The promise of presence


Our culture is marked by the absence of God. Robert Imbelli, a priest of the archdiocese of New York, who teaches systematic theology at Boston College, believes the sacraments are signs of Christ's presence among us. The task for the Church's catechumenate, is to 'structure a conversion therapy that weans from the anomie of absence to the promise of presence'.

In autumn, 1993, I visited the Czech Republic for the first time. Like so many others I was charmed with Prague, reveling in its history, its Baroque churches and halls, its vibrant musical life. Since my time was limited and I wanted to see another part of the country, I travelled to a small town in the North, not far from the German border: Litomerice.

Absence and Presence
Wandering through the streets of the town of a lovely autumn afternoon, I came upon a large Baroque church built by the Jesuits. Under the communist regime it had been allowed to fall to ruin. The roof was missing in places, the walls in disrepair. Walking down the side aisles one came upon numerous altars over each of which was a tabernacle. Or, rather, what used to be a tabernacle. For where the tabernacle had been there remained but a gaping hole.

The place was utter desolation. Not only physically, but, more strikingly, spiritually. To my Catholic sensibility it appeared that real presence had been torn out and, to speak paradoxically, absolute absence enthroned.

The sense of emptiness only deepened as I viewed a collection of art works exhibited in the ruined church. They depicted man’s inhumanity to man. Sculpted, spectral figures shackled, tortured, led to execution. Hollow shapes mirroring the hollowed out tabernacles.

The impact was overwhelming: when real presence is refused and banished, inhumanity prevails. For then there is no Other to whom we are responsible, whose call evokes our response and summons us to personhood. Then there is no gift of love to transform our insecurities and fears. The gift of real presence hallows humanity. Its denial or destruction hollows us out, leaving only nothingness, despair and death.

The experience that afternoon lent poignant resonance to the situation of estrangement so harrowingly set forth in Ephesians:

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the way of this world living according to the passions of the flesh, children of wrath like everyone else without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the covenants and the promise, having no hope and without God in the world (Eph 2:1-3; 12).

‘Without God in the world’, how stark a summary of the primordial fall from presence — whether in the pre-Christian, pre-modernist first century or in the post-Christian, post-modernist twentieth.

That afternoon in Litomerice was the occasion of a new realisation of the gift and grace of sacraments. Not as ‘things’ set apart, superimposed upon our everyday life and world; but as the privileged events, recapitulating all intimations of presence in our lives, endowing them with substance and the hope of ultimate transformation.

Paschal presence
There is both continuity and discontinuity in God’s sacramental economy. ‘The fruit of the earth and work of human hands’ provides the indispensable substrate. But these original blessings must be transformed and transfigured in the furnace of Christ’s paschal mystery: the living flame of Love.

All seven sacraments (the number ‘seven’ signifying fullness, wholeness) bear this paschal imprint. They place all the dimensions of the human, birth and death, nourishment and intimacy, joy and grief, ecstasy and remorse, under the sign of the cross. Thus the ‘amen’ that is our consent to and participation in sacramental presence is neither evasion nor nostalgia. It affirms presence in light and in darkness, height and depth of human experience. It confesses with the Psalmist:

Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou are there!
If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.
If I say, ‘Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.
(Psalm 139, 712 RSV)

Hence the sacraments depend upon Christ for their efficacy, more, they remain acts of Christ. It is Christ who baptises, absolves, confirms, and unites. He himself is our food of eternal life, the head ‘from whom the whole body grows and upbuilds itself in love’ (Eph 4:16).

Since the Second Vatican Council there has been a welcome recovery of the wholeness of Christ’s body, the totus Christus beloved of Augustine. Accompanying this, the role of the whole assembly in liturgical and sacramental celebration has received renewed attention. And this is surely gain. But a sole focus upon this congregational dimension can lead to a ‘horizontalism’ that neglects the distinction as well as the oneness of Christ and his body. 1 He is the head, we the members; he the Lord, we the disciples, even though called now no longer ‘servants’, but ‘friends’. There is, most assuredly, intimacy of exchange. But it is Christ alone who was crucified for us and we who are baptised in his name (see Paul’s relevant remarks in this regard in 1 Cor 1:12,13). It is the marks of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, that are sacramentally impressed upon the bodies of believers and to him we are conformed.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, following the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, offers a differentiated account of the presence of Christ in liturgical and sacramental celebration. Christ is present in the assembly gathered, in the Word proclaimed, in the ministers presiding, and supremely, in the Eucharist, in the consecrated species (CCC, #1088).

Transforming presence
Christ is present in each sacrament as the Giver of the Spirit: the Risen One who breathes the Spirit upon the disciples. 2 And it is this Spirit who binds head and members into one body, who works the transformation of all reality so that Christ may be all in all (Col 3:11). In this current year of preparation for the Great Jubilee, the year dedicated to the Holy Spirit, we are called to a deeper appreciation of the central place of the invocation of the Spirit, not only in the Eucharist, but in all the sacraments. In a very rich summary the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

The mission of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy of the Church is to prepare the assembly to encounter Christ; to recall and manifest Christ to the faith of the assembly; to make the saving work of Christ present and active by his transforming power; and to make the gift of communion bear fruit in the Church (1112).

What is the scope of the transformation that the Spirit initiates and of which we receive the first fruits through the sacraments? It is no less than the full redemption of our body of which Paul speaks: ‘We ourselves, who have the Spirit as first-fruits, groan within ourselves as we long for our adoption, the redemption of our body’ (Rom 8:23).

Implications of transformation
As Paul makes clear, this transformation has corporate and even cosmic implications. For the body that is being redeemed is the whole body of Christ, the members growing into the full stature of the head to form the one ‘spiritual body’ of 1 Corinthians 15:44. Moreover, the priestly people, consecrated in Baptism, are commissioned in Confirmation to heal and hallow the whole of creation, that creation that so eagerly longs for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters (Rom 8:19). 3

Thus all sacramental celebrations, understood in their full amplitude, are never private, domestic affairs. They are always public, ecclesial actions, integrating the participants into fuller communion with the whole body of Christ and stretching them into solidarity with the whole of God’s creation. The ‘matter’ of the sacraments represents the whole creation called to transformation. Who can encompass the catholicity this connotes? Only Christ and those who are learning ‘to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 2:5).

All transpires under the sign of Christ’s paschal mystery. For the sacramental experience gives birth to that new self that is being recreated according to the image of its Maker, that image made manifest in Christ. I am persuaded that our sacramental practice and catechesis must underscore imaginatively and dramatically this sense of newness inscribed in the sacraments. We are not engaged sacramentally in merely affirming the original creation. We are called to enter into the new creation through the door who is the Risen Christ. As the old Patristic adage has it: ‘let us pass over into the new man.’

New man
I find my own conviction confirmed and extended in the recently published book of essays of the late Geoffrey Preston, OP, Faces of the Church. 4 Father Preston’s vision is at once mystical and concrete, particular and universal. His treatment of the Church and its sacraments sounds the deep recesses of the material creation and scales the height of human transformation through Christ and in the Holy Spirit. He writes:

The Spirit is not of his nature hidden and inaccessible . . . he epiphanises in flesh and blood. He does so by his transforming activity . . . The Spirit poured out in the end times is meant to make [all living things] what they were made to be, to incorporate them in the recreation of the world which was created in the Word of God (p. 281).

This ‘incorporation’, of course, is into the body of Christ and the sacraments are the privileged means of its realisation. They, in effect, extend the mission of the incarnate Word. If Christ is the primordial sacrament of God’s presence, then the sacraments extend that presence by incorporating the bodies of believers into the one body totally transformed in the Spirit. If Christ, risen from the dead, is ‘the first born of many brothers and sisters’ (Rom 8:29), then through the sacraments we are born again in Christ and are nourished and strengthened to grow more completely into him.

Preston is magnificent in his single-hearted focus upon the radical intimacy of this relation of all in Christ. In Baptism we are all united into the one body of Christ. In the Eucharist we are all nourished with the same spiritual food and drink. In Matrimony and Orders our self is defined relationally vis-à-vis the presence of the other, whether spouse or community. In all these sacramental modes we grow in every way into Christ, the head, from whom the whole body receives its nourishment as it builds itself up in love.

Preston’s guiding vision is provided by the Pauline insistence that this union is so intimate that we are, in Christ, constituted one single person: the ‘one’ of Galatians 3:28; the ‘perfect man’ of Ephesians 4:13. The sacraments initiate and sustain this radical at-onement which images the perfect perichoresis (mutual indwelling) of Trinitarian life. But even the most mature of believers barely advance beyond the betrothal stage. The consummation of the marriage feast is reserved for that heavenly banquet in the City where there is no longer temple or sacraments, but all rejoice in the face to face presence of the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb (Rev 21:22). Preston puts it in compelling fashion:

The whole Christian life . . . is a progressive taking possession by Christ’s paschal body of all aspects of the believer’s existence. The body of Christ that rose from the tomb is the bud of new life in the Spirit. That body increases by subsuming the earthly man under itself and raising it to its own manner of existing. This will go on until the final flowering and fructification in heaven, the final apocalypse of the whole Christ (p. 89).

Stewards of presence
If the sacraments are the privileged moments in this process of transformation, they should also foster the cultivation of a ‘sacramental vision’ that extends the fruits of the sacraments into our everyday lives. When teaching undergraduates, I strive to convey some sense of this Catholic sacramental vision employing for the purpose literature and film as much as explicitly theological writings.

The poetry of Hopkins, of course, provides splendid resources. with its depiction of a world, ‘charged with the grandeur of God’ and with its acute perception of the presence of Christ who ‘plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his’. But the essays and short stories of the contemporary American writer, Andre Dubus, also offer marvelous evocations of the mysterious depths of the ordinary, of what de Caussade called ‘the sacrament of the present moment’. 5

Yet it would be naive not to acknowledge that the Church’s sacramental catechumenate must often contend with a cultural catechumenate in which absence rather than presence is glorified. Too much of contemporary culture appears to be extended commentary on Yeats’ verse: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. . .’ In a provocative essay, George Steiner has characterised our time as a time of the ‘after Word’, the ‘epilogue’: a time in which the primordial covenant between word and world has been ruptured. 6 Such a culture disdains the call to new selfhood in relational solidarity, preferring to indulge the protean possibilities of a self, decentred and deconstructed.

Certainly many academic varieties of post-modern experience seem rather pretentious posturings. But it would be a mistake to minimise their after-effects in a widespread cultural anomie both exemplified in and promoted by much of contemporary television, music, and film. Post-modernity’s embrace of absence reflects itself in individuals fragmented by the loss of memory and hope. It is mirrored in the affective frigidity that regards permanent commitment as beyond its power, yet all too easily lapses into sentimental excess. Its trumpeted rejection of binding truth claims and transcendent norms finds echo in a lazy relativism for which intolerance is the sole vice and individual preference the guiding value.

Conversion therapy
If the above limns some aspects of the culture’s catechumenate, then the Church’s catechumenate must structure a conversion therapy that weans from the anomie of absence to the promise of presence. It must move inquirers away from a consumerism that strives to fill a dread void towards a contemplative attention to the sheer mystery of things. It must seek to lead from decentred minimalism to genuine maturation in the Spirit of Christ in whom ‘all things hold together’ (Col 1:17). The challenge to our evangelisation, our catechesis, our sacramental celebrations and our community life at the dawn of the third millennium is enormous.

Perhaps one might suggest a beginning by viewing our task as believers under the rubric of ‘stewards of real presence’. Whatever the manner and mode of our sacramental celebrations they ought to reverberate with a sense of the reality and gift of presence. All the dimensions of liturgical celebration should serve this end. The environment by its tastefulness and evocativeness; the proclamation of the Word by its dignity and power; the music by its resonance and restraint; the silence by its richness and intensity: all should conspire to articulate a mystagogy of presence.

Mystagogy and mystagogues
Ultimately mystagogy depends on true mystagogues: those adept, through their own spiritual maturity, to help us glimpse the Mystery in whom we live and move and have our being. For many in the United States and elsewhere Joseph Cardinal Bernardin provided such a witness. In his last testament, penned on the very eve of his death, Cardinal Bernardin wrote:

"In the final analysis, our participation in the paschal mystery — in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus — brings a certain freedom. . . The more we cling to ourselves and others, the more we try to control our destiny - the more we lose the true sense of our lives, the more we are impacted by the futility of it all. It is precisely in letting go, in entering into complete union with the Lord, in letting him take over, that we discover our true selves. It’s in the act of abandonment that we experience redemption . . ." 7

Schooled in the sacraments the believer seeks to return gift for gift, grace responding to grace. The paschal mystery of Christ, at the heart of the sacraments, becomes the very pattern of believers’ lives. That is why the supreme witness to the efficacy of the sacraments is the martyr whose self-abandonment even to death is the reality of which the sacraments are signs. The relics of the martyrs are built as living stones, into the altar upon which the sacrifice of Christ is celebrated. Paradoxically, then, the death of the martyr is the joyful celebration and proclamation of presence.

We are blessed to have a remarkable witness to this in the life and words of Father Christian de Cherge, one of seven Trappists killed in Algeria in May 1996. Foreseeing his probable martyrdom, he wrote of his impending death:

This is what 1 shall be able to do, if God wills - immerse my gaze in that of the Father, to contemplate with him his children of Islam, just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his passion, filled with the Gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to restore the likeness, delighting in the differences.

Father de Cherge concludes his moving testimony by offering his thanksgiving to family and friends who have inspired and supported him on his journey of faith including that ‘friend of my final moment’ [his assassin] whom he commends to the God ‘whose face I see in yours’. Here the reality of Eucharist has reached its earthly fullness and God’s presence is made most manifest.

God’s priestly people continues its pilgrim journey nourished and sustained by the sacraments’ sure promise of presence. What Geoffrey Preston says of the Eucharist, then, can be said of all the sacraments of which it is the culmination:

In the reality of the present, in love . . . and in joy . . . we behave as if the future had already come. In the age to come there will be unity and brotherhood for all in Christ. Indeed, his eschatological humanity is the only true, humanity there is. Here in the Eucharist we try that out for size.

1. See the balanced and insightful reflections of Eamon Duffy, ‘Discerning the Body’, Priests & People, June 1994.
2. I have presented some reflections upon ‘Christ: the Giver of the Spirit’ in Priests & People, April 1996.
3. N.T. Wright offers a fine meditation on Romans 8: ‘The World, the Church, and the Groaning of the Spirit’, in The Crown and the Fire: Meditations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit (London: SPCK, 1992).
4. Geoffrey Preston, OP, Faces of the Church: Meditations on a Mystery and its Images, texts prepared by Aidan Nichols, OP (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997). One owes a great debt of gratitude to Father Nichols for his fraternal piety in compiling the collection.
5. For those unfamiliar with Dubus I recommend his collection of essays, Broken Vessels (Boston: Godine, 1991) and especially the essay ‘On Charon’s Wharf’.
6. George Steiner, Real Presences (London: Faber & Faber, 1989). See also the suggestive work of Ralph Harper, On Presence: Variations and Reflections (Philadelphia: Trinity Press, 1991).
7. Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, The Gift of Peace (Chicago: Loyola, 1997), p. 48.
Psalm 139, 7-12 RSV) Hence the sacraments depend upon Christ for their efficacy; more: they remain acts of Christ. It is Christ who baptises, absolves, confirms, and unites. He himself is our food of eternal life, the head “from whom the whole body grows and upbuilds itself in love” (Eph 4, 16).

Back to Priests & People page. Back to Tablet home page