Thursday, 1 March 2007

Reflections on Christ's presence

Some years ago a church worker asked me. How can we become more aware of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist? At this point I started to write intending not just to provide them with some ideas to think about, but also to develop my own understanding about key issues of mission and spirituality. It's still an unfinished task ....
The Church teaches us that Christ is present, according to his own promise, when two or three are gathered together in his name (Matt 18:20). It teaches us that Jesus makes himself known to us in the action of the Eucharist, taking, breaking and sharing the bread and drinking the cup of blessing. (Luke 24:35) These things we believe, we take them on trust because they are derived from the scriptures. But, can their truth be confirmed to us through our experience? If so how?
Alleluia! He is near us. Faith believes, nor questions how.’, we sing in one popular Eucharistic hymn, and ‘Faith our outward sense befriending, makes the inward vision clear.’, we sing in another. Such perfect unquestioning faith comes from another age, before people were trained and encouraged to question, examine and ‘own’ for themselves the truths proclaimed and shared within the community of faith. Even, so, faith, both then and now, is to be understood as a gift of the Spirit.
We’d want to say that we can open ourselves to this gift as much by enquiry as by trust and acceptance. Being able to rely upon our experience is important to us if we are going to make a commitment. If we want to grow in our relationship to God through Jesus Christ, we need to be sure of what we know of Him, not simply at the level of assenting to facts, but ‘heart and soul, and mind and strength’ (Mark 12:30)
When we gather for prayer and worship, and above all the Eucharist, we celebrate and recall all God has done for us through Christ’s life, death and resurrection. His story from two millennia ago is part of our present life, because his self-sacrifice overcomes the power of sin (humankind’s estrangement from God) and this means that the whole world is freed to be reconciled with God and this includes us. It’s as proper to say ‘Christ died for me’, as it is to say ‘Christ died for the sins of the world.’
Our prayer in the Eucharist recalls what Jesus did then, and claims it as a present reality. Pardon and reconciliation, healing and renewal are the essential dynamics of the process going on through the rites and ceremonies of worship. This is something God does with us through Christ’s presence, not something we do to ourselves or is done between us. Our conscious and willing participation in prayer opens us and makes us receptive to God’s action.
The miracle at Cana in Galilee, (John 2:1-11) about the transformation of water into wine, tells of the rescue of a wedding celebration from embarrassment and failure when the wine runs out. Jesus is present at the feast, but the only part he plays is in the background.
People on the receiving end are not even aware of the nature of the miracle, only the trusting obedient servants whose task is to provide for the guests know what's going on. Jesus does not advertise either his presence or his actions. To those who are aware of him, those who have begun a relationship with him, this event is a sign of divine splendour, hidden in the ordinary realities of an important social event. It ends up going wonderfully well, despite the setbacks.
To the eyes of faith, no matter how many or varied ways Jesus may be described, he is, most significantly, the human face of God. Some of his words and actions drew him to public attention and attracted people to him, although not all of his words and actions were obvious. The Gospels note his withdrawal from the public eye several times. His ministry continued quietly in situations where he was noticed by few if any. His parting promise was to be 'with us always, to the end of time'. Eyes of faith need to be trained to perceive how and where his quiet presence is making that vital difference, through those who know who He is, hear and obey his Word.
Mindfulness of the presence of Jesus in the midst of life is a choice that has to be deliberately made and held on to, in all circumstances. There are times when a sense of his presence is very intense, and times when the sense is so diminished that an act of will is needed to trust, whether we feel it's doing us good or not. Ultimately this deliberate commitment to 'seek his face' changes the way we look at everyone and everything. It changes the way we act, and our understanding of whether our actions are for better or for worse.
At the core of the Christian's baptismal commitment is a life of prayer which is centred on gathering with others for the Eucharist. The elaborate and poetic Eastern and Oriental liturgies, require several hours of singing, readings and ceremonies to take worshippers to the heart of the event, where the words of and actions of Jesus at the Last Supper are recalled and the command to do this in remembrance of him are obeyed. These ancient and traditional forms of worship originated in times and places governed by the rhythm of agrarian life. Their worship culture makes space for prayer of adoration and contemplation while the ritual action proceeds, and easily interacts with the environment of home and work.
Liturgies of the Western church possess a similar basic structure but are much simpler, using silence to allow space for personal prayer. They have developed to accommodate the spiritual needs of people in timetabled, structured working environments and domestic situations. Underlying this difference is the spiritual insight of St Benedict and others, summed up in the phrase 'laborare est orare'. Everyday living, away from the sanctuary of God provides opportunities to offer God as an act of worship everything that's done to the best of our ability. Such a noble intention doesn't satisfy everyone's spiritual hunger, however.
Preparation to celebrate the Eucharist with personal prayer and penitence takes an important role, also acts of thanksgiving and devotion following Communion, whether on the part of individuals or groups. Over half a millennium, these have evolved into extensions of the central action of the Eucharist itself, sometimes following on immediately, sometimes detached.
The recitation of the Rosary is a means to recall prayerfully key events in the life Jesus and his mother, as much as an active form of repetitive oral prayer. It is a means of living contemplatively with the Word of God in Holy Scripture.
Prayer of adoration, made in a place where the consecrated elements of the Eucharist are kept or displayed, is another means of creating an open space in which the self-sacrificial love of Jesus, expressed in his gift of the sacrament of Holy Communion, can be savoured and contemplated. Portions of the sacrament are primarily retained to be taken from the worshipping assembly to those who are sick or detained from attendance.
The words of consecration, the invocation of the Spirit upon the gifts offered, once spoken, cannot be unspoken. These gifts have only one proper function, to offer healing, reconciliation, pardon and strength to those unable to receive directly during the liturgical action. Their existence, once the service is ended remains a sign of the risen Christ's presence with and for His people, and it is as such that they have become a focal point for prayer of adoration, a space in which worshippers can savour with relish the eucharistic action and reception of Communion, and all this means for them.
There is no place in this life where Christ is not present, but there are places and occasions in which our attention can focus purposefully on God's self giving in Word and Sacrament. The prayers, rites and ceremonies with which these are clothed are inevitably culturally determined, and capable of getting in the way of the essential act of prayer, by becoming a performance which is an end in itself. This frustration was at least in part what led sixteenth century reformers not only to criticise but advocate the abandonment of customary practice.
The spiritual need which these activities addressed remained nevertheless, the hunger for continuing communion with the unseen presence of Christ still has to be met, in ways that nurture people and enable them to worship in Spirit and in truth, in the eucharistic liturgical assembly and away from it.
How can Church ministers and people remain fully awakened to the presence of Christ in the realities of contemporary life, when in so many ways its pressures rob them of the space and opportunities in which to do this naturally as part of their everyday rhythm? This question lies at the heart of any consideration of the life of prayer in our time.

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