More than one reader asked for a fuller explanation of the icon of the Virgin Mother, Adorer of the Eucharistic Face of Christ. The following essay is an attempt to respond to that request.
In his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the Servant of God, Pope John Paul II drew the eyes of the Church to the Face of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist. He coined a new phrase, one not encountered before in his writings or in the teachings of his predecessors, “the Eucharistic Face of Christ.” Thus did Pope John Paul II share with the Church his own experience of seeking, finding, and adoring the Face of Christ in the Eucharist.
“To contemplate the face of Christ, and to contemplate it with Mary, is the ‘programme’ which I have set before the Church at the dawn of the third millennium, summoning her to put out into the deep on the sea of history with the enthusiasm of the new evangelization. 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 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.’ Whenever the Church celebrates the Eucharist, the faithful can in some way relive the experience of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: ‘their eyes were opened and they recognized Him’ (Lk 24:31). . . . I cannot let this Holy Thursday 2003 pass without halting before the ‘Eucharistic face’ of Christ and pointing out with new force to the Church the centrality of the Eucharist.”
This text, among others of Pope John Paul II, inspired the new icon of the Mother of God, Adorer of the Eucharistic Face of Christ. The icon was written by the hand of Charlotte Lauzon in preparation for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ 2006. Presently, it is kept in the Abbey of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome.
Calling our attention to the presence of the Mother of God in every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, Pope John Paul II wrote: “Mary is present, with the Church and as the Mother of the Church, at each of our celebrations of the Eucharist. If the Church and the Eucharist are inseparably united, the same ought to be said of Mary and the Eucharist. This is one reason why, since ancient times, the commemoration of Mary has always been part of the Eucharistic celebrations of the Churches of East and West.”
The icon depicts the Mother of God as she is shown in the familiar icon of the Sign, as well as in the much–loved Russian icon of the Mother of God of the Inexhaustible Chalice. The icon of the Sign is among the most venerated icons of the Mother of God. The ancient gesture of praying with upraised hands is seen in frescoes in the catacombs. It evokes the mystery of the Ecclesia Orans, the Praying Church, personified here in the Mother of God. The same ancient gesture of intercession became, in the late Middle Ages, a popular expression of adoration at the elevation or showing of the Sacred Host.
Whereas in icons of the Sign, Christ is depicted enclosed in a mandorla or nimbus of divine light on the Virgin’s breast, in this icon the Eucharistic Face of Christ shines from the Sacred Host suspended above the Holy Chalice on the altar. The Mother of God stands at the altar presenting the Eucharistic Face of her Son to the Eternal Father, saying, “Behold, O God our Protector; look upon the Face of your Christ” (Ps 83:10). At the same time she presents the Eucharistic Face of her Son to the eyes of all who seek Him in the Holy Mysteries. Looking out towards us, she calls us to the contemplation and adoration of the Face of Christ at once concealed and revealed in the Sacrament of the Altar.
“The contemplation of Christ has an incomparable model in Mary. In a unique way the Face of the Son belongs to Mary. It was in her womb that Christ was formed, receiving from her a human resemblance which points to an even greater spiritual closeness. No one has ever devoted himself to the contemplation of the Face of Christ as faithfully as Mary.”
The blood-red mantle of the Virgin frames the Body and Blood of Christ, recalling that she “became in some way a tabernacle — the first tabernacle in history — in which the Son of God, still invisible to our human gaze, allowed Himself to be adored.” “Mary is a woman of the Eucharist in her whole life. The Church, which looks to Mary as a model, is also called to imitate her in her relationship with this most holy mystery.”
Above the uplifted hands of the Mother of God is inscribed the prayer of the disciples to the Wayfarer on the on the road to Emmaus: Mane nobiscum, Domine, “Stay with us, Lord” (Lk 24:29). This is the phrase that Pope John Paul II gave the Church at the beginning of the Year of the Eucharist in 2004. The same inscription is found on the medal of the Holy Face of Jesus diffused by the Servants of God, Mother Maria-Pierina De Micheli and Benedictine Abbot Ildebrando Gregori. The Mother of God sustains the Church in praying, Mane nobiscum, Domine, and teaches the Church to treasure in her heart the promise of Christ’s abiding presence in the Eucharist: “Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 28:20).
The altar in the icon represents every altar in the world where the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ are offered in the Holy Sacrifice and given in Communion. The words, Illumina, Domine, vultum tuum super nos, “Lift up, O Lord, the light of your face upon us” (Ps 66:1), also inscribed on the medal of the Holy Face of Jesus, appear on the front of the altar. In this Eucharistic context, the ancient prayer of the psalmist is wondrously fulfilled. The altar is the place from which the Eucharistic Face of Christ shines with a divine radiance that penetrates every darkness.
The experience of the disciples on the road to Emmaus culminated in their eyes being opened to see the Eucharistic Face of Christ. “When He was at table with them, He took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished out of their sight” (Lk 24:30-31). Christ vanished from the sight of the disciples, leaving in their hearts a mysterious burning (cf. Lk 24:32), and the broken Bread that reveals His Eucharistic Face, that is to say, His Eucharistic Presence. In the Eucharist the Face of Christ is turned toward us. The Eucharistic Face of Christ waits to meet the gaze of our faith, waits to be sought and recognized, adored and implored. “We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known” (1 Cor 13:12). Sanctissima Facies Iesu, sub sacramento abscondita, respice in nos et miserere nostri.
The Face of Christ shines through the veil of the Sacred Species to illumine those who seek it there. The radiance of the Eucharistic Face of Christ heals and repairs the disfiguration of sin; it restores beauty to the face of the soul and likeness to the image of God obscured by sin. It is in the Eucharist that the prayer of the psalmist is wonderfully fulfilled: “The light of your face, O Lord, is signed upon us: you have given gladness in my heart” (Ps 4:7). Again, it is the psalmist who says, “Look to Him and be radiant, and your faces shall not be put to shame” (Ps 33:6). The adorer who seeks the Eucharistic Face will experience that in its light there is the healing of brokenness and the beginning of transfiguration. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).
Saint Thomas Aquinas exclaims: “O marvelous sacrament in which God is hidden, and our Jesus, like a new Moses, conceals His face under the creatures made by Him!” The Eucharistic Face of Christ is veiled beneath the humble species of bread lest we be blinded by its glory. “His face,” says Saint John, “was like the sun shining in full strength” (Rev 1:16). The rays of that Sun reach us nonetheless through the appearance of bread that conceals it; its healing effects are not in any way diminished, nor is the splendour of its glory. “We look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen” (2 Cor 4:18). “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the Eucharistic face of Christ” (cf. 2 Cor 4:6).
The sentiments of every human heart find expression on the face even before they are communicated in words. So too are the secrets of the Sacred Heart revealed on the Face of the Word made Flesh and communicated to those who seek that Face in the mystery of the Eucharist. One who seeks the Face of Christ will be led surely, inexorably, to the inexhaustible riches of His Heart.
The Face of Christ is “the brightness of the Father’s glory and the figure of His substance” (cf. Heb 1:3). To Philip wanting to see the Father, Jesus replied, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip? He who has seen me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father in me?” (Jn 14:9-10). The Face of Christ, “full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14), reveals the Father. Those who seek the Eucharistic Face of Christ can, in truth, say with Saint John, “We have beheld His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn 1:14), and again, “No one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (Jn 1:18).
“To look upon the face of Christ, to recognize its mystery amid the daily events and the sufferings of His human life, and then to grasp the divine splendour definitively revealed in the Risen Lord, seated in glory at the right hand of the Father: this is the task of every follower of Christ and therefore the task of each one of us. In contemplating Christ’s face we become open to receiving the mystery of Trinitarian life, experiencing ever anew the love of the Father and delighting in the joy of the Holy Spirit. Saint Paul’s words can then be applied to us: “Beholding the glory of the Lord, we are being changed into His likeness, from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2Cor 3:18).”
He who is from all eternity “in the bosom of the Father” (Jn 1:18) is also, “in these last days” (Heb 1:2), sacramentally present in the heart of the Church, abiding there as “the living Bread which came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51). It is in adoring Him there that we become “the generation of those who seek Him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob” (Ps 23:6).
This splendid new icon of The Virgin Mother, Adorer of the Eucharistic Face of Christ is the fruit of Pope John Paul II’s spiritual legacy to the Church. Through it, as through a door, may souls be drawn into the contemplation and adoration of the Eucharistic Face of Christ, with Mary.
Almighty and invisible God,
who in the fullness of time,
shone in our hearts
to give us the light of the knowledge of Your glory
shining in the Face of Your Christ
and who in Blessed Mary Ever-Virgin
have given your Church
a model of adoration in spirit and in truth,
grant, we beseech you, that all who gaze upon this icon
of The Virgin Mother, Adorer of the Eucharistic Face of Christ
may, with eyes illumined by faith,
contemplate also the Face of Christ hid beneath the sacramental veils
in the Most Holy Mysteries of the altar
and, by persevering in adoration,
be transformed by the Holy Spirit into His likeness
from glory to glory.
Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God forever and ever. Amen.