Most of the world’s parishes are observing Corpus Christi today. In another place I drilled into the Collect. Let’s look at the Super Oblata, or "Prayer over the gifts".
SUPER OBLATA (2002MR):
Ecclesiae tuae, quaesumus, Domine,
unitatis et pacis propitius dona concede,
quae sub oblatis muneribus mystice designantur.
ICEL (1973 translation of the 1970MR):
may the bread and cup we offer
bring your Church the unity and peace they signify.
We beseech You, O Lord
graciously grant to Your Church gifts of unity and peace
which are mystically signified under offered gifts.
The vocabulary of today’s prayer doesn’t drive us scratching our heads to the informative Lewis & Short Dictionary, so let’s consider what the prayer is really saying in its content.
In Thomas Aquinas’ beautiful sequence for Corpus Christi, the Lauda Sion, we hear sung, “Signs, not things, are all we see… here beneath these signs lie hidden priceless things.” We can use this to pry open the prayer, seeking also insight from the Doctor of Grace, St. Augustine of Hippo (+430).
Augustine looks at the Eucharist in his monumental City of God (ciu.) Book X where he is examining the kind of worship which is due to God (latreia). He reminds us that God does not need sacrifices offered to Him. We need the sacrifices.
He wrote in a letter, “God commands nothing for His own benefit but for the benefit of the person to whom He gives the command”. Sacrifices are, “…signs of gifts God has bestowed either for imbuing the soul with the virtues or for attaining eternal salvation, and by the celebration and performance of them we carry out acts of piety useful to us, not to God” (ep. 138.6).
The outer physical actions of sacrifices are signs of something else: “The visible sacrifice is the sacrament, the sacred sign, of the invisible sacrifice” (ciu. 10.5).
Augustine says that in the Eucharist Christ, who is the mediator, accepts the Church’s sacrifice “in the form of God”. However, Christ, “in the form of a servant” also is the sacrifice He receives. Christ is both priest and victim who commanded the Church to continue this sacrifice in the celebration of the Eucharist, the sacramental sign. “
The Church, being the body of which He is the Head, learns to offer itself through Him” (ciu. 10.20). Christ’s Sacrifice unifies Christians in offering themselves to God through their participation in the inner reality perceived in outward sacramental signs, sacramenta.
For Augustine sacramenta fall into three categories:
1) the rites of the Law and those commanded by Christ;
2) symbolic figures or types, such as the Red Sea which was parted;
3) mysteries like the Trinity or resurrection.
This three-fold division wasn’t Augustine’s idea. Augustine did, however, give a definition for a sacrament.
In ep. 138.7 he says “signs are called sacraments when they have reference to divine things (ad res divinas pertinent)”.
For Augustine, in his theory of signs, a sign is an intermediary which causes something to enter into our thoughts. Signs do not distract from the truth of things. They lead us away from the sign itself onward to something greater, the res. Similarly, a sacramentum which is a rite leads us beyond the rite itself.
Later, in Medieval theological reflection founded on Augustine, we get the tripartite distinction of sacramentum (the outward sign of a greater spiritual reality) and res (the invisible reality it points at) and res et sacramentum (in the Eucharist at least, how Christ is truly present). Augustine, however, considers only sacramentum and res. This is why some people get confused into thinking that when Augustine speaks about the Eucharist in terms of sacramentum he thought they were merely symbols and not really the Body and Blood of Christ.
On the contrary, Augustine in an Easter Sunday sermon (s. 229.2), describes to newly baptized Catholic neophytes what is going on in the Eucharistic section of the Mass to which they were not previously admitted. He describes the effect of the consecration by the priest’s “word” (i.e., the Eucharistic Prayer):
“And from there we come now to what is done in the holy prayers which you are going to hear, that with the application of the word we may have the Body and Blood of Christ. Take away the word, I mean, it’s just bread and wine; add the word, and it’s now something else. And what is that something else? The Body of Christ, and the Blood of Christ. So take away the word, it’s bread and wine; add the word and it will become the sacrament. To this you say, Amen. To say Amen is to add your signature.”
Most of the time when discussing the Eucharist Augustine doesn’t dwell on the change from bread and wine to Christ’s Body and Blood. Instead, he moves quickly to talk about what the Eucharist means to us and what effect it has, that is, our unity with Him and in Him with each other in the Body of the Christ the Church.
This is the gift of the Eucharist, what later theology called res tantum whereas the Real Presence would be called res et sacramentum. The res tantum is the effect in us.
Let’s listen to another Easter sermon (s. 229A, 2). Remember, there were stenographers writing his words down as he preached and this is exactly how we have his sermons today! Augustine compares the people of his flock, especially those just baptized during the night, to the Eucharistic species:
“What you can see on the Lord’s table, as far as appearance of the things goes, you are also used to seeing on your own tables; they have the same aspect, but not the same value. I mean, you yourselves are the same people as you used to be; you haven’t brought us along new faces, after all. And yet you’re new; the same old people in bodily appearance, completely new ones by the grace of holiness – just as this too is new. It’s still, indeed, as you can see it, bread and wine; come the consecration, that bread will be the Body of Christ, and that wine will be the Blood of Christ. This is brought about by the name of Christ, brought about by the grace of Christ, that it should continue to look exactly like what it used to look like, and yet should not have the same value as it used to. You see, if it was eaten before, it would fill the belly; but now when it’s eaten it nourishes the spirit.”
Augustine then explains that on many altars there can be many loaves but in reality all are just one loaf. So too in the Church there are many people but one Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12:27).
“What you receive is what you yourselves are, thanks to the grace by which you have been redeemed; you add your signature to this, when you answer Amen. What you see here is the sacrament of unity.”
Thousands of altars. Millions of Hosts. Thousands of chalices. Millions of faithful. One Christ.
The Eucharist is our sign of unity.
It is also the flashpoint of division.
Pride is the catalyst of discord.
Many kernels of grain go into the one bread offered at the altar for the renewal of Christ’s Sacrifice.
Many grapes make one wine.
Wheat and grapes, the individual elements, are crushed and brought into a deeper unity.
Humility is the catalyst of unity.