Christ’s Presence in the Mass

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3rd in a series of short homilies on the Mass

In my last homily about the Mass itself, we considered how Christ wants to meet us in the Mass—for us to unite ourselves to him, giving and receiving, and joining with him in his great work.

Now, sometimes it is asked: “Sure, Christ is present in the Mass. He’s present everywhere, isn’t he?” And the answer: no, he isn’t. Or rather: yes, he is, but not in the way in which he is present in the Mass, in the fullness of his being.

Christ is present everywhere in his divine nature. For it is characteristic of the divine essence to be present in all places, present to all things. God the Son is the Word, the Logos, the rational principle through whom all things were made. And he is present to all things by his power.

But to find Christ in his humanity—to encounter him in his human nature, both divinity and humanity, in the fullness of his being—we need to find him in the Eucharist.

Last time we spoke about how, in baptism, Christ configures each of the baptized to himself, makes them a member of his Mystical Body the Church, and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them. And he promised, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matt 18:20) And so it is that Christ is present in his Church: present as she prays; present as she performs works of mercy; present as she preaches; present as she progresses toward eternal life. (Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, 35-36)

It is often observed that the Second Vatican Council identified four ways in which Christ is present in the Mass (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). And that is the first way: he is present in the Church, in the baptized gathered together. For he has not saved each of us separately, but connected us, bound us together, as one Holy People (cf. Lumen Gentium, 9). St. Paul again and again uses the metaphor of us being members or parts of the Mystical Body of Christ: different, with different gifts and different functions, yet designed to go together, joined and coordinated in a harmonious whole. We each belong to Christ, and are “parts of one another.” (Rom 7:4; 12:5) When the baptized assemble to act in Christ’s name, that is no small thing.

That is the first way that he is present; and the second is in the “person of his minister,” the priest or bishop who is the celebrant of the Mass. For by the indelible character imprinted upon the soul of the priest or bishop in his ordination, he has been given the sacred power necessary to make the sacraments happen. Only baptism and marriage can ever happen validly without a priest or bishop; the other five sacraments all require one or the other. Already configured to Christ in baptism, then in ordination the priest is configured to him in such a way that he can act “in persona Christi capitis Ecclesiae,” “in the person of Christ the head of the Church.”

And so the Eucharistic assembly is complete. And this is manifested by that exchange of words that seems so ordinary yet is spine-tingling if we grasp it. “The Lord be with you,” says the priest or bishop to the Body of Christ. “And with your spirit,” the baptized respond, recognizing the gift of the Spirit that enables him to act in the person of their Head.

The Body of Christ is assembled with its head, ready to act in a way that only Christ makes possible. And in every one of the sacraments, Christ acts, once exercising his power in our world. His loving power that nothing can defeat; his power to heal, to strengthen, to save. In every sacrament he acts, exercising his power; but supremely in the Mass.

In the Mass he acts in a way, he is present in “a way that surpasses all the others.” (Paul VI, Mysterium Fidei, 38) And we will say more about that unique Real Presence next time.

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