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Eucharist - Seasons of Grace

Douglas Bushman, STL

One of the interesting elements of the witness of the gospels to Jesus Christ is the remarkable suppleness that was required of the disciples who followed Him.

The demands placed on the disciples' faith was distinctly different at various points in the Lord's public ministry. In the early part of His mission we have the working of miracles and the call of the apostles. Jesus proclaims the Good News to the poor, demonstrates the powers of God at work in Him, and gives the Sermon on the Mount. Later on, as the opposition of the Pharisees and Scribes becomes more and more apparent, Jesus presents his closest followers with predictions of his betrayal and death.

It is one thing to follow Jesus during the first period of initial wonderment and excitement, and quite another to follow Him during this second period. It required an adjustment of faith, and a leaving behind of any merely human projections onto what Jesus had been teaching. St. Peter experienced this when he protested against the Lord's prediction of His passion, and we are all familiar with the admonishment he received: "Get behind me, Satan" (Matthew 16:23). At this point, the apostles learn that they still do not have sufficient faith to weather the storms of discipleship (see Mark 4:30).

As the hour of Jesus to be handed over and crucified approached, He said a remarkable thing to Peter: "Now you cannot follow me where I am going, but later you will follow me" (John 13:37). What a contrast to some of the first words Peter had heard from Jesus: "Follow me" (Matthew 4:19). Jesus begins by inviting Peter to follow Him, and ends by saying that he cannot follow Him. But He added: "But later, you shall follow me."

Jesus understood fully the challenges to the faith of His followers. He understood that in discipleship there are seasons of grace, patterns and dominant themes of what one experiences in the presence of the Lord. The apostles had to learn that the mission of the Messiah would not be just miracles and preaching the Good News. It also included the rejection, suffering and death of Jesus. It is difficult to fault Peter for resisting the second season of suffering and preferring the more glorious season of popularity and miracles. But it was not to be.

The same kind of challenge to faith is encountered by the followers of Christ in every generation. There are seasons of grace in our lives, times of consolation and times of desolation. There are times when it seems easy to place our faith in Christ, and other times when it is very difficult.

This is most apparent in the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord. After following Jesus for three years, witnessing His saving power and taking in His teaching, the apostles and all of the Lord's disciples lose Him: Their Master is betrayed and crucified. Good Friday inaugurates the season of grace which is one of loss, abandonment, desolation.

We know what the apostles and disciples at that time did not know. We know that this season of Jesus' absence was to be only a short season of three days. For He would rise on Easter Sunday morning and they would have Him back! And yet, Easter is also the beginning of what would prove to be a relatively short season of grace. It is the season of the post-resurrection appearances. A mysterious period of the Risen Lord's appearing and disappearing. This period closes with the Ascension into heaven.

The Ascension marks the beginning of a new season of grace, the season of the Church. It is the season of Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is the final and definitive season of God's grace. Christ died to make this possible. For He Himself said: "It is for your own good that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you" (John 16:7).

Jesus had to ascend to the Father in order to receive from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit and thus be able to pour forth that Spirit upon the Church (see Acts 2:33). This is why, when Mary Magdala wrapped her arms around Him on Easter Sunday, the Risen Lord's first words to her were: "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20:17).

Can we imagine the reaction these words must have provoked in Mary's heart? Stricken with grief over the loss of her Lord, she went to His tomb to express her love and devotion by anointing His body, only to find that His body was not there. She had had three days to adjust to the loss of the One Who had freed her from seven demons (Mark 16:9). Then, suddenly, she is overwhelmed with joy to discover that He is not dead, but risen to life, and she clasps His feet to give Him homage (Matthew 28:9). And then she hears the words, "Do not cling to me."

We know that Jesus is not cruel, and that these words were not spoken to hurt Mary. Neither were His words of rebuke to Peter or the apostles for having such little faith. Rather, Jesus wanted Mary to enter fully into the mystery of His death, resurrection and ascension. And this mystery is not complete until the Holy Spirit is poured forth on Pentecost. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, "Christ's Passover is fulfilled in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit" (CCC,731).

Pope John Paul II has greatly underscored the fact that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost was caused by the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Based on the text of John 16:7, quoted above, he has written:

[W]hile all the other promises made in the Upper Room foretold the coming of the Holy Spirit after Christ's departure, the one contained in the text of John 16:7f also includes and clearly emphasizes the relationship of interdependence which could be called causal between the manifestation of each: `If I go, I will send him to you.' The Holy Spirit will come insofar as Christ will depart through the Cross: he will come not only afterwards, but because of the Redemption accomplished by Christ. . . (Dominum et Vivficantem, 8).

Have you ever noticed that in many cathedrals and churches you can often see a dove painted on the ceiling of the sanctuary, just above the altar? This is an artistic depiction of a very profound truth of faith regarding the relationship between the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the death, resurrection and ascension of our Lord. The Holy Spirit's coming to the Church is caused by Christ's Passover, His passing over to the Father, His departure.

Of course, Jesus does not really leave us, because, according to St. Paul, the "Lord is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:17). Jesus is not absent; rather, He is present in a new way, in the Holy Spirit. This is the new season of grace for the Church, and we need the gift of faith to see all of this in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.

Yes, we need a similar kind of suppleness of faith, as did St. Peter and Mary Magdala. And the Holy Eucharist is a great school of such faith. For in the celebration of the Mass we experience the various seasons of grace that mark the life of Christ.

Particularly through Holy Communion, we experience something quite similar to what Mary Magdala experienced. The experience of Mary Magdala on Easter Sunday morning is a paradigm of the Eucharistic experience of the members of the Church. In the Eucharistic Bread and Wine Christ comes to us in His resurrected body, in the form of life-giving food and drink. Prior to the words of consecration He is not there; but by the power of the Holy Spirit He comes, even as He came to the Virgin Mary by the power of the same Spirit.

But, just as Christ came into the world through Mary only to depart through the Passover of His death, resurrection and ascension, so also in the Eucharist He will soon leave us. For as the Church teaches, His Eucharistic Presence endures only for so long as the consecrated bread and wine endure.

In Holy Communion we take Him into us with all the love and affection of Mary Magdala, knowing full well that we cannot hold onto Him in this manner. His Eucharistic presence will melt away, and like Mary Magdala we must "let Him go" so that He can depart and return to the Father. But we also know that He does not leave us orphans (John 14:18). We know that He departs only to come back to us in the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Authentic Eucharistic devotion is a devotion to the entire mystery of the coming and going of Jesus Christ through the Paschal Mystery. Because it contains Christ Himself, the Eucharist also contains all of the seasons of grace. For this reason, the Eucharist is the source of all the graces we need in order to give the proper response of faith to the various seasons of grace we experience in our journey with Christ.

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