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The Mustard Seed of the Eucharist

What do we say to those who scoff at the Real Presence when we ourselves comprehend the mystery only through faith?

‘The kingdom of heaven,” said Jesus, “is like a mustard seed, which a man sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it grows, it is larger than any shrub, and it becomes a tree, and the birds of the air build their nests in its branches” (Matt. 13:31-32).

In our time of general ignorance, I have heard many an unbeliever scoff at the “sky god” they suppose that Christians worship, when it is clear from the earliest Scriptures, those which were in existence long before Augustine meditated upon what the phrase “the heaven of heavens” means, that God made the heavens and is no more to be associated with the sky above our heads than with the earth beneath our feet. He is not the Greek god Ouranos, whom we might as well simply call Sky, just as we might simply call the goddess Gaia the Earth. These things are made. Their bigness by comparison with the human body is of no consequence. For God, they are all less than the tiniest grains of dust.

When the sacred author adds, as if it were an afterthought, that after God made the sun and the moon, “he also made the stars,” it was a way of poking two fingers in the eyes of the Chaldeans and their religion of stargazing and divination. You might as well read tea leaves as read the stars, or toss some dust on a table and read the patterns when it lands.

And I guess we Catholics have all heard the snorting and jeering that erupts from unbelievers when we say that the consecrated host has become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ the Lord. “It’s a cracker,” they say. They cannot conceive of a reality other than what can be measured by a ruler or weighed by scales. It is as if we must all become rather unimaginative clerks in a universal countinghouse, resentful if anyone should suggest that the world is greater and richer than what can be seen with the eyes, pasted with a label, and entered in a ledger.

The fullness of God is there

When Caravaggio painted his repentant Magdalene, he put all his considerable passion for sinners and his intense genius for the dramatic
into one small, shining tear trickling down her cheek. We do not say that there was only a little bit of Caravaggio in that tear. All of the painter was there, all his intent, all his vision. It should not be considered absurd, then, that the almighty God may transform that little bit of bread in such a way that all of Christ will be there, not in symbol, not by analogy, not in some mode of being that is similar to existence, but in full reality.

If we think about it for a moment, the two errors, or rather the two ways of refusing to entertain the possibility that God exists—since that is what it amounts to—are alike. For let us go farther into the matter of the great and the small, or deeper into matter itself. We do not merely believe that the consecrated bread becomes the body of Christ. We believe that each tiniest grain of that bread becomes the body of Christ, the whole body, and not a piece of Christ here and another piece there, just as each person at Mass receives the whole body of Christ and so too at one same moment on altars a thousand miles away.

The body of Christ in the Eucharist is the physical body, but when we are talking about the Eucharist or in general about the presence of God in his creation, we should not ever, even notionally and inadvertently, enter the word merely before an adjective such as physical or material. It is true that the consecrated host is different in kind from an ordinary piece of bread. But neither is the ordinary piece of bread merely the material that makes it up.

“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof,” says the psalmist (Ps. 24:1). “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” writes Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “God’s Grandeur.” God is not, as the young Augustine thought when he was a Manichean, like some all-pervading fluid, infinite in extent, that soaks through the finite world of matter, as if the world were a sponge in a sea, so that an elephant would have more of God in it than a fly, or a mountain more than a grain of sand, or an oak tree more than a mustard seed. The fullness of God is present in each least particle and each fleetest moment of his creation. A pinch of dust is not just a pinch of dust.

Chesterton understood what was in play here and expressed it in his inimitably simple and profound way. Tell us, says the speaker to the seer in his poem “The Holy of Holies,” what is in the smallest of the seeds. The seer’s reply is astonishing:

God Almighty, and with Him
Cherubim and Seraphim
Filling all eternity—
Adonai Elohim.

Notice that Chesterton does not say what many a Bible commentator would now say, half faithful and half diffident. He does not shrug away
half of the force of Jesus’ parable, interpreting it as suggesting only that the kingdom of God has small beginnings, but once it gets going, it
becomes impressive indeed—as big as a mustard tree, or a loaf of bread once the yeast has done its work. That is essentially to lose the seed
and the yeast and to return to the error of being impressed by bigness.

“Our God, heaven cannot hold him,” says the sweet poet Christina Rossetti, “nor earth sustain” (“A Christmas Carol”), and yet he became a little child. What really is in the tabernacle of the seed, the inner sanctum of a single particle of bread, the glorious temple of the electron? God Almighty, and all the heavenly hosts, filling all eternity with their song as they cry out, “Adonai Elohim”—“Lord God.”

The Eucharist describes the present

“Filling all eternity”—that brings us to another feature of the mysterious reality around us, and of the Eucharist, the bread of heaven that is meant to feed the world. Astrophysicists speak of space-time, and that should not embarrass the faithful Christian. A certain poet I’ll not name has thought about space and time as he meditated on the verse, “He is a chosen vessel unto me” (Acts 9:15), which is what God said to
Ananias of Damascus in a vision.

Ananias was wary of approaching Saul, who had done evil to God’s holy ones in Jerusalem. But that persecutor of the early Christians was on his way to Damascus when a lifetime of conversion was compressed into a single blinding flash of light. Here is the meditation, brief and, I hope, intense:

God who has room within one seed
For ranks unnumbered round His
Of human measure has no need:
Who at a single word has sown
Stars thick as grasses on the plain,
Can pour the eternal into one
Beat of a heart, and hew a grain
Of dust to be His cornerstone.

[From the author’s book of poetry The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord]

Think of that moment when Saul, blinded by the light, hears the words of Christ accusing him and yet loving him at the same time, and he responds, “Lord, who are you?” (Acts 9:5). It is like the moment when one of the thieves crucified at the side of Jesus suddenly thinks better of what he has done, and perhaps what until that moment he has been doing, and, against all the necessarily partial evidence of senses, says, “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” and Jesus replies, “Truly I say to you, this day you shall be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

That is more than to foretell the future. It is to describe the present: to open its reality so that we may see what is going on, what has gone on. The thief at Christ’s side has just been baptized. He has confessed his sin. He has just been made a participant in or a partaker of the blood of Christ. He has just been fed the bread of heaven, having all sweetness within it. And yet to the lazy eye of the executioner, or the skewed eye of those filled with envy and hatred, he is but another naked ruffian gasping out his last few hours of breath.

Bread as sheer gift

Of course, there is bread, and there is bread. When the children of Israel, grumbling against Moses and God, said they were better off as slaves in Egypt, where they had pots of stew and plenty of bread, they too were held bound by quantity, by what they could hold and weigh in their hands. What Paul would later call the “glorious liberty of the children of God” meant nothing to them. The belly came first.

So God sent them the bread of heaven so-called, the pearly grains that covered the ground in the morning, each no bigger than a coriander seed, and when the grains were gathered up and boiled and made into cakes, they had the flavor of wafers baked with honey. The children of Israel looked at it, and in their bafflement they gave it the name it would be known by forever after. “Man hu?” they asked, meaning, “What is it?”

God sent the manna, and in that sense it was a bread from heaven, and one that almost obviated the curse of Adam, that he must eat bread in the sweat of his brow. For this bread was a sheer gift, and the only thing the children of Israel needed to do was to gather it up and cook it. But if they treated it as if it were mere material to be weighed and measured, so they could use some and save some for the next day, what was left over got wormy, and it stank. Except on the Sabbath: for they would gather twice as much on the day before, and leave half for the Sabbath, and then it did not go bad. Thus did the mysterious Whatsit partake of the timely and the timeless, the infinitesimal and the infinite, of daily labor and everlasting peace. Yet even so, it was not the true bread of heaven.

For “your fathers ate manna in the wilderness,” said Jesus, “and they died” (John 6:49). It was a temporal bread, though it was blessed by the eternal God, and it foreshadowed and in important ways it fore-fleshed, if I may coin the term, the eternal bread, which is the body of Christ, the Eucharist. That is a new and unique bread. For “he who eats this bread,” said Jesus, “will live forever” (6:58).

It is not a magic bread, as if it were the fountain of youth that, according to legend, Ponce de Leon sought in the swamps of Florida. That is again to be fascinated by mere bigness, in this case temporal rather than spatial or material. Some people choose to freeze-dry their bodies in the hope that they will someday be able to live the same dreary and disappointing lives all over again. That is neither heaven nor eternity.

The thief who confessed Christ as Lord did not gain a longer tenure on Earth. He would die a few hours later, when the soldiers smashed his knees and the knees of the other thief, so that they would not be able to lift themselves so much as to fill their lungs with breath. He gained life, and that in abundance. For the moment a will that turns toward God, responding to the moment of grace, is in love and in eternity as the mustard seed. No measurement can capture it. It is beyond number. It is beneath number. Time is a created thing, as Augustine says, so that there was never a time when God was not the Creator, since it makes no sense to say that there was a time before God made the times. But there was and always shall be the eternity of God’s essence and his life, a fullness that needs no endless series of minutes for its expression.

The fullness of the sacrament, the body of Christ, is present in the least particle of the consecrated bread. God and his heaven and all the hosts of angels round his throne dwell within the tiniest flicker of a proton or a neutron, and with vast halls and fields of being to spare. A lifetime of grace, or rather an eternity of love, is present in the instant moment of a human will as it turns to God.

The flame of the kingdom

Yet not all the bread in the world or in all the worlds can make up one particle of the body of Christ, since Christ is infinitely beyond and above all such, and not all the far-flung reaches of the material universe can make up one flicker of a jewel in the diadem of the heavenly Jerusalem, and not all the long sagas of human love and all their intensity of passion can make up one glance of the Son of God as he sits upon his throne.

God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves, says Augustine, meaning that he is more inward to us, more intimate. If we go down to the netherworld, says the psalmist, God is there. If we delve the deepest and most secret mines of our love, prospecting for the one grain of gold worth all the world, we find that God is already there, and the entire city has been waiting for us.

Let the scoffer in our midst say, “What is this?” We may freely confess that we know and that we cannot possibly know, as we invite him to partake of it too. For really, what does he know? What can he say confidently about space or time, or the most fleeting and powerful and all-decisive impulses of the human heart? If those things apparently so near to him are shrouded in mystery, why should he insist that the mysteries of God be mundane and measurable and as easy to understand as two and two?

This is what we believe, and let all our habits in prayer, inside and outside the Church, partake of it. Let every prayer be eucharistic. The kingdom of God is like that steady flame of the candle behind the red glass, the sign of the presence of Christ in the bread, and the bread in the tabernacle, and the tabernacle in the church; a flame that comprehends all the billions of suns in the far-flung dust of the galaxies, those ways of milk and honey.

Come, let us adore that babe in the manger. For the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

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