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Christmas in August?

Eucharistic Significance of the Manger

The Gospels in August continue the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel that Christ’s flesh is true food and his blood is true drink. It’s not just an idea or theory from John 6 alone, but it’s throughout the Gospels in different ways. In the heat of the summer, here are some examples of icons of the birth of Christ that include hints of the Eucharist.

Birth of Jesus Christ icon
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Birth of Jesus icon 2
Mount Angel Abbey, Oregon

Eucharistic Significance of the Manger

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped Him up in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the lodgings. -Luke 2:7

Many people think that the Christ child was placed inside a manger because it resembled a cradle. While this may be true to an extent, newborn babies don't really need a crib yet as they could not move much. Even in our time, we only transfer babies from bassinets into infant beds when they are three or four months of age (as they could tip themselves out). Mary could have chosen to place the child beside her, but instead she chose a feeding-trough for her Child.

One thing we need to see is that the Infant was placed in a feeding trough for animals (see, for example, the picture (below) depicting a stone manger from Israel, which would have been similar to the one in which Jesus was laid on).

stone manger

Early iconographers seem to be aware of a sort of connection between the Nativity and the Eucharist (John 6:51-58), as in many of these representations the animals push their muzzles into the manger as if to eat from it (or nibbling at the Child's hand). The manger itself was depicted as something similar to a bread-basket or even as a raised structure somewhat similar to an Altar. In fact, in some depictions segregate the beasts, shepherds and angels from the inner sanctum like a rood screen, who are looking on the Infant in quiet reverence like worshippers in a medieval Church.

In these images Christ is presented not as the cute baby of our Christmas cards but as the spotless Lamb of God destined for a sacrifice on the cross that will be revisited in the Eucharist. El Greco makes the emphasis on sacrifice rather explicit in his depiction of the Adoration of the Shepherds where he adds a trussed lamb: the child is the sacrificial Lamb "who will take away the sins of the world."

In iconography there is a type of image depicting the infant Christ either lying on the altar or within a paten covered by the asterisk, with his midsection covered by a liturgical cloth. This was known as the melismos ("breaking"), with the name coming from the action of breaking the consecrated bread, known as Amnos in Greek or Amnets in Slavonic, both meaning "Lamb", with a scalpel called a "spear" (in reference to the spear that pierced the side of Jesus; John 19:33-37) that the priest performs just before distributing Holy Communion.

"Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God; broken yet not divided, ever eaten yet is never consumed, but sanctifies those who partake of Him."

The connection between the manger and the cross is also evident in another element of Eastern icons of the Nativity: in it the infant Jesus is bound, mummy-like, by strips of cloth (which is similar to the depiction of the Lord's grave clothes in burial) and rests in a raised structure, which in addition to its (vague) resemblance to an altar, also looks like a stone coffin.
icons

The final connection between the Eucharist and Christmas we can make is the name of Bethlehem itself. Beit Lehem (בית לחם) is Hebrew for "House of Bread" (the Arabic name بيت لحم Bayt Lam is also interesting, as it literally means "House of Lamb" or "House of Meat"!); how fitting it is that the One who said He was the bread of life (John 6:35) was born in the House of Bread!

http://sacrificium-laudis.blogspot.com/2008/12/eucharistic-significance-of-manger.html

 

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Monsignor Royal's weekly column as featured in our bulletin.


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