Contemplating the Eucharistic Face of Christ

Contemplating the Eucharistic Face of Christ

Christine McCarthy

This is an abridged version of a paper given at the Call to Holiness Conference, Brisbane, on 15 October 2005, by Christine McCarthy, National Convenor, Society for Eucharistic Adoration.

For twenty four years, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was Pope John Paul II's closest collaborator. No one had a deeper understanding of that Pontiff's spiritual and theological vision. It is with him that John Paul II settled the last great encyclical of his pontificate, Ecclesia de Eucharistia. It was to him as his successor that he left his final legacy, the Year of the Eucharist.

So, first and foremost, we should turn to Pope Benedict XVI for an authentic interpretation of John Paul II's teaching on the Eucharist. In particular, our attention is drawn to Benedict's addresses on the Eucharist this year in Cologne at World Youth Day, which John Paul II had planned as the culmination of the Eucharistic Year.

World Youth Day in Cologne had as its theme: "We have come to worship Him". At the Vigil on 20 August, Benedict XVI recalled the Magi:

"'Going into the house, they saw the child with Mary His mother, and they fell down and worshipped Him' (Matthew 2:11). Dear friends, this is not a distant story that took place long ago. It is with us now. Here in the sacred Host He is present before us and in our midst. As at that time, so now He is mysteriously veiled in a sacred silence; as at that time, it is here that the true face of God is revealed. For us he became a grain of wheat that falls on the ground and dies and bears fruit until the end of the world (cf. John 12:24). He is present now as He was then in Bethlehem. He invites us to that inner pilgrimage which is called adoration. Let us set off on this pilgrimage of the spirit and let us ask Him to be our guide".

Pope Benedict XVI gives us an insight into the contemplation of the face of Christ as he reflected on the awe of the Magi encountering the child in swaddling clothes. They saw the tiny body and the face of the Christ child and yet they recognised in that face the King whom they were seeking, guided by the star. "In Him, crossing the abyss between the finite and the infinite, the visible and the invisible," said Benedict, "the Eternal entered time, the Mystery became known by entrusting Himself to us in the frail body of a small child ... In these days, during this 'Year of the Eucharist', we will turn with the same awe to Christ present in the Tabernacle of mercy, in the Sacrament of the Altar (Message to Young People, Rhine River, 18 August 2005).

The Holy Father then addressed 5,000 seminarians gathered in Cologne. Our seminarian son studying in Rome attended World Youth Day, as did three of our other children, with 2,500 other Australians. Benedict XVI's homily to the seminarians applies as much to each of us as to these young men present at WYD.

Secret of holiness

The Holy Father spoke about the Magi's gesture of adoration, which prefigured the faith of St Peter and the Apostles and the many holy seminarians and priests throughout the 2,000 years of the Church's history: "'They fell down and worshipped Him ... and offered Him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh' (Matthew 2:11-12). Here is the culmination of the whole journey: encounter becomes adoration; it blossoms into an act of faith and love which acknowledges in Jesus, born of Mary, the Son of God made man."

Benedict told the young men in Cologne: "The secret of holiness is friendship with Christ and faithful obedience to His will ... Dear seminarians, be the first to offer Him what is most precious to you, as Pope John Paul II suggested in his Message for this WYD: the gold of your freedom, the incense of your ardent prayer, the myrrh of your most profound affection."

When the Magi "departed for their own country", the Holy Father continued, "they most certainly bore witness to their encounter with the King of the Jews. You, too, after your long, necessary program of seminary formation, will be sent forth as ministers of Christ; indeed, each of you will return as an 'alter Christus'".

As they journeyed home, the Magi no longer had the star to guide them, but they would have had to contend with, said Benedict, "dangers, weariness, disorientation, doubts ... The light was now within them. Their task was to guard and nourish it in the constant memory of Christ, of His Holy Face, of His ineffable Love" (19 August 2005).

When we contemplate the Eucharistic face of Christ, we see His suffering, His humility, His patience, the unutterable beauty and glory of His resurrected state, His majesty as He sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven. We know that the Lord we receive in Holy Communion and whom we adore afterwards is the glorified Christ: "The flesh of the Son of Man, given as food, is His body in its glorious state after the resurrection (Ecclesia de Eucharistia).

Jesus reveals His Eucharistic face to us as we grow in His grace and love. It will take our life-time and the hereafter to contemplate the wonder of His humanity and divinity, that boundless love which caused Him to sacrifice Himself for our redemption.

Our hope is to see and enjoy Him, face to face, in heaven, to be with Him for all eternity. But, here and now, in our pilgrim state on earth, we must be content to see that face in the Eucharistic Species, adoring Him daily in order to grow in holiness.

Pope John Paul II teaches us that Eucharistic adoration "prolongs and increases the fruits of our communion in the body and blood of the Lord" (Ibid). The truth about the Eucharist can only be met with awe and amazement. As we adore the Eucharist in the tabernacle or the monstrance, abiding in His presence, we are filled with wonder at His utter self-abasement and infinite love. "It is pleasant," said Pope John Paul II, "to spend time with Him, to lie close to His breast like the Beloved Disciple (cf. Jn 13:25) and to feel the infinite love present in His heart" (EDE).

When we gaze on the bread and the chalice just before the consecration and listen to the words which transform these elements, we know that transubstantiation, the change from the substance of bread and wine to the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, truly takes place. Our gaze and that of the whole Church "discovers the full manifestation of His boundless love" and we recognise His Eucharistic face in the living sacrament of His Body and Blood. "In the humble signs of bread and wine, changed into His Body and Blood, Christ walks beside us as our strength and our food for the journey, and He enables us to become, for everyone, witnesses of hope" (EDE).

Risen state

It is in the Eucharist that we see Christ as He really is, for He is there in all His glory, in His glorified, risen state, as He is in heaven here and now at the right hand of the Father. Jesus said to Phillip: "Who- ever has seen Me has seen the Father" (Jn 14:9). By living with Jesus, the Apostles came to know the Father. The face of Jesus allows God to be seen. Contemplation of His face involves listening to the Father's voice under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Rosarium Virginis Mariae). In this way "we become open to receiving the mystery of Trinitarian life, experiencing ever anew the love of the Father and delighting in the joy of the Holy Spirit" (EDE).

The Apostles, who saw Christ under the veil of His human form, saw His human face but came to the realisation only gradually that their Master was God. Jesus discloses Himself to us in the form of bread and wine. We see Him "veiled in a sacred silence" and believe in His divinity through faith.

In Ecclesia de Eucharistia, John Paul II sets before the Church a program for contemplating the face of Christ, "at the school of Mary".

Prominent theologian, Fr Frederick Miller, has described Mary as "a blood relative of God Himself". Her human resemblance to Christ reflects her even greater spiritual resemblance. "The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary ... No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the face of Christ as faithfully as Mary" (RVM). Through our relationship with her, we are drawn more closely into union with her Divine Son. Like St John, we are called to take her into our own home, into our heart and soul, allowing ourselves to be instructed by her as we gaze upon the Eucharistic face of her Son.

The word "Eucharist" means "thanksgiving". John Paul II described Mary as "a woman of the Eucharist" throughout her whole life, which she lived in a profoundly Eucharistic way, in thanksgiving, contemplation and adoration. Praying the various mysteries of the Rosary, the events in the life of Our Lord and Our Lady, the Holy Father teaches us how to reflect on them in an attitude of thanksgiving and adoration. He calls the whole Church to take on the spirit of Mary, her "Eucharistic attitude", as we come to understand, adore and love more deeply the Eucharistic mystery. As we contemplate the face of Christ in the company of Mary, we become more fully conformed to Him through our friendship with them, entering into the life of Christ and sharing His deepest feelings (RVM).

We know from Scripture and tradition that Mary was not present at the Last Supper and yet her profound association with the Eucharist has its source in "the interior disposition which characterised her whole life" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia. Mary is truly the Mother of the Church. Her Eucharistic life was a thanksgiving for the marvels God worked in her. Her life of adoration was reflected in her soul as she glorified the Lord and rejoiced in God her Saviour (cf. Magnificat).

Opened eyes

The mysteries of the Rosary and the Holy Eucharist, celebrated and adored, focus us deeply on the Eucharistic face of Christ. If we wish to see this adorable Face, we need Christ to open our spiritual "eyes", releasing us from the darkness of sin, mediocrity and apathy. Through the Mass, the sacraments, regular prayer and Eucharistic adoration, Christ the light of the world develops in us a personal relationship with Him and opens the "eyes" of our soul.

As we pray the Mass, the Rosary and spend time in Eucharistic adoration, we follow the path of the Magi, for, like them, we have the light within us. Like them, we have the task of guarding and nourishing it "in constant memory of Christ, of His Holy Face, His ineffable Love" (WYD).

Let us pray that, with our Blessed Mother, we will grow in our Eucharistic faith throughout our whole lives, seeing the Eucharistic face of Christ "wherever He manifests Himself, in His many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of His Body and Blood".

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