Reflecting on the Eucharist with Caravaggio

The stripping away, the silence, and the solemnity of Lent all serve to awaken our hearts that have, over the course of a year, grown tepid and sleepy. We are called to contemplate the suffering of Christ and, indeed, to suffer with him through acts of fasting and almsgiving that call us to greater discipline and greater love. We are called to plunge into the depths of our beings, root out all that does not glorify him, and allow him to plant within us boundless faith. Though solemn, this time does not culminate in sorrow. Rather, it culminates in glory — in events that lend all significance to his passion. Therefore, we must also contemplate this glory. We must contemplate the Eucharist.

Two paintings, juxtaposed, can aid one in such prayerful contemplation: Caravaggio’s “The Entombment” and his “Supper at Emmaus.” Truly, one cannot exist without the other, for if there was no death, there would be no Resurrection, and if there was no Resurrection, there would be no significance in the death of a man named Jesus. Caravaggio excellently captures the full narrative in these paintings, revealing the full truth about why Catholics so triumphantly proclaim “Alleluia” on Easter.

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“The Entombment,” completed in 1604, shows the height of sorrow: a mother laying her only child to rest. It depicts the time when all hangs in the balance, the hushed time upon which the salvation of all peoples is hinged. Though we know how it all ends, we still feel the tragedy of the scene in which Nicodemus embraces Christ’s legs, St. John places his fingers into Christ’s wounds, and Mary’s fiat echoes unwaveringly. Shortly, the men will lower Jesus into the tomb, and the mourners, including the tearful Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas, will be left alone. They will be left to exist with no certainty of what will unfold — only an unshakeable hope that they will not be forsaken. A small detail in the bottom left of the piece — a mullein plant — indicates that this hope will not be in vain. Known for its medicinal properties, the plant symbolizes the ultimate defeat of death that will soon come. Gazing upon this terribly tragic, strangely beautiful image, we sense that this suffering is not for naught. The tortured body of Christ does not hang limply in his disciples’ arms without purpose. With his beloved friends, we hold our breath and wait.

“The Supper at Emmaus,” completed in 1601, reveals what it is that we have been waiting for: the resurrected Christ, the new covenant. This scene occurs just a few days after the former. Two disciples encounter Christ while traveling on foot from Jerusalem. They do not recognize their savior but invite him to share a meal with them as the day is nearing its end. “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight” (Lk 24:30-31). This is the dramatic, awe-filled moment that Caravaggio renders in striking fashion. The disciple on the right, presumed to be Cleopas, suddenly seeing that Christ has conquered death and filled with amazement beyond comprehension, casts his arms out to the side and — we can conjecture — exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Caravaggio depicts the other disciple, raggedly clothed and at the point of leaping from his chair, joining in the exultation. Jesus, who has yet to vanish, appears to come from a world that is not theirs. His clothes are not ragged, and, quite unlike the Christ of “The Entombment,” his face is radiant, youthful and not marked by suffering. He is beardless, fleshy and very much present before them. Across from him teeters a basket of fruit — nourishment of this world that the disciples and we, the viewers, no longer care about given that the Bread of Life sits triumphantly before us. Sunlight filters into the room via a single, broad beam that directly illuminates the one who has conquered death. This illumination parallels the illumination of the astonished, faithful men.

It is no coincidence that Cleopas and his companion finally gain awareness of the “stranger’s” identity when he breaks the bread. They recognize that he is the one who told the crowds, “I am the bread of life. … Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (Jn 6:48, 54). He is the one who, in the upper room, “took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me’” (Lk 22:19). Jesus, indeed, is the new covenant. In the Passover supper, a lamb with no broken bones had to be eaten. Jesus is the new slain lamb, with no broken bones, that we now consume. Whereas the old covenant with Moses and the Israelites stopped at a sign, this new covenant actually unites us to the living God in the greatest act of intimacy known to man. When we receive the Eucharist — the sign and symbol of the everlasting covenant — Jesus gives himself to us completely, nourishing our souls so that we may be led to eternal life with him.

With this great truth in mind, we can enter the Easter season with a life-changing appreciation of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Lent can be a time for renewal or deepening of our belief in the Eucharist — a time that should continue with Easter’s joy and whenever we partake in the Eucharistic feast. With God’s grace, we will find ourselves falling to our knees before the sacrament, our hearts burning within us, knowing that our God became man, died, rose from the dead, and now gives himself to us again and again in the form of bread and wine. We may weep with the three Marys and then cry out in wonder with the disciples at Emmaus. Yes, Our Lord was laid in a tomb. And, yes, he is here with us today, waiting for us to receive him.

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