Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 10

Author: Archbishop Angelo Amato, S.D.B.

Reflections on Ecclesia de Eucharistia - 10

Archbishop Angelo Amato, S.D.B.

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.

The connection 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 mourn".4The Eucharist as the mystery of faith

Recalling his 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 Magnificat.

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

A second 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. 58).

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 Jerusalem.'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 February 1079:

"I, Berengarius, 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 Virgine").7

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.12Mary 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".14Artistic celebration of Mary's role in both Incarnation and Eucharist

The relationship 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

1 Cf. G. Bosio, Iniziazione ai Padri, SEI, Turin, 1964, v. I, 283s. See also B. Emmi,  Latestimonianza mariana nell'epitaffio di Abercio, in "Angelicum" 46 (1969), pp. 232-302.

2 It should be noted that "icthus" was an acrostic for "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour".

3 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.

4 Ephrem the Syrian, Inni su SantaMaria, Inno 1, 10.14: Monumenta Eucharistica, I, p. 340.

5 John Chrysostom, Panegyric on St Phylogonius, Bishop, Homily 6.

6 Denz., n. 700.

7 Thomas Aquinas, Opuscoli Spirituali, ESD, Bologna, 1999, p. 300.

8 Cf. T. Minisci, Il rito bizantino, in Academia Mariana Internationalis, Alma Socia Christi. Vol. VI, Fasc. I: De B.V. Maria et Eucharistia, p. 66; J. Hajjar, Le ritemelkite, ibid. p. 69.

9 Cited by G. Kaftaandjian, Il rito armeno, ibid. p. 73.

10 G. Nissan, La liturgia caldea, ibid. p. 77.

11 J. Hajjar, Le rite melkite, ibid. p. 69.

12 Abba F. Abraha, La liturgla etiopica, ibid. p. 69.

13 John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Redemptorls Mater, n. 44.

14 St Bonaventure, Sermo de corpore Christi in Opera Omnia, 5, p. 559.

15 Cf. A. Moreno Proaño, Tesoros Artísticos, Museo Filanbanco, Guayaquil-Quito 1983, p. 15.

16 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.  

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