Reference to and reverence for the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ emerge frequently in the writings of St. Francis of Assisi. He reminds his priest brothers to celebrate Mass reverently with “unblemished intention” and to “hold as precious the chalices, corporals, appointments of the altar, and everything that pertains to the sacrifice” (Letter to the Entire Order & First Letter to the Custodians). He implores his brothers “with all the love” of which he is capable “to show all possible reverence and honor to the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Letter to the Entire Order). He admonishes us “to confess all our sins to a priest and receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Later Admonition and Exhortation). In this time of the Church’s National Eucharistic Revival in the United States, the voice and spirituality of St. Francis is most relevant. What does the Poor Saint of Assisi tell us?
“Behold, each day He humbles Himself as when He came from the royal throne into the Virgin’s womb; each day He Himself comes to us, appearing humbly; each day He comes down from the bosom of the Father upon the altar in the hands of a priest” (Admonitions). With these words, Francis contemplates the deep connection between the mysteries of the Incarnation and the Eucharist.
Each day, he emphasizes, the Eucharist manifests the mystery of the Incarnation. Jesus came from the royal throne: behold the humility of the Incarnation. Jesus comes to us: behold Emmanuel, God-with-us in the Incarnation. Jesus comes down: behold the self-emptying descent of the Incarnation. Francis thus grasps the sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord as a sacrament of humility, intimate nearness, and self-emptying sacrificial love. In the Eucharist, Francis perceives the very incarnational approach of the Son: He comes from, comes to us, and comes down upon the altar.
A similar triad emerges in another passage from the Saint’s writings. Here also, Francis’ reflection on the Eucharist draws him into the depths of the Incarnation.
And as His Passion was near, He celebrated the Passover with His disciples and, taking bread, gave thanks, blessed and broke it, saying: “Take and eat: This is My Body” [Mt 26:26]. And taking the cup He said: “This is My Blood of the New Covenant which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins” [Mt 26:28] … His Father’s will was such that His blessed and glorious Son, Whom He gave to us and Who was born for us, should offer Himself through His own blood as a sacrifice and oblation on the altar of the cross: not for Himself … but for our sins … And He wishes all of us to be saved through Him and receive Him with our heart pure and our body chaste. (Later Admonition and Exhortation; emphasis mine)
In the Incarnation, the Father gave to us Jesus, who came from the royal throne. In the Incarnation, Jesus is born for us,thereby appearing humbly. In the Incarnation, Jesus offers himself on the altar of the cross for our sins, just as in the Eucharist he comes down upon the altar in the hands of a priest. To contemplate the Eucharist is to remember the Incarnation and enter into the saving mystery.
Put simply, Francis’ eucharistic faith reminds us of the depth of the mystery at hand: to approach it, accordingly, in awe and wonder. Indeed, to approach the Eucharist is to draw near to the humility and sublimity of the living God:
Let everyone be struck with fear,
let the whole world tremble,
and the heavens exult
when Christ, the Son of the living God,
is present on the altar in the hands of a priest!
O wonderful loftiness and stupendous dignity!
O sublime humility!
O humble sublimity!
(Letter to the Entire Order)
This passage evinces that Francis’ gaze was anything but superficial. He saw into the depths. To see in this way is to see with “spiritual eyes,” to see “in the Spirit because ‘it is the Spirit that gives life’ [Jn 6:63]” (Admonitions). Francis proposes a marked alternative to our contemporary culture pathologically addicted to the immediacy of screens, which blind “spiritual eyes” as it utterly anesthetizes the existential weight of being.
It is, however, all too easy to remain in the shallow waters of existence and so to miss out on the depth of a eucharistic faith. How often do we simply “go to Mass” and “receive communion” without reflecting on the gift given to us? Francis’ own eucharistic spirituality invites us to awaken, renew, and altogether deepen our own gaze on the Eucharist. “Are we not moved by piety at these things when the pious Lord puts Himself into our hands and we touch Him and receive Him daily with our mouth? Do we refuse to recognize that we must come into His hands?” (Exhortations to the Clergy: Earlier Edition).
Indeed, the Eucharist is not just something we “receive.” The Eucharist is invitation into relationship with: “we must come into His hands.” As we receive Him, Jesus receives us. It is not “receiving communion” but “entering into communion” that lies at the heart of the Sacrament. This profound relationality, however, is lost if our approach to the mystery unfolds lifelessly as if on a conveyer belt from pew to priest.
St. Francis invites us to a richer participation:
Brothers, look at the humility of God,
and ‘pour out your hearts before Him’ [Ps 62:9]!
that you may be exalted by Him!
Hold back nothing of yourselves for yourselves,
that He Who gives Himself totally to you
may receive you totally!
(Letter to the Entire Order)
In these words, St. Francis’ eucharistic spirituality blossoms. He lived eucharistically: only in the way of contemplation, humility, and self-offering can one enter deeply into the fullness of the Eucharist. To live in this way is to hold back nothing. And in this, He who gave Himself totally to us – in the Incarnation and each day in the Eucharist – will receive us totally.
[Quotations of St. Francis taken from: Armstrong, Regis J., J. A. Wayne Hellmann, and William J. Short, eds. Francis of Assisi: Early Documents. Vol. 1, The Saint. New York: New City Press, 1999]
*Image: St. Francis in the Desert by Giovanni Bellini, c. 1475–80 [Frick Collection, New York]
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David G. Bonagura, Jr.’s Forming ‘Warriors and Adventurers’ in Christ’s Army
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM, Cap.’s To Love the Church