Leading up to Good Friday, we will revisit a couple stories of seeming mystical insights or at least inspiration that if nothing else — whether it can be taken literally or not — grant a sense of Christ’s depth. They are revelations to Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich, a stigmatic nun who was born in Germany on the birthday of the Blessed Mother (September 8, 1774) and who reported a lifetime of remarkable mysticism, starting with apparitions as a child of her guardian angel. As a youngster she also experienced visions of Jesus and Mary. She died in 1824. Her revelations are in rather amazing books, including, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ and Life and Revelations of Anne Catherine Emmerich, and Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and Mary Magdalen.
Archives: First Story
It was after entering an order of nuns that the key events of Sister Emmerich’s life began, including the wounds of Jesus and stunning visions of the Passion — so vivid they fairly pulse on the page like an eyewitness account. Could it be true? Did Sister Emmerich — declared “venerable” — actually see the way Jesus suffered? Did she “see” the Pasch, the Agony, the scene before Pilate? Did she see the actual, history-shattering event at Calvary?
We don’t know how much to take literally. Like any revelation, the receiver’s own views often enter. It is not to be taken as Gospel. It is certainly not to alter a thing in the New Testament.
But it is a powerful document — one of the most potent we have seen, one that virtually transports you to the time of Christ — and it is contained in a book, The Dolorous Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that details scene after incredible scene, greatly accenting our appreciation of what Christ went through from the Last Supper to the Resurrection.
Imaginings? Or true insight? “It is difficult to know the truth about many of these, since the main source of information in this regard is the writings of the poet Clemente Brentano, who exaggerated and embellished the facts,” notes an Augustinian website, http://www.midwestaugustinians.org/saintsc_annemmerich.html, devoted to her.
But if only a fraction is true, the writings grant us an extraordinary insight into what Jesus endured — and how He won our salvation.
Let’s start with the Last Supper (and take this with you on Holy Thursday): It was Emmerich’s claim that the Paschal feast occurred in the home of a man named Heli and that the Ark of the Covenant had once been kept in the same building. Heli was the brother-in-law of Zachary from Hebron, and his structure was on the southern side of Mount Zion — not far from the ruined castle of David, an ancient, solid building between rows of thick trees in the midst of a spacious court surrounded by strong walls. “The supper room was nearly in the center of the court,” claimed the revelation of Emmerich. “Its length was greater than its width; it was surrounded by a row of low pillars. The walls were ornamented for the festival, half way up, with beautiful matting or tapestry, and an aperture had been made in the roof, and covered over with transparent blue gauze.”
In the niche in the wall, said this nun “were three cupboards that resembled what we now know as tabernacles.” A number of vessels for the Pasch were kept in them. Later they would hold the Blessed Sacrament, claimed Sister Emmerich — as she began to describe a scene that stunningly parallels the Mass.
What was the cup like? What did the rest of the first Eucharist entail?
“The great chalice stood upon a plate, out of which a species of tablet could be drawn,” wrote Emmerich, “and around it there were six little glasses. The great chalice contained another smaller vase; above it there was a small plate, and then came a round cover. A spoon was inserted in the foot of the chalice, and could be easily drawn out for use. All these vessels were covered with fine linen.”
The cup itself, noted Emmerich, “was pear-shaped, massive, dark-colored, and highly polished, with gold ornaments, and two small handles by which it could be lifted. The foot was virgin gold, elaborately worked, ornamented with a serpent and a small bunch of grapes, and enriched with precious stone.”
According to the book, the chalice was left in the hands of St. James the Less at the Church of Jerusalem — and is still somewhere to be found in that city. “It will reappear some day, in the same manner as before,” asserted the holy mystic. “Other Churches took the little cups which surrounded it; one was taken to Antioch, and another to Ephesus. They belonged to the patriarchs, who drank some mysterious beverage out of them when they received or gave a benediction, as I have seen many times.”
What can we say to confirm this? We can say that Emmerich was often seen to lapse for hours into a deep, comatose-like meditation. At such times, at least one witness glimpsed the outbreak of stigmata on her hands, though it first began as the thorn pricks on her forehead — resembling the crown of thorns and granting her visions a certain credibility. Such is necessary when such extraordinary events are described. It was Emmerich’s claim that the chalice was precious even before Christ used it — that it had been handed down for generations from the time of Abraham. Such assertions, of course, are difficult to believe and impossible to verify. She said the same chalice had also been preserved on Noah’s Ark.
But there is no denying the power behind many of her snippets — the sense that a number of insights may well be true to what actually happened. The Last Supper? “The son of Simeon had completed the preparation of the lamb,” she said. “He passed a stake through its body, fastening the front legs on a cross piece of wood, and stretching the hind ones along the stake. It bore a strong resemblance to Jesus on the cross, and was placed into the oven, to be there roasted with the three other lambs brought from the Temple.”
How did the disciples dress? In white robes and a cloak. The table? It was narrow, she saw, in the shape of a horseshoe, “and opposite Jesus, in the inner part of the half circle, there was a space left vacant, that the attendants might be able to set down the dishes,” wrote Emmerich — or those who recorded her visions (which often occurred as her stigmata flared). “As far as I can remember, John, James the Greater, and James the Less sat on the right hand of Jesus; after them Bartholomew, and then, round the corner, Thomas and Judas Iscariot. Peter, Andrew, and Thaddeus sat on the left of Jesus; next came Simon, and then (round the corner) Matthew and Philip.”
This was the Paschal meat, served with a plate of green vegetables and another plate of bundled herbs. There was also a “brown-colored sauce or beverage.” The guest had round loaves instead of plates before them, and they used ivory notes — she said.
In the coming days we will look at the way this fascinating nun described other aspects of the Passion, but the Pasch itself is enough to focus upon right now — the Last Supper — and as Emmerich teleports us into the past, she describes the way Jesus prayed and taught at this first Mass; the way they washed their hands; the way they sang hymns.
“The countenance of our Divine Savior bore an indescribable expression of serenity and recollection, greater than I had ever before seen,” wrote Venerable Catherine. “He bade His apostles forget all their cares. The Blessed Virgin also, as she sat at table [in another room] with the other woman, looked most placid and calm. When the other women came up, and took hold of her veil to make her turn around and speak to them, her every movement expressed the sweetest self control and placidity of spirit.”
At that critical juncture that defined the Eucharist, Sister Emmerich envisioned a scene that was all but a literal progenitor of the liturgy. The Lord, she said, “then drew a species of shelf with grooves from the board on which the jars stood, and taking a piece of white linen with which the chalice was covered, spread it over the board and shelf. I then saw Him lift a round plate, which He placed on this same shelf, off the top of the chalice. He next took the azymous [unfermented] loaves from beneath the linen with which they were covered, and placed them before Him on the board; then He took out of the chalice a smaller vase, and ranged the six glasses on each side of it. Then He blessed the bread and also the oil, to the best of my belief, after which He lifted up the paten with the loaves upon it, in His two hands, raised His eyes, prayed, offered, and replaced the paten on the table, covering it again.”
Could this be true? Could it actually have been so close to the way we celebrate Mass 2,000 years later? At the least, the revelation causes us to hunger for the Eucharist. The mood is set. There is a transcendence. As He broke the bread — claimed Emmerich — Jesus looked nearly transparent, like a “luminous shadow,” taking a corner of the bread and dropping it into the chalice. This was all recorded on scrolls the disciples carried, she asserted. “At the moment when He was doing this, I seemed to see the Blessed Virgin receiving the Blessed Sacrament in a spiritual manner. I do not know how it was done, but I thought I saw her enter without touching the ground, and come before our Lord to receive the Holy Eucharist; after which I saw her no more.”
When Jesus uttered the words, “Take and eat; this is My Body,” in Emmerich’s rendition, “He stretched forth His right Hand as if to bless, and, while He did so, a brilliant light came from Him.”
It was like the bread was luminous.
Don’t we hear of this today: those who claim luminous Eucharistic miracles?
First to receive, said Emmerich, was Peter, and then John (although on another occasion she said she saw John as last to receive). These are the imperfections of revelation. But the sense is there: that 2,000 years ago, Christ presented Himself and instituted the Church in an incredible, unending way.
It was not only the beginning of the Eucharist, but also the first ordination, she said. According to Emmerich, Jesus spoke about the priesthood, the sacred unction, and the preparation of holy oils. This coincides with what Pope Fabian once wrote: that Jesus taught His disciples how to prepare the holy chrism.
“I do not remember seeing our Lord Himself eat and drink of the consecrated elements,” said Emmerich. Afterward came the ordinations. “I then saw Jesus anoint Peter and John, on whose hands He had already poured the water which had flowed on His own, and two of whom He had given to drink out of the chalice. Then He laid His hands on their shoulders and heads, while they, on their part, joined their hands and crossed their thumbs, bowing down profoundly before Him — I am not sure whether they did not even kneel. He anointed the thumb and fore-finger of each of their hands, and marked a cross on their heads with chrism. He said also that this would remain with them unto the end of the world.”
According to Emmerich, James the Less, Andrew, James the Greater, and Bartholomew were also consecrated. What was communicated to them supernaturally, said the mystic, is impossible to describe. Later, on the day of Pentecost, Peter and John imposed their hands upon the other apostles, and a week later on the disciples. After the Resurrection, it was said, John gave the sacrament to the Blessed Virgin.
But we’re getting ahead of the story. Our Lord proceeded to bless fire in a brass vessel, claimed the nun, and care was taken that it should not go out, but instead be kept near the spot where He deposited the Blessed Sacrament. We note today the precise same rituals. Could they actually have been instituted right from the start?
Let the experts hash that over. What we’ll do next is explore the remarkable scene of the Agony — when Venerable Emmerich goes beyond even the details of the Last Supper and claims Jesus was assaulted by evil spirits — that even before Calvary, He was crucified spiritually.