At the school of
Mary, Woman of the Eucharist
It is an undeniable
fact that in the Catholic Churches of the East and West a representation
of Mary by means of an icon or statue is as constant and can be taken as
much for granted as the very presence of the Eucharistic Jesus in the
tabernacle. Therefore, in the sixth and final chapter of Ecclesia de
Eucharistia, the Holy Father undertook to explain the presence of Mary
in the Church that celebrates the Eucharist.
between Mary and the Eucharist is the bond between mother and son. It is a
profound relationship: "Mary is present", the Pope says, "with the Church
and as the Mother of the Church, at each of our celebrations of the
Eucharist. If the Church and the Eucharist are inseparably united, the
same ought to be said of Mary and the Eucharist" (n. 57).
Therefore, the Holy
Father recalls the experience of the early Christian community awaiting
Pentecost, where Mary was present with the Apostles, united in prayer:
"Certainly Mary must have been present at the Eucharistic celebrations of
the first generation of Christians, who were devoted to 'the breaking of
bread' (Acts 2:42)" (n. 53).
The Fathers of the
Church handed down to us countless Eucharistic-Marian testimonies. We
might recall, for example, the most ancient inscription of Abercius,
Bishop of Hierapolis in Phrygia (at the end of the second century A.D.),
the most ancient lapidary monument, which mentions the Eucharist
distributed by Mary in the Church. It is a 22-verse epitaph dictated by
the Bishop himself who, in various cities on his return trip from Rome to
his native country, meets the Christian communities who offer him the
Eucharist: "13. It (the faith) offered me for food a spring-water fish;
14. extremely large, pure, that had been caught by a chaste virgin; 15.
every day she gave it to eat to her friends; 16. she had an excellent wine
and, mixing it, gave it with the bread".1 This "chaste virgin"
who daily distributes the extremely large fish2 under the
species of bread and wine, is the Virgin Mary.3
In one of his hymns,
St Ephrem the Syrian (306-373) sings of Mary, the new Eve, who gave to the
world Jesus, present under the Eucharistic species: "In place of that
bitter fruit that Eve plucked from the tree, Mary gave mankind sweet
fruit. And behold, the whole world enjoys the fruit of Mary. The virginal
vine has borne a grape whose sweet wine has given comfort to those who
The Eucharist as the mystery of faith
Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae, the Holy Father proposes
Mary anew as the Teacher of the faithful in contemplating the Eucharistic
countenance of her divine Son by means of three dispositions: obedience in
the faith, sharing in his passion and the spirituality of the
The Eucharist is
first and foremost an invitation to Jesus' obedience in the faith:
"If the Eucharist is a mystery of faith which so greatly transcends our
understanding as to call for sheer abandonment to the word of God, then
there can be no one like Mary to act as our support and guide in acquiring
this disposition" (n. 54). Mary, present with the Church and as Mother of
the Church in each of our Eucharistic celebrations, admonishes us to have
faith in her divine Son, to do what he tells us: As Jesus was capable of
changing water into wine, he is equally capable of making the bread and
wine his body and blood for the life of the world.
Mary's Eucharistic faith was lived even before the
institution of this sacrament, since the Eucharist is in continuity with
the mystery of the Incarnation, of which it is an extension and fulfilment.
"At the Annunciation Mary conceived the Son of God in the physical reality
of his body and blood, thus anticipating within herself what to some
degree happens sacramentally in every believer who receives, under the
signs of bread and wine, the Lord's body and blood" (n. 55).
Therefore, there is a
profound analogy between the Blessed Virgin's fiat and the amen
of the believer at communion, who is asked "to believe that the same Jesus
Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, becomes present in his full humanity
and divinity under the signs of bread and wine" (n. 55).
Mary also anticipated
the Eucharistic faith of the Church from the moment that she became the
living tabernacle of the Son, still invisible to the eyes of humanity,
offering him for Elisabeth to adore in the Visitation. "And is not the
enraptured gaze of Mary as she contemplated the face of the newborn
Christ... that unparalleled model of love which should inspire us every
time we receive Eucharistic communion?" (n. 55).
For this reason St
John Chrysostom compared the manger at Bethlehem to the Eucharistic table:
"[How is it possible that] the magi, pagans and foreigners, hurried from
Persia to see the Lord lying in the manger while you, who are a Christian,
cannot even find a little bit of time to enjoy this wonderful sight?
Indeed, if we approach it with faith, we will certainly see him lying in
the manger. Well, this [Eucharistic] table takes the place of the manger".5
Eucharistic disposition that Mary teaches us is that of sacrifice.
From her offering of Jesus in the temple until Calvary, Mary lives a type
of anticipated spiritual communion of desire and offering that will have
its fulfilment in her union with her Son in his passion as well as in the
post-Easter Eucharistic celebrations presided at by the Apostles. The body
offered in sacrifice and now present in the sacramental signs of bread and
wine is the same body that she conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Receiving the Eucharist, Mary receives Jesus anew into her womb, reliving
with him the sacrifice of the cross.
However, the memorial of Calvary also makes present
Jesus' entrusting of each of us to Mary: "Behold your mother!" (cf. Jn
19:27). The Eucharistic sacrifice therefore implies this Marian gift.
Following the example of John, the faithful should take along with them
the one who has been given to us as a Mother: and this "also means taking
on a commitment to be conformed to Christ, putting ourselves at the school
of his Mother and allowing her to accompany us" (n. 57).
A third disposition
that Mary teaches us, according to the Pope, is that of the
spirituality of the Magnificat, since the Eucharist is a canticle of
praise and thanksgiving: "In the Eucharist the Church is completely united
to Christ and his sacrifice, and makes her own the spirit of Mary" (n.
Besides recalling the
wonders of the Lord in salvation history, in the Magnificat Mary
announces the wonder that surpasses all others, the redemptive
Incarnation, those new heavens and the new earth "which find in the
Eucharist their anticipation and in some sense their programme and plan"
(n. 58). The Eucharistic spirituality of the Magnificat helps us
approach that eschatological shore, drawing our gaze towards the heavenly
'Ave, verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine'
The Marian dimension
of the Eucharist has always been a test of doctrinal orthodoxy: the
Eucharistic body of Christ is the same body that was formed in the womb of
the Virgin Mary and was born of her. This solemn truth was re-emphasised,
for example, in the profession of faith of Berengarius of Tours on 11
believe with my heart and confess with my lips that the bread and wine
that are on the altar, by virtue of the mystery of the holy prayer and the
words of our Redeemer, are transformed in substance into the true and
proper and life-giving body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ and that,
after the consecration they are the true Body of Christ, who was born of
the Virgin and who for the salvation of the world hung upon the cross, and
who is seated at the right hand of the Father".6 This is why
the liturgical tradition pays honour to Jesus in the Eucharist, calling
him the "fruit of a noble womb; born for us, given to us by an intact
Virgin" ("Fructus ventris generosi. Nobis datus, nobis natus ex intacta
The Eucharist is the
gift of Mary who, in freely accepting her divine motherhood, becomes the
dwelling-place of the bread of life, the immaculate soil that produces the
grain that nourishes the universe, the spiritual paradise where the tree
of life buds forth, a tree whose sweetness gives life to those who partake
of it.8 These are images that are commonly found in the Eastern
liturgies. The great doctor of the Armenian Church,
St Gregory of Narek,
sings of Mary as follows: "If the heavenly branch had not developed from
you, our lips would not have tasted its fruit, that is, the Eucharist"9
The Chaldean Church
celebrates three feasts in honour of the Blessed Virgin: "the feast of the
seeds", which is observed on the second day after Christmas; "the feast of
the ears of grain" on 15 May, and the "the feast of the vines" on 15
August, the Solemnity of the Assumption. The Eucharistic significance of
these feasts is suggestive, as is illustrated by an ancient tradition that
refers back to St John the Evangelist: "In December Mary protects the
seeds of grain from earthly corruption and when they have grown and
matured, in the month of May, she watches over them for insects and she
has them watered by the rain so that these grains can be made into bread
for the Eucharist; in the month of August then, at the feast of her
assumption into heaven, she blesses the vines so that from them the wine
can be produced which, together with the bread, serves for the sacrifice
of the Mass".10
In the Melkite
liturgy the Blessed Virgin is not only considered as the living tabernacle
of the Incarnate Word, but also as the mystical altar for the true and
life-giving bread from which we draw holy nourishment.11 The
Ethiopian liturgy has Marian Eucharistic anaphoras, confirming that Mary's
mediation is also exercised in regard to Jesus' greatest gift to humanity,
namely, the Eucharistic sacrifice, which is offered each day through the
intercession of the Blessed Virgin.12
Mary leads the faithful to Jesus in the Eucharist
Devoting an entire
chapter to the presence of Mary in the Church that celebrates the
Eucharist, the Holy Father is not doing anything other than explaining
what he had stated quite succinctly in his Marian encyclical regarding the
Blessed Virgin's spiritual motherhood. "Her motherhood is particularly
noted and experienced by the Christian people at the Sacred Banquet — the
liturgical celebration of the mystery of the Redemption — at which Christ,
his true body born of the Virgin Mary, becomes present. The piety of the
Christian people has always very rightly sensed a profound link between
devotion to the Blessed Virgin and worship of the Eucharist: this is a
fact that can be seen in the liturgy of both the West and the East, in the
traditions of the Religious Families, in the modern movements of
spirituality, including those for youth, and in the pastoral practice of
the Marian Shrines. Mary guides the faithful to the Eucharist".13
Mary is therefore the
Odigitria. Her charismatic function is to lead the faithful to
Jesus in the Eucharist. Thus, Marian popular devotion, which is often
expressed in pilgrimage to Marian shrines and visits to Marian churches,
culminates in the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist.
Mary not only offers
the Infant Jesus to the adoring contemplation of the shepherds and magi at
Christmas but, as the Mother of the Church, she presents her Eucharistic
Son for the adoration and nutrition of the faithful every day of their
earthly journey. Led by Mary, the "sensus fidelium" becomes a "sensus
eucharisticus". St Bonaventure says: "As we have been given this most
holy body through Mary, so it must be offered through her hands, and
through her hands it should be received in the sacrament".14
Artistic celebration of Mary's role in both Incarnation and Eucharist
between the mystery of the Incarnation and the Eucharist through Mary's
mediation is a constant in the artistic tradition of both East and West.
Let us briefly mention a few illustrations.
In the Vatican
Christian Museum there is a ninth-century Eucharistic cross of embossed
silver. Mary is represented in the three scenes found on its horizontal
bar: the miracle at Cana, the institution of the Sacrament and the
distribution of the Eucharist by Jesus. A ninth-century miniature of a
Latin Codex (Cod. Lat. 39) in the Vatican Apostolic Library depicts
the Virgin enthroned holding the Infant Jesus: both of them, Mother and
Son, are holding the Eucharistic bread.
A 15-century fresco
on the vault of the church of Klérant (in the province of Bressanone,
Italy) depicts Eve offering humanity the food of death while Mary is
offering the Eucharist, the bread of life. Again from the 15th century
there is a canvas, now found in the Museum of Cluny, France, that depicts
the Virgin of the grain: Mary is called the valley wherein grows the grain
for the bread of life.
There is Sandro
Botticelli's famous Madonna dell'Eucaristia (now found in the Gardner
Museum in Boston): the Virgin, holding the Infant Jesus in her left arm,
rests her right hand on a basket of grapes and wheat offered by an angel.
Less known, but equally significant, is the Immaculada Eucarística
by the Ecuadorian painter, Miguel de Santiago (17th century), present, for
example, in the Church of St Francis in Quito (now in the Museum annex).
The Blessed Virgin is holding the ostensorium with the consecrated host
and is presenting it to humanity, under the gaze of the Blessed Trinity.
Just as she showed the world the incarnate Son in Bethlehem, now she
presents the Eucharistic Son to humankind.15
In the 19th century,
in Rome, the French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867)
painted several canvases of the Virgin adoring the consecrated host.
However, his most famous painting is now found in the Louvre. It was
commissioned in 1854 by the French Minister of the Interior and the
painting is called La Vierge à l'Hostie, with Mary in a posture of
prayer before the chalice with the consecrated host.
Since November of
1999, in the "Redemptoris Mater" Chapel in Vatican City, one can admire a
highly symbolic Marian-Eucharistic scene in the mosaic on the wall of the
Incarnation. On Calvary, Jesus hangs on the cross, supported by the
compassionate embrace of Mary, his mother. This depiction's originality
consists in the figure of Mary who, holding her Son in a close embrace,
collects in her hands the blood and water, a symbol of the sacraments of
the Church, especially of the Eucharist. This scene is quite common in
medieval representations: Mary, the mother of Jesus and the image of the
Church, gathers in a chalice the blood and water of the Eucharistic
sacrifice from the open side of her Son, the font of universal redemption.16
In the Holy Father's
Magisterium the Marian aspect of the Eucharist is not a devotional
option but a biblical and theological reality that has nourished the
Church's great tradition and which has come down to us with unchanged
splendour: "In the Sacrament of the Eucharist the Saviour", the
Pope said in preparation for the Great Jubilee of 2000, "who took flesh in
Mary's womb 20 centuries ago, continues to offer himself to humanity as
the source of divine life".17
Cf. G. Bosio, Iniziazione ai Padri, SEI, Turin, 1964, v. I, 283s.
See also B. Emmi, La testimonianza mariana nell'epitaffio di
Abercio, in "Angelicum" 46 (1969), pp. 232-302.
It should be noted that "icthus" was an acrostic for "Jesus Christ, Son of
The interpretation, for example, of H. Crouzel, Les préparations du
rapprochement entre Marie, l'Eglise et l'Eucharistie chez les Pères
anténicéens in Études Mariales 36-37 (1979-1980), pp. 38-48; J. Quasten,
Patrologia, Marietti, Casale M., vol. I, pp. 154-155.
Ephrem the Syrian, Inni su Santa Maria, Inno 1,
10.14: Monumenta Eucharistica, I, p. 340.
John Chrysostom, Panegyric on St Phylogonius, Bishop,
Denz., n. 700.
Thomas Aquinas, Opuscoli Spirituali, ESD, Bologna, 1999, p. 300.
Cf. T. Minisci, Il rito bizantino, in Academia Mariana
Internationalis, Alma Socia Christi. Vol. VI, Fasc. I: De B.V.
p. 66; J. Hajjar, Le rite melkite, ibid. p. 69.
Cited by G. Kaftaandjian, Il rito armeno, ibid. p. 73.
G. Nissan, La liturgia caldea, ibid. p. 77.
J. Hajjar, Le rite melkite, ibid. p. 69.
Abba F. Abraha, La liturgla etiopica, ibid. p. 69.
John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptorls Mater, n. 44.
St Bonaventure, Sermo de SS.mo corpore Christi in Opera Omnia,
5, p. 559.
Cf. A. Moreno Proaño, Tesoros Artísticos, Museo Filanbanco,
Guayaquil-Quito 1983, p. 15.
Cf. La Cappella "Redemptoris Mater" del Papa Giovanni Paolo II,
LEV, Vatican City 1999, p. 73, fig. 49.
17 John Paul II, Apostolic Letter
Tertio Mlllennio Adveniente, n. 55.