In that seemingly dismal specter that was Golgotha, the Church has always seen hints of the Garden of Eden.
Just as the entire human race sinned and died in Adam, so also all were redeemed and restored to new life, St. Paul writes (Romans 5 and 1 Corinthians 15). Taking its cue from St. Paul, the Church has drawn further parallels. Just as Christ was a second Adam, so also Mary was a second Eve. And just as a tree was once the scene of so much sin, a tree (the cross) became the source of so much grace. Each figure or element from the Genesis account is annulled by a greater reality in the gospels, so the thinking goes.
So what about the forbidden fruit?
Catholics don’t have to look very far for an answer. It’s a reality we encounter every Sunday (or daily) at Mass: the Eucharist.
But how exactly does the Eucharist undo the eating of the forbidden fruit? Here are five answers from Church Fathers, doctors, mystics, and other theologians:
1. Obedient eating. On the surface, the eating of the fruit involved the sin of disobedience against God, who had in no uncertain terms told Adam not to do it (Genesis 2:16). In the gospel account, Christ’s supreme moment of obedience also centers on an act of eating. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will,” Christ cried out in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:39). In eating the Eucharist, then, we participate in Christ’s obedience—not only because the Eucharist is the body and blood of the One who was obedient, but also because Christ’s obedient drinking from the cup is itself a continuation of the Eucharistic feast He celebrated with his disciples. (For more on that, see Scott Hahn’s lecture on the “fourth cup” here.)
2. Eucharistic feasting. In another sense, the first sin could be viewed as one of gluttony, which is the position of Church Fathers like Tertullian and, to some extent, St. Irenaeus as well. The first remedy, as advocated by both Fathers, is fasting. But this is incomplete. We are called to fast as well as to feast: the original sin of gluttony must be undone not only by abstaining from ‘bad’ food, but also by eating ‘good’ food. The Eucharist combines both imperatives of fasting and feasting. Today, in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, fasting precedes reception of the Eucharistic feast. Some saints, like St. Catherine of Siena, took this idea to an intense level by constantly fasting and being nourishing both physically and spiritually by the Eucharist alone. This is the ultimate purpose of fasting: to remind us that our nourishment—that our source of life—does not consist in the visible material world. To fast in this world is to feast in heaven.
3. Humble food. On a deeper level, original sin involved pride. This view is based on Genesis 3:22, “Then the LORD God said: See! The man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil!” According to this view, then, Adam and Eve were guilty of the pride of wanting to be like God. Actually, we can be more specific than this: the sin was not so much wanting to become like God as wanting to become like Him through our own means, to reach God on our own. This was completely reversed through the Incarnation, in which God chose to become one of us, thereby showing us the true way to God was through humility that submits to Him and His grace. As St. Augustine put it in The City of God, the true path to heaven is humility. The Eucharist not only serves as a visible reminder of Christ’s great humiliation—not only did He become man, but he even became food for us!—but also, in eating it, we participate in that humility.
4. Desire for God and His Word. We can peel away at things further: on an even deeper level, the Adam and Eve ultimately failed to desire God and His Word, choosing instead the sensible things of this world. We might ask specifically what ‘Word of God’ were Adam and Eve to desire? After all, the only words from God they had received were the double-sided invitation to eat some fruit, paired with the command to refrain from other fruit. Are we to desire the commands of God? Indeed we are! As Psalm 119:131 declares, “I opened my mouth and panted: because I longed for thy commandments.” According to Irenaeus, the Eucharist restores this longing for God’s Word: “[W]e, being nourished, as it were, from the breast of His flesh, and having, by such a course of milk nourishment, become accustomed to eat and drink the Word of God, may be able also to contain in ourselves the Bread of immortality, which is the Spirit of the Father” (Against Heresies, 4.38.1).
5. Medicine of Immortality. The Eucharist does not only undo the first sin, it also reverses its consequences, which traditionally have been understood to be bodily corruption and death. The Church Fathers had a vivid awareness of the Eucharist as a pledge and guarantee of our future resurrection and incorruption in heaven. In communing with the Body of He Who rose from the dead, we too will share in the same fate, so they reasoned. Hence, St. Ignatius of Antioch—as he was heading to his impending martyrdom—called the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality” and the “antidote to prevent us from dying.” St. Gregory of Nyssa described it as the “antidote” to the “poison.” Whoever tastes the Eucharist, added St. Ambrose, “shall not be able to feel corruption.” Likewise, Theodore of Mopsuestia referred to it as “immortal nourishment.”
Further reading: For those who want to further explore the relationship between the Eucharist and the forbidden fruit, a recommended reading is Notre Dame theologian Ann Astell’s wonderful book, Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages. Astell shows how four major spiritualities of the Middle Ages—Cistercian, Dominican, Franciscan, and Jesuit—were shaped by their interpretations both of the original sin and how the Eucharist reversed it.