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Encountering Christ in the liturgy Print
Year of Faith
Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 -- 12:00 AM

by Patrick Gorman

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One of the great contributions of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy is the brief synthesis on Christ’s presence in the Church’s prayer.

“Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations,” (art. 7). Christ’s presence in the Mass is multifaceted and mysterious, but there are four specific ways named by the Council — in the Eucharistic species, the Word of God, the person of the priest, and in the gathered community in which “the Church prays and sings” (art. 7).

The presence of Christ is both real and mysterious. However, unlike a mystery movie or book, where all is explained at the end, this mystery is unfathomable to human minds. We can examine various aspects of it, learning and believing ever more deeply, but we must remember this is only a part of the mystery.

One of the difficulties which the Church addresses today as throughout her history is that a part of the mystery is proclaimed by some to be the whole of the mystery. Pope John Paul II addressed this in an Apostolic Letter in 2004. “We are constantly tempted to reduce the Eucharist to our own dimensions, while in reality it is we who must open ourselves up to the dimensions of the Mystery” (Stay with us Lord [Mane nobiscum Domine], emphasis in original).

Christ is present in word, sacrament

On the day of his resurrection, Christ encountered two of his disciples on the Road to Emmaus, but they didn’t recognize him (see Luke 24:13-35). Responding to their sorrow, the Risen Christ, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets . . . interpreted to them what referred to him in all the Scriptures.” Later, “while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.”

This reading foreshadows the Mass for us. The Risen Lord himself speaks to us through the Scriptures and then feeds us with his own Body and Blood. Indeed, this is how the Mass is organized — the Liturgy of the Word precedes the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Our role in these two parts of the Mass is to participate with eyes of faith. We listen attentively to the readings because Christ “Himself speaks when the holy Scriptures are read in the Church” (art. 7). We believe that the same Christ who walked the road to Emmaus journeys with us and opens the Scriptures to us. It’s not as if we are speaking about Christ, rather Christ himself is speaking to us!

And having opened our hearts through his Word, the great Sacrament of the Eucharist is celebrated and soon we receive — and become — the Body of Christ. As Catholics, we believe that while the elements may still have the appearance of bread and wine, our eyes are, in fact, deceiving us, for faith knows that they have become the Body and Blood (and Soul and Divinity) of Christ.

St. Augustine said, “For you hear the words, ‘the Body of Christ’ and respond ‘Amen.’ Be then a member of the Body of Christ that your ‘Amen’ may be true” (Sermo 272). Pope Benedict XVI, himself a scholar on St. Augustine explains it more fully:

“Christ gives us his Body in the Eucharist, he gives himself in his Body and thus makes us his Body, he unites us with his Risen Body. If man eats ordinary bread, in the digestive process this bread becomes part of his body, transformed into a substance of human life. But in holy Communion the inverse process is brought about. Christ, the Lord, assimilates us into himself, introducing us into his glorious Body, and thus we all become his Body (General Audience on December 10, 2008, emphasis added).”

Christ is present in the priest, people

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy acknowledges that Christ is present in the person of the priest through his Ordination. Just as Christ sacrificed himself for us, so does the priest. Just as Christ healed the sick, the priest anoints. Just as Christ forgave sins, the priest does so through the Sacrament of Penance. He is an icon of Christ — a constant reminder that God lives among us.

Finally, the Lord is present when the community “prays and sings.” Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20). A community is vital in God’s mysterious plan. In fact, our English word “Church” comes from a Greek word meaning a convocation or assembly.

God “convenes” us to worship him as one Body, and we respond. Our “community” is not just within the walls of the parish church, nor confined even to the Church on earth. In fact, we join the angels and saints and together worship God as the Body of Christ. The communal nature of the liturgy is so important that a later article will devote more time to it.

Christ is intimately bound to the Mass and it is our job to seek him out, meet him, and allow him to draw us to him as part of his glorious Body. The presence of Christ is a great Truth of our faith. All we need to do is look beyond the earthly signs of bread, wine, words, music, priest, and people. We look for him with the eyes of faith.

Next article: Participation


Patrick Gorman is the director of the Office of Worship of the Diocese of Madison.