ecce panis angelorum
behold the bread of angelsA phrase occasionally inscribed near the altar in Catholic churches; it makes reference to the Host; the Eucharist; the bread of Heaven; the Body of Christ.
Behold the bread of angels, sent
For pilgrims in their banishment,
The bread of God’s true children meant,
That may not unto dogs be given.
These words, taken from the beautiful hymn of St. Thomas Aquinas, Lauda Sion Salvatorem, written for the Feast of Corpus Christi, give witness to the fact that the Eucharist has often been referred to as the “bread of angels.” But what justification can there be to call the Most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar by this title?
To answer this question we may first point out that the expression “bread of angels” comes from certain Old Testament texts which speak of the manna which was given to the Israelites during their journey through the desert. For example we read in the Book of Wisdom: “you gave your people food of angels, and without their toil you supplied them from heaven with bread ready to eat, providing every pleasure and suited to every taste. For your sustenance manifested your sweetness toward your children; and the bread, ministering to the desire of the one who took it, was changed to suit everyone’s liking” (Wis 16:20-21). Again, in the Psalms we read: “Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Mortals ate of the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance” (Ps 77(78): 23-25). Considering the fact that the manna was a prefigure of the Eucharist, this already indicates that this title given to the manna in the Old Testament could fittingly apply to the Blessed Sacrament in the New.
To help understand more in depth the sense in which the Eucharist is truly the bread of angels, we can turn to a lovely passage from St. Augustine’s Exposition of the Psalms, in which he speaks of this title:
[Our Lord Jesus Christ] willed us to find salvation in His Body and Blood. But how could He make His Body and Blood available to us? Through his humility! For if He had not been humble, He could not have been eaten and drunk. Contemplate His lofty divinity: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; He was God (Jn 1:1). That is eternal food. The angels eat it, the celestial powers eat it, the blessed spirits eat it, and in eating they are totally satisfied, yet this food that fills them and gives them joy remains undiminished. What human being could aspire to that food? Where could a human heart be found fit to eat food like that?
It was necessary for that banquet to be converted into milk if it was to become available to little ones. But how does food become milk? How can food be turned into milk, except by being passed through the flesh? This is what a mother does. What the mother eats the baby eats too, but since the baby is unable to digest bread, the mother turns the bread into her own flesh, and through the humility of the breast and its supply of milk she feeds her baby with the same bread. How then does the Wisdom of God feed us with the supernal bread? The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (Jn 1:14). Think of the humility of it: humans have eaten the bread of angels, as Scripture says: He gave them bread from heaven; mortals ate the bread of angels (Ps 77(78):24-25). The eternal Word on Whom the angels feed, the Word Who is equal to the Father, this Word human beings have eaten. He who, being in the form of God, deemed it no robbery to be God’s equal; He on Whom the angels feed to their total satisfaction, emptied Himself and took on the form of a slave. Bearing the human likeness, sharing the human lot, He humbled Himself and was made obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:6-8), so that from the cross the Lord’s flesh and blood might be delivered to us today as the new sacrifice. (Exposition 1 of Psalm 33, 6).
In this passage St. Augustine makes clear that men and angels are nourished by the same food, but in different ways. But in what sense can it be said that the Word of God, Whom St. Augustine calls the “eternal food” of the angels, be the same food as that which nourishes men through the Most Blessed Sacrament? To understand this question, it is necessary to reflect upon the fact that the salvation of mankind and the whole sacramental order of grace whereby we are incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ is founded upon the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God. The life of grace that we receive through Baptism, and which is perfected through the Eucharist is a real participation in the life of the Incarnate Son of God: Jesus Christ true God and true man. That is to say, as St. Augustine makes clear, we could not be nourished except by means of the Word becoming flesh. The Eucharist is intrinsically dependent upon the Incarnation. But it would seem that St. Augustine implies that the food of the angels is not dependent upon the Incarnation. How then can the Eucharist be called the bread of angels?
In response to this question we would maintain that the food of angels is in fact also dependent upon the Incarnation of Christ. This is the case because in the trial whereby they proved their fidelity, the angels were tried principally on their willingness to accept and serve Jesus, the Son of God Incarnate. That is to say, the elevation of the faithful angels into the eternal joys of heaven was accomplished in and through their acceptance of the grace of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God. The supernatural life of grace that we receive through the Sacraments is the one and same life which the faithful angels enjoy in heaven. Both men and angels are incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ, such that the spiritual life of men and the eternal bliss of the angels is nourished by means of the grace of Jesus Christ, true God and true man. For this reason Jesus Christ is not only the source of supernatural nourishment for men, but also for angels. Nevertheless, as St. Augustine points out, this happens in different ways. The angels, according to their nature, “feed” spiritually upon the supernatural nourishment coming from the Incarnation, whereas men feed on this same grace through the Sacraments of the Church, especially the Eucharist. Therefore the Blessed Sacrament is properly called the bread of the angels.
The Eucharist leads to Communion.
It is especially through the worthy reception of Holy Communion that the individual members of the Church on earth grow to maturity in the Life of Christ. Although Christ enters into a very personal and unique union with each of us individually by way of Holy Communion, at the same time, this communion also brings the individual Christian into a union with all the members of the Church. Along these lines the Second Vatican Council affirms: “By communicating His Spirit, Christ mystically constitutes as His Body those brothers of His who are called together from every nation. …In that Body the life of Christ is communicated to those who believe and who through His Sacraments are united in a hidden and real way to Christ. …Really sharing in the Body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic Bread we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. …As all the members of the human body, though they are many, form one body, so also are the faithful in Christ (cf. 1 Cor 12,12)” (Lumen Gentium, I,7).
This truth is also mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it Christ unites them to all the faithful in one Body—the Church. Communion renews, strengthens, and deepens this incorporation into the Church already achieved by Baptism. In Baptism we have been called to form one body. The Eucharist fulfills this call: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the Blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the Body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one Body, for we all partake of the one bread” (CCC 1396).
The union that is brought about through the Most Blessed Sacrament is not only between the visible members of the Church here on earth. It also embraces a communion with the members of the elect who are now in the glory of heaven, including the holy angels. In fact it may be said that the Eucharist is the place of encounter with the angels par excellence. God has given us the Eucharistic liturgy as the place where men and angels gather together to share in the worship of God under the Headship of Jesus Christ, High Priest over all creation.
St. Gregory the Great also expressed this truth in the following passage: “In this mystery of Jesus Christ the choirs of angels are present; the lowest beings are associated with the highest, the earthly join the heavenly, and the visible and the invisible become a single reality” (St. Gregory the Great, Dialogues, VI, 58). St. John Chrysostom once wrote: “Reflect upon whom it is that you are near and with whom you are about to invoke God—the Cherubim. Think of the choirs you are about to enter. Let no one have any thought of earth, but let him loose himself of every earthly thing and transport himself whole and entire into heaven. Let him abide there beside the very throne of glory, hovering with the Seraphim, and singing the most holy song of the God of glory and majesty” (Adv. Anom., 4). These texts which speak of the Eucharistic liturgy indicate that the unity between men and angels is not merely the fact that they are gathered together into the same place. Rather they “become a single reality”. They are so intimately joined that St. John Chrysostom uses the image of men entering into the choirs of angels.
Communion leads to union.
But now, having spoken about the communion which is brought about through the Eucharist, it is important to note that the communion between the members of the Church should in turn lead each individual member to an ever more perfect conformity to Christ. Every member of the faithful is relatively dependent upon other members for his growing up into the full maturity of Christ. The more we live in the communion with the whole Church the more fully are the means of our growth into Christ made available to us. This communion, as we have said, is not only with the visible members of the Church, but also with the invisible members in heaven: all the saints and angels. This truth is particularly relevant to the holy angels who make up the heavenly choirs, for God has given to each angel an extraordinary hierarchical or ministerial power to help us in the work of sanctification (cf. Heb 1:14). Jesus Christ is the Mediator through Whom the angels accomplish their ministry, and He is the goal toward Which their ministry leads us. In this sense He is the ladder on which the angels of God ascend and descend (cf Jn 1:51). Called into the unity of the Church, we grow into the full maturity of Christ also with the help of the angels. That is to say, they are a chosen means of Christ through whom He also accomplishes the work of our sanctification. St. Thomas says all our good works are performed with the help of the holy angels (Summa Theo. I, 114 a. 3 ad 3). Therefore, failure to cooperate with the holy angels is failure to cooperate with the grace of Christ.
Together with the holy angels we are called to labor for the food that lasts to eternal life, the bread come down from heaven which gives life to the world (cf. John 6:27,33). In this work, the angels are truly the “friends of the Bridegroom” who wish to prepare our souls so that they can be presented to Christ as brides adorned to meet their husband (cf. Rev 21:2). In this regard St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote of the angels in his Commentary on the Song of Songs: “After having testified to the beauty of the soul, the friends of the Bridegroom who make ready His spotless wedding chamber and form the escort of the pure Bride, show her the beauty of the royal couch to stir up in her an even greater desire for a divine life and the holy union with Him” (Hom. in Cant., 6). That is to say, the angels help us especially by enlightening our minds to recognize the beauty of Jesus Christ as He gives Himself to us in the Most Blessed Sacrament. In this way, our charity being inflamed, we are all the more disposed to be transformed into His likeness through Holy Communion.
Further, through Holy Communion we always are brought into communion with the divine Victim Who reveals that love of which there is no greater. Therefore, the measure of our transformation through this sacramental grace depends upon the measure of our willingness to be conformed to the sacrificial love of Christ. In this, too, the angels can come to our assistance. As Jesus Christ was strengthened by an angel at the beginning of His passion (cf. Lk 22:43) so also we need the angels to help us take up our cross and follow Him. They can help us to see the glory set before us so that we can despise the shame and pain of the Cross (cf. Heb 12:2). Further, they can inspire us with the noble sentiments of Christ and His holy Mother in the labor for the salvation of souls. It is no coincidence that many of the saints who enjoyed a familiarity with the angels (e.g. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Gemma, St. Padre Pio) also bore the wounds of Christ in their bodies. The angels wish to lead us to an ever more perfect conformity to Christ, especially leading us up the path of love, which is the way of the Cross. The loving and even joyful acceptance of sufferings born for others especially disposes us to a more worthy and fruitful reception of the Divine Host. These are just some examples of how we labor with the angels for the food that lasts to eternal life. All other things will pass away in the age to come, but the Eucharist alone, that is Christ, is the food that lasts unto eternity; the one thing necessary for which we must labor; the bread of the wayfarer, which is also the bread of angels.