Behold what you are; become what you receive.
In Lent, at St Mary Magdalene’s, we use this phrase at communion, as an exhortation to the congregation before the bread and wine are distributed. An adaptation of a phrase from a sermon by St Augustine (AD 354–430), it is also used by (among others) the Society of St John the Evangelist in Boston.
The original sentence comes from St Augustine’s Sermon 272, in which he links the bread of the Eucharist (the body of Christ) to those who receive it, who are members of the church and also the body of Christ.
“What is seen is the physical representation; what is understood is the spiritual fruit. Therefore, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle [Paul] speaking to the faithful: You are the body of Christ, and its members [1 Cor. 12:27]. … When you hear “The body of Christ”, you answer, “Amen”. Be a member of the body of Christ, so that your “Amen” may be true! What then is the bread? We assert nothing here of our own ideas; rather, let us listen closely to the Apostle, who, when he spoke concerning this Sacrament, said, There is one bread; we, the many, are one body [1 Cor. 10:17]. … “One bread” – what is this one bread? It is one body formed of many. Remember that bread is not made from a single grain, but from many. When you were purified, you were ground. When you were baptized, you became dough. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were baked. Become what you see, and receive what you are.”
– Augustine, Sermon 272 (On the day of Pentecost – To the Catechumens, Concerning the Sacrament)
Estote quod videtis, et accipite quod estis.
The phrase as Augustine wrote it is a pun which is essentially untranslatable in English. 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.
In other words, you are what you eat.
– Elisabeth Beattie