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Online Retreat: "Living the Eucharist" - Week Three
This is the third week of a four-week online retreat focused on the spirituality of the Eucharist. The mystery of the Eucharist is not only something we celebrate, it is also a reality that we seek to live as followers of Jesus. You are invited to read the following reflection and make use of the recommended Scripture readings and reflection questions for your prayer during the week. We suggest that you take 20-30 minutes per day to pray with the Scripture passages and the questions. The other installments of this retreat can also be found on our website.
Week Three: The Eucharist and the Paschal Mystery
All of us have become accustomed to reciting or singing these words at the Eucharist: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.” This acclamation expresses what Christians call “the paschal mystery” – the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. In the second Eucharistic prayer, the priest prays, “In memory of his death and resurrection, we offer you, Father, this life-giving bread, this saving cup.” Every time we celebrate the Eucharist we honor the memory of Christ’s death and resurrection. Through our faith-filled memory of God’s saving love in Christ, the power of Christ’s death and resurrection becomes present anew. And we are reminded that this pattern of dying and rising is the pattern for our lives as well.
This central theme of the Eucharist points us to the mystery of suffering in the world and in our own lives. As we remember Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we are called to relate the suffering of our world to the mystery of Christ. For anyone who wishes to grow in his or her life with God, the experience of suffering must be integrated into their spirituality, even if it remains enveloped in a significant amount of darkness. It seems that it is precisely those people who are most deeply committed to God who struggle the most with the meaning of suffering. Curiously, we may presume that it would be exactly the opposite. We might assume that those who are close to God would be able to “take suffering in stride.” It would not be a big problem for them. But a careful reading of some of the great spiritual masters in our tradition reveals their struggle to integrate experiences of suffering into their own life with God. A palpable sense of the abiding presence and loving care of God can cause a person to grapple mightily with the meaning of suffering in a creation that is loved so deeply by God. The German theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, who has written much about the topic of God and suffering, offers a telling observation: “The more a person believes, the more deeply he experiences pain over the suffering in the world, and the more passionately he asks about God and the new creation” (The Trinity and the Kingdom, 49). A deep faith in the living God actually impels a person to wrestle vigorously with the reality of suffering.
For this retreat reflection, I would like to turn to a few of the resources in our tradition that can illumine our thinking about the mystery of suffering in our own lives. They may help us to connect our own experience of suffering with the paschal mystery that is remembered in the Eucharist.
The Cry of Lament
There are 150 psalms in the Old Testament. The Book of Psalms is the “official prayer book” of the Jewish people, and it is the prayer book of Christians as well. Of all the types of psalms in the Bible (psalms of praise, thanksgiving, petition, contrition, etc.) the most numerous are the laments. The Hebrew Scriptures bear direct and compelling testimony to the crying out of the suffering person. The psalms are striking for their direct and realistic descriptions of the situation; they do not mince words. The biblical scholar, Walter Brueggemann has reflected deeply about the significance of this lament tradition for Israel’s view of God and of God’s relation to suffering people. Brueggemann observes, “The world of lament speech [thus] is based on the premise that the speech of Israel draws God into the trouble. God will act and life will be restored” (Israel’s Praise, 143). He calls these biblical prayers “psalms of disorientation” (The Message of the Psalms, 51). Brueggemann highlights the stark honesty of these prayers: “There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speechmust be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life” (The Message of the Psalms, 52).
These psalms offer eloquent testimony to the fact that for the Hebrew people God was so real, so close at hand and directly involved in their lives, that they knew they could, and even should, cry out to God. They were convinced that they should complain – bring their plight directly to the Lord. And that was precisely the way that God remained real to them, even through experiences of suffering that defied explanation. I believe that these prayers, too, help initiate people into an experience of God in the midst of suffering. They take a suffering person by the hand and lead him or her into personal encounter with the living God. They teach us about the importance of honest dialogue with the Lord when we are enduring experiences of suffering.
Saint Augustine: The Whole Christ
Saint Augustine (354-430) wrote many “expositions” on the psalms. As he thought about what happens when the church prays the psalms he drew on the teaching about the church as the Body of Christ. This biblical image bespeaks an indescribably intimate union between Christ and the church, indeed between Christ and every believer. Augustine, then, liked to talk about “the whole Christ” (totus Christus). When the church prays the psalms, it is the whole Christ – Head and believers – who utters these prayers. In his exposition of Psalm 85 he wrote: “God could have granted no greater gift to human beings than to cause his Word, through whom he created all things, to be their head, and to fit them to him as their members. . . . The consequence is that when we speak to God in prayer we do not separate the Son from God, and when the body of the Son prays it does not separate its head from itself. The one sole savior of his body is our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who prays for us, prays in us, and is prayed to by us. He prays for us as our priest, he prays in us as our head, and he is prayed to by us as our God.”
For Augustine, then, when the church prays the psalms, Christ prays for us, Christ prays in us, and Christ is prayed to by us. He appeals to this principle of the whole Christ when he comments on the psalms of lament. In so doing, he accentuates the closeness of Christ to the suffering members of his body. Just as Jesus prayed the psalms when he suffered on earth (Matthew and Mark speak of him praying Psalm 22 from the cross; Luke has Psalm 31), so the risen Christ prays in those believers who cry out to God in their moments of suffering. Augustine affirms a mutual solidarity between Christ and us: “Accordingly when we hear Christ’s voice, we must hearken to it as coming from both head and body; for whatever he suffered, we too suffered in him, and whatever we suffer, he too suffers in us. . . . This solidarity meant that when Christ suffered, we suffered in him; and it follows now that he has ascended into heaven and is seated at the Father’s right hand, he still undergoes in the person of his church whatever it may suffer amid the troubles of this world, whether temptations, or hardship or oppression. . . .” (Exposition of Psalm 62.2). Augustine is convinced of the intimate union between Christ and the suffering members of his body. Christ prays within us when we cry out to God in times of suffering.
Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi, reflects on the experience of suffering in light of the hope that Christ gives us. He highlights the solidarity of Christ with every suffering person: “Christ descended into ‘Hell’ and is therefore close to those cast into it, transforming its darkness into light” (n. 37). Christ travels to the farthest regions of darkness in order to be present to the suffering ones. The pope challenges us to become bearers of consolation to one another. As he puts it, the Latin word con-solatio suggests being with the other person in his or her solitude, so that it ceases to be solitude (n. 38). And he affirms that God is the ultimate bearer of consolation. Benedict quotes an intriguing statement of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux: “God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with” (n. 39). In compelling words the pope affirms, “[Humanity] is worth so much to God that he himself became [human] in order to suffer with[human beings] in an utterly real way – in flesh and blood – as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus’ passion. Hence in all suffering we are joined by one who experiences and carries that suffering with us; hence con-solatio is present in all suffering, the consolation of God’s compassionate love – and so the star of hope rises” (n. 39).
Our prayer for retreat this week takes us to the foot of the cross. We are invited to enter into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. At this place it is also important to bring to the Lord – as honestly as we can – our feelings and thoughts about the reality of suffering in our own lives. We need to experience the solidarity of the crucified and risen Christ with us as we grapple with this mystery.
Fr. Robin Ryan, cp
For Prayer and Reflection
Day One – Read Luke 23: 33-49 – This is Luke’s account of the death of Jesus. Imagine that you are present at this scene. With which characters do you most identify? What feelings and thoughts arise within you when you read his words of forgiveness for his enemies? The words of the “good thief” and the final words of the dying Jesus can both become our own prayers: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom”; “Father into your hands I commend my spirit.” Choose one of these and make it your prayer today. Repeat it a few times throughout the day.
Day Two – Read Luke 22: 14-20 – This is Luke’s account of the Last Supper and the institution of the Eucharist. At the moment of his own impending suffering, Jesus speaks of the gift of his life for us: “This is my body, which will be given for you . . . This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.” Jesus gives his life for us in his passion, and he gives his life to us in the Eucharist. Take some time with this passage and try to imagine what it was like to be present there, listening to the words of Jesus. Express your gratitude to Christ for the gift of his life. Pray for the grace to be more mindful of Christ’s presence to you in the Eucharist, especially his strengthening presence to you at moments when you are grappling with suffering.
Day Three – Read Psalm 22 – Jesus prays the opening lines of this psalm from the cross in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. And the entire psalm was very important to the early Christians in their understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Though the psalm begins with feelings of utter desolation it concludes with praise for God’s vindication of the just person. What do the words of this psalm say to you about the death of Jesus? Which lines in this psalm can you relate to your own experiences of wrestling with suffering? Take those words to your prayer today.
Day Four – Read John 19:31-37. This is the account of the piercing of Christ’s side and the flow of blood and water. For theologians and spiritual writers of the early church, this event was highly symbolic. The flow of blood and water symbolized the birth of the church from the wounded side of Christ. This passage can speak to us about God bringing new life for us out of deathly experiences. God brought new life out of the brutal, unjust execution of Jesus the Son – new life for Jesus and for the world. How has God brought new life out of “deathly experiences” that you have undergone in your own life? What is the situation, relationship or hardship that you are experiencing at the present time which needs the new life that God can bring? Speak to God about that experience.
Day Five – Read 2 Corinthians 1: 1-7 – Paul greets the Christians at Corinth in his second letter and immediately proceeds to bless “the Father of compassion and the God of all encouragement.” He celebrates their faith in the faithful presence of God amidst affliction – a presence which offers consolation and strength. This reading is used in the church’s Liturgy of the Hours for the feasts of martyrs. Read this passage through several times. Allow the words to sink in. Where in your life do you particularly need God’s encouragement? Who are the people facing hardship who need your encouragement? Speak to God honestly about these situations. Ask God for the encouragement that you need and for the grace to be a source of his encouragement to others.