Sunday, June 26, 2011

The intensification of Christ's presence: From the gathering of the faithful to Communion

Reposted from the April archives:

As we proceed from the outdoors to the sanctuary, from the business of the week to the Sacred Liturgy on Sunday, the presence of Christ gradually intensifies until we greet him at the altar. We know as Christians that God is everywhere in the universe. Psalm 139 reads, “Where can I hide from your spirit? From your presence, where can I flee? If I ascend to the heavens, you are there; if I lie down in Sheol, you are there too.” The might of the Lord sustains all things. Indeed, no part of the universe can exist without his presence.

But as soon as we walk through the doors of the church building and into the sanctuary for the Sacred Liturgy, what we encounter is the gradual intensification of Christ’s presence.

In the assembly, where the faithful gather, the presence of Christ is manifest in a special way. We are no longer considering the God’s presence as he exists in creation but rather as he dwells in the hearts of his people. This presence is described as the Church or the Body of Christ by St. Paul. Our Lord himself said, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The early Christians had a lively sense of this divine presence where the totality of God is to be found and where the fullness of his gifts resides. Around the year 180 A.D., St. Irenaeus, bishop and martyr wrote: “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace."

From there we proceed to the Liturgy of the Word when the Word of God is proclaimed. When the Scripture readings are read aloud, the presence of God is taken to yet another level. Ancient Christians always made it a point to read Scripture out loud. When spoken, the Word of God becomes present and active. Here again, this is yet another special manifestation of his presence. “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)

Now we draw close to the culmination of the Mass when, in Persona Christi, Jesus Christ the High Priest mystically enters into his minister as the words of consecration of pronounced over the bread and wine. Here is yet another presence of Christ which is transmitted through the sacrament of Holy Orders. From the Persona Christi ordinary bread and wine become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ come into our midst. As St. Irenaeus said, “Just as bread from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread but the Eucharist, made up of two elements, one earthly and one heavenly, so also our bodies, in receiving the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, for they have the hope of resurrection.” The Eucharist, therefore, is given to the Christian on the altar as Manna was given to the Israelites in the desert. Upon this altar- and only at the altar –is the bread of God is served. As St. Ignatius of Antioch, disciple of St. John the Apostle and Bishop of Antioch, said, “Let no man deceive himself: if anyone be not within the altar, he is deprived of the bread of God.”

Before the altar, the communicant receives the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. By virtue of our sacramental communion with Christ, we are made into walking tabernacles, Christ-bearers if you will, and then are sent out into the world to sanctify it.

As Pope Benedict XVI taught in 2005 at World Youth Day, the transformation of bread and wine into Jesus Christ prefigures the kind of change that God will bring about in our resurrected bodies. Indeed, through the glorification of our Risen Lord and through our resurrected bodies the universe itself will be transfigured. The first pope of the Catholic Church, St. Peter makes reference to this when he writes, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out. Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought (you) to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (II Peter 3:10-13)

This is where the intensification of Christ’s presence leads; to a new heaven and a new earth. But it first must pass through the sanctuary of the Church.