“We are all part of the Mystical Body of Christ.”
“May we all remain in union with Christ, one body, one Church.”
“We are all one with Christ’s body.”
We have all heard the above statements, or ones similar to it, frequently throughout our Catholic journey. What exactly do they mean, though? What is this Mystical Body of Christ and how are we a part of it?
Take a second to picture an image of the human body. Imagine the entire head of that body being Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Furthermore, imagine everything from the neck down being made up of all of us, believers and followers of Christ in His Church. Now while this is an overly-simplistic version of what we are discussing here, what you are picturing is the basic structure of the Mystical Body.
This image, when thoroughly reflected upon and studiously compared with the Sacred Scriptures, provides us with an astounding richness of the essential tenets of our faith. Three of these tenets in particular form the heart of a true understanding of the Mystical Body of Christ:
1) Our union with each other
2) Our union with Jesus Christ
3) The implications such unions have upon our spiritual journey
Let us explore each of these individually over the next couple of articles, so that anytime we hear a reference to the Mystical Body of Christ we will more fully perceive its meaning and substance.
Our Union With Each Other
“For as one body we have many parts…so we, though many, are one body with Christ,” (Romans 8: 4-5, emphasis mine).
This common phrase is repeated many times throughout Scripture, especially by St. Paul in his epistles. Each and every time it is stated it is in reference to us, the people who follow God. But what does it mean for us to be many parts, thus distinct from each other, and yet all one body, thus united together? How can this apparent paradox be reconciled?
The answer is in fact given by St. Paul himself within the very same passage: “For as one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them: if prophecy...; if ministry…; if one is a teacher…; if one exhorts…; if one contributes…; if one is over others…;if one does acts of mercy…” (Romans 12: 4-8, emphasis mine).
Paul here specifically refers to the ‘gifts’ that we each have, the skills, talents and vocations each of us is given that differs from the gifts others have received. Some are called to ministry, others to teaching, still others to prophecy, and so on. Just as every body part has a specific function within the body that is different from almost every other body part, so it is with us, that we all have our own gifts from God that we are each called to use in a way that He desires.
Yet that is not the end of the analogy, for we are not merely like the parts of a body in having different abilities; we are also like parts of a body in that despite our different abilities we are all in service to the Body as a whole; in other words, we use our different abilities together in order that the main Body of Jesus Christ functions the way it is supposed to.
We can see St. Paul making this very point in his address to the Corinthians:
“If a foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. Or if an ear should say, ‘Because I am not an eye I do not belong to the body,’ it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?. But as it is, God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body,” (1Corinthians 12: 15-20, emphasis mine).
St. Paul makes it very clear that though the gifts that each of us have are different from the others, each and every one of us is called to use our gifts toward the same goal: the praise and glory and worship and honor of Jesus Christ. Each and every cell, each and every appendage, each and every organ acts differently from the others, and yet they all act in service to the entire body.
As important as this shared service is, however, in explaining our being part of the Mystical Body of Christ, it is necessary to note that this is not the only meaning, or even the most important meaning, behind St Paul's words; Paul does not say that the parts of any body, let alone the Mystical Body, are united only in their shared service to the body.
To him, it is far more important for his readers to understand that the parts of the body are united in the body itself. They are one with the body, inextricably linked to all other parts of the body in this beautifully complex system of life, “individually parts of one another” (Romans 12: 5). That is the essence of Paul’s statement that the body “is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body” (1Corinthians 12: 12). It is only by being united to the body, and thus united to each other, that each part is able to fulfill their objective of serving the entire body.
So it is with the Mystical Body of Christ, all of us inextricably linked to each other due to both our service to the whole Body (“…him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the body’s growth and builds itself up in love,” (Ephesians 4: 15-16)) as well as our being one with the whole Body (“Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it” (1Corinthians 12: 27)). Regardless of whether we are a mere ‘cell’, an incredibly important ‘organ’, or somewhere in between, we are one with each other by virtue of being one with Christ: “one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all,” (Ephesians 4: 3-6).