The American philosopher, educator, and encyclopedist, Mortimer Adler is one of the founding editors of the Great Books Series of the Western World published by Encyclopedia Britannica. It is no surprise, therefore, that he thought it necessary to pen (with another prolific American educator, Charles Van Doren) How to Read a Book to help students benefit more fully from the time they spend with a text. So popular was Adler’s book, that it spawned an anonymous parody: How to Read Two Books! But all bibliophilic kidding aside, we wish to focus not on the Great Books, but the Good Book. For, there’s also a right way and a wrong way—or, at least, a less than ideal way—to read the Good Book. As Pope Benedict would remind us, we read not only with an eye on the historical and literal meaning of each text, but also with an eye of faith, looking for the Word within the words of Holy Writ.
So, it’s a bit myopic, I admit, when I wonder about certain factoids of Christ’s speech in the New Testament. What, for example, was Jesus’ first recorded word? Upon Mary and Joseph finding him in the Temple at age 12, Jesus asks them: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). What is the Bible’s shortest translated verse, not only of Jesus’ own sayings, but from cover to cover? “Jesus wept,” records the Gospel of John (11:35), at the death of his friend, Lazarus. What does the Church mean by Jesus’ “last words”? These are not his final words on earth before his ascension, but his final words before expiring on the cross. And so on. Give Christians (and others) 2,000 years to pour though the Bible, and almost no sacred stone goes unturned.
But let me ask another question about Christ’s words, the answer to which should give us substantial food for thought. What are the most quoted, the most repeated words of Jesus today—and have been throughout history?
Before I offer you my answer, let me confess that I don’t know the answer with any certainty. Surely, there are many sayings that contend for the title: “Love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34); “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6); “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mathew 5:3). Truly, we hear these words often—but not as often as these: “This is my body, which will be given up for you.”
Consider: you might see a John 3:16 sign in the endzone of an NFL game on a Sunday afternoon—“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son”—but think of how many times a single priest, let alone every priest around the world, has already repeated Christ’s words on a given Sunday morning at Mass: “This is my Body, which will be given up for you.” Now multiply that unknown but significant number by 365 days over the course of 2,000 years. Does any human phrase—“Good morning.” “Please pass the salt.” “It’s not my fault!”—even come close? How glorious!
And yet, it may be precisely because of its importance, as testified by the repetition of this phrase on such a regular basis, that “familiarity breeds contempt.” I cannot speak for anyone else, but I would be lying if I said that my own praying ears perk up as they ought each time I hear that the bread offered at Mass will become Christ’s body. Even the Sanctus bells that accompany the elevation of the Host have lost some of the ring that they formerly had.
The three-year period of Eucharistic Revival that the dioceses of the United States are currently celebrating seeks to draw our attention back to the heart of our faith in the Blessed Sacrament. Much, of course, has and can be written about the Eucharistic Mystery. (Once again, have any other four small words ever led to such contemplation?) At their core, though, the words “This is my body,” by the action of the Holy Spirit, makes Calvary’s offering present in our midst. That body is given over whole-heartedly to the Father. And this Eucharistic action is no mere mental reminder of something long since passed, but an actual making present here and now, as really and truly present before our eyes as his fleshly body and open heart were present before Mary, the Centurion, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago.
And here comes the most excellent truth of these almost-incredible words, “This is my body”: this body of Christ is also—or should be—the body of each of us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that in “the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering” (1368). In other words: that body which is transformed by the Spirit and lifted up to the Father is not only the Body of Jesus in the Sacrament, but it is also the Body of Christ in the Church—you, me, and each of the baptized. “This is my body” is both the real body of Jesus that walked the earth and is now seated at the Father’s right hand, and the Mystical Body which is the Church, composed of the living cells of the baptized, which we are. When the priest says, “This is my Body,” and lifts the host, he is showing you, in a certain sense, your body in Christ.
The annual Solemnity of Corpus Christi is an especially grace-filled celebration to refocus our eyes on the truth of things, to retune our ears to the true words of everlasting life. Pope Benedict XVI paints a lovely analogy for our consideration on this day, by comparing those of us journeying in the Age of the Church with the disciples walking with the corpus Christi on the road to Emmaus. “There is no portrait of the risen Lord,” the Holy Father says. “At first the disciples do not recognize him. They have to be led toward a new kind of seeing, in which their eyes are gradually opened from within to the point where they recognize him afresh and cry out: ‘It is the Lord!’” (The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2018), 134-5).
Adler reminds his readers early on in his book, “Since reading of any sort is an activity, all reading must to some degree be active. Completely passive reading is impossible; we cannot read with our eyes immobilized and our minds asleep” (Adler, How to Read a Book, 6). So, too, we can say something similar about attending to our Lord—and our souls—on the feast of Corpus Christi.
May our ears hear clearly, truly, and actively those most popular of words, “This is my Body,” at this upcoming feast and, along with the Emmaus disciples, may our mouths proclaim with firm intention and true purpose, “It is the Lord!”
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.