On the Real Presence of Christ in Our Lives video
I’m teaching a class in the parish on the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the other day a woman in the class made a really interesting comment.
She loves the way Hopkins celebrates the presence of God in nature—in hawks and stars and ordinary things. But growing up she was taught something different. She was taught that we properly worship God only inside a church, when we’re down on our knees.
That someone so literate and intelligent could say such a thing shows how deeply embedded this misconception is. And it is a misconception. The Church doesn’t teach that God is present only in the Church, and more importantly, Our Lord doesn’t teach that—Our Lord who roamed the hills and fields, who urges us to observe the birds of the air and the flowers of the field (Matthew 6:25-34). This isn’t what the scriptures teach us, from Genesis to the Psalms to the prophets. This isn’t what’s celebrated in the great creation hymn in Colossians, that in Christ “were created all things in heaven and on earth” and that in him “all things continue in being” (Colossians 1:15-21).
The Big Bang is the first Incarnation, and all creation is incarnational from that point forward, and the work of the Incarnation is fulfilled in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. “All fullness” resides in him, Colossians proclaims. Which is to say, if Christ came into the world and “charged it” with “his grandeur,” to paraphrase one of Hopkins’s most famous poems, how can the world be anything other than sacramental?
Just look at the Nicene Creed itself, for that matter, this canonical summary of all that we believe, a summary that we profess together every Sunday at mass and that defines what is doctrinally valid: that we “believe in one God, / the Father almighty, / maker of heaven and earth, / of all things visible and invisible.” All things. In heaven and on earth. As Vatican II puts it, there are many “modes of presence.”
That’s why in the reading from Philippians at mass last Sunday, Paul can urge us to think about whatever is “honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” (Philippians 4:6-9)—whatever, not just things in a church, not just things we think of as “holy,” but everything in our lives.
Which is not to say that the mass is therefore secondary or merely symbolic, that we don’t need it, because we do, because in the mass the Incarnation is fulfilled and enacted and brought into being anew. This is what the Church teaches. The liturgy, Vatican II tells us, is “the source and summit” of our faith, the preeminent mode of presence, and it gathers everything in the world into its creative actions, as when the deacon receives the gifts of the bread and the wine–the work of our hands, the fruit of the earth–and carries them to the altar to be transformed, and elevated, and revealed.
In fact, the language of the mass makes this point as clearly as possible, it denies our somehow habitual dualism with lyricism and force, as for example in the second Eucharistic prayer:
You are indeed Holy, O Lord,
and all creation rightly gives you praise,
for through your Son our Lord Jesus Christ,
by the power and working of the Holy Spirit,
you give life to all things and make them holy.
We don’t pay enough attention to the language of the Eucharistic Prayers, to what is actually said in the mass, and we should, because the mass is the dogma, all of it, the whole action and arc of it. We don’t need to theologize about it. It’s all there, and what it says is just as plain as day: that through Christ “all things” are “made holy.”
The bread and wine, after all, are just ordinary bread and ordinary wine.
Except that they’re not: they are the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
And we should carry this faith right into our everyday lives, to see and come to appreciate all the bread and all the wine of our experiences. “Everything gives God some glory if being in his grace you do it as your duty,” Hopkins writes in a notebook entry: “to lift up our hands in prayer gives God glory, but a man with a dungfork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give him glory too.”
And when Hopkins says this, he’s being absolutely orthodox. He’s speaking both from his heart and from the heart of the tradition.
In a recent poll of Catholics, not many of us say we actually believe in the “Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,” and that’s a cause of great concern. That’s why the bishops of the United States have declared a three-year period of Eucharistic renewal, to help us return to our faith in what really happens at the mass. That’s why Pope Francis has recently issued an apostolic letter on the Eucharist, I Have Earnestly Desired.
What I propose is that we begin to renew our sense of his presence by learning to see God in nature, too, and in everything else.
This is exactly the logic of the second Eucharistic Prayer—this is exactly what the priest says, right after proclaiming that all things are holy in Christ.
Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you,
by the same Spirit graciously make holy
these gifts we have brought to you for consecration
that they become for us the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
That therefore is incredibly important, because saves us from our either/or thinking, and the phrase by the same Spiritnecessarily follows it, because this Spirit is the same Spirit that charges our lives with grandeur. This is the key. It’s exactly because the Spirit is present in nature and in all things that we are inspired to go further, to ask the Spirit to transform these particular things, the bread and the wine, in this fuller, this extraordinary way.
And there’s even more, there’s a tremendous encouragement and challenge, because as the final prayer at last week’s mass makes clear, when we receive the sacrament, we ask to be “transformed into what we consume.”
How can we all be such dualists, how can dualism be our default setting, when through grace we ourselves become the Body of Christ—when at the end of each mass we are dismissed (again by the deacon!) to “go in peace” into the world, to let the Lord charge the world with his grandeur through us and our actions?
This is what I’m trying to say, however vaguely and imprecisely. This is the little piece of the mystery that I think I glimpse: that we can’t understand the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist unless we first understand the Real Presence of Christ in our lives.