Lessons about Eucharist can be from the birds
Pictures help us remember meaning behind the words
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
During this new year, as we continue to celebrate the Year of the Eucharist, we are called to contemplate Christ's real presence in the sacrament of Holy Communion.
As Pope John Paul II wrote in his 2003 encyclical on the Eucharist, "To contemplate Christ involves being able to recognize him wherever he manifests himself, in his many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of his body and his blood. The Church draws her life from Christ in the Eucharist; by him she is fed and by him she is enlightened. The Eucharist is both a mystery of faith and a 'mystery of light'" (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, n. 6).
As Catholics, we profess our belief that the bread and wine change into Christ's body and blood - transubstantiation - at the Eucharistic prayer. This is a great mystery, something we can only accept by faith. Yet, since it is so difficult to contemplate such a mystery, we have developed many symbols to help us wrap our minds around what is really incomprehensible.
Pictures help us teach, and remember. In our faith, certain symbols help bring the teachings about the Eucharist to mind and help us reflect upon them prayerfully.
These symbols include obvious ones, such as grapes and wheat. These agricultural symbols, when placed in a church or a prayer book, remind us of the humble beginnings of what later becomes Christ's very self. However grapes and wheat, even as bread and wine are not the only symbols that speak of the great mystery of salvation.
These other Eucharistic symbols are a little less common, and sometimes a lot less obvious in their symbolic links. Yet, if you know the story behind them, the Eucharistic mystery is revealed through them just a bit more, and our reflections are nudged onward. These Eucharistic symbols - some dating back to the early church - include:
The loaves and fish: This symbol can be found on the walls of the Roman catacombs, dating back to the second century. It refers to the two stories in Matthew's gospel (14:13-21 and 15:32-39) of the multiplication of food for crowds of thousands - clearly meant to refer to the universal banquet of salvation offered for all.
Water jars: Another gospel story - this time from John (2:1-10) - is the source of a Eucharistic symbol that dates to third century Christian art, the wedding at Cana. In this story, again indicating the joy of the heavenly banquet, Jesus uses six stone water jars to make the choicest wine for the feast.
Lamb: This is also one of the oldest symbols of Christ. While we hear Jesus described as "the Lamb of God" by John the Baptist in John's Gospel (Jn 1:35), we are also meant to remember the lessons of the Old Testament - of how the blood of a lamb stayed the hand of the avenging angel in Egypt. The salvation brought through the blood of the Lamb of God makes the lamb - often with blood pouring from its side, perhaps into a chalice - a rich
Pelican: This popular medieval Eucharistic symbol is attributed to St. Gertrude of Helfta (1256-1302). She is said to have had a vision of Christ in this form. According to legend, the pelican will protect its young to the point of feeding them from its own blood, an act often depicted in many European altars from the 13th century on.
Fountain: While this is more commonly used as a symbol for baptism, it also represents "the living water" that is Christ. When paired with a cup or chalice, it represents blood flowing from Christ's wounds upon the thirsty earth (all creation). Vatican II's document on the liturgy reminded us of this image: "From the liturgy, therefore, and especially from the Eucharist, as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us" (10).
Vine: Besides being the source of grapes, the vine also symbolizes Christ, through whom we - united in one Communion - receive our life, both now and into eternity.
Host and chalice: These are obvious representations of the Eucharistic celebration itself and have naturally developed from the loaf and cup at the meal of the Last Supper, where Christ instituted this sacrament.
Many other symbols also represent the Eucharist, including fruit, nuts and other animals. The National Shrine of St. Maximilian Kolbe has 99 different Eucharistic symbols depicted in the stained glass windows of its chapel in Libertyville, Ill. All of them, though, share a common element - the desire to aid us in reflecting on the greatest of all gifts, the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ, given to us freely and for all time.
(Sources: The Conventual Franciscans at www.marytown.com; the Vatican web site at www.vatican.va; A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art; The Catholic Encyclopedia; and Vatican II"s "Sacrosanctum Concilium")