Choosing the better part

Choosing the better part

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Awe and Anguish at the Mystery of Love: Receiving an Unheard-of Gift

Has our familiarity with the gift made us lose this awe and anguish; awe at the beauty and mystery of a love beyond imagination and anguish at seeing it poured out so freely and extravagantly?

The disciples of the Lord "receive the unheard-of gift but are expected to accept it, not only to satisfy their hunger but in obedience of faith. How far will this faith go?

There is . . .the anguish of John: the anguish that does not know itself, anguish of love on behalf of love. He sees that the Lord is squandering himself anew; he does not understand how; he sees only that this extravagance points symbolically forward to his death. He is accustomed to his Master's love going far beyond him and always inventing more fantastic ways. He finds it incredible enough that he has been invited at all to share in the whole work. Now he knows that it surpasses everything he could have imagined.

Theology had a long time, two thousand years, to make the abrupt and crude aspect of the event acceptable to us. The contemporaries were confronted suddenly with the stark and unprecedented fact: bread is flesh. John feels as if he is admitted into a madness of love forever inaccessible to reason. Until now the Lord's body was to him the guarantor of his spirit; leaning on the Lord's breast, he is receptive to the embodiment of this spirit and feels the Master's love flow over to him from it, feels his whole teaching contained in his body as in a vessel. If he now has to see this body as bread and eat it as such, in order to partake of the body, he feels that the spirit will be transmitted to him in this way. But the whole process presents a new leap of faith, which, however, comes easier to John than to the others because John's faith has already always lived by this surpassing quality of the Lord. In order to receive the spirit of the Lord through his body in the bread in the right way, he needs only to keep hold of his faith, his grace of faith. Until now he has been used to asking the Lord whenever he felt unsure. Now he has to find his answer in being fed by this bread. For he knows too well that the Lord's body is the vessel of his spirit for him to suppose that the Lord would give his body without his spirit."

(Adrienne von Speyr)

Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans

How often do we really think about what is really happening as we receive Communion?  What is taking place not only in our minds and hearts but what is the experience of Our Lord in every Communion?  What is the nature of the sorrow and pain He experiences in our weakness, sin, our hesitation, our withdrawal?  Where are we taken in that Communion, to what place in the Lord?  What is the joy that the Lord experiences and what is it that we receive in His Eucharistic surrender?  Again, von Speyr shares with us her insights into and experience of the Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans.

"Only a few grasp that there are things in the Lord's life and in their life with him that are unique even when they are repeated.  Every communion with the Lord is the only one.  Every Communion is given in the shadow of the Cross to which the Lord makes his way from the Upper Room.  Most of them think: The Cross will come later, just now the Lord is still here.  He sees and feels all this.  And these thoughts of the disciples awaken in him now a certain impotence of his own.  A weakness, a sense of incapacity.  Not a localized pain as later on the Cross, but something general, diffuse, reaching to his whole bodily sensitivity.  It is an uncertainty, not of the mind, but experienced in his body, an effect, so to speak, rebounding back to him from the recipients.  He feels their failure as personally directed against his body.  There is no anonymity here, only the immediate impact of their person on his embodied person.

Formerly, in his public life, for example, he felt compassion with their hesitation, their shortcomings, their withdrawal, limited as they were by their weak human nature.  Now it is different - and this belongs essentially to his mission: he has to feel each one's failure in his body.  Everything in them that is directed against God is now directed against his body.  In him lies the strength to overcome their failure; the effort comes from his innermost center.  In every Communion, he does not enter into a peripheral relationship with them, but rather, he is engaged with what is most intimate and central to him, there where his most central and intimate relationship with the Father is located.  It is there he allows them to communicate; it is there he admits the restlessness of human sin.

And yet is also joy for him that through him men enter into communion with the Father, that the Father allows him to open his inner being and let them participate in eucharistic communion with the Father: he gives to human beings, not only 'the little finger' or a hand or an arm, but the whole and the best.  He shares with them the best he has by giving away the best of himself.

Something of the spent energy of the eucharistic body is also retained by the risen body of the Lord.  But the surrendered state of his body before the Passion is more easily understood by men than the surrendered state of the risen body.  The situation of the Last Supper will better equip them to receive Communion later than the situation of the Resurrection.  The Lord's eucharistic surrender is the beginning of his Fiat on the Cross.  The eucharistic state endures as experience for the risen Lord.  It is something he knows, something belonging to him.  It cannot be said that he suffers from it - the Passion ends at Easter - but there is a quality of sensation that remains.  And, after all, we continue to offend God through our sins.  But the Father is ready to bear with us and forgive us by reason of the Son's perfect surrender."

(Adrienne von Speyr)

Friday, November 23, 2012

Christ gives us Himself so that we may suffer with Him

The Eucharist as the Self of Christ.  What does this mean to me?  Can I celebrate this Mystery every day and yet comprehend so little?  Do I understand it at all?  

Recently, I have been reading Adrienne von Speyr's work "The Passion from within" where she shares her profound and unique insights on the suffering, loneliness and loss Christ endured for love of us during His Passion.  I have been most struck by her meditations on Christ's mysterious presence in the Eucharist.  They have made me think of the Eucharist as never before, but more than that; shown me that we must allow ourselves to be taken hold of by a Truth greater than ourselves and to be led into a mystery that seeks to envelope us completely.  Few are willing to be led in such a way, to let go of their narrow conception of things and to be guided by the Spirit.  

Von Speyr is not a theologian but a mystic and her words will not immediately bring clarity but rather perhaps  a confusion of the deepest sort. Yet consider if you will a few of her thoughts:

"It is a breathtaking moment, when the Word that was with God from the beginning and became flesh and incarnated into humanity suddenly becomes again only words, audible words standing by themselves alone.  The words are 'This is my body.'  The new and eternal covenant, the whole of Christianity, everything that has inaugurated it and everything that is still to come, all this recedes into the simple words: 'This is my body.'  

. . . the words stand there completely isolated.  And at the moment of their being spoken, they are completely accomplished.  They sum up everything.  They are spoken by the Lord who now stands 'beside' his body.  On the right the Lord, on the left the bread, preceded by the Incarnation, followed by dying and death; in the center of it all these words."

Already, the mind begins to swirl as she leads us into what is often taken for granted.  The Lord himself, she tells us, is startled and shudders at these simple words and how they sum up the whole of his mission and present it to the Father.  

"The whole of the Passion is already anticipated in these words; all that was and is and will be is gathered into them and receives from this center its ultimate place; all the states of the Passion . . . The world receives a new center.  The speaker of these words has to experience this incredible transition, which is a sacrifice.  He had in the same way experienced the strangeness of the Incarnation.  Having become flesh, he now becomes bread.  Having become bread, he becomes Church.”

She quickly sweeps us into the implications of this mystery before we pause to think.  Christ “gives the character of timeless duration to his earthly body.  Lying beside him, but containing him totally, this bread has become his body, and the word uttered has been given to the Church, and in distributing the bread to her members, in multiplying his body, the Church will be formed into his body.”

With the institution of the Eucharist, Christ demands that our understanding rise beyond its limits toward his incomprehensibility.  Questions with no clear answer about the nature Christ’s very self, the humanity he embraced, begin to arise at the moment of the meal.  

“If he becomes bread that we can eat, does his life end with this meal?  And since bread can be produced repeatedly: Does he come to an end when we eat his bread?  Is it a symbolic death, or do we perhaps really kill him when we receive him into ourselves?  Was all his human life ordered toward this ultimate reality of bread that is being eaten?”

Further still we are confronted with questions of how this bread is connected with the Passion and again what implications this has for us.  

“Could it be that this goes so far that through this, his transformation, his whole divinity passes from him over into us?  What manner of being is he taking on himself?  The most ordinary one as pure bread, or the most extreme and absurd?  . . . Is it perhaps very risky to eat of this bread?  What are the consequences?"  

Everything rest on this clear and simple statement, ‘This is my body” but if taken to mean what it says its surpassing extravagance leads us back into utter incomprehensibility - to the connection between the bread and the Passion.  

Again, Von Speyr prompts us to ask: 

“Where will he now suffer?  In the body we see?  In the bread?  Will we cause him to suffer by eating him? " 

Yet, as the questions still linger in our minds, it is as if a light penetrates the darkness and incomprehensibility of it all and provides Von Speyr with the necessary insight: 

“The Church receives the body of Christ before he suffers the Passion; only afterward will he go and deliver his body up to death.  The Church therefore can suffer together with him only because she has already received his body so that it lives already in her.  Had she not received his body beforehand, she would not be able to suffer with him.  And if the Lord had suffered first and then instituted the Eucharist, she would not be able to share in his Passion; she would be at once the triumphant Church with the Lord’s death lying behind her.  The Eucharist would only be the risen body of Christ.  But the Church is made up of sinners, so this is impossible.  The Lord could institute this sacrament only during his life before the Cross . . .The Eucharistic body gives the Church access to participation in the Cross.  The Cross, not as completed fact, but as something lying ahead of me.”

The personal implications of this reality are terrible as they are beautiful:

“If I reject this sacrifice, if I do not accept His Communion, I stand outside and cannot suffer for him.  He has to institute the Eucharist also before he himself can suffer.  He has placed his whole divinity into this bread, so to speak, in order to be able to suffer freely as man.  It even looks as if this bread receives and retains his strength increasingly in direct proportion to his increasing impotency.  The Church will continue to celebrate his supper after his death; his power is left in these words and outlives the Lord’s death.  The bread disappears; the faithful have eaten it.  But the words remain in their full divine power undiminished and outlast his death; out of this power the Church will be able to make the Lord’s body present at any time.  It will be the same body, but inserted into the fruit of the Cross.”

The Self of Christ that we receive in the Eucharist is the Incarnate Love of God crucified for us and with whom we now are crucified.  With the words, ‘This is my body’, the Lord gives a new mode of existence to humanity.