Among the inspirational scriptural and theological allusions brought into greater clarity by the new translation of the Roman Missal is a multi-faceted phrase in the second Eucharistic Prayer. During the epiclesis, the priest prays for the Spirit to “descend like the dewfall.” This poetic reference might be unusual to ears accustomed to spreadsheets, kids’ homework and the daily paper (and some have even openly criticized the use of this particular phrasing), but poetry makes sense in prayer. Behind the gateway of poetry is a fascinating journey into the love of God.
One of my fondest childhood memories is of working with my family in our garden. We have always valued fresh homegrown vegetables and the accomplishment of cultivating our own garden. It is no coincidence that it has been said that “he who plants a garden is close to God,” for the image of a garden plays a significant role in the Scriptures. Life itself begins in the Garden of Eden, where also the treachery of sin is revealed.
The love story between God and His people, between the Lord and the human soul, told through the metaphor of a bridegroom and his bride in the Song of Songs, includes the image of the soul’s secret garden into which she invites the Lord to dwell and which is fruitful in love for others. In the fullness of time, God send His only Son, and Jesus accepts the burden of the world’s sin in the Garden of Gethsemane. Creation and redemption begin in a garden — a place of anxious growth and the blossoming of new life. The seeds of a garden are nourished by water, a basic element of all life. They grow in mystery and produce beauty and delight beyond our explanation.
Each morning of summer when we awake, something new has transpired. Nature is always renewing itself, as grace is always renewing us in our human needs. Thus we can relate to the 19th century Gaelic hymn “Morning Has Broken,” which praises the dawn of a new day as a reminder of the newness of creation.
In verse two we sing: “Sweet the rain’s new fall, sunlit from heaven, like the first dewfall on the wet grass. Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden, sprung in completeness where His feet pass.” The wet grass and garden plants in the first hours of daylight are uniquely beautiful: the sweet wetness serves as a reminder of the providence of God, who sends mysterious moisture to nourish the soil and mysterious grace to enliven the souls of human persons. The first dewfall and the daily dewfalls throughout the world call to mind the goodness of God.
As the dewfall appears upon the leaves in the morning without our beholding its coming, so too the grace of God descends through the sacraments and in other mysterious ways to touch and nourish our lives. In the Consecration of the Mass, the Spirit descends through the ministry of the priest to transform bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.
The Spirit’s descent is inexplicable and unseen but very real. The altar is the place where the fullness of God’s presence in Eden and the salvific action of Christ begun in Gethsemane are made present. Jesus Christ is truly present, Calvary is re-presented and His redeeming love flows over us in abundance. Like the sweet and mysterious dewfall, the Spirit descends in hidden majesty to bring God’s love into our lives. The God who is creator of the unseen descends to make himself present to us in our every need, and the Church’s Eucharistic celebration becomes like so many drops of water to cleanse parched souls.
Providing food for another is a great sign of love. Parents work to provide food for their children, and chefs delight in new culinary creations to thrill the appetites of diners. The Eucharist is the ultimate feast, the ultimate feeding. It is a banquet in which the host is the food, the priest is the victim. Jesus Christ nourishes us with His very Body and Blood, and we become one with God. The Eucharistic banquet was prefigured in the Old Testament when God fed the Israelites with manna in the desert.
When the Israelites, who had fled from bondage in Egypt, lamented their starvation in the wilderness, God promised to “rain bread from heaven” (Ex 16:4). It came to pass that “in the morning a dew lay round the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the wilderness a fine, flake-like thing, fine as hoarfrost on the ground. . . .And Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat’” (Ex 16:13-15). The appearance of bread from heaven to satisfy the hunger of the wandering Israelites coincides with the dewfall at dawn, emphasizing the mystery and delicacy of the Lord’s precious gift. In the dark of night, He showers on them the bread they need and desire. They gather the bread, not knowing how it came to be.
The true Bread of Life
In the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus takes the gift of bread from heaven to a whole new level as He teaches the crowds that He is the true Bread of Life: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. . .and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:48-51). How fitting it is, then, that we should pray for the Spirit to descend like the dewfall in the Consecration, since Jesus places His Eucharistic presence in the context of the manna that descended with the dewfall. Having freed the Israelites from slavery, God fed them with manna along their journey in the desert. In the Eucharist, Jesus himself feeds those whom He has freed from the finality of sin’s darkness on their journey toward union with God in their true homeland in heaven.
In addition to the Exodus story, Strong’s Concordance lists 34 appearances of the word “dew” in the Scriptures. Notable in the context of the Eucharist is the exhortation in Proverbs (3:19-20) to be wise: “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens; by His knowledge the deeps broke forth, and the clouds drop down the dew.” The creation of the universe is the result, not of circumstance or accident, but of an intricate plan of a wise God. The clouds drop down the dew because the Lord’s wisdom has ordained it so. Jesus Christ is the Word of God (John 1) and also “to those who are called, Christ crucified is the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24), while to unbelievers He is a stumbling block and folly. As disciples of Jesus, we accept Him — His teachings, sacraments, example, and sacrificial love — as the supreme wisdom, far beyond the folly of the world. By the wisdom of God in Christ, the sacraments drop down grace like clouds drop down the dew, in mystery and beauty.
Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist, through the words and ritual of the priest during the consecration at Mass, is the fullest experience of God’s presence known to mankind on earth. The wise working of God in creation and the rescuing of the Israelites from slavery is seen manifest in the mysterious dewfall. Our prayer in the canon of the Mass is that the Spirit once again descend in mystery and sweetness upon simple bread and wine to transubstantiate them into the very Body and Blood of Jesus, our food on the journey into God. The altar is the garden of fruitfulness, where the dewfall of grace nourishes our gifts and Christ becomes present in our midst. How fitting is this newly translated prayer, and how rich in food for contemplation! TP
FATHER ALBRIGHT, a priest of the Diocese of Youngstown, is religion teacher and chaplain at John F. Kennedy Catholic High School in Warren, Ohio.