Lenten Spiritual Retreat Reflection: On Mysteries by St. Ambrose & Eucharistic Theology

In this Lenten Retreat I wish to reflect on the typology of the Holy Eucharist and doctrine of the Divine Presence as set down by St. Ambrose of Milan in his “On the Mysteries”.  St. Ambrose was a staunch defender of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.  He looks at the Holy Eucharist as a prolongation of all the other sacraments, meaning, the sacraments are leading the faithful toward the Altar of Christ and the participation in the heavenly feast. We can see and understand the references in the Old Testament that point us toward the finished work of God, culminating in the installation of the Eucharistic meal, the manna being a shadow of the true bread that came down from heaven.  When speaking of the preparation of the gifts of the altar, St. Ambrose took great pains to assure that catechumens understood, that these sacred symbols point us to what is truly happening in the spiritual realm. 

 St. Ambrose reflects on the Eucharist as the heavenly banquet, the abundant table of Psalm 23 (22).

In the Psalm of David, we can see the people, seeing the altar of the Lord and saying,

“You have prepared a table in my sight…. The Lord feeds me and nothing shall be wanting to me, in a place of good pasture He placed me.  He has led me forth by the water of refreshment……for though I walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for You are with me.  Your rod and your staff have comforted me.  You have prepared in my sight a table against them that trouble me.  You have anointed my head with oil, and Your inebriating cup, how excellent it is!”

It is important within St. Ambrose’s Theology of the Eucharist for us to see the Eucharist foreshadowed, from the beginning.  Even before the law of Moses, in the Book of Genesis, he points out the foreshadowing of the Eucharist in Melchisedech’s presentation of the gifts of bread and wine to Abraham, after his victory.  We can see this referenced by St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews chapter 7, verses 7-17.

“And without all contradiction, that which is less is blessed by the better. And here indeed, men that die receive tithes: but there, he hath witness that he liveth. And (as it may be said) even Levi who received tithes paid tithes in Abraham: For he was yet in the loins of his father when Melchisedech met him.  If then perfection was by the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need was there that another priest should rise according to the order of Melchisedech: and not be called according to the order of Aaron? For the priesthood being translated, it is necessary that a translation also be made of the law, for he of whom these things are spoken is of another tribe, of which no one attended on the altar. For it is evident that our Lord sprung out of Juda: in which tribe Moses spoke nothing concerning priests. And it is yet far more evident: if according to the similitude of Melchisedech there ariseth another priest, who is made, not according to the law of a law of a carnal commandment, but according to the power of an indissoluble life. For he testifieth: Thou art a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedech.

Thou art a priest FOREVER, according to the order of Melchisedech. St. Ambrose emphasizes these words because for him, not only do they represent a foreshadowing of Christ as our High Priest, but also the offering of which was foreshadow of the Most Blessed Sacrament.  In this we are given a more perfect sacrifice than that of the Jewish people, therefore as St. Ambrose states, “the sacraments of the Church are both more ancient than those of the synagogue and more excellent than the manna.”  St. Ambrose also tells us that the Eucharist is superior to the manna.  The Israelites ate manna from heaven, “angels’ food”, but yet they died.  We are offered the “living bread which came down from heaven”, that gives us the substance of eternal life, as it is said that “whosoever shall eat of this bread shall never die”, and it is the Body of Christ, for as Christ says, “I am the way and the LIFE”.  The water that flowed from the rock that was struck by Moses, satisfied the people of Israel for a time, but the blood of Christ satiates for eternity!  The law was a shadow and the New law is the truth. 

Christ tells us that there will be a day when we will no longer worship in a temple, but we will worship in “Spirit and Truth.”   

As we participate in this mystical feast, described by St. Ambrose, we should look with discernment, as St. Paul instructed his flock,

“For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord.”

Now we move to the consecration and look at the presentation of the Eucharist on the altar where we worship, it being a figure of the body, the body of Christ being upon it, and it being Christ who offers himself.  Therefore, we should see Christ as the altar, the offering, and the Priest.  It is Christ himself who invokes the Holy Spirit.  It is not by the action and word of the priest that this miracle occurs, for the power does not reside in the priest but it is the action of Christ, our High Priest, operating by the power of His words in the consecration. 

Christ is the Word of God made flesh.  St. Ambrose asks whether we should think that the Word of God has more power over the elements than the blessing of a prophet such as Moses.  Moses struck the rock and water flowed forth (Exodus 17:6).  Elisha cast the piece of wood into water and iron swam (2 Kings 6:6). 

Please reflect on the following questions:

The symbols of the Liturgy of the Eucharist are so familiar to us, but what do they mean and what should we see in their presentation? 

Do we discern the Body of the Lord within this sacred bread and wine?

What do you see when we approach the altar? 

Was this power the prophets had, not by the grace of God? Or was it by their power?

Should we not believe in the power of the Words of the Word made Flesh to change the nature of the elements of bread and wine? 

We should open our hearts and our minds and see this most powerful and beautiful gift of God in which we are made able to participate in the Marriage Banquet of the Lamb. Let us pray that the Lord will open our eyes, our hearts, and our ears, so we may hear His voice see Him in the breaking of the bread. Amen.

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