The Word: The body of Christ

Published 6:55 pm Friday, October 20, 2023

It was a short climb to the mountain village of O’Cebreiro in Spain. I was hiking a 4-week-long pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James, when one day the path led through a hilltop town overlooking the valley below. Amid the quaint stone structures was a small church. Inside, a glass case held a chalice (a golden cup) and paten (a small gold plate) used at Catholic Masses. Since I was not comfortable reading Spanish, my guidebook had to tell the story.

About 700 years ago, a priest was about to celebrate Mass in that same church. It was miserably cold even inside, and the discouraged monk grumbled with doubt about the truth of the mystery of the Eucharist: the bread and wine which is turned into the Body and Blood of Jesus and given to the faithful as Communion. The Eucharist looks like bread and wine, but at the words of the priest at Mass, through the power of Christ, they are changed into Jesus Himself. Nothing of the bread and wine remain, except their appearances. Well, the doubting priest nevertheless continued with Mass and after he had consecrated the wine, it visibly turned to blood in the chalice, and the bread visibly turned into flesh. It was a Eucharistic miracle given by God to strengthen his faith.

When we go to Mass, the Eucharist continues to look like bread and wine, of course, but Jesus, who created all things and has the power to change their substances, assures us of the truth that they do indeed become His Body and Blood. During His public life Jesus foretold the gift of Himself that He would leave us, His true and substantial presence in the Eucharist: “The bread that I will give, is my flesh, for the life of the world…. Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you” (John 6:52-57).  Later Jesus fulfilled His promise at the Last Supper when “taking bread, he… gave to them, saying: This is my body…. In like manner the chalice also, …saying: This is… my blood.” Then He gave to His Apostles and their ordained successors in the Catholic Church the power to continue this: “Do this for a commemoration of me” (Luke 22:19 & 20).  

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Assuring His worried listeners that there would be no bodily mutilation or cannibalism, Christ said that His body would ascend into heaven (John 6:63). Nevertheless, St. John tells us that He lost many of his disciples over this teaching. It would have been easy enough for Him to keep these disciples by assuring them that He only meant these words symbolically, but He didn’t mean them symbolically: He meant them literally, and that is why He was willing to lose so many followers over this teaching. 

The love of Jesus found this way to continue fulfilling His prophetic name of Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Br. Maximilian Watner is on the staff at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Buckingham County. He can be reached at