Easter and the Threefold Meaning of “The Body of Christ”

Father Gerard Austin, OP,  is Dominican Scholar in Residence at Barry University in Miami, Florida. Together with Msgr. Frederick R. McManus and R. Kevin Seasoltz, OSB, he co-founded the Liturgical Studies program at Catholic University of America in 1970. In 2017 he was honored with the Berakah Award from the North American Academy of Liturgy for a lifetime of outstanding contributions to the field of liturgy. The following reflection was posted on the web-site of the Southern Dominican Province this Easter as part of their 2021 Holy Week Reflections.

(Photograph from the chapel of Barry University in 2018). 

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The Commentary on the General Norms for the Liturgical Year after Vatican II stated, “The faithful should understand that the last three days of Holy Week are not a preparation for Easter but, as St. Augustine wrote, ‘the most sacred triduum of the crucified, buried and risen Lord’.”  Thus, our constant Catholic teaching explains that the solemnity of Easter has the same kind of preeminence in the liturgical year that Sunday has in the week.

We stand today on top of the mountain as we celebrate our greatest liturgical feast. We are at the heart of the Paschal Mystery: Christ has risen from the dead, and what is crucial for us is the age-old tenet of our faith: Christ’s resurrection is also our resurrection!

To better understand what we mean by that inclusion of our own eventual resurrection in that of Christ’s, we should think in terms of the threefold meaning of “the body of Christ”:  (1) the historical body of Christ; (2) the ecclesial body of Christ; (3) the eucharistic body of Christ. Our great feast of Easter involves all three:  (1) the historical body of Christ:  born of Mary, brought up in Galilee, hailed as a wandering prophet, betrayed, crucified, and raised by God in the Spirit; (2) the Church which Paul called “the body of Christ,” and which we become by our baptism; (3) the sacramental body and blood of Christ which we receive and we become by our celebration of the Eucharist.

A key for understanding  the meaning of the Paschal Mystery is that all three of these uses of “Body of Christ” are inter-related and inter-dependent. Christ gave of himself to the Father in the power of the Spirit at the time of his crucifixion and death, and his resurrection was the Father’s saying “yes” to that gift!  In his mercy and love for us, Christ left his Church the eucharist as his final departing gift.  We have access to that gift through the prior gift of baptism, by which (as St. Augustine put it) “we become Christ.”  St. John Chrysostom clearly explained in his Easter Catecheses that “when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood… Now the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood, of the holy eucharist.”

Now we see why the Church has always taught that her principal sacraments are Baptism and Eucharist. By Baptism we become Christ; by Eucharist we become “all the more that which we already are, the body of Christ” (St. Augustine). On this Easter Day, the Day of the Resurrection of Christ (and of our own resurrection), let us rejoice and be glad, and with the Apostle Paul cry out:  “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me” knowing that we shall die just as he died, but that we, too, shall be raised up by the Spirit to the right hand of God in heaven.

A blessed and joy-filled Easter to all of you!

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