many parts, one body

(Fr. Cyprian, on 1 Cor 12:12-14; 27-31a)

I remember very clearly the teaching that for Saint Paul this image of the Body of Christ is not just a metaphor, not just a symbol. Paul means it literally. As the song goes, “We are many parts, but we are one body.” And what is this Body? Well, of course, first of all it is Christ and the visible church, yes, Christ and all the baptized, and it is a nice serendipity that we celebrate St. Cyprian of Carthage today. Being a bishop during a time of such persecutions, the Church and the unity of the Church was a favorite subject of his. This is from perhaps his most famous writing, “On the Unity of the Catholic Church”: “God is one and Christ is one and his Church is one, and the faith is one, and the Christian people is joined into a substantial unity of body by the cement of concord. Unity cannot be severed. And what is one by its nature cannot be separated.”[i]

Saint Cyprian also never tired of emphasizing the primacy of Rome and the See of Peter; he taught that if someone deserts the Chair of Peter upon whom the church was built, they can’t possibly think they are in the church: “No one can have God for a Father who does not have the Church as a mother.” And he used an image that would be popularized later by Cardinal Bernardin in regards life issues as an image of the church, the “seamless garment.” In this regard, I think it’s important always to remember though that not only cannot the body exist without its head; neither does the head ever exist without the body. Just in terms of our hierarchy, as Fr. Bede loved to point out, “the pope has no authority apart from the bishops, so the pope and the bishops have no authority apart from the people from whom they are chosen and whom they represent,”[ii] just as the ordained priesthood makes no sense outside of priesthood of all the baptized from which they are drawn. This is the true magisterium of the church, both the sensus fidei and the sensus fidelium––a sense of the faith and the wisdom of the faithful. That was the revolutionary articulation of Lumen Gentium: “The whole body of the faithful who have an anointing from the holy one cannot err in matters of belief.”[iii] And notice that in Paul’s list of the hierarchy of the church (my spiritual director loves to point this out to me!), administrators, who we might think of as the superiors, are seventh down on the list, just under healing, and just above tongues. First come apostles, teachers, prophets! And again Lumen Gentium emphasizes that, “The holy People of God shares in Christ’s prophetic office.”

Saint Cyprian was one of those early thinkers that taught that “outside the church there is no salvation.” We have grown not so much to nuance that a bit as to expand what “church” means. Saint Cyprian also distinguishes between the visible, hierarchical church and the invisible, mystical church. And that mystical church I don’t think is just a supernatural phenomenon. What we are somehow slowly learning is that the ongoing building up of the church as the manifestation of the presence of God in history is the work of all humankind, of the body with all its parts being operative, meaning those who are obviously, visibly part of the body, but those that are still submerged and finding their voice. There is the wisdom that we learn from other Christian communions who have gone their own way––without ever losing the hope that the sin of division would be healed. The “restoration of unity among all Christians [was] one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council,” and the Decree of Ecumenism of Vatican II was at pains to search out and emphasize whatever unity already existed, through the Word, through Baptism, through the Eucharist, through shared morals.[iv] And even people from other traditions, what we somewhat chauvinistically call the “anonymous Christians,” are in some wonderful way already part of this greater mystical Body too. Nostra Aetate states right at the beginning, “All people form but one community,” and so the Church “has a high regard for the manner of life or conduct,” even the “precepts and doctrines” of other religions that in some way may be helping us unfold the mystery of God in ways that may never have occurred to us.[v] Then, and this is a theme revitalized by our present pope and a way of articulating it I get from Fr. Bruno, even secular culture that in some ways has continued the incarnational trajectory of Christianity that often the visible Church has abandoned––in advances in science, human rights and social justice, or through care for the planet or the beauty of all forms of artistic expression. And so this leads to a larger conception of what the church is, what the mystical Body of Christ is.

And this mystical body is even bigger than that too. I reflect back to the marvelous teaching about the Ascension that I got from two French theologians about what Jean Corbon calls the “continual Ascension of Christ.” First of all, the triumph of Christ is the triumph of all flesh, an achievement, you might say, for humankind, for humanity, in general, in the person of Jesus, the So of Man, the first born of all creation, sitting at the right hand of the Father in glory. So all humanity is in some way already sitting there too, part of this Body of Christ. And further yet, according to Saint Paul, so is all of the earth that is groaning and in agony while we work this out.[vi] This too is the mystical Body of Christ. And again, it’s not just that the earth is dependent on the head of the body––the human person; what we will find out is that the head of the body, the human person, is dependent on earth! The earth needs us to be its priest, to take the role of the head; but we need the earth to sustain us and give us life. The planet could survive, and maybe even recuperate, without us exploiting and pillaging it; but we would be nowhere without the plants and animals, not to mention Sister Water and Brothers Wind and Air. “We are many parts, but we are one Body.”

And finally, this body is not a self-contained, self-satisfied impermeable unit, and that is some of what we will hear tomorrow too in Paul’s great paean to love, and this leads us to the gospel story today too, of Jesus again moved with compassion.[vii] This Body is defined by its compassion, its mercy and charity; this Body is known its healing, its pity for the poor and the lost, by washing each other’s feet in service, in other words, by always reaching out and drawing more and more into its embrace. And that leads us of course to the last point, which Saint Cyprian also always emphasized: the Church finds its perfect fulfillment in the Eucharist, because the Eucharist is the sacrament of all this, not only the sign of this unity, but also the conveyor of the grace that makes the unity happen. When I distribute Holy Communion, I say, “The Body of Christ,” looking the person in the eye and meaning, “This is the Body of Christ. You are the Body of Christ! We are the Body of Christ! All this is the Body of Christ!”

So let’s carry the whole Body with us, or, better yet, remember that the whole body is with us, the church that, as our Saint Peter Damian wrote, is “united in all her parts by such a bond of love that in each one the whole church is present.”[viii]


[i] De Unitatis, 23.

[ii] One Light, 158.

[iii] Lumen Gentium, 12.

[iv] Decree on Ecumenism, 1.

[v] Nostra Aetate, 1-2.

[vi] See Rom 8.

[vii] Lk 7:11-17.

[viii] St. Peter Damian, Liber Dominus Vobiscum.

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