There’s a huge number of titles given to Mary. Beautiful ones like Mystical Rose, or this one used in the Litany to Our Lady of Combermere: “Golden door to the secret chambers of the King.” A list of the most widely used ones can be found in the oldest and best-known Litany to the Virgin Mary, the Loreto Litany: Mother of the Redeemer, Virgin most merciful, and Queen of Peace are some examples. Each title guides us into the mystery of Mary, a virgin, conceiving Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In this article I’ll focus on Mother of the Eucharist and why this title fully reveals the Incarnation, that Jesus, the second person of the Holy Trinity (God the Son) became fully human in the womb of the virgin Mary, fully human meaning the body and blood of Christ the Son, the Eucharist.
Recall the opening of St. John’s Gospel:
In the beginning, was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1,14)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes two points about “The Word became flesh” saying first that, “the Son of God assumed human nature in order to accomplish our salvation in it” (CCC: 461) and second that belief in the Incarnation is “the distinctive sign of Christian faith.” (CCC: 463) This “distinctive sign” reaches its full brilliance in the Paschal Mystery.
In becoming “flesh” the Word became bread, the Living Bread of Life in Mary’s womb to accomplish our salvation. St Julian Eymard (1811-1868) tells us “The Eucharist was sown at Bethlehem. What is the Eucharist but ‘the wheat of the elect and ‘the living bread?”
St Peter Chrysologus revealed this truth in the fifth century taking us briefly through the path of Christ becoming our food:
“He is The Bread sown in the Virgin, leavened in the Flesh, moulded in His Passion, baked in the furnace of the Sepulchre, placed in the Churches, and set upon the Altars, which daily supplies Heavenly Food to the faithful.”
How is Jesus the Bread of Life and Why bread?
Throughout Scripture, bread is used close to 500 times in the various Biblical languages. It was the basis for survival, the symbol of life and Jesus used it in the Lord’s prayer. Bread symbolized God’s love and way of providing for His people. The supreme display of God’s love and care for the Israelites in spite of their sins as they wandered through the desert for forty days occurs when he provides “bread from heaven”, which the Israelites called manna. They ate this bread for forty years until they reached the land of Canaan (Exodus 16:4-5,15,35-36).
Jesus used the Exodus miracle to explain the full meaning of manna. In chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, we experience Jesus’s powerful revelation of himself as the Bread of Life.
He starts from our basic need to be fed. On the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a huge crowd gathered. Jesus sees their need for bread and asks Phillip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” The Gospel tells us he was only testing Phillip; “He knew well what he intended to do.” (Jn 6:6)
His intention was not simply to respond to their needs and miraculously feed everyone with bread, rather, he uses this sign to draw them into the depth and mystery of who He is, the “Bread of Life”.
Following the miracle, Jesus tells the crowd to work for imperishable food lasting eternally, food which He alone can give. Questions arise about what this means. At this point, they tell him: “Our ancestors had manna to eat in the desert: according to scripture: “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Jesus tells them it wasn’t Moses providing the bread but the Father.
This point is pivotal: “……it was not Moses who gave you bread from the heavens; it is my Father who gives you real heavenly bread. God’s bread comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32). He has lured them to the threshold of who He is for them and for generations to come.
They eagerly respond, “Sir, give us this bread always.” This is the moment Jesus has been waiting for saying, “I myself am the Bread of life.”
The discussion grows more intense as Jesus repeatedly tells them that He is the Bread of Life: “I am the Bread that came down from heaven…” This point creates restlessness in the crowd as they begin doubting his claim.
He has only begun, however, to emphasize boldly that he is the “…living bread come down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread he shall live forever; the bread I will give is my flesh, for the life of the world.”
Jesus is now crossing into the realm of absurdity calling for trust in an incomprehensible mystery. Many cannot accept this, but he goes deeper, stronger, and more radical, leading them toward the Eucharist:
“Let me Solemnly assure you. If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you. He who feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood real drink…This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and died nonetheless, the man who feeds on this bread shall live forever. (John 6:53-55, 58).
That word yields an immediate departure from many of his disciples who think he has gone mad. Jesus not only listens to remarks like, “How can anyone take it seriously”, but knew from the beginning who would not believe and who would be sending him to death.
His choice of the twelve was intentional, and the twelve remain. Peter on behalf of them spoke boldly, yet incredulously. They remain because they are convinced that the authority shown to them can only come from God the Father.
“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 68-69)
The Culmination: Passover Meal
John tells us that the Passover was near when Jesus gave the discourse on the Bread of Life. This timing was deliberate and ordained since it was in the upper room at the Passover meal where Jesus instituted the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
At this meal, Christ took bread, broke it and gave it to his disciples saying,
“Take this, all of you and eat it: this is my body which will be given up for you.” Taking the cup of wine he said to them: ”Take this all of you and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven.” (Mt 26: 26; Luke 22: 19).
The Church and The Eucharist
Pope John Paul II in his 2003 encyclical, The Church and The Eucharist wrote in the opening chapter that the Eucharist is the “sacrament of the Paschal Mystery’ from which the Church was born. While emphasizing this he adds, “In this gift [Eucharist] Jesus gave to the Church the perennial making present of the Paschal Mystery. With it, he brought about a mysterious ‘oneness in time’ between the Triduum and the passage of the centuries.” This truth is the dominant theme and purpose of the encyclical. John Paul says just the thought of it “leads us to profound amazement and gratitude…I would like to rekindle this ‘Eucharistic Amazement’ by the present Encyclical Letter.”
When Jesus said, “This is my body given for you, do this in memory of me” (Luke 22:19) he, in the breaking of bread, initiated his bodily sacrifice, offering it to the apostles in the form of bread and wine. The memorial he asked for is not a meal of remembering symbolically what Christ did. Every time the priest breaks the bread at Mass, Christ’s body is broken for us hidden in Bread; his blood is poured out for us hidden in Wine.
Christ’s sacrifice began in the upper room, was completed on the cross and is renewed in a hidden way at Mass. This is truly astonishing. We must choose to believe in what is incomprehensible in the same way the twelve did who first heard Christ’s words. When we choose to believe, begging for help, Jesus enters our mind and heart transforming us in a similar way to the bread and wine; we move from an incomprehensible gaze to beautiful amazement and gratitude.
John Paul II: “The blood which shortly before he had given to the Church as the drink of salvation in the sacrament of the Eucharist, began to be shed; its outpouring would then be completed on Golgotha to become the means of our redemption.”
One of our tendencies today is to get preoccupied with what we do at Mass, how to receive Holy Communion, what music to use, what the priest should be saying in the homily, when to use Latin, etc.
The Mass is about what Jesus does. He sacrifices himself for us hidden sacramentally in the breaking of Bread. It’s the same sacrifice he made for us on Calvary, continued through time at every Eucharistic Celebration. That’s why the Church refers to the memorial as the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If we fix our heart on Christ’s saving action at Mass our reverence would deepen, and our preoccupations lessen. We are not simply “going to Church”; we are going to an event about to take place again and again hidden to our senses.
Mary’s “Eucharistic Faith”
John Paul II never left Mary outside because he constantly saw her united to her Son in every aspect of his work. He devoted the final chapter of Ecclesia de Eucharistia to Mary’s “Eucharistic Faith’: “If the Church and the Eucharist are inseparably united, the same ought to be said of Mary and the Eucharist.”
In what way did she possess a “Eucharistic faith”? First, by the very fact, he stresses, that she offered her “virginal womb for the Incarnation of God’s Word.” By giving her yes in reply to Gabriel she is asked to believe that the body and blood of the Son of God would miraculously form in her womb by the action of the Holy Spirit. Her yes, the Pope underlines, is similar to the amen we say before receiving the Eucharist when we hear the words, “The Body of Christ”.
The Pope also makes a beautiful link to our adoration of the Lord present in the Eucharist when he writes, “[Mary is]the first “tabernacle” in history – in which the Son of God, still invisible to our human gaze, allowed himself to be adored by Elizabeth, radiating his light as it were through the eyes and the voice of Mary.”
The most striking image of Mary as Mother of the Eucharist shows a donkey travelling to Bethlehem carrying a tabernacle with the doors open revealing a chalice filled with consecrated hosts. Canadian painter, William Kurelek, painted the image as a Christmas card for Madonna House in the late 1960s. Printed Inside the card is the following quotation from Catherine Doherty:
“The donkey that carried Our Lady to Bethlehem took another form in my thoughts. For he carried the Word—a dumb animal, carrying a Virgin who carried God—and so he was the carrier of God too. His bells were the first church bells, for Mary was the first Church, the first tabernacle of Christ.”
Perhaps Kurelek’s 1960 painting inspired John Paul II to use the term “first tabernacle in history” in his 2003 encyclical.
Mary not only carried the Bread of Life, the Eucharist, in her womb for us, she also lived a “Eucharistic faith” which formed deep roots when she brought the Child Jesus to the Jerusalem Temple to be presented to the Lord. There she heard Simeon announce that her son would be “a sign of contradiction” and “a sword would pierce her heart.”
From this experience John Paul sees Mary living her “daily preparation for Calvary“ leading her to embrace fully the sacrificial feature of the Eucharist. At the foot of the cross, she would experience in her own way full union with her Son’s Passion and Death.
John Paul II closes his encyclical with profound insight into Mary’s inseparable union with the Eucharist and the Church. He writes that because everything Jesus did for us on the cross is present in the Mass then ”all that Christ did with regard to his Mother for our sake is also present.”
This means that because Jesus gave us the gift of His Mother through John who represents all of us when he said to him, “Behold your Mother,” then each time we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, John Paul says, Christ gives us his Mother.
This is a bold and beautiful truth for us. To receive Mary from our Lord at each Mass is truly consoling because the gift of her Motherly protection is ever new, and flows from her intimate union with her Son.
She gave us the Eucharist sewn in her womb and her Son gives his Mother to us each time He gives himself to us in the Eucharist. This truth seems to be buried in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical. Only for now, though, because many of the seeds this great Pope planted are on the verge of germination.
Mary is the Mother of the Church and because the Church was “born from the Paschal Mystery, and the Eucharist is the “Sacrament of the Paschal Mystery”, Mary is also the Mother of the Eucharist.
In his Conclusion to Ecclesia de Eucharistia Pope John Paul II writes, “Were we to disregard the Eucharist, how could we overcome our own deficiency?”
Since Mary and the Eucharist are inseparably united, were we to disregard Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, how could we have life in us when we consume the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist?
The good news is this: Because Mary and the Eucharist are inseparable, every time receive the Eucharist her presence is strengthened in us. It’s impossible to avoid her even when our gaze on the Eucharist is weak. In truth, she will do what she does best: strengthen our gaze on her Son who gave His life for us present Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharist.