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Fruit of the Earth and Work of Human Hands

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“Blessed are you, Lord God of all Creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life” (St. Paul Daily Missal, 842).

It’s not uncommon in business to ask, “What does this person bring to the table?” We ask this question when assessing candidates for a job opening, evaluating potential project partners, or structuring a winning team. In a secular business context, the proverbial table is more often than not the altar of profits, and what is being sacrificed, for better or worse, is a person’s specific skill set.

However, when asking this question from a Catholic perspective, even when evaluating a person’s fit for a business need, the altar of sacrifice is no less than the Eurcharistic altar. And the offering is not simply a skill set but a human person.

Preparation of the Gifts

In the preparation of the gifts in the Eucharistic liturgy, the priest prays, “Blessed are you, Lord God of all Creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life” (St. Paul Daily Missal, 842). This prayer raises a couple important questions: How is the sacrifice of the Mass the work of our human hands? What is our participatory role in this sacrifice?

The language of this prayer echoes sacred Scripture, in that God is commonly portrayed as a gardener. We see this imagery in Genesis, when God places Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and also in various parables throughout the Gospels. The analogy of God as gardener provides us with an image of the loving, active role he plays in our life, tilling the soil, planting the seed of his word, and nourishing the garden of our life with the light of his son and the flowing waters of baptism.

So, again, what do we bring to the table? We bring everything we are by graced cooperation, expressed in tears of repentance and imitation of his life.

The Divine Garden

“Remember, you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We hear these words every year at the beginning of Lent, the dust and ashes marking us as God’s garden to be tilled. Another iteration of the words spoken when ashes are traced on our foreheads is “Repent, and believe the Gospel,” echoing the very first words spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 1:15), denoting the beginning of the divine gardener’s work. We enter into the very same dynamics at the beginning of each and every single Mass in the Penitential Act. The priest invites us to acknowledge our frailty and utter dependence on God for living rightly: “Brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries” (Saint Paul Daily Missal, 834). What is happening here, in effect, is that the gifts that we are are being prepared in a way analogous to the manner we will see the Eucharistic elements prepared on the altar during the Eucharistic liturgy proper. Only when we acknowledge that we have become arid soil can he till the soil of our life to make us fertile. Said differently, it is only by acknowledging our sinfulness that God can set to work in making us holy by uniting us to Him which is what will take place throughout the whole liturgy.

Jesus Himself had a penchant for drawing from agricultural imagery when describing His saving action in the world. One example is the parable of the barren fig tree in the Gospel of Luke. The owner complains to his gardener, “For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?” But the gardener convinces the owner, “Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down” (Luke 13:6-9).

St. Augustine tells us that the barren tree is humanity, and the gardener is the divine gardener, Jesus Christ, who is merciful to humankind (Sermon 254.3). He goes on to explain that the cultivation of the ground by the gardener symbolizes the virtue of humility and the fertilizer, the tears of repentance. Augustine says that when we repent over our sinfulness, that is fertilizer “in a good place, it’s not wasted there, it produces grain” (s. 254.4).

So far we have examined the preparation of the soil, and the elements used to enable the growth of plant. We ought now to ask, what is the fruit the divine gardener hopes to produce? To find out, we need look no further than the Eucharist. The synoptic Gospels provide us with the last supper narrative in which the words of institution are given: “This is my body,” “This is my blood,” “Do this in memory of me” (Matthew 26:26-30, Mark 14:22-26, and Luke 22:14-20). St. Albert the Great likens the Eucharist to a seed, and, just as a seed produces the type of plant that it is genetically hardwired to produced, so too the Eucharist: “…the body of the Lord is like the seed that draws man to itself by its power and transforms [him] into him” (Albert the Great, On the Body of the Lord, dist. 3, tract. 1, ch. 8).

What Albert is saying here, is that, when the Eucharist is planted in us, we become what we eat if we allow the seed to mature and flourish. In other words, by consuming Christ, we are to become Christ and therefore to live as Christ. The unity of the Gospels speak to this when we place the Gospel of John next to the Synoptics. Where we would expect the same narrative to appear in the Gospel of John, we read about the washing of the feet (John 13:1-17), after which Jesus tells his disciples, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do” (John 13:15).

When we read these diverse accounts together, we come to understand that the washing of the feet is Jesus living out his Eucharistic sacrifice. By washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus communicates “this is my body, this is my blood,” and he is commanding us to imitate him (“Do this in memory of me”). Within the Eucharistic liturgy we affirm our understanding of this command. After speaking the words of consecration, denoting the transformation that has taken place without saying so explicitly, gesturing towards the Eucharistic, the priest says, “The mystery of faith,” to which we respond “We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection, until you come again” (St. Paul Daily Missal, 874).

Imitating Christ in Our Life

It is not only the bread and wine that are being offered and transformed during the Eucharistic Liturgy, therefore. At this point, the movement swings in the opposite direction, for it is precisely our imitation of Christ’s Eucharistic love that we ultimately bring to the table. As members of the mystical Body of Christ, our participatory offering in the sacrifice of the Mass is the fruit of our daily Eucharistic activity. We imitate Christ’s loving desire to serve others by repenting of the idea that any work is beneath us and humbling ourselves to clean out the office refrigerator, take out the trash, clean up after others, and change lightbulbs and, most especially, by being patiently present to the people around us as they, too, carry a diverse load of burdens personal and professional—even when we feel as though we have better, more productive things to do.

Yes, our hands are calloused and our fingernails are dirtied, but this is precisely what it means to imitate the divine gardener. It is this imitation that makes the whole of our life increasingly fit for bringing to the table, the altar of the universe on which all things are offered to our heavenly Father. It is for this reason that the proper response to the preparation of the gifts is a resounding, “Blessed be God forever!”

Your sister in Christ,

Vanessa

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