to the Church and which the priestly power mysteriously realizes from the bread and wine consecrated by the Holy Spirit; and, third, the Body of Christ is the entire Church in which the elect are united like members of a single body…. This third Body is connected to the first through the second, so much so that one does not affirm there are three Bodies as such, but only one Body coordinated by the Holy Spirit, just as in the human being the soul provides life to all parts of the body. (Eucharistion, no. 1)

Though Honorius’s phrasing is particularly medieval, we can see the same theology in all the writings of the great churchmen of the Catholic Tradition.

Think of how we come into this world. The first place our bodies can be found is in the womb of our mothers. Here — in what should be the safest space in the world — our tiny, vulnerable selves lie in secret to the rest of the world, entrusted silently only to one woman, whose entire life and attention have now been taken up with our new presence. After some time, we are introduced to a bigger but still relatively small and safe world: our intimate family circle. Here we are commended to those brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, and so on, with whom we shall grow and labor. The next entrustment comes when we are ushered into the larger world, apart from our own family’s traditions and values. Think of how many other skin colors, ways of life, and belief systems we encountered on our first day of school, surrounded by many who did not necessarily know us and who did not all assent to what we were raised to value.

In a similar fashion, this is how Our Lord and Savior entrusted Himself to this world. At the Annunciation, it was only Our Lady who held His Presence, who knew of His sacred flesh deep within her (cf. Lk. 1:28-38). Years later, this same Man would entrust Himself to those intimate companions whom He called and with whom He had labored for years. “This is my Body,” He told them (Mt. 26:26-28; Mk. 14:22-24; Lk. 22:19-20). Upon ascending to the Father, Christ not only left us His Body and Blood, but He sends us His Holy Spirit, thereby uniting Himself to every human soul and mystically identifying with every man and woman (cf. Mt. 25:31-46; Acts 9:4), especially the marginalized and downtrodden.

In 1943 Pope Pius XII issued one of the richest encyclicals of all time: Mystici Corporis Christi (“On the Body of Christ”). In the midst of the devastation of World War II and the ugly tearing apart of the human family, the Holy Father bravely confronted the powers of the 20th century, calling on them to pull back from their insistence on destruction and dominance. The lives of all men, women, and children are intimately connected, he wrote, and only one unifier of the human family, the Holy Spirit, has been sent to make us children of the same heavenly Father.

This encyclical was influenced by Corpus Mysticum, a work Henri de Lubac, S.J., finished in 1938 that would not appear in print until 1944. This instrumental book helped illumine the patristic and medieval usages of the term “Mystical Body.” Cardinal de Lubac’s study evidenced how this term first referred to the Eucharist and only later to the People of God, showing that the Eucharist causes the Church, and the faithful must thus recognize how the Sacred Host is — as Vatican II, influenced by de Lubac, would later put it — the “source and summit” of the Christian life (Presbyterorum Ordinis, no. 5).

Similarly, Pope St. John Paul II dedicated his final encyclical to the same theme: The Eucharist’s serving as the mediating bridge between Heaven and earth. From this Sacred Host, from Christ Himself, comes His Church, whose sole mission is to sanctify the souls humble enough to be presented to her. John Paul fittingly opens Ecclesia de Eucharistia with these words:

The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church. In a variety of ways she joyfully experiences the constant fulfilment of the promise: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt. 28:20), but in the Holy Eucharist, through the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of the Lord, she rejoices in this presence with unique intensity. (no. 1)

What all these texts share is the insistence that the sacramental movements of the Church keep alive what Christ Himself instituted in the first century, bridging the power of Christ and our need for sanctification.

All the rites and actions of the Church are meant for no other reason than our own holiness. That is, everything that happened historically for our salvation — which we find in Sacred Scripture — continues in history through the teachings and sacraments of Christ’s Church, but only so that each of us may appropriate it in our sanctified souls. As such, Catholics are enabled to see an unbroken trajectory from biblical history to ecclesiology to personal holiness. This is how the Church proves to be not a merely human institution (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 795) but, in fact, the extension of Christ’s own incarnate presence. Because the Messiah founded His Church as He did, there is no greater access on earth to Jesus Christ than what we have right now.

In other words, we meet Christ’s Body in a threefold manner: as the historical body that walked the dusty plains of the Middle East; as the Eucharistic Body, which is present right now in every tabernacle in the world; and as the Mystical Body, which we meet in ourselves and in our neighbors. Though every Christian is committed to the first, Catholics have been blessed to retain the gift of the second. But we become saints only by loving and serving Jesus in the third.

So, though the visible “look” of Christ’s Body has changed over time, it is the same Body. St. John Henry Newman’s theology of authentic doctrinal development hinges on this indisputable tenet: “The adult animal has the same make as it had on its birth; young birds do not grow into fishes” (An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine 5.1.1).

This is the spirituality of the Mystical Body: We must never relegate Christ’s presence to merely the ceremonial or to the sanctuary. We must acknowledge Him as having ascended to the right hand of the Father. We must receive Him as the same Christ present in every tabernacle and Host throughout the world. And we must love Him in everyone we meet. As Karl Rahner, S.J., another 20th-century Jesuit, prophesied so presciently, “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all” (“Concern for the Church,” Theological Investigations, vol. 20). Anyone who prays deeply understands this.

The world has become too loud, secularism too strong, and political movements too hateful of Christ’s Church. Yet, this sort of prayerful mysticism is not a retreat from the world but a trustful embracing of our baptismal vocation to see Christ alive in our neighbors. Today, perhaps more than ever, God’s people must reclaim the heart of Catholicism, of seeing Christ in all persons and loving them back to His Eucharistic Church, so that we may all be with Him in Heaven.



Welcome Aboard!

With this issue, we welcome our two newest Contributing Editors, Monica Migliorino Miller and David Vincent Meconi, S.J.

Dr. Miller and Fr. Meconi, two well-respected figures in the worlds of Catholic academia and Catholic journalism, have offered their considerable talents to enhance the witness of the NOR. Together with our staff of Editors and Contributing Editors, they will help determine the direction of our apostolate over the course of the coming years.

The full list of Contributing Editors, both current and past, including those whose work with the NOR is complete and who have gone to their eternal reward, can be found at the “About Us” section of our website.



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