By Jonathan Mitchican
Few titles indicate just how ancient the Church is more than that of St. Symeon the New Theologian. Apparently, being born in 949 is enough to get you labeled new. The reason he is called theologian is that he stands in the line of St. Gregory Nazianzus and the Apostle John as someone who speaks eloquently about the mystical experience of God. For St. Symeon, as for St. Gregory and St. John, God is not simply to be believed in but to be experienced directly. And the heart and center of that experience is the Holy Eucharist:
The same undefiled flesh which [the Son] accepted from the pure loins of Mary, the all-pure Theotokos, and with which He was given birth in the body, He gives to us as food. And when we eat of it, when we eat worthily of His flesh, each one of us receives within Himself the entirety of God made flesh, Our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and son of the immaculate Virgin Mary, the very One Who sits at the right hand of God the Father.
For St. Symeon, there is a straight line between the teaching that Mary’s flesh was made blessed by Jesus’ dwelling in her womb and the teaching that in the Holy Eucharist that same flesh is given to us. The Eucharist is a complete participation in Christ, “that He may dwell in us and we in Him,” as the Prayer of Humble Access says. St. Symeon’s mysticism is far from the New Age abstraction that the word mysticism brings to mind for many people today. It is concrete and embodied. We are what we eat. As we eat the body of Christ in the Eucharist, so we become Christ in our bodies and soul.
For those who hold a Catholic view of the sacraments, this identification of likeness between the flesh of Mary, the body of Jesus, and the body and blood given to us in the Holy Eucharist should come as no surprise. What is perhaps more startling is to realize that Mary herself would have partaken of this mystery. She who bore the body of the Christ from her own womb, who later wept at the foot of the cross — as that same body was handed back to her lifeless — would go on to receive that same body alive again on her tongue.
In 1852, the French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres shocked the world with his painting The Virgin Adoring the Host. It depicts the Mother of God standing before an altar, her hands together in contemplation, with saints flanking her. She is looking down with great reverence at the consecrated host that seems inexplicably able to stand on its side. At the time, some complained that this painting was too bold in its suggestion that Mary would have had a strong eucharistic piety, but it is hard to imagine an image more fitting. The look on Mary’s face as she gazes at the blessed sacrament is not simply a look of religious devotion but a deep expression of maternal love. She looks at the host the same way she looks dotingly upon the baby Jesus in other paintings. Her small, almost imperceptible smile depicts deep satisfaction. This is a woman who lost her child and now has him back.
The Holy Eucharist involves far more than a passive experience of remembrance. It is the substance of a much closer relationship with Christ than could have been forged before his death and resurrection. It is not uncommon for Christians to wonder wistfully what it might have been like to know Jesus when he walked this earth, yet the mystery that both St. Symeon and Ingres allude to is that in the Eucharist we can know him now far more deeply than that.
Mary, whose holiness meant that she did not need the gifts of sanctification found in the blessed sacrament, nevertheless would have found great joy and comfort in receiving her Son’s body and blood. The intimacy that Mary knew with her Son in the Holy Eucharist would have been even deeper than the bond she shared with him before, because in the Eucharist is found not only the flesh but the gift of eternity. In the Eucharist, the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ are made available to each of us, not only in some sort of abstract way but in the very concrete action of eating and drinking
It would be conjecture to say how often or in what manner the Mother of God received the blessed sacrament. It is not hard to imagine that there must have been a flood of conflicting emotions that she would have experienced: grief at the loss she had suffered and that she could no longer hold her Son’s hand or kiss his face; joy that he was not lost to her; perhaps pride that in fact what he had already given her would now be available to the whole world through the transformation of something as simple as bread and wine.
What a curious and powerful experience it must have been for her, as the priest placed the body of Christ in her mouth, for her to realize that what she received was the very flesh that she had washed and cared for, the very flesh that had come from her body in the first place. When she received the body of Christ, what she received was her body as well, healed and glorified by the Incarnation. Surely, that had to be at least as awe-inspiring and shocking for her as the experience all those years earlier when the angel had announced God’s intention to her, and she had responded, “Be it done unto me according to thy will.”
If we are ever tempted to take the Holy Eucharist for granted, meditating on Mary’s relationship with the sacrament would be a fitting remedy. Her flesh is our flesh, after all. She is one of us, made in the image and likeness of God, as we are. When Christ took residence in her womb, he sanctified not just her flesh but all flesh. When we receive his body and blood in the blessed sacrament, we receive the fullness of him, but we also receive the fullest and truest of ourselves.