Locating the Body of Christ

Sadao Watanabe woodprint. "The Lord's Supper"
Sadao Watanabe woodprint. “The Lord’s Supper”

In  a few weeks, on April 2 this year, my Catholic friends will observe Maundy Thursday, a holiday that commemorates, among other things, the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. Perhaps because of the crowded calendar around Easter, that church established another feast day, Corpus Christ, dedicated strictly to the idea of the Real Presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the communion elements, which will be observed on June 4.

I bring this up not to contend with Catholic theology, but to suggest an alternate reading of the gospel texts on which the ideas of Real Presence and Transubstantiation are based. In Luke 22:19, we read,

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

The English teacher in me always casts a suspicious eye on pronouns. Several of these slippery words are lurking in that brief verse. Context demands that “he” and “me” both refer to Jesus. The two appearances of “it” can, I believe, only reasonably refer to the bread (although I suppose you could make an argument for “it” being the thanks Jesus gave. If that’s your reading, I’d like invite you over to break some thanks.)

So far, so good, but what about “this,” a pronoun that appears twice in this verse. What does “this” mean in verse 19? Traditionally, “this” refers to the bread that Jesus has just taken and broken. That seems reasonable, but is it the only reading possible? Before you answer, let’s agree that both occasions of “this” in the same sentence surely refer to the same thing. Therefore, we could read Jesus’ words to say, “This [bread] is my body; do this [bread] in remembrance of me.” I’m not exactly sure how you “do” bread, but this reading makes sense.

On the other hand, the nearest noun (actually a pronoun) to that troublesome “this” is “them,” a pronoun that refers to Jesus’ dinner companions. What if the word “this” refers to the gathered believers. Then we could read Jesus’ words as “This [gathering of believers] is my body; do this [gathering of believers] in remembrance of me.” That seems to make sense. And when we consider that Paul repeatedly speaks of the church as the Body of Christ, then it makes even more sense.

If you’re still with me, then you might be just as much a grammar nerd as I am, but really the minutiae of language is not my point. Instead, I would like to argue that the Real Presence that exists at the Lords Supper table is not to be found in bread and wine. Instead, the Body of Christ is to be found in the gathered and worshiping believers.

“Do this,” Jesus told them. Do what? I would suggest–and of course I’m saying this with the bias of this blog–that he instructed them and us to gather, to worship, to eat, to drink, and ultimately to live, as Jesus did, in the Spirit even while remaining in the flesh.