|The Mystical Body of Christ
Offered by NEC member
Rev. Cody Maynus
Rector, St. Andrew's-Rapid City, SD
In the little more than two months that I’ve been ordained a priest, I’ve been fortunate enough to celebrate the Eucharist with some frequency, both for my congregation and for visitors to the diocesan camp where I serve as chaplain and program director. (Rest assured, every COVID-19 precaution is in place! Being ordained in the midst of a pandemic has made me hyper-vigilant about the precautions necessary to make liturgy happen during this chaotic time.) A visitor to the camp requested that the Holy Eucharist be celebrated using the prayerbook’s Rite I, which, until that time, I had not had the privilege of celebrating. Although we studied both Rite I and Rite II (and, of course, Enriching Our Worship) in seminary, I decided to prepare to celebrate by reading and praying my way through the text prior to the liturgy.
One phrase from the Rite I liturgy in particular caught my eye and my heart, a line from the Postcommunion Prayer: “Almighty and everliving God, we heartily thank thee for that thou …dost assure us thereby…that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, the blessed company of all faithful people” (BCP, 339.)
This phrase—the “Mystical Body of Christ”—has deep resonance for me, having studied liturgy at Saint John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, a major hub for both the Liturgical Movement and the Catholic Peace and Justice Movement of the 20th Century. Although the understanding of the Body of Christ is an ancient one, the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ was popularized by Pope Pius XII, who published an encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ in 1943, smack dab in the middle of World War II.
At the heart of the encyclical, the pope writes, “But a body calls also for a multiplicity of members, which are linked together in such a way as to help one another. And as in the body when one member suffers, all the other members share its pain, and the healthy members come to the assistance of the ailing, so in the Church the individual members do not live for themselves alone, but also help their fellows, and all work in mutual collaboration for the common comfort and for the more perfect building up of the whole Body.”
As is so often the case historically, young people took these words—and the sentiments undergirding them—and ran with it. The student newspapers of Saint John’s University and the neighboring College of Saint Benedict feature at least one article monthly between 1943 and 1950 featuring a student-writer applying the theology of the Mystical Body of Christ to the realities of the War and the War’s aftermath.
These young people write brilliantly and beautifully on the notion that, in Christ, all people are made one. They reflect on the horrible absurdity of War, of people who are united mystically in Christ’s Body fighting and killing one another. They call on the United States, the nations of the world, and the Church to work for racial justice because, as the pope’s teaching says, “when one member suffers, all the other members share its pain.”
Charlene Gaffney, then a junior at the College of Saint Benedict, writes in December 1941—published days after the United States entered into World War II—“We are concerned about our friends and relatives in the fighting area. We are eager to join Red Cross units, to drive ambulances, to join the Marines! These are the first effects of this catastrophe. But already the insidious trickle of hate has reached us, a hatred not of oppression and injustice and lying alone, but also of the nations against whom we are fighting…Hatred blinds and weakens…Hatred is uncharitable and unchristian. Though we recognize that unjust aggressors must be punished, we must realize that they are members of the Mystical Body with us; we are fighting aggression, not aggressors…”
These young people were not only concerned about the violence done to the Mystical Body of Christ by war, but also by racism and white supremacy. One editorial from May 1944 calls on Christians to resist hatred of any person regardless of race, class, sex, or creed. The author—W. J. D.—cites the work of Catherine De Hueck, a Roman Catholic laywoman, in saying that “the fruit of the Incarnation and the Redempetion is the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God” and “We are all our [siblings’] keeper and have a personal responsibility, therefore, before God, for the welfare of that [sibling] in Christ] and this embraces all [people], irrespective of race, nationality, or color, for Christ died for all.”
What does this have to do with us, however? Right here and right now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, surrounded, as we are, by global instability, civil unrest in the streets of our cities and towns, and a pandemic which has shifted our very way of being?
As the Postcommunion Prayer from the Holy Eucharist Rite I says: we give thanks to God in the Eucharist for reminding us that we are members of the Mystical Body of Christ. During this period of anxiety—when most parishes have not celebrated the Eucharist physically together since mid-March; when protester file into the streets crying for respect for Black lives; when those “who hold authority in the nations of the world” are of questionable credibility—we are reminded that it is the Eucharist which unites us together and calls us to work for justice and peace in the world, in our cities and towns, and, indeed, even in our own hearts.
The Episcopal Peace Fellowship does not do what it does out of a commitment to a political agenda, but rather out of a commitment to the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. We are Christians following in a long and steady stream of contemplatives-in-action: Presiding Bishop Michael Curry; Bishop Barbara Harris; Ruby Sales and Blessed Jonathan Myrick Daniels; John Nevin Sayre; Bishop Paul Jones; Blessed Enmegahbowh; Blessed Absalom Jones; and countless others.
When one part of the Mystical Body of Christ suffers due to war or oppression; due to racism or white supremacy; due to gun violence in streets and in schools; due to human trafficking; or due to any other thing which threatens the body, the mind, or the soul, the whole Body suffers. We, as Episcopalians and Christians, are tasked with a ministry of reconciliation. When some among us hurt, we all hurt. And we all must, therefore, take responsibility in the work of healing and reconciliation.
How will you—like those young people writing in central Minnesota in the 1940s—call on your community to engage in this work? How will you ask the difficult questions of your parish, diocese, city, state, and nation? How will you examine your own hearts and consciences?
The good news is that you’re not alone in this work. The Episcopal Peace Fellowship—together with agencies throughout the Anglican Peace and Justice Network—stand by to help you in engaging God’s mission of wholeness in the Mystical Body of Christ. For more information about ways you can actively engage with us, contact Melanie Merkle Atha at epfactnow.