A Sacrament called Bread

For a start, a truly incarnational theology of liturgy insists that our ritual acts of worship must never be seen as isolated interventions of grace into our otherwise ‘merely’ secular lives and world.  Rather are they the symbolic expressions of the holiness of creation itself.  This is a hugely significant truth and it takes some explaining.

The Incarnation of God did not only happen in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. The Incarnation actually began 14 billion years ago with a moment we now call ‘The Big Bang’.  Two thousand years ago the human incarnation of God in Jesus happened, but before that, in the original incarnation of the amazing story of evolution, God had already begun the mysterious process of becoming flesh by first becoming creation itself.

St Bonaventure and Blessed John Duns Scotus held that the whole of creation was the necessary preparation for the divine incarnation in Jesus, the Human One.  The fleshing of God was not a later rescue attempt to put the original, failed plan back on track.  Fall or no fall, it was lovingly willed from the very beginning.

‘Creation’ wrote St Thomas Aquinas, ‘is the primary and most perfect revelation of the Divine . . .  If we do not understand creation correctly, we cannot hope to understand God correctly’.   Neither will we grasp the quintessence of Eucharistic celebration.  ‘The only real fall of humanity,’ wrote Alexander Shmemann, ‘is its non-eucharistic life in a non-eucharistic world.’

The story can be told like this.  An eternally self-giving Parent-God, already incarnate in creation, had waited for billions of years to achieve self-consciousness in the human heart and mind.  In the words of Julian Huxley, quoted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, ‘ . . . humanity discovers that it is nothing else than (holy) evolution become conscious of itself’.  And, at the appointed time, after this long infancy,  the Human One was born.

Moving beyond the destructive doctrines of atonement-centred theologies, cosmologist and cultural historian Thomas Berry SJ points out that Jesus did not come into the world, added on later, so to speak, as a necessary after-thought: he came into a world that was made originally for him.

Against this horizon we are invited to understand the Mass as the sacramental moment of an astonishing revelation – the revelation of the love and meaning hidden in the first moment of creation; the revelation of the burning presence of God warming and preparing the earth as a cradle of welcome for Christ; the revelation that the history of evolution is the genealogy of the Baby.  In receiving Holy Communion we experience the soul of the earth.

The Eucharist encapsulates forever this astonishing song of love at the core of the cosmos.  In the sacramental mode, Fr Berry holds, with bread and wine, the world is celebrating its very being as flowing from the womb of God at the beginning of time, and always moving inevitably towards its divine fulfilment in Christ.  He identifies the Christ story with the story of the universe.

The Eucharist brings to self-consciousness, identifies and names for the universe and its peoples, some of the deepest dimensions of their miraculous essence, their origins, their history and their final destiny.  At every Mass creation is in worship before its Creator, offering itself, through its Saviour, to its incomprehensible Lover-God in the ecstasy of its joys and the bitterness of its sorrows.

The Eucharist carries sublime significance when understood as the deepest symbol of the hidden secrets already buried and burning in the core of creation.  It is the liturgical expression of the living river of love that streamed out at the beginning of time and now flows everywhere.

That love sustains the cosmos of our hearts and the heart of our cosmos, ‘groaning in (their) one great act of giving birth’, in their long journey home.  That is why the physical world itself is the incarnate body of God and will enjoy the same future as we will.

Theologian Dr John Macquarrie explains that this profound understanding of salvation is repeated, clarified, purified and celebrated at every true Eucharistic gathering ‘with a directness and an intensity like that of creation and the Incarnation itself’. The mighty mystery of universal existence is encapsulated in one ordinary, daily sacramental moment around a piece of bread – a cosmic event!

‘Yes, cosmic!’ John Paul II exclaims in Ecclesia de Eucharistia, ‘Because even when the Eucharist is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, it is always, in some way, celebrated on the altar of the world.  It unites heaven and earth.  It embraces, permeates and celebrates all creation.’  In his Feast of Faith he explains why ‘Christian liturgy must be cosmic liturgy, why it must, as it were, orchestrate the mystery of Christ with all the voices of creation.’

At every moment, somewhere across our planet, the eternal words of disclosure are spoken: ‘This is my Body’. They sound around the earth and they echo among the stars.  ‘This is my Body’.  It is God-become-atom, become-galaxy, become-star, become-universe, become-earth, become-human, speaking these words of wonder to the whole of creation in our own voice.  It is a remembering, a  reminding and a confirming that the divine and the human, that nature and grace exist only in each other, that all are God’s one body by virtue of creation, first in time and hidden, but revealed later in the Incarnation, as God’s most beautiful desire from the very beginning.

‘Our humanity is nourished into an ultimate awareness of its embodiment in a material cosmos,’ writes theologian Dr Kelly. ‘The most intense moment of communion with the divine is, at the same time, the most intense moment of our communion with the earth . . . The Lord invites us to reconnect with creation as he has done, to claim it as our own, as our larger selves, in a world of divine incarnation.’

When we eat the bread and drink the wine we are identifying in the most complete way with the cosmos and with the Love that created and continues to create it. We symbolically and really transform the loving heart of the cosmos into our very lives just as the cosmos will one day transform us back into its own risen body.  Theologian Sally McFague puts it this way; ‘In the metaphor of the world as the body of God, the resurrection becomes a worldly, present, inclusive reality, for this body is now offered to all: This is my Body.’

In his poetic, eucharistic reflections, especially in his Le Milieu Divin, priest-scientist de Chardin sees the sacramental species as formed by the totality of the world. And he perceives the duration of creation, ‘the growth of the world borne ever onwards’, as the time needed for its consecration.

The unfolding of the secrets of the utterly mysterious phenomenon called life, in all its personal, earthly and cosmic dimensions, with its fearful darkness and irresistible brightness, is the bread and wine of God’s continual and universal becoming, within and around us.   Without bread and wine we would surely forget that our beautiful God is very incarnate indeed!