Here are the fruits of my labor for the last week or so.
In my parish, as in most, the Solemnity of Corpus Christi has been moved from its traditional spot on the Thursday after Trinity to the following Sunday. There are many unfortunate implications of this liturgical change, but today I’d rather focus on what grace I received from the readings and prayers of today’s Ferial Mass.
I’d like to start, however, with a painting, “Transustanziazione,” by Giovanni Gasparro. Only in the work of Salvador Dali do we find a modern artist who captures the mystical dimension of the Eucharist in such an original way. And Gasparro’s piece is far simpler, and therefore more visually striking, than any of Dali’s several Eucharistic paintings.
Three pairs of hands, like the three pairs of wings on the seraphim and cherubim, bear aloft a bleeding host in undifferentiated space. The three sets of hands appear the same—they are, perhaps, the hands of the same priest captured over the lapse of time. This distortion of time and space lends the image a sense of eternity. We are viewing something transcendent. The Eucharist is not just an earthly event. It is also a rite which happens forever in the cosmic liturgy of heaven. And who is the Great High Priest offering that liturgy for us mortals? Who but Christ? In Gasparro’s image, Christ is present as priest and victim.
The three pairs of hands also remind us of the Trinity. When we approach the Eucharist, we truly approach the Triune God. At every Mass, the act of Transubstantiation only happens because of the work of the whole Trinity. Christ offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit, through the hands of His priests and the prayer of His bride, the Church. It is meet and right that we should consider the painting at this point between the Ordinary Form celebrations of Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi.
The painting has a certain sacramentality, in that, like the liturgy, it captures something of the invisible and manifests it to our earthbound senses. Looking at Gasparro’s painting, we have the sense that we are glimpsing something profound, unsettling, and sacred—something ordinarily hidden from us. Do we not hear the words of St. Thomas’s Corpus Christi hymn, Lauda Sion?
Here beneath these signs are hidden,
Priceless things, to sense forbidden,
Signs, not things, are all we see.
Today’s liturgy powerfully brings this quality to mind. As we turn to the First Reading from today’s Mass, we encounter the words of St. Paul:
Brothers and sisters: To this day, whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over the hearts of the children of Israel, but whenever a person turns to the Lord the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. All of us, gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit.
Therefore, since we have this ministry through the mercy shown us, we are not discouraged. And even though our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled for those who are perishing, in whose case the god of this age has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, so that they may not see the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus. For God who said, Let light shine out of darkness, has shone in our hearts to bring to light the knowledge of the glory of God on the face of Jesus Christ.
This, from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians.
The Liturgical Providence of God permits us to hear these words of the Apostle on a day which, in the Old Calendar, was the preeminent feast of the Eucharist as such. All Thursdays are to be read in light of the Eucharist, mystically tied as they are to this holy feast and to Maundy Thursday.
St. Paul is doing many things in this passage. It is an extremely rich vein of mystical insight, and it could yield untold spiritual fruit. But one very clear move that St. Paul makes here is the parallel he draws between our faces and the face of Christ. As the Spirit has removed the veil of sin from our faces in Baptism, so too, He removes the veil from Christ’s priestly face in the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, the Baptized stand face-to-face with God Almighty. We must grow in the likeness of Christ’s Holy Face—”from glory to glory”—but only by approaching the glory of that face in the Eucharist.
What does this transformation practically look like? The readings give us hints.
The Gospel Acclamation, drawn from St. John, summarizes the commands of the Lord in the proper Gospel. We sing, “I give you a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you.” Then, Christ tells us,
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
Eucharistic community is characterized by peace. Its members govern their actions by deliberate and conscientious love. We are obliged to strive for this peace.
The proper Psalm depicts the spiritual condition of that moral environment, when
Kindness and truth shall meet;
justice and peace shall kiss.
Truth shall spring out of the earth,
and justice shall look down from heaven.
What, precisely, is the nature of this union of heaven and earth? Here, too, the Psalm furnishes a deeper insight. We sing in the refrain, “The glory of the Lord will dwell in our land.” There are many meanings bound up in this line of Holy Scripture. Three are immediately relevant to our purposes. The passage’s Sophiological meaning is that God’s glory will ultimately interpenetrate, indwell, and crown the redeemed cosmos. The passage’s Mariological meaning is that Christ will give His own divine-human self to the Church, the New Israel, through the Church’s perfect microcosm and icon, Mary, the true Daughter of Zion.
But the passage also has a Eucharistic meaning. There is a reason we are meant to chant this particular line of the Psalter on the Thursday that was (and at some level, still is) Corpus Christi. The Glory of God will dwell in the land by its fruits—bread and wine. Indeed, the Glory of God will so fill the bread and wine that they will cease to be bread and wine. God will pour out his glory upon our offerings until our “cup runneth over.” They may appear all the same to us, but in truth, they will become the Body and Blood of Christ. No part of their original essence will remain. This single act of outpouring and indwelling is God’s privileged path of union with souls and with all creation.
As the great theologian Jean Daniélou writes, “We have already seen the Eucharist as communion, covenant. Now we see it as presence, shekinah.” It is the same presence that animates the entire liturgy of the Ferial Thursday after Trinity and that hides quietly in the simple and sacramental art of Giovanni Gasparro.
Throughout the Latin Church, Saturday in the Ascension Octave is kept as the Feast of Our Lady of the Cenacle. On this holy day, we remember the Mother of God keeping vigil with the Apostles in the Upper Room, or “Cenacle.” The place is significant. Here, Christ gathered the Twelve on the night of his betrayal, Maundy Thursday. At that time, He instituted the priesthood and the Eucharist. Later, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will descend upon the congregation and truly constitute the Church as such, confirming its sacramental essence and mission in the world of time.
Mary’s position in this unique place at this unique time is captured in the title, “Our Lady of the Cenacle.” But that name conceals a much deeper mystery. What, precisely, was she doing in the Cenacle? Why was she there? And does her presence, never mentioned in the Bible, nevertheless retain important meaning for us today?
As with any mystery unspoken in Scripture but passed on to us by the Tradition, we can approach it by many paths. One of the wonderful things about the Church is that, in her sacramentality, she recasts everything in the light of Christ and opens all things to a deeper meaning than we ordinarily encounter. So today, I’d like to consider Our Lady of the Cenacle through art. Specifically, iconography. Even more specifically, Armenian illuminated manuscripts.
In the Greek iconographic tradition, Pentecost is usually depicted with an empty seat in the center…the place of Christ the King and Teacher, who has ascended and sent the Holy Spirit in his stead. The icon for the feast of mid-Pentecost dovetails with this custom, as it depicts Jesus the youth instructing the teachers of the Law in an arrangement that approximates that of Pentecost proper. The Russian and Slavic iconographic tradition largely copies this model, with one notable exception. Many Russian iconographers include the Mother of God in what would ordinarily be the empty “Teacher’s Seat.” As one writer puts it, “Mary is therefore shown in the ‘teacher’s seat’ as the best example we have, and the person on earth who most resembled Jesus Christ (both physically, as His mother, and spiritually as His disciple).” Indeed.
The Armenian iconographic tradition differs from both the Greek and Russian streams in important ways, not all of which we can get into here. For our purposes, it is enough for us to observe that the Armenians have a tendency to place the Mother of God at the center of the Pentecostal scene.
Examine, if you will, the illumination at the top of this essay—Figure A.
Mary is, by far, the largest character. The Apostles crowd around her on both sides expectantly. Her hands are lifted in the orans position of prayer. She stands in a red mantle and a dark blue robe that matches the hue of the Holy Spirit alighting above her. Every one of the bird’s tongues of flame move through her nimbus to reach the Apostles, some of whom even raise their own hands as if to reach out and take hold of the mystical fire.
A similar placement and posture is written into the following icon:
Mary is the central pillar of the icon. The Holy Spirit does not just descend, but rests upon her as He sends forth his tongues of flame. Here, too, their colors match. We can see that the Holy Spirit is customarily written in blue for this festal icon.
Blue is an interesting color, one with mystical associations. I won’t attempt a full symbolic analysis here, but it is worth contemplating the range of natural and supernatural meanings which Christianity has invested in this delicate shade. It suffices to say that blue is a sophianic color, calling to mind the wisdom and beauty of God (see the pertinent chapter in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth, by the great Russian theologian Father Pavel Florensky). The iconographic tradition is of great help in this subject as well; besides gold, blue is the only other color allowed for the background of icons in the Greek and Slavic canons.
It is also perhaps worthy of note that in Figure D, Mary doesn’t just match the hue of the Spirit. The colors she wears also match the architecture of the Cenacle. She is one with the Cenacle; the Cenacle is hers, and hers alone. The Cenacle is the Church, the Cenacle is every tabernacle in the world, the Cenacle is Heaven, the Cenacle is the New Jerusalem, the Cenacle is the Throne of God, the Cenacle is the Eschaton, the Cenacle is the final consummation of sophianic being brought about by Christ’s gloriously triumphant Incarnation, sacrifice, and Resurrection.
And in all these mystical dimensions of the Cenacle, Our Lady is Queen.
Mary is the woman who bears the Holy Spirit, the living icon of the Church. When we look at Mary, we are to think of the Spirit. The Mother of God always points us to her son, but also to the Holy Spirit, and through both, to the Father. She is never apart from the Holy Spirit. They abide together, and the Cenacle is where her truly Eucharistic and sophianic state of being is manifested for the awe-struck view of the whole Church. She is the consummation of what is accomplished by the Trinity in the Cenacle, the woman who fully cooperates in the salvation of the world, the Co-Redemptrix and Mediatrix of All Graces. Indeed, do we not read the latter title in the first illumination above? Do we not see it in the slim orange lines of fire that move through her halo to the Apostles below? They only receive the Spirit as it passes through Mary.
Mary does nothing of her own effort. God does all in her, and she freely agrees to accept and work for God’s will. St. Paul can speak of “those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh” (Col. 1:24 DRA). Not so with Mary. In her, the cross’s victory is complete. In her, it has become the Tree of Life, “so that the birds of the air,” such as the blue bird of the icons, “come and lodge in the branches thereof” (Matt. 13:32 KJV).
On this feast day, let us remember the manifold graces that Our Lady showers upon us from her throne in the eternal Cenacle. Let us also take heart that, with so powerful an advocate at the heart of the Church, no controversies or troubles can ever overwhelm the Barque of Peter. Finally, let us pray to Our Lady of the Cenacle for the Benedictines of Silverstream on this, their patronal feast.
This week, we are about to enter a truly remarkable liturgical sequence.
Wednesday is Our Lady, Help of Christians, patroness of my parish here in South Carolina.
Thursday is the Ascension (sadly moved to Sunday in my province of Atlanta).
Friday is St. Philip Neri, and then on Saturday comes Our Lady of the Cenacle.
We could extend our reckoning to Sunday, but for now, I think it is appropriate for us to hesitate on the threshold of the Mystical Sabbath. Let us instead examine only these four days and their import.
We begin and end the progression with Mary. First, we see her in her relation to humanity. She is the help of Christians. Then, we see her in relation to God. She receives the Holy Spirit. Taking both feasts together, we see Our Lady participating in God-humanity; she becomes the perfect emblem of Divine Wisdom.
Studying Sophiology has made me appreciate Our Lady of the Cenacle even more. There is a deep connection, I think, between the manifestation of Divine Wisdom in the creation of the Cosmos, at the Baptism of Christ, and at the descent of the Spirit upon Our Lady at Pentecost. They are mutually illuminating events. I wonder if we can find that connection at the level of the propers for each liturgy, a project I may try to engage in before Saturday.
And how appropriate that St. Philip, who experienced his own Pentecost in the catacombs of St. Sebastian, should go forth as a herald for Our Lady of the Cenacle! It is a kind of liturgical proof of the hierarchical principle, that we are led by lower things to higher things. St. Philip received the Holy Spirit into his heart as a ball of fire in the catacombs— under the city of Rome, once a place of persecution, the mythical “Babylon” of Revelation. He guides us to Our Lady as she waits and prays in the Cenacle, the Upper Room in Jerusalem where the sacraments of the Eucharist and Orders were instituted and where the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church in tongues of fire on Pentecost. What a picture of the historical Church in pilgrimage! From the darkness of the Roman catacombs to the heights of the upper room in Zion. We could read an eschatology out of these mystical days.
Nevertheless, this week’s procession is easy to overlook, since its central diamond, the Ascension, has been misplaced by so many bishops. Celebrating the feast on Sunday robs it of its truly Eucharistic meaning, for the Ascension’s traditional place on a Thursday meant that it could only be read through the texts of Maundy Thursday. Ascension Day is to Maundy Thursday as Pentecost is to Easter, the initiator of a new liturgical season and a reminder of the Mystical Priesthood of Christ. All of this is admirably explained by Dom Mark Daniel Kirby OSB in his podcasted homilies and in his blog, Vultus Christi.
The Eucharistic and Priestly meaning of the Ascension matters for the rest of the four-day sequence insofar as the Eucharist represents, sustains, and completes every instantiation of Sophianic being. The Sophianic character of the four days can only be discerned in the light of Christ’s face as He ascends into his cosmic priesthood on Thursday. This would be true even if St. Philip were not there to complete the set. This is, after all, a fairly uniqueE situation. Ever spry, St. Philip moves around the sacred calendar with the bustling rhythms of profane time. But in this auspicious year, so full of historical resonances and providential patterns, let us rejoice in the days that the Lord has made (Psalm 118).
May is Mary’s month, and I
Muse at that and wonder why:
Her feasts follow reason,
Dated due to season—
Candlemas, Lady Day;
But the Lady Month, May,
Why fasten that upon her,
With a feasting in her honour?
Is it only its being brighter
Than the most are must delight her?
Is it opportunest
And flowers finds soonest?
Ask of her, the mighty mother:
Her reply puts this other
Question: What is Spring?—
Growth in every thing—
Flesh and fleece, fur and feather,
Grass and greenworld all together;
Throstle above her nested
Cluster of bugle blue eggs thin
Forms and warms the life within;
And bird and blossom swell
In sod or sheath or shell.
All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathising
With that world of good,
Their magnifying of each its kind
With delight calls to mind
How she did in her stored
Magnify the Lord.
Well but there was more than this:
Spring’s universal bliss
Much, had much to say
To offering Mary May.
Bloom lights the orchard-apple
And thicket and thorp are merry
With silver-surfed cherry
And azuring-over greybell makes
Wood banks and brakes wash wet like lakes
And magic cuckoocall
Caps, clears, and clinches all—
This ecstasy all through mothering earth
Tells Mary her mirth till Christ’s birth
To remember and exultation
In God who was her salvation.
– “May Magnificat,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ
Exciting news for anyone who follows the Catholic art world. Daniel Mitsui, the artist famous for his intricate, lively drawings of Christ and the Saints, has just announced that he has a new blog. The new site promises to be aesthetically and spiritually enriching. Check out his new, great project, the Summula Pictoria. I look forward to seeing what Mr. Mitsui will produce for us in the future.
And his new piece depicting St. Philip Neri is lovely, as always.