Cosmic Love: Eucharist and Creation

Bishop Peter Brignall explores the biblical foundations of the Eucharist in the Hebrew Scriptures. He locates the great themes and festivals in the cycle of nature revealing the work of the Creator God. Finally, he opens these themes out in the theology of the Eucharist in recent Papal teaching.

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The book of Genesis begins with the account of creation and without doubt is built upon oral traditions that long pre-date a written text. There was no reason to have begun at the earliest of beginnings, a history of a people who as such didn’t yet exist, other than perhaps to tell a greater story by allegory. In not a few places in the early books of the Jewish Bible, words, phrases and expressions are used from a later time to give validity to, and give authenticity to an earlier event. This would be particularly true of that which relates to ritual, worship and liturgy. The desert sanctuary (c.1440 BC) is both a portable replica of the Jerusalem temple (c.956 BC) and the appropriation of older traditions and institutions of the peoples among whom the Israelites found themselves.

What is characteristic and perhaps distinctive in the Jewish scriptures are the accompanying words that speak of Israel’s God as ‘creator’ or ‘Lord of heaven and earth’ (cf. Sirach 24:8, Isaiah 43:15, 2 Maccabees 7:23) Additionally, there are those passages of scripture that very specifically sing the praises of the creator and of his works.

Psalm 104 (103) praises the Lord as Creator, ruler, carer and the one who renews the life of the world and all its creatures. The context is likely that of the autumn festival – the dedication of the first temple, all that has been shows the glory of the Lord. Significantly for us the sting in the tail is in verse 35 that the only thing that can obscure God’s glory is human sin – the psalmist praying that sinners no longer deface the handiwork of the Lord.

Psalms 147 (146) and 148 provide rich encounter with the creator and revealed Lord who is both Creator and Holy; and saviour and close to the downtrodden. Praise is to be given by all, for the Lord created all things by his word and by that same word ensures their continuous function.

Often in the psalms we engage with the belief that the creator holds everything that he has made in a relationship to himself with a commitment of his faithful love, in this relationship all created things are invited to look to him in trust and praise. This encompassing praise of the Lord’s work in creation and history, in provision and salvation is to be found in Psalm 136 (135), another psalm of the autumn festival that does not permit the forgetting of the Lord’s faithfulness to his commitments in creation and covenant.

The extensive questioning by the Lord of Job “… Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…?” in chapters 38 and 39 is an education of Job about the wonders of creation which are a manifestation of divine power and wisdom The natural cosmos is of the divine plan and structure and operation; neither it nor human civilisation will revert to chaos.

The last great creation songs to which I want to refer, are to be found in the Book of Daniel (3:28-34 and 35-68 and are known as the Prayer of Azariah (Abednego) and the Song of the Three Young Men. The praises of God as Lord of all creation proclaimed from the fiery furnace into which they have been cast on Nebuchadnezzar’s instruction for failing to fall down and worship a huge golden statue of a deity he had erected.

The ancient Egyptians were well skilled in agriculture and Moses was ‘learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’ (Acts 7:22) it is no wonder then that agriculture held a very important position in the life of the Israelites especially when they came to have their own lands. Every provision was made by the Jewish law for the encouragement of agriculture; and until a period of decline had set in it was held in the highest honour. This is attested by the numerous agricultural and horticultural images that are used to describe the relationship between the people and the Lord their God. For them understanding the earth, the seasons and climate, the vegetation and the stock was imperative for a good life. Forgive the pun, but they were rooted in creation such that they often expressed their faith in terms of creation, and their prayer with agricultural images. That can still be true to-day for those for whom farming and food production is not an industrial process.

Being of the belief that the Lord God was creator of all, it is right that the first fruits of the land should be offered in thanksgiving to the creator who has bestowed his beneficence. It is no surprise therefore, when we see that the three greatest feasts of the seven observed in the Jewish year don’t simply have agricultural overtones but are agricultural festivals. Those feasts or festivals are: Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles.

The principal of these annual feasts is Passover, so called in remembrance of the occasion on which it was instituted and with which we are familiar. The time of the year when and with what it is celebrated is important – ‘the first month of the year’ (Exodus 12:2); ‘a lamb without blemish, a male a year old; you shall take it from the sheep or from the goats.’ (12:5). Spring lamb, effectively the first fruits of last year’s harvest. A new born lamb is not going to be any good for a festive celebration meal. The manner of its preparation and eating are also prescribed.

Chronologically the second feast is Pentecost or ‘Weeks’, described as ‘the feast of harvest, the first fruits of your labours, which you have sown in the fields’  (23:16, 34:22,26; Numbers 28:26) The first fruits of the grain harvest represented by a sheaf of barley were to be presented by the priest before the Lord. In token of the completion of the harvest, two wheaten loaves, made with fine flour and baked with leaven, were to be presented as ‘a wave offering before the Lord.’ (Leviticus 23:17). It is with one such offering that Elisha instructs a man from Baal-shaishlah to feed a hundred men with just twenty loaves and had some left over. (2 Kings 4:42ff).

The third feast is Tabernacles or ‘Ingathering’ and concluded the harvest celebrations with thanksgiving for the products of annual fruiting vines and trees-grapes, citrons, olives, myrtles, etc. as well as produce of threshing floor and vine press. (Deuteronomy 16:12ff). During the period of the festival, the people were to leave their houses and live in booths, slight tents, arbours or tabernacles made of branches of trees; the one feast that is not observed in the sanctuary of the temple. A sort of agricultural ‘wakes’ week that is still celebrated today by Jewish families outside in their gardens under a gazebo type structure made of or covered in green vegetation.

These three feasts or festivals had probably been observed by the peoples of the region and beyond as markers of the agricultural cycle and with an acute awareness of the dependence on nature for one’s survival long before they were adopted or appropriated by the people of Israel and laid down in the Law by Moses. The people of Israel understood these moments with a fresh outlook, that the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the Lord of all creation. And so these secular celebrations or times of offerings and sacrifices to the gods of the peoples in whose lands they have come to live are overlaid with new meaning. The spring lamb festival becoming Passover with all the significance of the last meal before the flight from Egypt, and the death of the firstborn of the Egyptians, and the salvation given by the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintel. The celebration of the ‘first fruits’ of the wheat harvest at Pentecost becoming a celebration of the Law being given to Moses on his second time of going to the top of the mountain. The festival of harvest’s conclusion and thanksgiving is a much more personal/family celebration, recalling all that the Lord God has done for each person (Deuteronomy 26:1-11) with a commemoration of the wilderness wandering, living in tents and a personal renewal to the Covenant, as now the Promised Land is about to be entered (31;10-13; Leviticus 23:39ff).

These three feasts while having an essential historic motif also have an agricultural one which firmly places them in the context of a celebration of creation, and an awareness of all things being from and pointing to the Creator. Each of the festivals involves meals and the ritual of sharing food which would be incomplete without prayers of blessing. (Deuteronomy 8:10) One such includes these words: ‘… Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who, in His goodness, provides sustenance for the entire world with grace, with kindness, and with mercy. He gives to all flesh, for his kindness is everlasting. …’ and further on, ‘… Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, benevolent God, our Father, our strength, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Maker, our Holy One, the Holy one of Jacob, our Shepherd, the Shepherd of Israel, the King who is good and does good to all, each and every day. …’[1] If some of those words have a familiar resonance about them it is because they or similar words have been taken and used in our Eucharistic liturgy for example: ‘Blessed are you Lord God of all creation, through your goodness we have this bread to offer, fruit of the earth and work of human hands …’[2]

With a greater appreciation of this part of our religious heritage we could begin to hear a greater call of creation in our Eucharistic Liturgy. It is no accident that the major Jewish feasts while kept as commemorations of significant religious moments have great resonances of a rural, agricultural existence because the people have sought to consciously maintain that awareness. All of those strands are there for us too. Our Eucharistic celebration is a continuation of the Last Supper which was the Passover meal in which the lamb now is the Son of God who gives his flesh in form of bread, the first fruits of the harvest (1 Corinthians 15:20) and his blood in the form of the cup of wine (11:25) which seals the new covenant.

This, and more, are most powerfully expressed by Pope Francis in Laudato si’, the encyclical ‘On Care for our Common Home’ where quoting Popes Saint John Paul II and Benedict he writes:

It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation. Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter. He comes not from above, but from within, he comes that we might find him in this world of ours. In the Eucharist, fullness is already achieved; it is the living centre of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love: “Yes, cosmic! Because even when it is celebrated on the humble altar of a country church, the Eucharist is always in some way celebrated on the altar of the world”. The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; “it embraces and permeates all creation.” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia. 8) The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration: in the bread of the Eucharist, “creation is projected towards divinization, towards the holy wedding feast, towards unification with the Creator himself” (Homily for Corpus Christi June 2006). Thus, the Eucharist is also a source of light and motivation for our concerns for the environment, directing us to be stewards of all creation.[3]

Pope Francis goes on to speak of the special importance of our participation in the Sunday Eucharist as, ‘Sunday is the day of the resurrection, the “first day” of the new creation whose first fruits are the Lord’s risen humanity, the pledge of the final transformation of all created reality.’[4] Our celebration of the Eucharist is not just an annual commemoration of the gifts of creation and momentous moments in our faith history, it is a weekly celebration, and our participation in the fulfilment of those events, ‘And that we might live no longer for ourselves but for him who died and rose again for us, he sent the Holy Spirit from you, Father, as the first fruits for those who believe, so that, bringing to perfection his work in the world he might sanctify creation to the full.’[5]

A fuller working out of our weekly celebration of the Creator’s work is to be found in the second chapter of Dies Domini, Pope Saint John Paul II’sApostolic Letter on Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy entitled, The Celebration of the Creator’s Work.

Our deepest encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ is in our Sunday celebration of the Eucharist. Benefitting from that encounter which we inevitably do, must move us to an ecological conversion which is evident in our relationship with the world around us. The day of creation has now become the day of the “new creation,” the day of our liberation, when we commemorate Christ who died and rose again. This in turn must lead us to keep afresh every day as a day of creation as we see the unity of God’s plan, and as we grasp the profound relationship between creation and the ‘new creation’.

Bishop Peter was appointed Bishop of the Diocese of Wrexham in 2012. He is a member of the Bishops’ Conference Department of Christian Life and Worship; a Patron of the Society of Saint Gregory; lead Bishop on Scripture and co-creator of ‘The God Who Speaks’ initiative.

[1] Birkat Hamazon ‘Grace after Bread’ From Siddur Tehillat Hashem. ©Copyright Kehot Publ’n Society, Brooklyn NY

[2] Roman Missal (3rd Edition) ©2010 ICEL

[3] Laudato si’ N.236

[4] Laudato si’ N.237

[5] Eucharistic Prayer IV