In 1497 Michelangelo was commissioned to carve an altarpiece for a side chapel of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It is like no other altarpiece. It depicts the thirteenth station of the Cross, when the body of Jesus is taken down from the cross and given to his mother.
In the Pietà, Mary – personifying the Church – holds the lifeless body of Christ on her lap. Mary’s legs are spread to support the weight of the body, thus forming a living altar which – according to the original plan – was to be just above and behind the Eucharistic altar.
Michelangelo’s masterpiece is an unsurpassable interpretation of what happens at every Mass. Mary’s left hand is held in a way that evokes the priestly gesture at the elevation of the Host. The lifeless body of Christ lies precariously on Mary’s lap, ready at the moment of consecration to slip from the maternal altar of her lap onto the Eucharistic altar below – where the heavy stone corpse of Christ will become the living body of Christ present in an all but weightless morsel of bread, the better to enter into the lives of Christ’s faithful and there awaken in them a Fiat – a faith-renewing and life-altering – Yes.
At each Mass, we sinners, who would have lost our poise and joined the wailers had we been historically present at Christ’s Passion, are invited to enter the Paschal Mystery in a way more conducive to our sanctification.
In entering that drama, however, our experience of time undergoes an amazing reordering. We enter a kind of time warp. The priest – In Persona Christi – speaking as Christ, says: “This is my body, which will be given up for you.” And again: “This is the chalice of my blood … which will be poured out for you and for many.”
And to this amalgam of present tense and future tense is added, a retrospective past tense: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
Christ asks us to remember his Passion by re-enacting our anticipation of it. In the mystery at the heart of our faith the temporal order collapses; past, present and future are drawn into the timelessness of the Eucharist.
We are asked to look forward to what we are asked to remember; we are asked to remember what we are invited to anticipate. This is either Alice in Wonderland or it is evidence of a time-transcending gravitational power into which all of creation and all human history is inexorably being drawn – at the centre of which is the Eucharist.
If, in the Pietà, Michelangelo offers a Marian interpretation of the Eucharist, in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater, Pope Saint John Paul II returns the favour and offers what might be considered the perfect interpretation of the Pietà. He writes:
“Mary guides the faithful to the Eucharist.”[§44]
And indeed, it fell to this same pope to give expression to the mystery we have been rather clumsily circling for the last few minutes. In his encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia the great Polish pope wrote:
“There is a profound analogy between [Mary’s] Fiat … and the Amen which every believer says when receiving the body of the Lord.”[ §55]
However thoughtlessly we whisper that little “Amen” on receiving the Eucharist, it has momentous consequences in this life and the next – no doubt inferior to, but nonetheless analogous with, the Fiat Mary spoke at Bethlehem and on the way to Golgotha.