|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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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 68:7)'" (ibid., 26,
"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).