3rd Word From the Cross: ‘Behold Your Son; Behold Your Mother’
Fasting from the Eucharist
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Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Mag′dalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:25-27)
John took Mary into his own home. Our theme for these meditations is: In your house I shall celebrate the Passover. If we, like St. John, take Mary into our home, we can be sure that Jesus will be present too.
When we hear that Third Word, Woman, behold your son, our minds immediately think of an earlier encounter in which Jesus addressed his mother as “woman.” At Cana, Mary tells Jesus that there is no wine. And Jesus responds: “Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”
The hour has now come. Mary was there at the first miracle in Cana, at the beginning of the public life. Now she is present at those final three hours on the Cross. It is the hour.
And we think back to Cana, that Jesus worked his first miracle at a wedding. We think ahead to the image of the Book of Revelation, that of the wedding feast of the Lamb. Jesus is the Divine Bridegroom.
In these days our thoughts have also turned to a question put to Jesus by the disciples of John the Baptist: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matthew 9:14-16)
In these days, we feel as if the Bridegroom is taken away from us, as we are no longer able to encounter him in the Holy Mass or the other sacraments. Is it now time to fast?
Our unusual circumstances have prompted some to think about this sacramental distance from Jesus as a sort of “Eucharistic fast.” To be sure, “fasting” from the Eucharistic is not a common practice throughout history and is almost nonexistent today. But it is not entirely alien to our tradition, and in these days we might attempt to understand it better.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger addressed this question in the 1980s:
When Augustine sensed his death approaching, he ‘excommunicated’ himself and undertook public penance. In his last days he manifested his solidarity with the public sinners who seek for pardon and grace through the renunciation of communion. He wanted to meet his Lord in the humility of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for him who is the Righteous and Merciful One. Against the background of his sermons and writings, which are a magnificent portrayal of the mystery of the Church as communion with the Body of Christ, and as the Body of Christ itself, built up by the Eucharist, this is a profoundly arresting gesture.
The more I think of it, the more it moves me to reflection. Do we not often take the reception of the Blessed Sacrament too lightly? Might not this kind of spiritual fasting be of service, or even necessary, to deepen and renew our relationship to the Body of Christ?
The ancient Church had a highly expressive practice of this kind. Since apostolic times, no doubt, the fast from the Eucharist on Good Friday was a part of the Church’s spirituality of communion. This renunciation of communion on one of the most sacred days of the Church’s year was a particularly profound way of sharing in the Lord’s Passion; it was the Bride’s mourning for the lost Bridegroom (cf. Mark 2:20). Today too, I think, fasting from the Eucharist, really taken seriously and entered into, could be most meaningful on carefully considered occasions, such as days of penance—and why not reintroduce the practice on Good Friday?
[Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One (Ignatius Press, 1986).]
Cardinal Ratzinger adds that this practice of Eucharistic fasting, like regular fasting, presupposes normal eating most of the time. He stresses that it can only proceed under the guidance of the Church. In these days, it is the Church as a whole which is entering an involuntary time of Eucharistic fasting. And just as times of temporary involuntary hunger can be embraced spiritually, converted into fasting, so too can this time of temporary involuntary fasting from the Eucharist be converted into a spiritual discipline, like St. Augustine embraced.
At the most basic level, having to live without Holy Communion reminds us not to take that ineffable gift for granted. It is almost impossible to maintain sincere reverence for that which becomes familiar. Without desiring it, many of us can even feel entitled to the Eucharist, to the Holy Mass, to the sacraments, even to salvation itself. Perhaps we need the reminder of the early Church, which did not live with the sacraments as abundantly available as many of us do today.
We might be bold enough to go a step farther, as ask when this Eucharistic fast is permitted by God as a disciplinary penance, an absence to make up for the Real Presence that was so often taken for granted. In one of the greatest political speeches ever given, Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, an argument is made there about divine justice. Lincoln speaks in biblical terms about the ongoing Civil War in the light of divine providence:
Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
We cannot know whether this global Eucharistic fast is meant as a penance for all those poorly prepared Holy Communions, those Holy Communions taken for granted, those Holy Communions received unworthily, even sacrilegiously. We can’t know, but we might resolve for our own part that when the Bridegroom returns that we do not live as if he were not here.
If the wedding couple at Cana had not invited Mary, then Jesus would not have been there. And if Jesus had not been there, they would have run out of wine. We feel as if we have run out of that best wine, the Precious Blood of the Lord Jesus. And we turn to Mary in our plight, asking her to tell Jesus to do something about it. And we are entitled to ask, for at the Cross we received her, like St. John, as our mother too. And like St. John, we take her into our home.
Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.
In your house I shall celebrate the Passover
We adore Thee, O Christ, and we praise Thee, because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.