The Real Presence of Christ in the Mass

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4th in a series of short homilies on the Mass

In the Mass, we encounter our Lord Jesus Christ, made truly present. In my last homily in this series, we took note of two of the ways in which he is present. First, in the assembly of the baptized—each of whom he has joined to himself and made a member of his Mystical Body. Second, in the person of the minister—the priest or bishop changed by ordination to be able to act in the person of Christ the head. The Eucharistic assembly, body and head, is complete.

And the Lord is present “in his word, since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7) As we hear the Word himself speaking through these words inspired by the Holy Spirit—as the Scripture readings are proclaimed and expounded—we receive nourishment and strength.

In all the sacraments, the Scriptures and explanations help us to understand better what is happening and to be more receptive to the grace that will be given. Just as we might read something by or about a famous person before we meet them; just as we might talk with a relative by phone or email before a visit with them; so too we prepare to meet our Lord by listening to his word and responding with faith and prayer.

Now, in all the sacraments, Christ is then present through his power. For through the minister that he has prepared; through the words and actions and physical objects that he has chosen and the Church administers; he acts through his power, accomplishing his purpose, in each sacrament.

And he does truly act in the Mass. But in this fourth way he is present in the Mass he goes further than in any of the other sacraments. For he is not only present by his power, but in the fullness of who he is—he is “substantially” present. Pope Paul VI wrote that the Eucharist “contains Christ Himself and it is ‘a kind of consummation of the spiritual life, and in a sense the goal of all the sacraments.'” (Mysterium Fidei, 39) In other sacraments, we receive the power to make us holy; in the Eucharist, we encounter the Author of holiness himself, body and blood, soul and divinity—“the whole Christ … truly, really, and substantially.” (Council of Trent, Decree Concerning the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, ch. 3)

For in this consummation of our spiritual lives, our Lord is not content to act through an agent or merely by his power; he wants to give us himself; he wants to be present with us himself. And so the gifts of bread and wine that we bring to the altar he transforms into himself. He allows the appearances to remain, which speak to us of necessary nourishment, and of flesh and blood, separated in death. But it is himself that he offers, himself that he gives us, hidden (as it were) under those appearances. It is himself that he gives to you, his faithful, as heavenly food.

It is this great promise that sometimes draws a sincere Protestant or Muslim to respond: “If I believed that, I would run into your church, get down on my knees, and never leave!” It is this ineffable gift that drew St. Elizabeth Ann Seton to become Catholic, and me, and so many other converts. It is this awesome mystery that makes us kneel and whisper, “My Lord and my God!”—before we receive our Lord himself into our own bodies and souls.

Godhead here in hiding, whom I do adore,
Masked by these bare shadows, shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at Thy service low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder at the God thou art.

(St. Thomas Aquinas, Adore te devote, tr. Gerard Manley Hopkins)

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