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This Catholic Update explores the ways in which Jesus is present in the Eucharist: in the assembly of that gathers in Christ's name, in the priest or bishop who presides, in the word proclaimed in our midst and in the eucharistic elements of bread and wine.

Catholic Update

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Finding Jesus in the Eucharist: Four Ways He Is Present

“Where is Jesus?” is a key question for all of us who celebrate the Eucharist. In his 2003 encyclical letter on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, the late Pope John Paul II recalled the program he suggested for the Church in his letter at the close of the Jubilee Year: “To contemplate the face of Christ, and to contemplate it with Mary, is the program which I have set before the Church at the dawn of the third millennium” (#6). “To contemplate Christ,” the pope added, “involves being able to recognize him wherever he manifests himself, in his many forms of presence, but above all in the living sacrament of his body and his blood.”

The challenge of recognizing the face of Christ goes far beyond the Eucharist, for we are called to see his presence in all our brothers and sisters. The Eucharist, however, teaches us how to recognize him and where to look for him. If we grow in our ability to recognize him when we gather to celebrate the Mass, we will also find it easier to see his face around us all through the week.

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Where Is Jesus?

Most Catholics have been well trained to recognize the presence of Christ in the bread and wine that we believe becomes the very body and blood of Christ in the celebration of the Eucharist. We have long called this the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

The Second Vatican Council, in its 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, reminded us that there are also other ways that Christ can be found in the Eucharist. Echoing the teaching of Popes Pius X, XI and XII earlier in the 20th century, the Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy spoke of four modes of Christ’s presence: “To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in his Church, especially in its liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of his minister, ‘the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,’ but especially under the eucharistic elements. By his power he is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ himself who baptizes. He is present in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for he promised: ‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them’ (Mt 18:20)” (CSL, #7).

Christ is present in the Eucharist, then, 1) in the assembly that gathers in Christ’s name, 2) in the priest or bishop who presides, 3) in the word proclaimed in our midst, and 4) in the eucharistic elements of bread and wine. Though they differ from each other, each of these presences is real, and each offers us a unique opportunity to recognize Christ with us.

A Question of Reverence

In the days soon after the Council, a common complaint from those who found the reforms in the liturgy difficult to accept was that putting the Mass in English and having the priest face the people took the reverence out of the Mass. That raises the question of just what reverence is and what it means to be reverent. It seems to me that reverence means to recognize and then respond to the presence of the divine.

Before the Council, we expressed our reverence primarily in negative ways. We didn’t talk in church. We didn’t set foot in the sanctuary. We didn’t touch the chalice. We didn’t chew the host. All of these are valid ways to express reverence, but they are not the only ways. The renewed liturgy calls us to new ways of showing our reverence for the presence of the Lord.

If Christ reveals his presence to us in four different ways during the celebration of the Eucharist, then reverence requires us to recognize and respond to his presence in each of those ways. As we do so, we become ever more attentive to his presence, ever more aware of the variety of ways that we can encounter the Lord in our lives.

Jesus’ Presence in the Assembly

The first way that Christ reveals himself when we gather for the Eucharist is in the gathering itself. Jesus said that where two or three gather in his name, he would be present. He really meant that! When we gather in Church, he is in our midst because he dwells in each of us. That presence is intensified when we join together so that the Body of Christ becomes evident. Through Baptism, we each became part of Christ’s body. The Body of Christ is scattered through the world all week, so when we gather, our first task is to assemble as one body. As we do, Christ reveals his presence to us in one another.

Reverence requires us to recognize his presence there and to respond to it. That is why hospitality is important when we gather for the Eucharist. Hospitality is not just a matter of being friendly, though it certainly includes that. It doesn’t mean just standing around talking about the weather or sports. It means that we connect with one another in a way that reminds us of our bonds in Christ, that expresses the love of Christ that unites us.

If Charlie has been in the hospital, I recognize Christ in his wife when I inquire about his recovery. If John has been out of work for weeks, I reverence Christ in him by asking how the job search is going. If Mary’s husband died last month, I recognize Christ in her when I ask how she is doing. If Steve and Joan’s youngest just left for college, I might respond to Christ in them by asking how they are coping with the empty-nest syndrome. I reverence Christ in those around me when I remind them of the love of Christ that makes us one body.

This kind of hospitality is essential if we are to enter into the celebration of the liturgy as one body in Christ. It is not the responsibility only of the ushers and greeters. All those who gather have the responsibility for creating hospitable worship. It’s the first way we show reverence for Christ, who reveals himself in those around us.

Jesus’ Presence in the Presider

The second way that Christ reveals his presence is in the priest or bishop who presides. Though the presider is part of the assembly, he also takes a role of leadership in our worship. Since the true leader of our worship is Christ himself, we recognize Christ in the presider, inviting us to share in his worship of the Father.

Reverence requires us to respond to that invitation, which is really Christ’s invitation. It means entering into the worship, both internally and externally. Singing the songs, saying the prayers and engaging in the actions of worship are all ways we respond to Christ who leads us in the liturgy.

That means that, barring some disability, refusing to pick up the hymnal and sing, for example, is irreverent. It is a rejection of Christ’s own invitation to worship the Father in and with him. Our participation in the liturgy is an act of reverence toward Christ, who reveals himself in the presider.

Recognizing Christ in the presider may have been easier when we put the clergy on a pedestal and thought of them as not quite human. If we imagine a person as perfect or intrinsically holy, it is easy to think of that person as “another Christ,” as we often spoke of priests in the past. Today, however, we have learned that priests are human, and that means that they are sometimes sinful, just like the rest of us.

Seeing priests more realistically may make it more difficult for us to see Christ in them, but it is essential that we learn to do so. It is a central tenet of our faith that God comes to us through human nature. As God became human in Jesus, Christ continues to meet us through human beings.

Maybe if we are able to recognize him in the flawed human beings who are priests and bishops, we will find it easier to recognize him in all other people and in ourselves as well. We do not have to be perfect for Christ to work through us or dwell in us. We just have to be human, open to the gift of his loving presence.

Jesus’ Presence in the Word

The third mode of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is in the Word of God. When that Word is proclaimed in our midst, Christ speaks to us today. We may hear the voice of the lector or deacon or priest, but it is really Christ who is speaking.

Reverence for Christ as he reveals himself in the Word means listening with open ears and open hearts. We show respect for anyone who speaks to us by looking at them and giving them our full attention. When Christ speaks, we show reverence by attentive listening.

This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that our task is to grasp every word and understand every sentence. In all the words of the readings, the psalm and the homily, Christ has a word that is meant for each of us. Our task at Mass is to be open to Christ’s Word and to listen for what he wants to speak to each of us personally. It may happen that a thought in the middle of the first reading really hits home and so I miss the rest of that reading. If that Word has taken root in my heart, then Christ has touched me and I have listened reverently.

Jesus’ Presence in the Meal

The fourth way that Christ reveals his presence is in his body and blood, which he offers us as our food and drink. Our Catholic tradition teaches us that the bread and wine truly become his body and his blood. He offers us himself as nourishment in the meal we call Communion. That term should remind us of the reason Christ gives us his body and blood. He invites us into communion with one another in him. This union is our most complete union with Christ, but it is simultaneously communion with all the members of his body.

The link between the sacramental body of Christ and his mystical body, the Church, lies at the core of the meaning of Communion. This is not simply a private moment between Jesus and me, but rather an intensely personal and communal moment, a moment when we are deeply united to all those who share this sacred meal. Reverence requires that we recognize Christ in the bread and wine. Reverence also requires that we recognize Christ in all those who eat and drink with us. It is the same Christ in both forms.

This is not new teaching in the Church. St. Paul insisted in 1 Corinthians that “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself” (11:29). St. Augustine (late fourth to early fifth century) once chastised his people for trying to decapitate Christ. They thought they could have the head of the body (Christ) without the rest of the body (the Church), but Augustine insisted they must accept both.

Augustine also urged the newly baptized to remember that they are the Body of Christ. “It is your own mystery that is placed on the altar,” he taught them. “You reply ‘Amen’ to that which you are, and by replying you consent. For you hear ‘The Body of Christ’ and you reply ‘Amen’.…Be what you see, and receive what you are.”

St. Thomas Aquinas (13th century) was clear in his teaching that the bread and wine truly become the body and blood of the Lord, but he saw this transformation as a step on the way to the real purpose of the Eucharist. The real goal of the sacrament, he taught, is the unity of the Church.

Another way to put this is to say that Christ did not give us the Eucharist to transform bread and wine into his body and blood. It does that, of course, but Christ gave us this sacrament to transform us into his Body. That is the goal of the Eucharist and the meaning of Communion. As St. John Chrysostom put it: “What is this bread? The Body of Christ. What becomes of those who participate in this bread? The Body of Christ.”

In our own time, Pope John Paul II insisted in his apostolic letter The Day of the Lord: “It is also important to be ever mindful that communion with Christ is deeply tied to communion with our brothers and sisters. The Sunday eucharistic gathering is an experience of brotherhood, which the celebration should demonstrate clearly…” (# 44).

Thus the fourth mode of Christ’s presence in his body and blood brings us back to the first mode in the assembly. The sacramental body exists for the sake of the mystical body. It is interesting that, in the first thousand years of the Church’s history, Christians spoke of the Church as the real body of Christ and the sacrament as the mystical body. In the last thousand years we have reversed the terms, calling the sacrament the real presence and calling the Church the mystical body of Christ. The key is that these two are intimately linked. The core of the mystery of the Eucharist can be found in this link. The body of Christ shares the body and blood of Christ to become more fully the body of Christ.

The various modes of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist are not in competition with one another. All are real. All are unique. All support each other. The Eucharist, then, offers us varied ways to experience Christ’s continuing presence and to fill us with his love. What a wonderful sacrament Christ has given us!

Lawrence E. Mick is a priest of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. He holds a master’s degree in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of over 500 articles in various publications. His latest book is
I Like Being in Parish Ministry: Presider
(Twenty-Third Publications).

Next: Seven Secrets of Successful Stewards (by Paul Wilkes)

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