The Three Bodies of Christ

Jesus has three bodies, which is the sort of nonsense saying that gets Christians in trouble.

No, I’m not suggesting some sort of Trinitarian confusion where either the Father and Spirit have bodies (they don’t) or that all three persons are Jesus (they’re not), but in some classical accounts Jesus has three bodies.

The three bodies are:

One, his physical body. The flesh and blood matter of the first century carpenter, post-resurrection, that now abides in the heavens and in the Godhead. It’s a remarkable truth that Jesus has carried his body with him and always will do. As St. Gregory of Nazianzus puts it: “What has not been assumed has not been healed; it is what is united to his divinity that is saved.” In other words, Jesus ‘keeping’ his humanity, including his physicality, is how we can be sure that our humanity—including our physicality—will also be redeemed.

Two, his eucharistic body. Some of my readers will be uncomfortable with the phrasing, but the body of Christ we consume week-by-week in communion bread. When we declare that it is his body (1 Corinthians 11) we are declaring that it’s his body. We might mean something very different from the body above, but we still claim it’s his body.

Three, his ecclesial body. We say that the church is the body of Christ, so Jesus has a third body and it’s his people. Evangelicals are generally more comfortable with this one than the second, but again in the same way as the second when we call ourselves the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12) we are declaring that it’s his body.

Theologians spill much ink exploring the connections between these. My initial comment amounts to this: we should neither confuse nor deny these bodies.

To take the example of the Lord’s Supper, if we were to advocate for transubstantiation (especially in its most neo-Thomistic forms), that the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Jesus—or to be super specific, that the substance of the elements are changed but not the accidents—we are confusing the physical and eucharistic bodies with each other.

On the other extreme, some memorialist views suggest that the bread and wine are simply what they appear to be and have no connection to Jesus’ body at all. Typically, that means that we think the Lord’s Supper is primarily about remembering in the sense of recalling events rather than having some connection to the events recalled.

These two extremes, that I would suggest either confuse or deny the three ‘bodies’ that the scriptures seem to suggest Christ has, are often the only two positions that people I talk to are aware of on the Lord’s Supper. There’s a lot of room between them, with the various Reformed and Lutheran positions allowing for the Real Presence of Jesus in the Supper, without introducing that confusion or denial.

The Roman Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac (who I’ve encountered mostly through Hans Boersma and John Milbank’s work) would argue that the eucharistic body creates the ecclesial, and that this is the historical view of the Church in the first millennium, lost near the start of the second. It is in eating and drinking Jesus together that we are united into his body.

While I would disagree on lots of particulars, I think the broad shape of that is about right: we become his people by imbibing Jesus together. It’s around the table that a group becomes a body. This is true of households, becoming a body politic in their meals together. This is true of nations—it’s as we share around ‘tables,’ places of storytelling, myth-making, hospitality, and friendship, that we become a people. This is true of both the micro and macro levels (household and nation) because it’s first true at the spiritual level: the church is united around the table. That’s where we practice (and practise) Christianity.

Which is a point I’ve made many times over, but I suspect suddenly sounds weird when this Protestant voices it using Roman Catholic sounding categories. I think they are, in this instance, helpful because they answer a question I haven’t attempted before: why is that the case?

Why are tables the places of meeting and uniting and becoming more than a sum of our parts? We can say because God meets us at the table, and we would be right to do so. We can also say that the connection between Jesus’ three ‘bodies’ is why the eucharistic and ecclesial bodies can be called his body.

In other words, because Christ is all in all (Colossians 2), we are caught up into participation with him by the sharing of his body. The church, as the ‘Temple’ is the place of meeting with God. The patterns that the Church sets are the patterns the World is supposed to follow.

Because Jesus shares himself with us, we are changed. And so is everything else.

Photo by Sandro Gonzalez on Unsplash

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