Be What You See

I grew up an Anglican and for years I received communion with the words, “The body of Christ keep you in eternal life.” Others might be more familiar with the shorter form “The body of Christ”.

One of the ear-catching things (and there are quite a few) when you first receive communion in the AJC is the words,

“Be what you see, receive what you are.”

They’re powerful, profound words and they deserve a thorough chewing and some deep rumination. I’m still digesting them after ten years.

It tends to surprise most people to discover that St Augustine, that nasty, old, Original-Sin-defining, crypto-Manichean, is the author of those words.

Estote quod videtis, et accipite quod estis.

They’re from a sermon he delivered at Pentecost in about 408CE. It’s quite a profound meditation on the symbols of Bread and Wine – how both are single things which are made from many… many grains, many grapes. There’s a lot of 1 Corinthians – the Body of Christ and its members.

They’re also a pun, apparently.

“The Latin verbs esse (to be) and edere (to eat – in its elided form) conjugate with very similar forms in some specific combinations of person, tense, and mood. Estote (imperative) can mean “become” or “eat”. Estis (present indicative) can mean “you are” or “you eat”. Both meanings are simultaneously present in the Latin, and are given force by their association with the bread of the Eucharist. The bread of the Eucharist, which you see and eat, is the body of Christ, which you also become and are, and when you receive and accept it, you eat what you are – the body of Christ.”

Parish of St Mary Magdalene, Toronto

… apparently they use a different translation, which is also lovely,

Behold what you are; become what you receive.

It’s not a long sermon and it’s worth reading (here’s a nice translation that’s more readably formatted than most).

Augustine is talking about unity, about peace and forgiveness and about the integrity of living your confession. But what creeps through in his tumble of metaphors reminds me forcibly of Christ’s perichoresis prayer from John 17:21,

“…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.”

Perhaps those words at communion when I was a teenage Anglican and the words I now say myself are not so terribly different. For surely this is zōēn aiōnion – life eternal – that we are perfected in the One.

So may you be what you see
And may you receive what you are
And may the Body and Blood of Christ
Keep you in the Life Eternal