Monthly Archives: April 2011

Mary and the Resurrection

[The following is an excerpt from Adrienne von Speyr’s Handmaid of the Lord.  Christ is risen!]

“On Easter morning [Mary] is again, she once was at the angel’s apparition, sheer open expectation.  She does not anticipate any particular apparition.  But her faith is so open that anything can appear within its space.  And there he stands before her, her Son in the glory of God, and he fills this space with a fullness which surpasses all human senses.  He not only fills the emptiness at hand; he fills it to overflowing, in the way the Godhead brims over man’s every expectation.  Her first Yes to the angel, her first joy at the conception, her first jubilation in the Magnificat, are like a tiny human beginning compared with this storm of the Easter assent and this fire of the new Magnificat.  The first Yes to the angel was full of responsibility for the future.  It was spoken wholly in joy, but with the background of the coming suffering as the price she was to pay for this joy in her conception.  But the joy of the new assent is so great, it so outshines all else, that it can survey as if from a mountain peak all past sufferings and separations and those which are perhaps to come.  The Mother’s earthly mission is not yet at an end; she will have to persevere in the midst of the Apostles and the evolving Church.  But this delay does not even come under consideration in the face of the perfection of the mutual fulfillment of Mother and Son in the joy of Easter…

“She is well aware of the finality of all things God does.  Nothing can separate her from the Son any longer; nothing can delay the working of the Son in her.  She has a certainty which we will never know in that way: she knows not only that the Lord will never disappoint her but, just as surely, that she will never disappoint the Lord.  When God lets us share in the glory of his grace and his promise, the anxious undertone is always sounding here below that we are bunglers and will perhaps betray him again.  In and of ourselves we would be capable of destroying even the most beautiful reality again, capable of being unfaithful even to the strongest assent.  In faith we can vouch for the Lord, but not for ourselves.  The Mother is beyond this concern.  From the very beginning she is so much born of grace and has lived in it so completely that everything which is hers—her assent itself—is carried and taken over by grace.  She sees this now on Easter with all-eclipsing evidence.  She is surrounded on all sides and illuminated to her innermost being by the light of her Son’s grace.  The past suffering left no trace of a shadow in her; on the contrary, she understands now how necessary everything difficult was, to expand her and give her the power of comprehension for so great a joy…

“It is as if she were given a second Christmas.  On Christmas she had received the Son; the long promise of Advent had found its earthly fulfillment.  But the little Child of Christmas was himself a promise, a bud of the coming redemption.  Now, on Easter, this bud has blossomed and become full actuality.  Today Mary is Mother of the Redeemer.  The end-point that has been reached is now the starting-point for all of Christianity; today she has become Mother in reality, and everything previous was only a preparation for this day.  She sees before her the completed work of the Son, and she herself stands at its source.  In the Spirit and through the Spirit she is the Mother.  And at the Cross the Son made her share expressly in the birth of this work.  Everything that at Christmas had been an earthly, corporeal reality has today become a spiritual reality and is therefore open and limitless and omnipresent: it is a ‘Eucharist.’

“But the Mother is included in the Son’s eucharistic form of existence.  Her unity with the Son became so great at Easter that from now on the two can no longer be separated.  Where the Son is essentially and truly present, the Mother cannot be missing.  If it is really the flesh of the Lord that the Christian receives at the altar, then it is also the flesh which took form within the Mother and at whose disposal she place everything that was hers.  Because she said Yes to his Incarnation, she also says Yes to each new advent of the Lord into the world that occurs at the Consecration of every Holy Mass.”

Bread, Cross, Christ

St. Paul says in First Corinthians (1:18) that the Cross is the power of God for those who are being saved. The mystery of the Cross is present in the Gospel account of the multiplication of the loaves, though it will seem hidden, if one looks only superficially. The event, as described by the evangelists, is the miraculous feeding of five thousand men in the wilderness. Jesus took a small amount of bread and fish, looked to Heaven, blessed and broke them, and gave them to the apostles, who then gave them to the crowd. There were even 12 baskets of leftover pieces.

God fed the Israelites in the desert many centuries before that, also in a miraculous way. Paul says in First Corinthians (10:4) that it was Christ, the Son of God, who was with them invisibly in the desert. Now that the Son had become visible as man, he again manifested the gift of God to his people. But He took it a step further, an indispensable and extremely significant step. St. John tells us that the people themselves made the connection between Jesus’ feeding the multitude in the desert and Moses giving them bread from heaven, the miraculous manna. That gave Jesus the opportunity to speak to them of the true Bread from Heaven, which is his own flesh, which He would give for the life of the world.

Here is where we first see the mystery of the Cross. The gift of the flesh of Christ, the divine and life-giving Bread, can be communicated only insofar as it is a fruit of the Cross—of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. The multiplication of ordinary bread to feed multitudes is but a symbol or prefiguration of the universal availability of the Holy Eucharist after the Resurrection of Christ and the establishment of his Church in the Holy Spirit. But the Eucharist is itself much more than a miraculous change from ordinary bread to the flesh of Christ—as astounding as that is in itself. The Holy Eucharist is the fruit of the Cross, and hence is a mystery of forgiveness and love, of the transforming power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is also in itself a proclamation of the Gospel, for the essence of the Gospel is manifested and communicated through the Eucharist. Jesus gave Himself up to death for the forgiveness of our sins, as he explicitly said at the Last Supper: “Take, eat, this is my body… Drink of it, all of you; for this is the blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).

Jesus must have looked with some satisfaction upon the crowds He had fed by multiplying the loaves and fish. For He knew that the Bread He would soon give would be able to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the whole world. Jesus made sure that the disciples gathered up all the fragments of the miraculous meal He had provided, “so that nothing may be lost.” If even this symbol of his divine gift was to be treated with such care, how much more, then, ought we reverence the Holy Eucharist, and approach with deep adoration! Yet how little reverence is paid to his presence during the Liturgy or in the Tabernacle! A friend of mine often grieved over finding consecrated Hosts in the pews and even on the floor of a church in San Francisco. And I remember when I was visiting someone in the hospital (I was out of town, so I was not able to bring the Eucharist myself), I went to receive a Host from the hospital chaplain so as to give Communion to my friend. I went to the office and his assistant was there, who nonchalantly pulled out a pyx and removed a Host, which she then somehow dropped on the floor. At hearing my little gasp, she just said, “Don’t worry; it’s OK.” I thought, and probably should have said: “No, it’s not OK. If you drop the Body of the Lord on the floor you reverently bow down to recover it, and then repent of your carelessness and irreverence!” And so it goes on. When the communion rails or other separations between sanctuary and nave come down; when anyone—man, woman, child—can walk into the Holy of Holies at will; when laypeople, inadequately formed and inappropriately dressed, can saunter up to the tabernacle and open and close it as if it were their fridge at home, then of course the message is given to everyone that no reverence is required for the Holy Eucharist.

But let us hope and pray for better things. And let us, who do recognize the greatness of his inexpressible gift, give thanks that He who once multiplied bread in the wilderness, multiplies the gift of his saving and sanctifying Body and Blood for us in this wilderness of our earthly exile. Let us give thanks to Him who, as the Psalmist says, “gives food to those who fear Him.” We are invited at every Byzantine Liturgy, immediately before Communion, to “approach with the fear of God and with faith.” This approach with holy fear—which is the deep reverence and awe that we owe to the Bread from Heaven—and with faith in his mercy and love, will enable us to bear fruit and to live continually in the grace of the Holy Eucharist, which is the grace of the Gospel of the Cross, the Resurrection, and eternal life.

Bread from Heaven

Jesus had a discussion with a group of the people whom He had miraculously fed with loaves and fish—one that is profoundly enlightening for all who would follow Him, but that scandalized many, so much so that they closed their hearts and forsook their allegiance to Him altogether.

The people asked for a further sign, reminding him of one God worked for their ancestors in the desert: “it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” That was but a foreshadowing of the full revelation, for “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (vv. 32-33). At this point the people were still “with” Him, so they said: “Give us this bread always.”

Yet when Jesus offered it to them, they rejected it, because, as He said in another place, they could not bear to hear his word. They started to reason according to mere human perceptions and possibilities. “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” But rather than try to accommodate their ignorance and their growing hostility, Jesus presses on to the profound point: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if anyone eats of this bread he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (v. 51).

Being still confined to the narrowness of their own concepts, they asked, incredulously: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” How indeed. It is only possible if He really is who He says He is: the Son of God, the Bread from Heaven. Undaunted by their unbelief, and unwilling to compromise the whole truth for the sake of making it easier for them to accept, the Lord drives the point home: “Amen, amen, I say to you [that is how He introduces his most solemn statements], unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (vv. 53-56).

The people’s reaction was one that many people have today: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” The Gospel tells us that many no longer followed Jesus after hearing those words. If He were speaking in mere symbols or metaphors, which they had wrongly taken literally and hence withdrew from Him, He would have made the effort to gather them back, to explain it to them, for He did not come to drive people away but to gather them to Himself. But He was speaking the literal truth, and on that He could not compromise, for He is the truth—so He had to let them go. Either they believed or they didn’t; the choice to follow Him was theirs.

His words are clear: his flesh and blood are not symbolic food, metaphorical food, but real, true (alithis) food. It’s rather odd how some people can believe that the Son of God made the universe, healed the sick, raised the dead, walked on water—and yet vigorously deny the possibility of his giving us his body and blood as food and drink unto eternal life, even though He explicitly said just that. Moreover, the Lord said that eating and drinking his body and blood is for the sake of the two most important things there are: abiding in Christ and attaining eternal life.

Through the ministry of the Church, in which Christ is ever present to communicate the fullness of his grace and to assure the fulfillment of his words for our salvation, we can eat and drink the flesh and blood of the Son of God, the Bread from Heaven who came to give life to the world. He gives life by giving Himself, the Bread of Life, the Holy Eucharist, as food for our pilgrimage to Heaven, as a precious means by which He abides in us and we in Him. Really, we must be aware that the Holy Eucharist is actually a gift straight from Heaven, which “connects” us to Heaven. It is a miracle in our midst, a Light shining in the darkness of this life, a ray of hope, life, truth, and love that secures us in the Heart of our Savior. To have Jesus’ body and blood within us is like a branch of the Vine receiving the nourishment it needs to live and be fruitful.

After many had left Jesus, refusing to believe his words, He turned to his closest friends: “Will you also go away?” He asks us the same question. Will we go away from Him because we can’t believe that his flesh is real food and his blood real drink? Many even in the Church today, having fallen away from true faith, and choosing to believe only the testimony of their senses or the modern, rationalistic, politically-correct (and woefully inadequate) approaches to God, in effect walk away from Him by removing the “spirit and life” from his words, diminishing their power, taming them to their tastes, and thus refusing to open themselves to the profound mystery of his inexpressible gift.  But let us be among those who follow Jesus, even when He says things that make others refuse to believe. Let us eat the Bread from Heaven; it is given for the life of the world—given so that He can raise us up on the last day.