Three Bodies of Christ: An Ecclesial Misunderstanding?

Today, ecclesiology, or reflection on the Church, is faced with new questions, even a crisis. Such a situation is not strictly new in two thousand years of history. Each time, it is up to Christians to discover or rediscover aspects of the Revelation transmitted by the apostles, according to the problems that arise. Thus, certain points that were commonly accepted, but which were due more to historical developments than to the apostolic tradition, are sometimes called into question.

The question of the “three bodies of Christ” is one such question, in the sense that one may ask whether or not it is necessary to add the human body of Christ, which has entered into glory since his resurrection, the Eucharist which makes us partakers of his body and blood, and the Church “body of Christ,” according to what was originally a metaphor of the apostle Paul. Irenaeus of Lyons was familiar with this Pauline comparison between a body made up of members and the Church [The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, nr. 1]., but he does not take this image as a reality, which would lead to making the Church a third body; or, as we would say in Western theology, a sort of continued or renewed incarnation of Jesus, or “Christus prolongatus” [Michel Deneken speaks about “the ecclesiology of the continuing Christ, a recurrent temptation of Catholic theology of the past centuries” (“Ecclésiologie et dogmatique. L’Église sujet et objet de la théologie, ” in Revue Théologique de Louvain, 38-2, 2007, p.206), and also Mark Saucy]. For Irenaeus, the expression “body of Christ” refers exclusively to the body conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary, suffering the Passion [The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, nr. 71], and entering into glory.

An objection may be raised that the Holy Spirit can inspire developments of Revelation; and if these developments are not “orthodox,” it is because they are not inspired by the Holy Spirit. But how can we know? Wouldn’t it be simpler to avoid too many new concepts or notions and to try to conform to Revelation, of which we may not know as much as we think we do, and thus which must be rediscovered in each generation? It is clear that the culmination of the “developments” of the Church as, so to speak, the “third body” of Christ is the 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis of Pius XII, and that it raises some big questions which, for the most part, the Second Vatican Council did not really answer.

These questions would have to be looked at in much greater depth than what is possible in this article, which is rather the outline of a larger study.

1. Glorious Body and the Eucharist: A Unity to be Perceived?

The most extraordinary thing that the New Testament says about the human body is undoubtedly what happened to Jesus’ body after he “rose from the dead”—hence the word “resurrected,” taken from Latin.

A Resurrected Body

According to Mt 28:6, angels say to the women who came to the tomb: “He is not here, for he has been raised as he had said.” But where is he then? They specify: “Behold, he precedes you in Galilee; there you will see it.”

That same evening, he showed himself to the apostles (who were ten at the time). Their reaction is described as follows: “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Lk 24:37). Then the apparition invited them to touch it: “See that it is I myself,” said Jesus, who had been transformed by the Resurrection; and he ate a piece of grilled fish in front of them (Lk 24:43).

The many testimonies relating to these manifestations of Jesus over forty days deserve to be all looked at, but let us instead ask the question that interests us. What happened to his body? How can a material body become present in a place and then disappear just as suddenly?

Less than a year earlier, a certain clarity had been given in advance to three of the apostles, Peter, James, and John his brother, at the top of a mountain (Tabor no doubt), when the body of Jesus “changed” before the eyes of these apostles (Mt 17:2; Mk 9:2; Lk 9:29—Aramaic, ḥlp), and that Moses and Elijah appeared at His side. Luke adds the idea of glory: Moses and Elijah, “They appeared in glory” (Lk 9:31), and the three disciples saw the “glory” of Jesus (Lk 9:32)—this disciple and evangelist thus makes an interpretation of the primitive witness of the Apostles, interpretation made in the light of the Resurrection, when the apostles, “startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost” (Lk 24:37). We may also recall the account of the birth of Jesus where the angels sang the “glory” of God (Lk 2:14). This property of “glory” that manifested itself at that time helps us to perceive a little of the reality of what must have happened at the tomb where the body of Jesus crucified rested. [See in particular these two articles of mine, here and here].

As a quick summary, we can say that the “rising from the dead” is not only a physical phenomenon, affecting the body of Jesus passing through the cloths (shroud and strips) so to speak and leaving them collapsed as a result of a kind of sublimation, but a passage into glory. What John believes is not simply a logical interpretation of what he sees (he was present at the burial; he sees that nothing has been moved) but the fact that the body of Jesus has obviously (in his eyes) entered into glory. So do not look for His body nearby. Jesus had made it clear: “For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Mk 12:25). In fact, the few apostles present end up leaving, certainly taking away the Shroud, without fully understanding what had happened (Lk 24:12 insists on Peter’s astonishment), while the holy women remain wondering where the body is.

Being Touched and Touching

From what perspective should we look at the Eucharist body and blood of Christ in relation to Him glorified? First of all, it is a double means, divinely invented, to come and touch our personhood, down to our materiality—it is the body-side; and to direct personal life—it is the blood-side: in this way something of the glory of Christ is already communicated and prepares the communion in the glory. What Western Christians call “Mass” (a meaningless term), Syrian-Aramaic Christians call “Qurbana,” i.e., touching [God] or being touched [by Him]. The name carries its own definition. They also speak of the “mysteries”—the Greeks too; while the Greek word “Eucharist” simply means “thanksgiving.”

Let us note that union with Christ in the liturgy is not only a reality of body but also of life in the sense of a becoming expressed by wine, which tends to be forgotten in the West, while this double aspect, so to speak, is brilliantly anthropological (and, of course, biblical).

The term “transubstantiation” captures well this mystery of the body and the blood which, separated, testify to the death of Christ, and as well as His resurrection. We can say that what is changed in them is their “substance.” What we perceive and see, that is to say, the “accidents,” remains as it is, unless the Lord wills to give a sign occasionally to a specific person or to several; in these cases, we speak of signs, or “Eucharistic miracles.” What is changed, “in itself,” is not the object of a perception of our senses. The Council of Trent consecrated the use of the term “transubstantiation,” borrowed from Thomas Aquinas for whom it was simply obvious.

If this definition is relevant, it does not emphasize the purpose of the Eucharist. Of course, the bond with the faithful who receive it follows from this: they are touched to their substance, they are sanctified by the humanity and divinity of Christ present in the “holy species,” and this in a way that is not only moral or intentional (I want to associate myself with the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus). The Eucharist really operates in the faithful (as long as they do not oppose it), similarly to the reality of Christ’s presence in it.

The Crucial Perspective of Finality

However, what sanctity of the faithful do we thus have in view? Personal, communal, eschatological? This question readily appertains to the first centuries of the Western tradition which, unlike those of the East especially non-Greek, has difficulty thinking about the global meaning of history (or collective eschatology). In this Western tradition, in fact, the purpose is placed almost exclusively in relation to the personal afterlife: communion sanctifies me so that, after my death, I may participate in the communion of the saints of Heaven. And are others, and the world, involved? If this is the only perspective, we inevitably come to individualism and even to a certain sacramental consumerism: each one thus achieves his own salvation, thanks to the ecclesial institution and to the clerics who devote themselves to it.

Historically, individualism began to develop in the elites of the Middle Ages and eventually produced Renaissance humanism, of which Machiavelli’s thought was a part. For if men are individuals without ties, they need rules and leaders to ensure social cohesion. This was the conviction of many princes; namely some of those whose small kingdoms formed the Holy Roman Germanic Empire; using Luther, they carved out independent kingdoms for themselves at the expense of the Germanic whole. This conviction was not without totalitarian ulterior motives [according to William Cavanaugh, there were less “wars of religion” than wars of modern states, wanting to impose a unifying conformity around a single language, a single economic market and a single religious idea, under the control of the Prince]—the idea that the Prince had the right to direct the consciences of his subjects was not the prerogative of the English King Henry VIII. Gradually, the Christian people were also won over by individualism, and even by the skepticism of the elites, from the 18th century onwards.

The idea that the Church is like a body was less and less socially experienced in the West. Since the community dimension was fading, the institutional reaction was to replace it with legal ties (essentially obedience), with the ecclesial institution becoming a kind of administrative body. In reality, this shift had begun long before the Renaissance, as we shall see, and quite smoothly and without provoking any real debates.

If we return to the fundamental problem, we see that it is a question of giving a common perspective to Christians and avoiding fragmentation. Is speaking of the “ecclesial body” the only way to do this? If it worked for centuries in the West, it was not without many hazards, and it finally failed. Perhaps there was an error in perspective.

What unites people is not so much an affirmation of unity, even if accompanied by promises from Heaven, as a common perspective on the future. That will always be the case. Now, precisely, Christians have a formidable common perspective: to prepare for the Glorious Coming of Christ, which is not the end of everything as Augustinism imagined, but which is at the same time “the fulfillment of the present time” (sunteleia tou aïonos) and the beginning of another era—aïon —and this in anticipation of ultimate glorification.

[The expression “sunteleïa tou aïonos” often comes up, especially in Matthew: “Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be so will it be at the fulfillment of the present age (Greek: en tei sunteleïai tou aïonos). The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Mt 13:40-43).

Similarly in Mt 13:49, we find en tei sunteleïai tou aïonos, corresponding to Aramaic b’šuwlameh d’´alma`hana`, “at the fulfillment of the present time,” as well as in verse 39 without the preposition.

Also in Mt 28:20: “And I am with you always, to the end of the present time” (eos tes sunteleïas tou aïonos).

In Mt 24:3 meaning is confirmed by context: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the present time (sunteleïas tou aïonos)?”

Only an intentional misinterpretation can translate sunteleïa tou aïonos as “the end of the world,” implying that there will be nothing afterwards (see next note). For there is no question of final destruction but of the end of the present time, followed by regeneration (palin-genesia, Mt 19:28).

In Heb 9:26 we still find this expression but with aïon in the plural, thus with a different meaning: “…he has appeared once for all at the fulfillment of the [past] ages (epi sunteleïai ton aïonon) to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself… he will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save (Aramaic: “for the vivification of”) those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9:26b;28b). No one would imagine translating the term here as, the end of the world.

In 1Co 10:11 there is also aïon in the plural, in the sense of past time: “These things happened to them [experienced by our fathers] to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come (ta tele ton aïonon)”].

Western Greco-Latin thought has great difficulty in entering into this revealed vision that involves thinking about the global meaning of history, as we have already noticed. [This difficulty in thinking about the global meaning of history is linked to the Augustinianism of the Middle Ages. It is a certain thought of St Augustine that is hardened and moralistic. Morality does not look at history but at the laws and rules to be applied. Resulting from the secularization of a sense of history not lost to everyone, Western messianisms became very moralizing (not only Calvin in Geneva)]. However, there is nothing like this to indicate the community dimension of the “Mass,” normally celebrated ad orientem, that is to say turned towards the place where the sun appears on Easter Day: the faithful are united in a common expectation.

This rising sun is the risen Christ, whose glorious coming is awaited. The Eucharist must be seen less from a static point of view than from an “eschatological” point of view; that is to say, from the point of view of what is still to come for the earth and even for the whole of creation.

Hence the importance of knowing what is to come. For decades, for a good part of the Latin Catholic intelligentsia, what was to come owed nothing to Christ, who served as a pretext—the prospect was the construction of an ideal world, a socialist world, of which the current dream of global governance is the heir. These dreams obscured and counterfeited the true hope of the Kingdom of Christ linked to His Coming in glory, the meaning of which is still difficult to rediscover, according to the phases which are given, in particular, in 1Co 15:22-27:

“For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order:

Christ the first fruits (or first fruits—Aramaic)—[Step 1];

afterwards (ep-eita—Greek/bāṯarken—Aramaic, behind) at his coming those who belong to Christ—[Step 2]; [Some translations in French, including that of the liturgy, replace here (1Co 15,24) the adverb “ensuite” (afterwards) by “alors” i.e., by “at the same time as,” truncating the meaning of the passage: in this way step 2 becomes the final step—which removes any meaning from verse 25. And to suppress the time of preparation that is the time of the “kingdom of the righteous” on earth (Irenaeus of Lyon), under the gaze and presence of Christ, is to make incomprehensible the purpose of glory of all creation. A parallel deformation, which can hardly be a fortuitous error equally, reads in other parts of the New Testament (see parenthetical note above)].

Afterwards (eita / wəhāydēn, next, later) comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father—[Step 3],

after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power [the forces of Evil, whose submission is the object of Step 2 precisely].

For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death [Step 3, since there is no longer a generation or death in glory]. For God has put all things in subjection under his feet [reminder of Step 2]” (1 Cor 15:22-27).

In these three steps, what is most problematic for the Latin mind is the ultimate purpose of glory that is reserved for all creation—the world we see thus has an end (in both senses of the word), and this end is not a “Big Crunch” (a crushing of the material), but rather the opposite. This is the key. Rather than believing in what is ideologically proposed to us as “science” and which, as we have seen around the Covid crisis, is too often at the service of private interests and totalitarian projects, it is preferable to believe in the perspectives given by Revelation for the future, and which are rooted in the Resurrection.

The body of Jesus, as well as that of every person, is like a synopsis-summary of the whole of creation; it is the masterpiece of creation that appeared last. Therefore, since the body of Jesus has entered into glory, creation itself is called to enter into it (Rom 8). Clearly, there is a divine project of glory for creation, which cannot happen without preparation, and in particular without the inclusion of humanity, which the Church can gather—that is, necessarily according to the three stages indicated by Paul himself (see above). To put it another way, the present world is not at all ready to enter into this glory, where there is no room for sin or corruption—that is why a time analogous to the time of purification of the souls of those who have already died is necessary for humanity on earth, explains Irenaeus of Lyon. All this is presented and developed in the book on the subject available since 2016 [2019], The Glorious Coming of Christ.

It is therefore absolutely essential to connect the Eucharist to this ultimate and cosmic end of glory, and thus it is intrinsically linked to the glorious body of Christ. If the faithful receive the body and blood of Christ, they in fact are received in the glory of Christ by a union of corporeal life. Much has been sought of this mystery in terms of the how, but little in terms of the why—whereas the question of the why is always more important and decisive. In light of this, it becomes clear that there are not two “bodies of Christ,” one glorious and the other Eucharistic (in doing so, the Holy Blood is always somewhat forgotten), but only one, the first. And the actualization of the sacrifice offered for sins appears all the better—this glorious body having passed through death, and uniting with Christ, the faithful offer themselves to the Father, living in their earthly life also something of the Passion and Resurrection. If there are not two “bodies of Christ,” there are even less three.

Let us start from what Paul, the apostle of the nations, wrote in a few passages that may have led to the conception of such a “third body” derived from a metaphor.

2. The Metaphor of Paul: Another “Body of Christ?”

It was the apostle Paul who compared the Church to a body—no other passage in the New Testament uses this metaphor, which is a kind of comparative picture. What did it mean?

The Five Pauline Passages

In his letter to the Romans, which dates from the year 58, Paul wants to emphasize the interdependence and mutual aid that must exist between all those who follow Christ. To do this, he takes up the image of the body applied at that time to the Roman Empire, very organized and where everyone is presumed to have his place and thus contribute to the proper functioning of the whole. It is important to note that here he does not speak of the body “of Christ” but “in Christ”:

  • “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (Rom 12:4-5).

Paul’s fundamental idea is that of organic solidarity. Earlier in his First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul had added the idea that Christians are members of the “body of Christ”:

  • “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12-13), and verse 27: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

The image is used in two different ways, but the idea is to compare the Church to a large, living, well-organized whole, reminding us that Christ is present in this larger whole.

Four years after the Letter to the Romans, in writing to the Ephesians, Paul takes up this theme of Christ’s presence several times, and it is here that the idea of presenting His relationship to the Church as that of the head to the different parts of the body appears (in the ancient languages “head” and “ruler” are one term):

  • “He [God the Father] has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22-23).

Later, Paul tries to clarify the comparison: [In relation to the Jews, according to the logic of the image, Paul further indicates that “the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:6)].

  • “From whom (Christ) the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love” (Eph 4:16).

It is clear that this is a way of speaking, because physical growth is rather due to the organs of the digestive tract, provided they have enough food to assimilate. To take this set of images at face value and materialize them would be aberrant. But this is what was done later in the West: the Church thought of itself as being really the body of Christ.

This is how the Letter to the Colossians, written shortly after Ephesians, is interpreted in this passage:

  • “He (Christ) is the head of the body, [that is] the Church… I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:18; 24).

But does it take a head-to-member relationship to say that our own humanity is united with that of Christ (“it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me,” Paul writes in Gal 2:20)? Or, to say that we suffer for the whole Church? The mention of a “head” in relation to the body is absent from 1 Corinthians and Romans. This, in itself, poses some problems, as we shall see later. In the meantime, let us confine ourselves to what Paul means.

Other Images to Express the Mystery of the Church

In fact, Paul puts forward two ideas that are contradictory in one and the same image:

  • as the leader, Christ is above the Church, as the emperor is the head of the Roman Empire. Resurrected, He leads it and first founded it, especially during the forty days after Easter, when he appeared to his apostles and discussed with them what each will have to do—according to several texts and Oriental traditions;
  • at the same time, he is “all in all” (Eph), and we are “in Christ” (Rm)— but the emperor is not within the society, nor are his members really united to him.

Such a presence of Christ in each member of the society-body is only possible, thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit, of which Paul speaks abundantly [“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rm 8:15-17). “Because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake” (1 Thess 1:5). “Or do you not know that your body is a temple[a] of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? 2For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20). “He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). “God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will” (Heb 2:4). Etc.]

Precisely by minimizing and then forgetting the work of the Spirit, the Western tradition cut off the image of the Church-body from the rest of Paul’s thought. In fact, it came to reify this image, even if it meant calling it “mystical” in order to make it less material (in the 12th century, “mystical” was still a simple adjective that qualified the ecclesial body in relation to the Eucharistic body). To put it another way, by virtue of making Jesus both the head and the presence (He does everything, He is in everything), there is no more room for the Holy Spirit than marginally.

Moreover, Paul does not only use the image of the body to represent the Church, he gives two other images.

The first is the traditional one of the bridegroom and the bride, largely established in the Old Testament (Eph 5:32). Even if it was not a great success in Western theology, it did remain alive for a long time in spirituality, as witnessed by this magnificent 12th century mosaic in Rome itself, in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere—Mary is clearly the figure of the Church as the bride of Christ, a bride who shares the throne of Christ. But Christ is in the center of the apse; He embraces His bride with His right hand (Song 2:6), and on her book is read: VENI ELECTA MEA ET PONAM IN TE THRONUM MEUM, “Come, my chosen one, and I shall put you on my throne.”

Mosaic, Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere (12th century).

The duality of the Groom and Bride is put forward, a duality that the reified image of the “body of Christ” tended to erase.

Born in Egypt (183-254), Origen was the first to write a Commentary on the Song of Songs. In it, he expressly quotes the passages of Paul that we have looked at [Origin, The Songs of songs, Commentary and Homilies, II. 7, p.144-145], and he often speaks of the Church as an organic body in solidarity – as he does in his other books. But he never reifies this image, which tends to identify Christ with His Church; nor does he give it a juridical meaning—in the Song there are indeed two distinct characters and a game of exchange between them, whose spiritual meaning is to be discovered. Origen also presents the relationship between Christ and the Church as that of the soul to the body (Against Celsius, 6: 48). As for the relationship to the world, Origen was the first to call the Church “the city of God” (Ibid., 4:22), an idea that would be popularized by Augustine a century and a half after Origen.

The other image Paul uses is that of a construction-edifice: “…you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it” (1 Cor 3:9-10).

This image is necessary for him in relation to the conviction that the Christian is the new Temple, that of the Spirit: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:16-17).

And he writes in yet another letter: “[You are] built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Eph 2:20-22).

This image is that of a Temple or palace, not a pyramid; the apostles are the foundations; and of these foundations, and Jesus is the keystone (or cornerstone). It can also be said that this Temple is made up of a multitude of small temples inhabited by the Spirit, and Paul admits to having played a small role in this. Here we have a very realistic picture that highlights the human work (which is faith) carried out on the basis of what the apostles left.

In the Gospels themselves, we find yet another image, probably the richest of all, and given by Jesus himself—that of the vine (or the trunk of the vine) and the branches. The vine has roots that draw their water from the Hebrew-Aramaic tradition, the eighteen centuries of pre-Christian preparation, and its leaves receive sunlight, which transform the sap into nourishment—the sun then representing the Holy Spirit.

If we go beyond the New Testament, there is yet another analogy that theology might have retained for the Church. In the Epistle to Diognetus (circa the year 200), we read that the Church is like the soul of the body that is the world: “What the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world. The soul is spread in members of the body like Christians in the many cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, and yet it does not belong to the body, as Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world.”

Such an image is powerful. It refers to the parable of the Kingdom of God buried like leaven in the dough (Mt 13:33; Lk 13:21), an image that was used and even widely abused after Vatican II to say that the Church and her institutions should disappear into the world.

And yet, of all these images, the only one that has been privileged in the West is that of the Church as the “body of Christ.” Of course, this image is contradictory with the previous one: if Christians form a body (that of Christ), they can hardly be at the same time a soul (that of the world). So be it. But what is specific about the image of the body? Without doubt, the idea of complementarity and solidarity between the members, in their diversity. If we want to highlight the union of the humanity of Christians with that of Christ (living with Him, thinking with Him, acting with Him, etc.), the biblical image of the husband and wife is more telling. And overall, it is the image of the vine and the branches that seems to capture all these aspects best. The question then arises: why did we choose the image of the Church as a body?

3. Reifying the “Church-body” Image: Why?

If we want to emphasize that Christians—or Christian communities—need each other in the face of the temptations or oppositions of the world, then the image of a body seems the most eloquent; such an image carries a pastoral concern, which is a concern that Paul often expresses in his letters. The need expressed by the image is vital, as much for each member as for the whole; it is fully understood in the context of persecutions, and Paul certainly knows something about that! “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26).

Is it with such a pastoral concern that, later on, the Church will be said to be a body? This is evident in Origen, who, as a child, witnessed the execution of his father because he was a Christian. It is much less obvious later on.

Let us add that Paul”s very concrete pastoral concern was also about the organization of the “body”: “that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another… And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues” (1 Cor 12:25; 28).

What he describes here of the functioning of the communities he knows has inspired much less the way in which the Churches have been structured than the very image of the Church-body.

Guaranteeing Ecclesial Unity

Greco-Latin thought, as we have seen above, struggles to design history: it is a prisoner of a cosmological tradition where everything is immutable, and in which fate (moira, fatum) always has the last word, even among the gods. Famous heroes and characters leave their mark on their time, but in the end, everything is still as it was before. This vision is in direct opposition to that of Revelation, given in Hebrew and Aramaic. This difficulty predates Jesus, but it persisted in the Greco-Roman Christian world and rendered futile the justification of Christian unity in a historical-eschatological perspective—that of working together to prepare the Second Coming. Yet, anthropologically, it is well known that what best unites people is to collaborate in common interests. In contrast, this perspective works in the Semitic world, marked by the revealed certainty that creation has a beginning, a meaningful history, and an end-goal.

It therefore was necessary to identify something else to found the unity of Greco-Latin Christians.

In fact, there is not much choice. One could say that faith makes for unity; but it would have to be identical, since from the start, the diversity of cultural differences created difficulties. At the beginning of the 12th century, Hugues of Saint-Victor raised the question again and indicated that baptism received with faith achieves the unity of the people of God (De sacramentis christianae fidei, lib. II, pars 2). But it is obviously the Eucharist that came to be seen as the place and cause of the unity of Christians, since it brings them together every Sunday.

Better still, communion with the body—and, we might forget, with the blood of Christ—is the means of unifying the faithful in what they are celebrating—we know the famous formula of Saint Augustine (354-430): “Receive what you are—the body of Christ.” But he meant it very symbolically [Augustine, Sermon 272 (PL 38, 1246-1248) and Sermon 227 (PL 38, 1099-1101): “Since you are the body of Christ and its members, it is your own mystery that rests on the Lord’s table, it is your own mystery that you receive… Be what you see, and receive what you are… This (Eucharistic) sacrifice is the symbol of who we are”]—in the same way, when he defines the ecclesia of which Christ is the head as being one man, the total Christ: unus homo, unus vir, una persona, Christus integer or totus; of this ecclesia, the angels are part, without it being said clearly that they are members of his ‘body.’ What the bishop of Hippo wants to say above all, says Yves Congar, is that “Christ prays in us, suffers in us, is holy in us” [Congar Yves, L’Église, de saint Augustin à l’époque moderne, Paris (Les Editions du Cerf, 1970), p. 4]. Without this spiritual consideration, there is only one more step to take to reify the image and almost identify the Church with Christ. This is obviously very effective in justifying Christian unity, but isn’t it dangerous?

For Augustine, the Holy Spirit is part of the mystery of the Church; he is the “soul” of the Church; [For example, in his Sermon 267, On the Feast of Pentecost, 1.4, n° 4 (PL 38. 1231D): “What our spirit, that is to say, our soul, represents for our members, is the same thing that the Holy Spirit represents for the members of Christ, for the Body of Christ which is the Church”]—a new image is thus superimposed on that of the “Church, the body of Christ” and introduces a kind of mediation in it, avoiding an identification of the Church with Christ. But this superposition, in turn, ends up posing a problem.

“In the body-soul representation,” writes Michel Deneken, “the Holy Spirit is no longer considered for what he reveals himself to be, namely a free and gratuitous gift, over which no one has any control, and which must be constantly asked of the Father. Ecclesiology has long been exposed to the danger of identifying the Holy Spirit with the most intimate heart of the Church, leading to a kind of ecclesiological monophysitism which almost totally dissolves in the divinity Its constitutive part of humanity. As a final consequence, such a reification of the Holy Spirit can lead to a divinization of structures and to a confusion between the human will of the members of the hierarchy and the will of God. While St. Augustine, when he affirms that the Holy Spirit acts in the Church as the soul acts in the body, is still conscious of having recourse to an analogy that is a metaphor, Bellarmine (1542-1621) and the bulk of the theology of the post-Tridentine Church, understands this affirmation as a formal principle that necessarily leads him to affirm that the Spirit is the soul of the Church” [Michel Deneken, “Ecclésiologie et dogmatique. L’Église sujet et objet de la théologie,” in Revue théologique de Louvain, 38 (2007), p. 210-211].

Of course, the liturgy came to be influenced by the evolution of ecclesiology. We will give only two brief examples, since this is not our subject. Very symbolic in Augustine, but gradually reified, the identification between the Eucharistic body of Christ and the Christians-bodies-of-Christ had a very concrete consequence—the communion of the faithful was restricted to the Eucharistic body of Christ by the Council of Constance in 1415. Why would they need communion with the Eucharistic blood since they already receive what they are supposed to be? The latter is reserved for the celebrating priest, who has reason to wonder what the meaning of all this is.

Another liturgical consequence may be seen in the Roman desire to standardize the rites. If the glorious body, the Eucharistic body and the Church are three in one, the rite must reflect this unity. One thinks of the nineteenth or twentieth century when the Roman Latin liturgy was imposed everywhere and exclusively; the reform of 1969 being imposed with the same concern for uniformity; while in the twenty-first century some aspects of this uniformity tend to be imposed even in the (Catholic) Churches of the Eastern rite. In reality, such a desire for uniformity has distant roots, as witnessed by Alexander II, pope from 1061 to 1073, who forbade the Greek rite in southern Italy, as well as the Hispano-Visigothic rite in Spain—and he wanted the Latin language to be used in the liturgy to the exclusion of all others in the West [Example cited by Yves Congar (1970), p.27. In fact, Latin then was not the only liturgical language—to take an example, until the French Revolution, in Provence, Mass was usually celebrated in Provençal (the author had in his hands an old Provençal missal of that time)].

If a provisional conclusion can readily be drawn, it appears that trying to articulate the “three bodies of Christ” from a composite and static point of view leads to difficulties, to say the least. Many theologians have seen the need not to remain with a “static conception but, on the contrary, to develop a dynamic vision of the Church. The convergent evolution of theologians from different backgrounds points in the same direction” [Deneken (2007), p. 220]. But is the problem to introduce more of the Holy Spirit in order to energize what is static? Isn’t the real dynamic rather the consideration of purpose?

Whether in Christ or in the Spirit, the idea or desire to “divinize” the Church seems to exceed what is necessary to justify the unity of the Church. Such an idea must have another reason for being.

Exalting the Bishop of Rome and His Power

Indeed, the reified image “Church-Body of Christ” has a flaw, and this flaw played an important role in the increasingly juridical evolution of Latin ecclesiology.

When we say that the Roman Empire was like a “body,” we imagine the emperor as its “head”: he was part of the empire and, from Rome, he directed the empire. But the risen Christ is neither in Rome nor in Jerusalem, but in Heaven; He is not part of the whole that He directs; how then does He function as “head?” In this same static vision, how can He be said to be the head of a body that He Himself is, unless one considers that the Church on earth is, if one may say so, a body without a head?

This last consideration is interesting, if we want to exalt the papacy. The Church is not headless because there is the pope who takes the place of Christ (the title Vicarius Christi has come to take on this strong meaning). This bears thinking about.

Augustine, frankly, did not think about it. In his struggle against Donatism, he simply affirmed the need to be in communion with the See of Peter, or better still, in communion with Christians in the “whole world” (“orbis terrarum”—Contra epistolam Parmeniani, III. 4, 24). He recognized the mission of the Roman see to confirm the faith, but he did not appeal to its authority; he did not separate it from the other episcopal sees (“apostolica sedes et romana cum ceteris”—Contra lulianum I. 4,13) whose disciplinary and canonical independence he recognized.

However, there is a problem with the bishop of Hippo, who is steeped in Greco-Latin thought—the static aspect of his ecclesiology. At the beginning of his episcopate, he was still very much influenced by the sense of history taught by Irenaeus of Lyons, and one can see a remnant of this in the distinction he makes in The City of God (20.9) between the regnum militiae, the reign of militancy, and the reign quod erit post finem saeculi, “which will exist after the end of this century,” if we translate it literally. But the formula is ambiguous; it could mean that the kingdom after this “century” is Heaven. But Augustine indulged more and more in such allegorical interpretations. Thus, the time of the “thousand years” of the Apocalypse which “elapses between the first and the second advent” would already be now. In other words, Augustine shifts the “thousand years” from after to before the Glorious Second Coming. From then on, “the Church is now both the Kingdom of Christ and the Kingdom of Heaven” on earth, and the “judges sitting on thrones” mentioned in Rev 5:10 are the Bishops. As for the “first resurrection” (1Co 15), it is an allegory of conversion (The City of God, 20,7.9). The Anti-Christ or “man of ungodliness” (2Th 2:3b) also becomes a simple timeless allegory of men dedicated to evil. In this way, the entire meaning of the story lost its consistency.

But then, where to stand? What to cling to? To the seat of Peter.

This is where exegesis would have helped Western thought, in relation to John 21:15-25. This passage, which is crucial as regards the role entrusted by Jesus to Peter, is very bland in Greek; what we retain is that three times Jesus tells Peter to “feed” his flock. In Aramaic, the emphasis is on the complement of the direct object; and then a much richer meaning appears [Where the Aramaic has three words, the Greek has only two (lambs, arnia and sheep-ewe, probata); and we can no longer understand the meaning of the passage]:

“When they had eaten, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He replied, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs!’ (ܐܡܪܝ ’emray in Aramaic). Again, he said to him for the second time: ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He replied, ‘Yes, Lord, you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep!’ (ܥܪܒܝ ‘erbay in Aramaic). He said to him for the third time: ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter was saddened that he said to him for the third time, ‘Do you love me?’, and replied, ‘Lord, you know everything, you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let my bearing ewes graze!’ (ܢܩܘܬܝ nəqawāṯ in Aramaic).”

The lambs are an image of the little ones in the faith, the catechumens and the newly baptized. Jesus asks Peter to watch over them; that is understandable. But not only over them: over the sheep that are the adult Christians and that, as we don’t live in an ideal world, still need to be supported. And that’s not all. Jesus also asks us to look after the healthy ewes, i.e., those who bring new Christians into the world, the missionaries, the housewives who welcome and train, the deacons, the bishops and the priests. In other words, Jesus said to Peter: “Those who train others, even if they are old enough to take care of themselves, you must still be concerned about them, too.”

In connection with Mt 16:18 (“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”), this passage from John defines the Petrine ministry—the focus of unity and stability that Jesus calls Peter to be implies concern for all the faithful who belong to Christ (“my lambs/etc.” he tells Peter, not “yours”). Peter will have to intervene when things go wrong, no more, no less.

Putting these words into practice is certainly not easy, especially if, focused only on “feeding,” their meaning is diverted and understood as power.

Leo I the Great, pope from 440 to 461, recognized that the entire episcopate is characterized by the power to bind and loose (Mt 18:18); but he suggested that it began with Peter. Thus, the other apostles would have a somewhat derivative episcopate. From then on, the Church had to be organized as a society-body, according to a juridical conception whose visible head is the successor of Peter (since Christ the head is invisible). The life of the body-Church thus depends on the popes—this became the “basis of all Roman ecclesiology” [Congar (1970), p. 9].

With Gregory VII, pope from 1073 to 1085, the question of papal primacy took a political turn, even if this pope conceived it in a spiritual way. In fact, in the Holy Roman Empire, the emperor appointed the bishops in charge of principalities, who thus had an important administrative and civil responsibility in addition to their spiritual mission, even if in practice, civil power was exercised by a council—this is how the principality of Liege functioned for almost a thousand years. The emperor also reserved for himself the “investiture” of other bishops and his influence was preponderant in the choice of the pope. Anxious to defend the independence of the Church, for which so many martyrs had given their lives in the past, Gregory defended the opposite position—only the bishops could designate the pope; they must be appointed by the pope, and the emperor himself must be subject to the pope, since the latter was of divine right, whereas kings were not. In the absence of a common ground, the confrontation with the emperor Henry IV was inevitable and turned, roughly, to the advantage of the pope. Ipso facto, the pontifical function took a legal turn, even if nobody noticed it at the time, troubled by many other problems.

Juridicalism, Sacramentalism, Clericalism

Doctrinally, the supreme power in the Church is held by the assembly of bishops gathered in council and by the pope. This traditional ecclesiology, mystery-linked and sacramental, remains, but another ecclesiology is gradually emerging, juridical and clerical, in which the pope plays the role of head of a body which would be Christianity itself. He takes the place of Christ (i.e., is His place-holder)—this is the meaning of the title Vicarius Christi that Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) reserved for himself, whereas it had previously been borne by bishops and emperors. Note that Pope Francis has abolished this papal title.

In the Church, with the contribution of Roman law, all power was henceforth defined as coming from the pope, but all Christians continued to think that the council was superior to the pope. This contradiction came to a head during the Great Schism. What has been called “conciliarism” tended to take in hand the life of the Church by councils, where, in addition to the bishops, sat princes and especially academics, which was not new. But certain excesses contributed, by reaction, to reinforce still papal monarchic absolutism.

The infallibility of the pope is not a question that arose at that time; it is resolutely modern. In medieval times, the pope’s “inerrancy” was spoken of, in connection with the assembly of bishops, by the fact that the universal Church could not err in matters of faith. But in the sixteenth century, it began to be said that the pope himself could not err.

One can thus speak of an evolution tending to reinforce the powers of the pope at the expense of those of the assemblies of bishops (where not necessarily only bishops sit), and also at the expense of each of the bishops—the juridicalism that took hold was at the same time more and more centralizing. Christian devotion itself evolved in such a way that the person of the pope became an object of it. It is true that the anticlerical state policies of the 19th century pushed Christians to appeal to the pope who escaped these pressures thanks to the Papal States, notably in the matter of the appointment of bishops; but the policies of de-Christianization of the youth and of secularist indoctrination could only be slowed down. The question arises as to the extent to which ecclesiastical juridicalism does not contribute to stifling Christian vitality; while the virtue that is praised above all is a very juridical obedience, and Christian life is reduced to the sacramentalism of which priests are the ministers. The ecclesial institution becomes a sort of pyramid of powers, which modern means of communication allowed to reinforce in the 20th century. We are quite far from obedience in love, as Origen describes it, between the Bride and the Groom. [Obedience is rooted in Christ’s obedience to his Father (Phil 2:8), so that Christians bear the likeness of the Word of God (Origen, Commentaire sur le Cantique des Cantiques, Tome I, Sources Chrétiennes 375 [Paris: Cerf, 1991, Livre II, 6, 11-13, p. 389-393]). “The adornment and jewel on the neck of the Church is the obedience of Christ,” writes Origen (Ibid, Livre II, 7,14; Tome I, p. 401). “This obedience,” comments Françoise Breynaert, “separates the bride from vanities and idols, and detaches her from her own will—the bride is, then, a virgin of all that is not God, impoverished of her own self, fully available, docile, she is then truly married; her will participates in the divine will to form only one, divine will” (De l’Église primitive à l’humanité restaurée, Lire le Cantique des cantiques avec Origène (Preface, M. Canevet), Paris: Cerf, 2017].

For its part, the Code of Canon Law states that the pope “possesses by virtue of his office the ordinary, supreme, plenary, immediate and universal power, which he can always exercise freely” (CIC no. 331); and that “By virtue of his office, the Roman Pontiff not only possesses power over the whole Church, but also obtains over all the particular Churches and their groupings the primacy of ordinary power” (CIC no. 333). In all of this, the 1983 Code differs from that of 1917 only in omitting the pope’s immediate power over each of the faithful, which does not change much because the most important thing here is—the bishops have become subordinates of the pope. [“§1 The Roman Pontiff, successor of St. Peter in his primacy, has not only the primacy of honor, but the power of supreme and complete jurisdiction over the Universal Church, both in matters which concern faith and morals, and in those which pertain to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world. §2 This power is truly episcopal, ordinary and immediate, exercising itself both over all the churches and each one of them and over all the pastors and each one of the faithful; this power is independent of all human authority” (CIC 1917, No. 218)].

Of course, the CIC of 1983 did not contradict the conciliar constitution Lumen Gentium, which formally recalled the traditional doctrine concerning the order of bishops, who “also constitute, in union with the Roman Pontiff, their head, and never outside of this head, the subject of a supreme and plenary power over the whole Church,” relativizing it radically with this apposition: “power, however, which can only be exercised with the consent of the Roman Pontiff” (3.22). In short, if the Church is a body, it is clear that the pope is its only head.

This is well explained in the 1943 encyclical Mystici Corporis, of Pius XII; its full title is “Encyclical Letter on the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ and on our Union in it with Christ”. With this text, the concept of the “body of Christ” reaches its apogee—unless it was in the writings of the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, which we will look at later.

The adjective “mystical” has long been used to distinguish the glorious body of Christ from his other body, the Church, according to the reified reading of the Pauline passages cited above. There is nothing new in this Encyclical of Pius XII from this point of view. Its raison d’être is found elsewhere, following Leo XIII, in the desire to oppose a conception of the Church which, on the one hand, would be “only composed of social and juridical elements and principles,” or which, on the other hand, would be “only spiritual (pneumaticum), in which the many Christian communities, although divided from one another by faith, would nevertheless be united by an invisible bond.”

The balance (or synthesis?) to be found between these two deviations is obedience to the pope, guarantor of Christian unity. In particular, the bishops must obey him: “In their government they are not fully independent, but they are subject to the legitimate authority of the Pontiff of Rome, and if they enjoy the ordinary power of jurisdiction, this power is immediately communicated to them by the Sovereign Pontiff.”

The justification given is as follows: “Christ … without ceasing to govern the Church mysteriously by himself, nevertheless directs it visibly through him who holds his place on earth [the pope], for since his glorious Ascension into heaven, it no longer rests on Him alone, but also on Peter as on a foundation visible to all. That Christ and his Vicar together form but one Head.”

In short, the body without a visible head has found one, and this head is even the channel par excellence of the holiness coming from Christ: “[Christ] divinely enriches with supernatural gifts of knowledge, intelligence and wisdom his Pastors and Doctors, first and foremost his Vicar on earth.”

And the Holy Spirit in all This?

With regard to the Holy Spirit, Mystici Corporis said, for the sake of form, a few expeditious words: “Leo XIII, in his Encyclical Letter, Divinum illud, expresses this presence and operation of the Spirit of Jesus Christ with these concise and nervous words: ‘Let it suffice to affirm that, if Christ is the Head of the Church, the Holy Spirit is its soul’.”

But how does one go about listening to a soul? Is it enough just to speak about it?

In the second half of the twentieth century, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, there was a certain reemphasis of the Holy Spirit, which gave some leeway to the juridicalism weighing on the Latin Church. In this, the latter came closer to the Eastern Churches, especially the Orthodox, whose tradition “speaks readily of the double pneumatological and Christological dimension of the Church understood from the mystery of the Incarnation and Pentecost,” notes Michel Deneken [Deneken (2007), p. 217], who relays the orthodox reproaches made to the Latin Church, that “Christocentric sacramentalism would prevail over pneumatological prophetism, hierarchy over the freedom of faith, the Petrine dimension over the Pauline, which produces clericalism and the hypertrophy of the ministry of Peter” [Deneken (2007), p. 230].

However, a greater openness to the Holy Spirit has prevented neither the implosion of the Latin Church as to the number of its members, nor the persistence of a Roman monarchism that has taken a less juridical but more authoritarian turn, depriving the bishops even of their right to establish new communities in their diocese. The solution suggested by Deneken is to “develop a dynamic vision of the Church.” But he does not say what such a vision should aim for. Can there be a constructive dynamic at work if there is not first of all a rediscovery of the revealed meaning of history?

4. Further Developments of “Church, the Body of Christ”

Shortly before Pius XII, the concept of the “Church, Body of Christ” was already very fashionable and had undergone various developments. Not the least of these were those proposed by Teilhard de Chardin in the context of his Christic evolutionism. With him, the Pauline image of the Church-body, mixed with faith in the Eucharistic body (which is not an image), also encompassed the world. A disciple and good commentator of Teilhard, Jean-Marc Moschetta, recalled in 2016 what the objective was: “Teilhard thus proposes a modernized Christian reading of the universe that integrates the intimate scientific knowledge of matter with the Pauline vision of the Body of the Universal Christ: a cosmic body in the process of sublimation, under the transforming action of the energies of love” [Jean-Marc Moschetta, Le sens cosmique de l’Eucharistie, Teilhard, Colloque Teilhard of December 3, 2016. See also].

We thus slip from the “Church, body of Christ” to the “world, body of Christ”: “There is only one Mass in the world, in all times: the true host, the total Host, is the Universe that, always a little more intimately, Christ penetrates and vivifies… the whole of Nature undergoes, slowly and irresistibly, the great Consecration. Only one thing has been done, basically, since always and forever in Creation: the Body of Christ” (Teilhard, Le Milieu Divin, 1957).

And if we still have not yet understood, Moschetta quotes Moltmann (The Way of Jesus Christ: Christology in Messianic Dimensions), who explains in other words: “It is from the experience of the Eucharist of the Church that his [Teilhard’s] vision of the “Eucharization” of the cosmos, that is, the change of the cosmos in the Body of Christ, is born. In the end, his Christology of evolution is nothing less than the vision of the cosmic Eucharist by which God is mundane-ized and the world divinized.”

It should be noted that Mystici Corporis does not respond in any way to Teilhard’s cosmic-evolutionist elucubrations, as if these had not already had a great influence on the ecclesial intelligentsia before the war. It is true that, in 1943, Pius XII did not lack other worries. In any case, it is Vatican II that inherits the Teilhardian ideological confusion, which clearly inspired some of the Council’s leaders, such as Cardinal Suenens. How did the Council try to cope with this?

In no less than nine Council documents, the expression “Body of Christ” is used almost 50 times, with or without the adjective “mystical,” not counting all the times when the term “body” is used alone to refer to the Church. On rare occasions, the expressions “Body of Christ” or “Body of the Lord” designate the Eucharist; and this among passages where “Body of Christ” designates the Church—it is the context that allows us to know what we are discussing. Let us look at this in more detail.

First, how do these documents speak of the Church-body of Christ? Most often, they refer to the Church on earth, rarely to the Church in heavenly glory; and even more rarely to both—sometimes the context does not allow us to decide. It should also be noted that the glorious body of Christ appears very little, as does the expression “Body of Christ,” to speak of the Eucharist (and the expressions “Eucharistic body” or “sacramental body” do not appear at all). Such discretion certainly contributes to avoiding the question of knowing how many bodies Christ has. It is nevertheless salutary to ask questions, especially when, for years, a certain theology has tended to separate the historical Jesus from the Christ-Logos with multiple bodies—Teilhard had done so; and he was not the only one. [The idea of separating the historical Jesus from a mythical and universal Christ-Logos is also at the heart of the “theology of religions” that Cardinal Ratzinger denounced in Dominus Iesus in 2000. Since then, the idea of a Christ present in all “religions” has been replaced by that of the Spirit with the same attributions].

By proposing a sort of definition—”Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, the Head and his members” (mystico Iesu Christi Corpore, Capite nempe eiusque membris)—the document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, sought to shed light on the “mystical body” as something that straddles heaven and earth. Another probable desire for clarification—to speak of the Eucharist (twice), this same document replaces “Christ” with “Lord” in the expression “body of Christ” and uses it only to speak of the Church and with the adjective “mystical.”

These efforts at clarification do not prevent us from saying, for example, that “the body of Christ nourishes the body of Christ” in a way that is no longer merely allegorical, in the manner of Saint Augustine. Preaching and liturgical hymns have developed this theme to the point of inviting Christian assemblies to feed themselves; that is, to create self-centered and self-made celebrations. Let’s not deceive ourselves—such celebrations have existed in great numbers after the Council, and there is no end in sight! In order to avoid these, or at least not to allow them to be justified by confusions of words and images, it would have been enough to put the Eucharistic mystery back into relation with the glorious body of Christ (and with the celestial liturgy, as the Orientals say), as we have seen above. Such was not the case.

And this is not the only difficulty. What is the meaning of the statement in Presbyterorum Ordinis (On the Ministry and Life of Priests, December 1965)—Christ builds the body of Christ (literally)? [The two passages: “The ministry [of Christ]… constantly builds up the Church here below, so that it may be the People of God, the Body of Christ” (cuius ministerium, quo Ecclesia in Populum Dei, Corpus Christi et Templum Spiritus Sancti, hic in terris, indesinenter aedificatur); and: “Christ Himself builds, sanctifies and governs His Body” (Christus Ipse Corpus suum exstruit, sanctificat et regit)]. Let us pass over the challenge to the logical mind: building one’s own body is a completely mythical language. Doesn’t this language, so far from the rich simplicity of the New Testament, open ideological doors that should remain closed? What then would be a self-construction of Christ, or more exactly of the Church according to the old Latin theology of “Christ continued” (cf. note 2) and of ecclesio-centrism? Is it any wonder then that baptism is considered only as the entry into a club-Church, where the great movement of the future is built, under the guidance of enlightened bishops and the pope? How can this ecclesio-centrism be overcome, other than by the need to prepare for the Coming of Him who has been glorified in body and soul? This perspective has not been pursued, either.

5. Breaking the Deadlock (and the Misunderstanding)

Even if no human institution ever does do so, it is appropriate for the ecclesial institution, insofar as it is divine in its foundations, to be able to make the distinction. There are not “three” bodies of Christ. There is only one. And one of the main consequences of the self-exaltation of the Church as the body of Christ must also be remedied; namely, the weakening of the authority of the bishops—as successors of the apostles, each of them is accountable only to God, as is said of the commander of a ship on the high seas. That is to say, not to the State, nor to a Party, nor even to the pope—only to the Church as a whole, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. Tens of thousands of Christians were martyred because they defended this freedom of the bishops from political or financial powers, a freedom that guarantees the freedom of the Church and the faith of all Christians. It was not so that it could be confiscated by the pope. Besides, no one would put all their eggs in one basket, at the risk of losing everything at once. The autonomy of each bishop guarantees the survival of the Church, even if it means also that they help each other on a regional level (as in the old archdioceses). The Church will not die because one of the branches of the vine withers. Jesus himself explains it: “He [the Father] removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” (Jn 15:2). This is how He himself constituted His Church, not as a pyramid of powers but as a communion in which Peter constitutes the pole of unity, through which he will have to intervene, if things do not go well (cf. Jn 21:15-25 above).

And to put an end to the abusive interpretations of the images used by the apostle Paul, let us imagine for a moment that he was living today. What image from the world would he have used to describe the Church? He would certainly have been interested in the global phenomenon of information technology and the computer model. All the parts of the computer are necessary for it to function (1 Cor 12), some are less noble (and less expensive) than others; but all the parts work together so that the growth of information is harmonious (Eph 4:16); and the computer’s processor is Christ (Col 1:18).

This being the case, it is not certain that we would have escaped Roman ecclesio-centrism. A few years after Paul, we would probably have seen an encyclical entitled, Mystici Computeri which would explain: since the processor in Heaven is not very functional in practice, we must connect to the replacement processor on earth, which is in Rome, so that it can coordinate and control the whole thing—with the Holy Spirit simply providing the basic software. Note that these images have an advantage over Paul’s—they include the idea of updates (e.g., Councils), which the body image does not. Obviously, there can be bugs in the updates. In short, if we must be wary of images, this mistrust is not enough to get out of the deadlock. The crucial question can no longer be set aside—how can the Church define herself other than in the perspective of the Glorious Second Coming? Like the Spouse who awaits the Bridegroom?

Such a perspective is certainly not without consequences, especially for the way the Bride sees the world, and for the coming judgment of that world whose Prince is not Christ. These are disturbing consequences. But it is precisely the gaze towards glory, where Christ as “first-fruits” awaits the humanity that chooses Him, and even ultimately awaits the whole of creation (1 Cor 15:23-24; Rom 8), that makes it possible to stand in the midst of the contradictions of this world.


Theologian and Islamologist, Father Edouard-Marie Gallez is the author of the magisterial  Le messie et son prophète (The Messiah and His Prophet), published in Paris in 2005 (and awaiting an English translation), which is an 1100 -page study that reconnects the origins of Islam to factual history by showing that the Koran and Islamic legends developed gradually over time. This study paved the way of current research into early Islam. See Roots of Islam and the Great Secret. Father Gallez also participates in research groups on early Christianity and its influence.


Featured: “The Transfiguration of Christ,” by Giovanni Bellini; painted ca. 1487.

“Encountering Christ”: What Does that Mean?

Spontaneously, all converts say, “I met Jesus.” What do they mean?

What is mysterious is not only the fact that it is Jesus, but the fact of the encounter itself. The main nowadays common meaning of the verbs “to encounter” or “to meet” are not so old. Previously, converts could only say, “I have found Jesus, or “I have known Jesus.” In the first case, one is tempted to ask them “where;” and in the second “how.” Some word was missing to carry an important unspoken meaning; and this lack seriously handicapped ancient theology, Latin or Greek.

The old meaning of “to meet” ‒from Germanic origin‒ was “to come into the same place with.” Later on, a possible physical contact was added to the meaning, or in the figurative sense of an agreement. For its part, the word “encounter” was built on the French adverb “contre” (Latin “contra”, in front of, against) with the thought of a confrontation. These words are however inadequate to describe the experience of the converts.

A Word to Say What?

Indeed, there is a difference between being with someone in the same room and actually meeting him. When you simply see a person, even if you notice him, nothing happens. But if you stop and talk to that person, something happens—an exchange. From then on, something is changed in me and also in the other person. Of course, things can go wrong and end up in a fight. Or, on the contrary, everything goes so well that in older French, we spoke of “se marier contre un(e) tel(le)” [marrying against such a one]. The word “encounter” gained this perspective of a very particular experience, while it is more the verb “to meet” that suggests it.

What is changed in me and in the other person? It is indefinable precisely; it depends on many things (circumstances, the past). If, therefore, the word “encounter” is too vague to constitute a true concept, it at least means that something has influenced my “personhood” at the same time as that of the other person—the term “person” being a word invented (not in the recent times but as early as the 3rd or 4th century) in order to highlight our becoming [at the beginning of the 6th century, Boethius tried to define what a “person” is; he gave six or seven definitions (it is not simple). He did not create the word, he contributed in popularizing it]—we are individuals endowed with reason and above all with relationships, and therefore perfectible. It is Christians who invented this word. It is also appropriate to speak of the relationships in the very Life of the One God who revealed Himself in three “Persons” who are perfect (they do not need perfection).

In fact, it was also (Western) Christians who extended the meaning of the words “encounter” and “to meet” as we can use them today: an “encounter” of Jesus changes something in our lives and in us—and more than a little. In Aramaic, such a word already existed, so to speak—qurbanah, i.e., to go as far as to touch or be touched; this word was retained to designate what in the West was called “Mass.” The word “mass” does not mean anything; let us imagine that the word “encounter” existed as early as the 2nd century: it would certainly have been used to say that on Sundays, Christians go “to the Encounter.” The term would be defined by itself: to touch/be touched by God. It would have been wonderful.

Each “encounter” with Jesus is a unique but also relative experience. Rather than trying to highlight features that would be common to the testimonies of converts or even to those of other people, it seems more appropriate to look at how all these encounters announce a plenary encounter. For the encounters of Our Lord here below are never absolute—they are clearly foretastes of something that can only take place outside the framework of this present world.

Preparing for a Plenary Encounter

We must therefore speak of a plenary Meeting of Jesus, of which those of our earthly life are, so to speak, preparations. This Encounter that awaits us can have two plenary “forms”:

  • the first is that which, in the “depths of death” (Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 635) , awaits the soul of every deceased person facing the soul of Christ “descended into hell” (Sheol– שאול, not Gehenna, the Hell of the doomed, according to Hebrew terminology), an encounter linked to Salvation, for we can only go to the Father through Him whose name means “He saves” or “Salvation” (in Hebrew) [ Introduced by the recalling that Jesus himself descended into the “mystery of death” and that through him “the gospel was also proclaimed to the dead” (1 Pet 4:6), no. 634 constitutes, together with no. 635, the heart of the understanding of the section of the CCC devoted to the Descent into Hell: “‘The gospel was preached even to the dead.’ The descent into hell (שאול) brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption” (no. 634)];
  • the second is the one that historically awaits those who will be on earth at the moment when Christ appears as the “Son of Man,” according to the words of the prophecy of Daniel 7:13 and countless proclamations in the Gospels; and it will be an encounter of Judgment for some, but of salvation-vivification for those who will have waited for it and will have suffered from the Anti-Christ (Heb 9:28).

These are two different things, which are neither superimposed nor combined: personal destiny beyond death and the judgment of humanity are not the same thing, even if we can underline analogies between one and the other, as we shall see, and the experience of the encounter with Christ in the course of our life on earth already has a little to do with both. Of course, it would be necessary to (re)give a whole teaching here on both of these two plenary “forms” of the Encounter with Jesus; we can only refer here to the all too rare serious studies which speak of them.

For some, one difficulty is the nature of the Encounter with Christ, whatever its “form” or its time: an encounter of Light or in the Light (it does not really matter); that would be too simple. The Encounter of the Light is linked to salvation: the light of Christ illuminates the shadows—the turpitudes of the past life—so that one can no longer lie or pretend. One can only ask for forgiveness, which allows one to start moving towards the Light. In the best of cases. For if one refuses to ask for forgiveness, the Meeting turns sour: one will flee from the light (Jn 3:21).

“What you have hidden from the wise and the learned, you have revealed to the little ones,” Jesus tells the Father (Matthew 11:25). Everything is simple for those who want to understand clearly.

[As early as the 17th century, Puritan preachers misunderstood this passage from St. Paul 1Thess 4:15-17: “We who will be left alive in [the length of] the Coming (Aramean: bə-meṯīṯēh) of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who will be still alive and left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.”

They have imagined in it the announcement of a “rapture of the [true] Christians”, whereas what St. Paul describes there, in a somewhat rudimentary way, is what is to happen at the end of the time of the Parousia, “when he will hand over the Kingdom to God the Father” (1Co15:24), i.e. Jesus comes down to hand over the participants of his Kingdom to his Father.

The Anglo-Irish Rev. John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) spread this doctrine of the “Rapture”, which became popular in the United States, to the point of giving rise to a novel (Left Behind) and to a movie; in the rest of the world, this doctrine made people smile].


Theologian and Islamologist, Father Edouard-Marie Gallez is the author of the magisterial  Le messie et son prophète (The Messiah and His Prophet), published in Paris in 2005 (and awaiting an English translation), which is an 1100 -page study that reconnects the origins of Islam to factual history by showing that the Koran and Islamic legends developed gradually over time. This study paved the way of current research into early Islam. See Roots of Islam and the Great Secret. Father Gallez also participates in research groups on early Christianity and its influence.


Featured: “Apparition du Christ aux pélerins d’Emmaüs (Appearance of Christ to the Disciples in Emmaus—Supper at Emmaus),” by Laurent de La Hyre; painted in 1656.

Aramaic: Lingua Franca Of The Ancient World

It is only in Heaven that we will see the truth about everything. On earth, it is impossible. So, even for Sacred Scripture, isn’t it sad to see all the differences in translation. If I had been a priest, I would have learned Hebrew and Greek, I would not have been satisfied with Latin, as I would have known the real text dictated by the Holy Spirit.
(Saint Therese of Lisieux, “The Last Interviews,” in the Yellow Book of Mother Agnès, August 4, 1897).

Thérèse of Lisieux is undoubtedly right, but to learn the language in which our Lord deigned to express himself, we must ask ourselves what that language was. Jesus could not ignore the Hebrew language, that of Revelation, but it was then no more than a liturgical language, what today we would call a “dead language.” The oral language, the language of communication, was Aramaic, the history of which begins with that of the men who brought it with them.

These Aramaeans were Semites who burst out of the desert to conquer the fertile lands of Mesopotamia and Syria. They went everywhere, settling, seizing supplies, creating little kingdoms.

Then arose Assyria, the empire of war, of force, of power – the “Hitlerites of the ancient world.” As soon as Assyria awakened, the various small Aramaic kingdoms disappeared, one after the other. But they left their language and their gods to the world.

This language, the Assyrians themselves would adopt. On several figurative documents concerning Aramaic origin, in particular on one of the frescoes of Til Barsip, we see depicted side-by-side an Assyrian scribe who writes on a tablet, and an Aramaic scribe who writes on a sheet of parchment or papyrus (13th century to the 9th century BC). But what the Assyrians instituted was not a properly Mesopotamian dialect of Aramaic but common Aramaic. Thus, a body of Aramaic scribes was officially constituted inside Assyrian administration.

In 632 BC, the Assyrians disappeared from the face of the earth. Then a new power arose – the Persians.

They were called the Achaemenids, among whom the prominent name is Darius the Great. With the Achaemenids, the Iranians became “the imperial race of Asia,” to use Roman Ghirshman’s phrase. In terms of political organization, Greece hardly arose beyond the polis – the State remained the City there. The Persians, for their part, developed an entity which, in its unity, encompassed countries of various races and cultures, united by the cogs of a vast administration. and above all else, these peoples were protected by a powerful army against foreign domination (especially against the persistent threat of nomads from the North and East). This empire, which remained a warrior one, was nevertheless driven by a desire for association rather than the thirst for domination, so characteristic of Assyria that always retained a powerful fascination.

The Achaemenids also made the linguistic choice of Aramaic, for reasons, no doubt, a little different than those which motivated the Assyrians; and it indeed seems to be a more conscious choice.

The use of cuneiform for writing Old Persian dates back at least to Teipses (as evidenced by the gold tablet of his son, Ariaramnes). At the time of the transformation of the small kingdom of Pars into empire, this language and this writing were only accessible to a minority of the ruling class. However, the rapidity of the formation of the Achaemenid Empire precluded the possibility of translating Persian into all languages. It was therefore necessary to choose an already existing language. But, also, by this time, Aramaic had spread throughout anterior Asia to western Iran. It was therefore Aramaic that the Persians adopted.

The Achaemenids had three other languages of culture, but it was this fourth language that they chose. Persia owes a great deal to the Kingdom of Urartu. From Urartu came the use of the breastplate. The Urartians transmitted their arts and techniques to the Iranians, as well as their strategy of conquest in their great symbols. According to Herodotus (III, 85), Darius obtained his crown thanks to his squire and his horse, just like King Rusa of Urartu. The traditions of the Urartian chancelleries were followed by the Persians: it is only in the Urartu texts that a royal inscription is divided into parts, so each one begins with “Thus spoke King X…,” which is found in the inscriptions of Achaemenid kings.

The most famous piece of Achaemenid glyptic belongs to Darius the Great. It is inscribed with his name and bears a text written in three languages. The use of cuneiform writing was not, however, completely abandoned, though it was reduced to stone inscriptions on monuments.

Thus, being already a lingua franca throughout the Near and Middle East, with the Achaemenids, Aramaic took on the status of an official language throughout Asia; and it remained in use, in particular in state affairs, from Egypt to India, where documents written in Aramaic have been found. If in Elam, one wrote in Elamite, and in Babylon in Babylonian, then all the Persian chancelleries used Aramaic.

The Achaemenid Persians also then were the enemy to be defeated, for Alexander the Great. The archives of the Achaemenid Empire were kept in Ecbatana (the Bible makes it clear), and the excavations at Persepolis and Suza confirm this. Alexander stored there all the treasures of the capitals looted during his campaigns.

This Hellenization, which is held to be the marvelous consequence of this lightning raid of unheard-of insolence, actually began long before, and rather peacefully. It was when the ancient kingdom of Urartu was formed (ca. 800 BC) that a slow expansion of the Greeks around the coasts of Asia Minor took place. Greek merchants had found on the Pontic coast iron, wax, linen, wool, precious metals, cinnabar, bronze, wood, furniture, fabrics, as well as Elamite and Median embroidery. Iran was not excluded from trade between Greece and the East. On the contrary, there was an Irano-Urartian koine, which then extended from the Oxus to the Ganges, and indisputably linked artistic traditions (some attest to the links between Crete and Iran), and therefore to techniques, in particular, metallurgy. And all interaction was probably not in one language.

Alexander’s conquest marked a pause in the development of Persian art (constant for seven centuries), as in all likelihood the use of Aramaic also marked a pause. But Alexander’s empire did not last. Thereafter, the Parthians came to the forefront of history, firmly determined to oust the Seleucid monarchy, one of the three monarchies that were heir to Alexander, and thus to reconquer Iran. They took a little over a century to accomplish all this. At the time of the Achaemenid Empire, the region where these Parthians settled existed under the name of the “Parthian satrapy.”

The Parthian Empire was born in a great expansion of the Iranian tribes of the steppes which spread to the four corners of the horizon, from the Black Sea with the Sarmatians, to the mouth of the Indus with the Saka, and from the Euphrates with the Parthians to eastern India with the Kushans. This vast area, despite the diversity of peoples and countries, climates and landscapes that it contained, became what René Grousset called, “outer Iran,” where a composite yet enduring civilization was established. Such was the Parthian element that founded, rebuilt, enriched, and stabilized civilization in this part of the world.

Much of Parthian history took place during the reigns of thirty-two kings, all of whom bore the same name, Arsaces; hence the Arsacid dynasty If they chose the path of Iranism, it was not only because they believed it more capable of supporting them in their fight against the Seleucids, then vis-a-vis the Romans who claimed to realize in their Eastern policy the imperialist conceptions of ‘Alexander the Great, but because the Parthians were more Iranian than Greek. It was not just a political choice, but a deep affinity. It was a conscious decision, not solely a political choice.

And for this reconquest and this refoundation, the Parthians relied on the language that the Achaemenids, of whom they considered themselves to be successors, had adopted before them, namely, Aramaic, which was also then made the language of the chancellery. The ostraca that have been found are either bilingual (Indo-Aramaic, or Greco-Aramaic), or only in Aramaic. This means that Aramaic extended as far as the Kushan empire and therefore Bactria, which had long been Hellenized (historians speak of the Greco-Bactrians).

Their empire lasted five centuries, and it was nurtured by an unprecedented event.

In 105, King Mithridates II received the first Chinese embassy in his capital of Hecatompylos. He concluded a commercial treaty with China, which guaranteed him monopoly on silk. The center of gravity of the Persian world now changed – from the banks of the Tigris, it moved towards Bactria and Sogdiana. Many cities were then transformed into merchant cities, provisioning and training the leaders of the caravans, including Palmyra, which was to be called to a singular destiny.

Thus, under the pax parthica, in the first century of our era, two men set out. One was called Bartholomew, the other Thomas. In the heart of Asia, where Iran was the cultural engine, but which had chosen the Semitic language of Aramaic, and within an empire which felt a particular sympathy for the Jewish world, these two men were to go far, even to the ends of the earth, to evangelize and to found churches.

The Word not only prepared His coming, He also prepared the conditions for the dissemination of His Message. And by learning the language in which our Lord deigned to speak, we can focus on understanding the role that that language has played in history in general and in that of Christians in particular.


Marion Duvauchel is a historian of religions and holds a PhD in philosophy. She has published widely, and has taught in various places, including France, Morocco, Qatar, and Cambodia.

[The original article in French was translated by N. Dass]


The featured images shows “the Kandahar Sophystos Inscription,” ca. 260 BC, or later. It is a metrical, bilingual (Greek and Aramaic) inscription. The Greek acrostic down the side reads: “ΔΙΑ ΣΩΦΥΤΟΥ ΤΟΥ ΝΑΡΑΤΟΥ (Dia Sophytou tou Naratou): By Sophistos, son of Naratos.”