When I first signed up to assist in bringing Holy Communion to the sick and homebound, I was invited to attend a sort of commissioning breakfast, which primarily consisted of a talk and instructions given by the parish’s parochial vicar. Father’s talk included some classic dos and don’ts, and a beautiful extended reflection on and elucidation of the Church’s faith in the Eucharist. But there was one insight in particular that had a profound impact on the way I understand the Eucharist and the effect it has on those who receive it – and further reflection led me straight to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth.
Father felt the need to address a problem of lack of proper reverence for the Eucharist. As communion visitors, he said, we needed to be exemplary in our actions. The remark that made such an impact on me was almost offhand, but it stuck in my brain and I could not stop thinking about it: “When you are carrying the Holy Eucharist in that pyx, everyone you pass should genuflect, because you are essentially a walking tabernacle.” We carry Jesus Christ, and via our feet He is moving throughout the world. From place to place, He is carried, and we are the carriers, the receptacles for the Eucharist – the walking tabernacles.
The primordial tabernacle, the first vessel for Jesus Christ, was the Blessed Virgin Mary. And she was the perfect example of devotion to Jesus, of reverence for His Holy Presence.
In his account of the Visitation of Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, St. Luke tells us that Mary moved “in haste” to see Elizabeth in a town of Judah (cf. Luke 1:39). Why would she move in such haste? The answer to such a question comes to us via the words of Elizabeth, and Mary’s canticle of praise that immediately follows.
One might be tempted to think that Mary went in haste to her cousin because she was seeking counsel regarding her pregnancy, or something of the sort. But Elizabeth’s reaction makes clear that they both knew the import and significance of the situation. Elizabeth recognized Mary as “the mother of my Lord,” and declares, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled” (Luke 1:43, 45). Mary’s response is not to say, “What, are you crazy? Don’t you realize what a bind I am in?” Rather, she praises the Lord’s greatness and His goodness, and the strength and mercy by which he operates, and the powerful guiding hand.
“For [God] has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Luke 1:48-49). Mary explicitly and clearly declares with fervor that it is a great and wonderful gift that the Lord has given her, and that she is truly blessed to be carrying the Son of God in her womb.
Mary is, if I may use such a term, a walking tabernacle. She carries within her Jesus Christ – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Contrary to many heresies of the first few centuries following the life of Christ, Jesus was fully human and fully divine. This is something we all take for granted now, but do we really understand what this means? Jesus was not God in a human shell. He was not the second person of the Trinity pretending to be human. He was not a human with the second person of the Trinity animating the body instead of a soul. No. This was the second person of the Trinity, this was God, incarnate, become man, like unto us in all things except sin. And Mary was blessed to be the first person to carry Him within themselves.
Perhaps this is one of the most significant takeaways from the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth: we revere Mary as having been eternally blessed to be the mother of God, to carry Jesus in her womb, to care for Him and nourish Him and raise Him – but she was only the first to carry him within her. Through the gift of the Eucharist, Jesus has made all of us walking tabernacles. When we receive the Holy Eucharist, we carry within us Jesus Christ – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity.
How do we react when we find ourselves so near to our Lord? John, the child in Elizabeth’s womb, leapt for joy at the approach of Jesus in the womb of Mary. This woman, most blessed among all women, carried within herself her creator, the Word of God through whom all things came into being – and nothing that came into being was not created through Him (cf. John 1). This child in the womb of Elizabeth could not contain his joy, and leapt, danced, rejoiced at the approach of Jesus.
I think it is fair to say that few of us react with such poignant and uncontainable joy when we come close to our Lord. In every Catholic church, in chapels, in oratories, there is present Jesus Christ – in His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. Fully, truly, really, and substantially present. This is not a mere symbol, nor even some manner of imperfect presence. The person of the risen Christ, in all His splendor and majesty, in all His humble warmth and devotion, is present in the tabernacle under the auspices of bread.
Do we react the same way that John the Baptist reacted? We have the benefit of 2,000 years of reflection; the benefit of centuries, millennia, of the most gifted theological minds grappling with the questions of the Eucharist, struggling to understand in some small way this great and august Mystery. We have beautifully-worded church documents which inspire great reflection on and devotion to the Eucharist. We even have developed practices that are designed to help us treat the Eucharist with appropriate respect and reverence.
Far too often we are guilty of falling dramatically, scandalously short of appropriate reverence for the Eucharist. Let us pray that we be granted a deep and abiding faith in the Eucharist, a profound recognition of the glorious and splendorous gift it is, and of the importance of bringing this gift to others, and spreading the marvelous news of Jesus Christ incarnate, dead, and risen, and present in the Most Blessed Sacrament.