O Magnum Mysterium
By Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P. | ‘O great mystery and wonderful sacrament, that animals should see the newborn Lord, lying in a manger!’ The Eucharist is the summit and source of the Christian life, a gift and a mystery confessed by all generations of Christians, up to the first Apostles. In this post, Br Pablo examines some ancient testimonies of Eucharistic devotion, that we may renew our faith as we enter the new year by approaching Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
The Function of Art/
Diego had never seen the sea. His father, Santiago Kovadloff, took him to discover it.
They went south.
The ocean lay beyond high sand dunes, waiting.
When the child and his father finally reached the dunes after much walking, the ocean exploded before their eyes. And so immense was the sea and its sparkle that the child was struck dumb by the beauty of it.
And when he finally managed to speak, trembling, stuttering, he asked his father:
“Help me to see!”
Looking back over this year, one is reminded of the salutary increase of interest the English-speaking Catholic media registered this summer concerning the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This followed a Pew Research poll claiming that only 30% of American Catholics believe that the bread and wine consecrated at Mass truly become the Body and Blood of Christ.
We saw Bishop Barron’s vehement response to the poll, not long before he launched a whole new study programme on the Eucharist; we read Fr Dwight Longenecker’s helpful comments on transubstantiation and some timely reminders of what should be most important in catechesis. Many echoed Flannery O’Connor’s famous words, ‘if it is a symbol, to hell with it!’ and those of other, perhaps less known writers, such as Anscombe’s ‘look, it’s Jesus!’. To the list of illustrious English-language intellectuals one may certainly add J. R. R. Tolkien, who, in a letter to his son Michael, described the Eucharist as ‘the one great thing to love on earth (…) there you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.’ And last, we should not forget, of course, England’s latest saint, John Henry Newman, and the influence this doctrine had on his conversion.
To point out the obvious: this is a challenging doctrine. When we place ourselves in front of the Blessed Sacrament, our eyes look, but they do not see. Jesus’ presence in this sacrament is precisely that, a mystery, which we can never explain or exhaust. This is why we use ‘art’ to help us to see: the liturgy with its ritual, symbols, music, incense – they all assists us to recollect our interior before mystery. However I want to say that it is faith, first and foremost, that allows us to see; faith inspired by love.
So today, as we come to the end of 2019, I would like to revisit not the modern but rather the ancient testimonies of devotion to Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist, namely, three ancient Christian writers and one pagan author, so that by pondering the depths of our tradition and the faith of the saints, our own faith might likewise be inflamed, and we may start the new year with our eyes fixed on Him.
A preliminary note
The Church has handed on to our times the doctrine of the Real Presence as a fundamental part of the teaching of the Apostles. We might begin to appreciate its importance if we recognise its close connection with the original proclamation – that Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead. We know that Jesus died outside the walls of Jerusalem, condemned as a criminal and abandoned by his disciples, but how were the apostles able to recognise in this vulgar execution that a sacrifice had been accomplished for the forgiveness of sins? Nothing about the Crucifixion itself, detached from the wider narrative, would seem to suggest that this was not a defeat, but an act of sacrifice.
What allowed the disciples to understand the meaning of the Cross was precisely the memory of Christ’s final act before his Passion, the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. In the Old Testament celebration of the Passover, a lamb was sacrificed to keep the memorial of God’s saving power over his people. The night before his Passion, Christ announced the sacrifice where he would hand himself over for the redemption of sinners, and so become quite literally the new Paschal Lamb. The first disciples saw in the Cross the new Tree of Life, sign of Christ’s victory over death and source of the new food of immortality. All believers were now invited to participate in the banquet of the New Covenant to partake of Christ’s own eternal life. In this way, the ideas of ‘sacrifice,’ ‘banquet’ and ‘immortality’ converged, giving depth to Jesus’ words in John 6:53-56: ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, 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.’
We should also bear in mind that the doctrine of the Real Presence was first formally defined only at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and further clarified during the 16th century debates of the Reformation. Here the Reformers tended to side with a symbolic, non-literal interpretation of passages like the one from John’s Gospel mentioned above. By contrast, it should be noticed that although many ancient Christian writers spoke of the Eucharist also in symbolic or spiritual terms, they did not maintained a symbolic interpretation against a literal one, for they also affirmed the reality of Christ’s presence in the sacrament, and did not consider that one excluded the other. Rather, the spiritual reading was based on the literality of Christ’s pledge to give himself to us entirely, body, blood, soul and divinity – a pledge that was no less shocking to his own contemporaries than it is now to us (cf. John 6:60-71).
Ignatius of Antioch (c.50-c.110 AD)
Ignatius, bishop of the ancient capital of Syria, is one of the earliest known sources on the Eucharist outside the New Testament. The church of Antioch had a claim to be the oldest Christian community after Jerusalem, and traced its roots back to the group of refugees that fled the persecution in Jerusalem where St Stephen was martyred. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that it was in Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). But we would have known little about Ignatius had it not been for the seven letters he wrote to several Christian communities on his way to Rome, where he was sentenced to be thrown to the beasts of the circus, during the reign of emperor Trajan (AD 98-117). These letters are ablaze with Ignatius’s ardent desire to follow Christ in his sufferings and gain the crown of martyrdom, often described in terms evocative of the Eucharist as a sacrifice:
I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ (Epistle to the Romans, 4).
For Ignatius, the Eucharist is the bond of communion that keeps the church united, sustaining the concentric circles of the union between each Christian and God, between the members of the church under their bishop, and between all the churches across the world, mirroring the union of love between the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.
Let that be held a valid Eucharist which is under the bishop or one to whom he shall have committed it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, let the people be; even as where Jesus may be, there is the universal Church. It is not lawful apart from the bishop either to baptize or to hold a communal meal (Epistle to the Smyrneans, 8).
Be careful therefore to observe one Eucharist, for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup unto union in His blood; there is one altar, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow-servants, that whatsoever you do, you may do it after God (Epistle to the Philadelphians, 4).
The reference to ‘the one altar’ in the last text echoes the sacrificial character of the Eucharist we mentioned earlier. In one of his letters, Ignatius warned the Christians of Smyrna against the Docetists, who believed that Jesus’ body was a mere appearance, not a real human body:
They abstain from the Eucharist and prayer, because they allow not that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which flesh suffered for our sins, and which the Father of His goodness raised up (Epistle to the Smyrneans, 6).
In another place he calls the Eucharist the ‘medicine of immortality’:
Assemble yourselves together in common, every one of you severally, man by man, in grace, in one faith and one Jesus Christ, who after the flesh was of David’s race, who is Son of Man and Son of God, to the end that you may obey the bishop and the presbytery without distraction of mind; breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live for ever in Jesus Christ (Epistle to the Ephesians, 20).
Ignatius insists, furthermore, that the Eucharist is available only within the community of the believers, as the source of that unity we alluded to before:
I congratulate you who are closely joined with [your bishop] as the Church is with Jesus Christ and as Jesus Christ is with the Father, that all things may be harmonious in unity. Let no man be deceived. If anyone be not within the precinct of the altar, he lacks the bread of God (Epistle to the Ephesians, 5).
In sum, Ignatius uses ‘flesh’ or ‘blood’ no less than 37 times in his correspondence, and, as we have seen, always in connection with the notions of the Eucharist as a sacrifice and source of immortality. This provides us with an extraordinary witness to the importance that Jesus’ words in John 6 and other New Testament texts had for the first Christian communities.
Pliny, governor of Bithynia (61-113 AD)
It should then come as no surprise that such language could have caused scandal among the non-Christians of the first centuries. In fact, we are often surprised to learn that ‘incest’ and ‘cannibalism’ were among the first charges ever levelled against Christians during the early persecutions. Both are obviously a misunderstanding of Christian language: the former, probably from ‘brotherly love,’ and the latter, interestingly, in reference to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Hence the confusion that drove Pliny, the governor of the Roman province of Bithynia (in modern Turkey) during 111-113 AD, to write to Emperor Trajan asking for advice on the best way to deal with Christians. In his letter, he reported what he had done so far and the discoveries he had made:
[These Christians] were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to do some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food — but ordinary and innocent food.
[…] It is certainly quite clear that the [pagan] temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchasers could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.
Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165 AD)
To counter such accusations, a number of voices rose in an attempt to explain the new faith to their contemporaries. Justin was a pagan philosopher who embraced Christianity and soon became an outspoken defender of his new creed. From him we have received a privileged first-hand testimony of the beliefs and practices of the early Christian communities, written between 153 and 155 AD. On the Eucharist he says:
This food is called among us eucharistia, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.
For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 66).
The blessing by the ‘prayer of His word’ is a reference to the words of institution, which repeat Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. Justin’s statement speaks for itself: a powerful witness to the belief that the consecrated bread and wine truly become Jesus’ Body and Blood.
Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130-c.200 AD)
Our last testimony comes from Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons, who often argued against the Gnostics of his time to defend that the bodily humanity assumed by the Word at the Incarnation was real. Along similar lines, he takes for granted the reality of Christ’s presence in the consecrated elements:
As the bread of the earth, receiving the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist, made up of two things, an earthly and a heavenly, so also our bodies, partaking of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity (Adversus Haereses, IV, 8, 5).
When we go to Mass, we are faced with a mystery that exceeds our senses, but that all generations of Christians have confessed with loving devotion. The Church, as a caring mother, helps to see, not only through the beauty of her liturgy but also through the constant testimony of tradition, the cloud of witnesses that preceded us in the faith. The Mass is therefore the privileged place where we are drawn to God, in a most literal way.
As we prepare to begin the New Year, let us then renew our faith by coming to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and opening our hearts to Him, who has pledged himself to us entirely, body, blood, soul and divinity.
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight (Luke 24:30-31).
Photography from Pixabay
See also this beautiful performance of Tomás Luis de Victoria’s O Magnum Mysterium. The words are taken from the Office of Matins for Christmas Day: