The Year of Saint Paul: A 20-Part Series – Part 14:
Baptism, Eucharist, and the Church
During the season of Easter, we continue to give thanks for those who were baptized during the Easter Vigil. We seek to deepen their commitment to the Lord and to His Church. Conscious of our reliance on God's grace, we seek to encourage them to lead a life worthy of the calling they have received (Ephesians 4:1). It is also the principal season for Confirmations; young people all over Fairfield County are completing their initiation into the Church by receiving the fullness of the Holy Spirit. We pray that they will continue as faithful members of the Church. First Communions are also under way throughout the parishes in the diocese. Many pastors are reporting large First Communion Classes.
So while the sacraments are always at the heart of the Church's life, we might think of these fifty days after Easter as an intensely sacramental period.
With that in mind – and following upon our last installment which focused on the Church as the Body of Christ – I would like devote this column to Saint Paul's teaching on Baptism and Eucharist. More specifically, I will try to focus on how the baptized are incorporated into Christ and thus into His Body, the Church, and how the Eucharist, the sacramental Body of Christ, builds us - the Church understood as the Body of Christ. The overall goal is two-fold: to deepen our love for the Church's sacramental life, and to understand more fully what Saint Paul teaches concerning the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist.
Saint Paul provides us with the earliest written theology of Baptism. Indeed, he gives it a prominent place in his writings. What he says about it no doubt reflects the understanding and practice of the earliest Christian communities.
Indeed, in the Acts of the Apostles, written by Saint Paul's friend and companion, Saint Luke, we see the basic importance of Baptism for the Christian community and also get a glimpse of how it was administered. Furthermore, references to Baptism are found throughout Saint Paul's letters. Some of these references are direct, while others are oblique. Suffice it to say that his letters are suffused with baptismal references and theology.
For our purposes, it's best to concentrate only on the main texts. One of the most basic in the Church's liturgy is Romans 6:1-4:
"What then shall we say? Shall we persist in sin that grace may not abound? Of course not! How can we who died to sin yet live in it? Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life."
In the passage just quoted, Saint Paul presumes that his readers already know the basic proclamation of the Gospel of Christ (kerygma, in Greek), which he handed on to them, namely, "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). These few verses are thought to be an early baptismal profession of faith which Saint Paul "handed on" (paradosis, in Greek) in his preaching and also included in his first letter to the Corinthians.
In any event, in his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul presumes that the audience is thoroughly familiar with this basic proclamation which, at the same time, forms the heart and soul of what baptized Christians believe and profess. Indeed, in Paul's thought, baptism and faith go hand in hand. There is no baptism without faith, and without baptism faith is incomplete (see Romans 8:9-11). That is why the Church, in baptizing infants, stresses the importance of the faith-commitment of the parents and godparents.
Faith and baptism open the door to grace; that is to say, a participation in what we profess, namely, the death and resurrection of Christ. As in the Acts of the Apostles so, also, for Paul, baptism is a washing in water that 24 May 9, 2009 cleanses from sin. In a passage warning the Corinthians against severe moral failings, Saint Paul adds: "This what some of you used to be; but now you have had yourselves washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and in the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11).
This washing, sanctification, and justification takes place because we are baptized "in the name of the Lord Jesus," that is to say, in the presence and power of Jesus. In Romans, Saint Paul tells us that we were baptized "into" the death of the Lord. The preposition "into" (eis, in Greek) is highlighted to show its significance. It means that by baptism we are made to be participants in the death of the Lord; we share in it. Baptism is more than merely a mental remembrance or reflection on the Lord's death; it is more than associating ourselves with His death. On the contrary, baptism means entering into the death of the Lord.
Thus Paul goes on to say that "by baptism into his death we were buried with him" (Romans 6:4). Just a few verses later, Saint Paul goes on to say, "We know that our old self was crucified with him, so that our sinful body (sarx, in Greek) might be done away with, that we might no longer be in slavery to sin" (v. 6), a thought that is echoed many places in Saint Paul's writings. What we have here is a sense of realism: baptism as a rite that brings us into actual if mystical contact with the death and resurrection of the Lord which, in turn, transforms us.
This transformation is captured in the word "likeness" (homoioma, in Greek). In a certain sense, the death and resurrection of Christ are reproduced in us through baptism. As Father Burkhard Neunhauser, O.S.B., commented, "In and through this likeness of Christ's death, the baptismal candidate enters into the most intimate association with the Lord crucified, and in consequence, with the risen Lord as well" (Baptism and Confirmation, New York: Herder & Herder, 1964, p. 28).
Elsewhere, Saint Paul describes likeness to the Lord's death and resurrection as "putting on Christ" (see Galatians 3:27). This is reflected in the baptismal rite of the Church when the newly baptized are clothed with the white baptismal garment. The priest or deacon says to them, "You have become a new creation and have clothed yourselves in Christ."
To "put on" Christ or to be "clothed" in Christ does not mean a mere external resemblance to Christ - as one might "put on" a costume and pretend to be someone else. On the contrary, it means assuming a new existence. One is made new, as we see in Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10. With echoes of Christ's conversation with Nicodemus, Saint Paul tells us that the newly baptized person is "reborn" (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). Indeed, Saint Paul teaches us that through likeness, that is, participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, we experience "newness of life" (Romans 6:4). This newness of life is given to us by the Holy Spirit.
As we saw previously, when Saint Paul says that Jesus "was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father" (v. 4), the word "glory" refers to the Holy Spirit. One who shares in the resurrection of Christ therefore shares in the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. This newness of life the Risen Lord has breathed upon us. It entails freedom from the slavery of sin; this spelled out in the remainder of Romans 6. Such freedom is essential for sharing the common life of the Christian community.
And this brings us to the relationship of baptism to the Church as the Body of Christ. In the last installment we reflected on Christ as head of the Church. He is the "new Adam" (see Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:20-22; Philippians 2:5-11), the founder of a redeemed humanity. In the words of one author, "By His death and resurrection, He reversed Adam's Fall and recovered the dominion over creation which Adam lost. Thus He ushered in the New Age and Himself became the first fruits and firstborn of a new creation" (L.S. Thornton, "The Body of Christ in the New Testament," in The Apostolic Ministry, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1957, p. 75). What's more, the Lord, "who is head of His body the Church" (Colossians 1:18), shares the new, divine life He won for us by His death and resurrection with the members of His body and continues to incorporate new members through baptism. Sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, the baptized become members of the one body of Christ. Thus Saint Paul writes, "there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism" (Ephesians 4:5). Through baptism we share a common faith and we all partake of what the Lord has done for us. We are united with the Lord and with one another in "dying to sin" and "living for God" (Romans 6:4, 6).
Sharing in the death and resurrection of the Lord through the Spirit transcends our divisions of race, nationality, and gender as through our baptismal grace we seek to respond to a common call to holiness of life.
Thus in Galatians 3:27-28, Paul writes, "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
While in other passages Saint Paul speaks of the diversity of the members of the Body of Christ, he never compromises what he says about the unity of the members with one another in Christ their head. Nor does he ever comprise his warnings to the effect that "an unsound member of the body endangers the health of the whole" (Thornton, op. cit., p. 55; see Romans 6 in toto).
If, through Baptism, new members are incorporated into the Body of Christ, it is through the Eucharist that the Church, understood as the Body of Christ, is built up in love. Just as Saint Paul provided us with the earliest texts explaining Baptism, so also Saint Paul provides us with the earliest theology of the Eucharist. The writings of Saint Paul are filled with Eucharistic references and allusions, but, as with Baptism, we do well to anchor our discussion in two texts which figure most prominently in the Church's liturgy on occasions such as Holy Thursday and Corpus Christi. Both are from First Corinthians:
"The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because the loaf of bread is one, we though many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf " (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).
"For I received from the Lord, what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, 'This is my body for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.' For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes" (1 Corinthians 10:23-26).
Let us begin with the second of these texts in an effort to paint a coherent picture. These verses (vs. 23-26) are the oldest written account of the institution of the Eucharist (see R. Collins, First Corinthians, in Sacra Pagina, no. 7, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1999, p. 425). Saint Paul penned these words in 55 – 57 A.D., during his two year stay at Ephesus. But these words are based on his preaching at Corinth in 49 or 50. Furthermore, Paul makes a point of telling us that he is handing on what he received.
In the previous section on baptism, we noted in passing the Greek word for "tradition" or "handing on," namely, "paradosis." In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, "paradosis" is a rabbinic term referring to the passing on of a tradition. This tradition traces itself back to the historical Jesus (ca. 30) and to the teaching and practice of the very first Christian communities (see Acts of the Apostles 2:42). Thus, the renowned theologian, Joachim Jeremias, called the Eucharistic words of consecration "the primeval rock of tradition" (The Eucharistic Words of Jesus, London: SCM Press, 1973, p. 189).
We can thus see how fundamental the Eucharist, the "breaking of bread," was to the Church from the very beginning. In the Acts of the Apostles 2:42 (passim), Saint Luke writes, "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers." Pope John Paul II reminded us that tradition discerns the presence of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, at these earliest Eucharistic gatherings (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, no. 53). If, indeed, the Eucharist is bedrock to tradition, and Mary, the Mother of God, saw the need to attend the Eucharist, what can be said of the current tendency of far too many Catholics to casually absent themselves from Sunday Eucharist?
In the passage at hand, Saint Paul recounts the institution of the Eucharist much as Saint Luke does in his Gospel, but in continuity as well with saints Mark and Matthew. Like all these sacred writers, Saint Paul has tapped into a common source and cites it now as he attempts to instruct and correct the Corinthians who dallied with idolatry and displayed crass selfishness at the meal preceding the Eucharist. Saint Paul reminds them that the Eucharist truly is the Body and Blood of the Lord sacrificed for the sake of our salvation.
Here and in the other accounts of the institution of the Eucharist, we arrive at the basis for the Church's teaching on the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Based on what Christ said and did at the Last Supper and upon the earliest Eucharistic gatherings of the primitive Church, we profess that the Eucharistic bread is, in fact, the true Body of the Lord and that the cup is truly the Blood of Christ in which the new covenant was sealed.
In this passage, Saint Paul employs a word play between "handing on" the Church's Eucharistic tradition and the "handing over", that is, the betrayal of Christ (see Thornton, op. cit., pp. 94 ff.). And in using the word "Lord" (kyrios, in Greek), Saint Paul subtly reminds us that the one betrayed is now risen.
Twice Saint Paul uses the word "remembrance" (anamnesis, in Greek). He conveys Jesus' command, to do this – the Eucharistic action – "in remembrance of me." This is not just a matter of recalling past events. In the liturgical celebration of these events, they become, in a certain way, real and present.
Our communion with the Lord is the "source and summit" of the communion that is the Church.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "When the Church celebrates the Eucharist, she commemorates Christ's Passover, and it is made present: the sacrifice Christ offered once for all remains ever present" (no. 1363).
In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul proclaims, "Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed" and so reminds us that the substance of our sacrifice is the substance of our Eucharistic meal.
We ingest what we proclaim and proclaim what we ingest: the Lord's Pasch.
Turning now to 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, we can deepen our understanding of "the Real Presence" and how the Eucharist builds up the Church. Saint Paul says of the "cup of blessing" – "is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?" And of the Eucharistic bread – "is it not a participation in the body of Christ?" The word "participation" is a key idea. In Greek it is "koinonia," which is the word for "communion." Thus we refer to the Holy Eucharist as "Holy Communion." The communion established by reception of the Eucharist is not merely a meeting of the minds nor does it depend on the feeling or experience of the recipients. Rather, it is "real" communion in the sense that it exists independently of what we may think or feel; thus, not feeling like we want to go to Mass is never a good reason to stay away.
As Father Lucien Cerfaux wrote, "Union with the Lord in the Eucharist is... a religious reality of primordial importance. We have a real, almost physical, contact with the body and blood of the Lord" (The Christian in the Theology of Saint Paul, New York: Herder and Herder, 1967, p. 335).
We can also easily see that communion with the Body and Blood of the Lord unites us not only with Christ but also with one another: "Because the loaf of bread is one, we though many, are one body, for we all partake of one loaf " (v. 17). Thus there is a direct link between the Eucharistic Body of the Lord and the Church as the Body of Christ.
Our communion with the Lord is the "source and summit" of the communion that is the Church. As you recall, the phrase "the Body of Christ" is Saint Paul's "definition" of the Church. Christ is the Head and we are the members. As members of the Body of Christ we have differing vocations and gifts, but all of them are work together harmoniously. The Eucharist, which is a true and real participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, builds up the Church, which is His Body. There is thus a real though mystical (sacramental) identification between the Incarnate Christ, crucified and risen, and the Eucharistic Body of the Lord, which in turn forms and constitutes the Church as His Body, that is the whole Christ, head and members.
These few reflections only scratch the surface. I hope, however, that what you have read will spur you on to further reading, reflection, and prayer. Most of all, I hope it will contribute to a spirit of praise and thanksgiving for the Lord's sacramental presence in our midst.
As the opening prayer for Mass on the Second Sunday of Easter puts it, "Give [us] still greater grace, so that all may truly understand the waters in which they were cleansed, the Spirit by which they were reborn, and the blood by which they were redeemed."