So, what comes to your mind when you hear the words “Real Presence”?
I’m assuming, of course, that you are Catholic, or at least know that the Real Presence is how we refer to the fact that Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist.
Still, given that fact, there are different aspects to the Eucharist, and we may find some of them more compelling than others.
As we American Catholics take part in the U.S. Bishops’ Eucharistic Revival, this might be a time to examine our understanding of how Christ is present sacramentally.
So, what does come to mind at the thought of Real Presence?
1. Is it Jesus in the gold tabernacle, supported on either side by angels, centered prominently behind the altar?
2. Is it the shimmering sun of the monstrance in which you can see the host displayed in your adoration chapel?
3. Is it the Consecration at mass?
4. Is it the Hanc Igitur prayer when the priest extends his hands over the bread and wine, calling upon the Holy Spirit to come down upon these gifts of bread and wine?
5. Or, is it Jesus received into your hands or onto your tongue: body and blood, soul and divinity, at communion?
Just for the fun of it, why not try ranking these various ways in which we experience Jesus in his sacramental presence.
Liturgists and church theologians could argue interminably about the distinctions to be made.
I have two personal favorites. First is the Prayer that comes very soon after we kneel following the Holy. In Eucharistic Prayer II it reads: “Make holy therefore these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Greek name for this very holy moment is “Epiclesis.”
When a deacon serves at mass, he will kneel at this point, and often the servers are instructed to ring the bell at this time too. Why? Because this is the moment at which God is effecting the miraculous change in these simple elements of bread and wine, so that they become Christ’s body.
I still remember how I came to realize that this was so. I’d studied Baltimore Catechism every year from First Grade onward, repeating and memorizing the same definitions for the mass and the Eucharist, knowing how to define Jesus’ real presence. But it was in Sixth Grade that the reality hit me. Wait! God, the one who created the universe, is becoming real on our altar every time we have a mass? Then I should probably be there.
After that I spared no effort to make sure I went to daily mass when possible, to witness this great event. And today, many years later, I still wait expectantly at every mass for the priest to extend his hands, saying, “Therefore…”
My second favorite way to experience Jesus’ real presence is receiving him in communion. I especially like it when we can receive under both species, as it makes the experience of his Precious Blood so real, even though Jesus is truly present in each of the species.
But what does this really mean—receiving Christ in communion?
It means that Jesus is now present inside me, becoming really part of me. All the atoms of that host are being taken into my body, so that Jesus is transforming me, dwelling in me. Really present. Doesn’t this mean that for that time Jesus is as much inside me, and inside the others who receive the host along with me, as he is inside the tabernacle or monstrance?
If this is true—and it is what we believe—we should not need to look elsewhere for Jesus than to ourselves and our neighbors, all of whom are tabernacles. We may want to spend that time in special awareness of Jesus within us; but we may also want to actively be Jesus' presence on earth by extending his love to others at that time.
Some complain that other people distract them from the sacred moment of communion. But that moment includes all of us—the Body of Christ having received the Body of Christ. In the words of Eucharistic Prayer II: "Humbly we pray that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit." At that point the prayer goes on to include in our midst the entire church, the Communion of Saints. Through the mystery of the Eucharistic liturgy, we are really present to the whole people of God at that time though the process of anamnesis, in which presen and past are fused in God's presence.
And after mass, Jesus is still there in all of us. So to speak with others at that time, is this not a way of showing reverence to Jesus, present in the body of believers? If I greet you after mass, you are a tabernacle andyour good is what I seek, as one beloved of God. And Jesus in the tabernacle behind the altar is not envious of his own presence in each one of us. Rather, he wants us to take him out to the world where he can bless others through our presence.
Ideally, to my mind, the tabernacle could best receive the special attention due to Jesus’ presence there if it were in a separate chapel, where people would find quiet in God’s Real Presence at a time when mass is not available. After mass, for a continued quiet time of prayer, a separate chapel would remove the competition between Christ reserved in the Eucharist and Christ activating his people in the Eucharist.
At one time churches were being built to allow for this. Many churches still have an adoration chapel, where the monstrance reveals the sacred host 24/7. People are scheduled for adoration so that the host is never alone in the chapel, at which point there would be no point in having the host displayed.
There is something very special about being able to pray in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament—either visible in the monstrance or hidden in the tabernacle. It is as if the Divine Presence fills the room, hanging there, as the cloud that rested over the Ark of the Covenant.
There is another Real Presence that many Catholics are unaware of:
God is truly present in his Word, which comes alive during the liturgical celebration, putting “both the faithful and the ministers into a living relationship with Christ, the Word and Image of the Father, so that they can live out the meaning of what they hear, contemplate, and do in the celebration.” (CCC1101)
This is powerful! If you get excited at pictures of the far reaches of the universe, the early stages of creation, we have something even more exciting here. You don’t need to be an astronaut for this. The Creator of the universe wants to be with us at mass. He is with us in his Word; his Word takes the form of bread for us to consume and be nourished by his very presence. We just need to be there!