The Gospels are filled with stories of Jesus sharing meals not only with his disciples but also with many others, whether important or lowly. Indeed, table fellowship was one of the frequent events by which the disciples experienced their personal relationship with Christ. After the resurrection, this personal relationship was realized in a privileged way at the Eucharistic meal. When the community gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it did so expecting to encounter the risen Lord in a new, but no less real way. Two verses from Matthew’s Gospel record the Lord’s promise of his presence when two or three gathered in his name (18:20), a promise that would continue “until the end of the world” (24:20).
One of the hallmarks of Catholic faith and worship is belief in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But the way that belief has been articulated theologically and the manner in which it has been understood in the lives of the faithful have varied throughout the church’s history. This is the case with many of the mysteries of faith. Because each is profoundly beyond human capacity to fathom or fully appreciate, different aspects of a particular mystery have received greater or lesser attention at different times for very understandable historical reasons.
The Manifold Presence of Christ
The years leading up to the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) were marked by theological research that retrieved aspects of the Catholic tradition that had faded into the background. One of these was the church’s teaching that while there is only one presence of Christ in the church, this presence is manifested in manifold ways. The “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963) used Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (1948) as its model when it asserted in No. 7:
To accomplish so great a work Christ is always present in his church, especially in liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass both in the person of his minister, “the same one now offering through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross,” and most of all in the eucharistic species. By his power he is present in the sacraments so that when anybody baptizes it is really Christ himself who baptizes. He is present in his word since it is he himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in church. Lastly, he is present when the church prays and sings, for he has promised “where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).
The article mentions the presence of Christ in the church first. Other modes of Christ’s presence are enumerated—for example, his presence in the presider, his presence most especially in the eucharistic species, his presence in the sacraments and in the word proclaimed from the Scriptures. But it is Christ’s presence in the church, specified as the church gathered for worship, that is the basis for the possibility of all the other modes of presence.
Belief in the presence of the risen Lord in the church is the basis for our belief in the presence of Christ in the gathered assembly. Such 20th-century theologians as Karl Rahner, Edward Schillebeeckx, and Piet Schoonenberg have all contributed to an understanding of the church as sacrament and therefore as the primary location of Christ’s presence in the world. For Rahner, this presence of Christ in the church necessarily precedes the possibility of the presence of Christ in the eucharistic species. Schillebeeckx speaks of the “essential bond” between the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and his real presence as risen Lord living in the church. Schoonenberg reiterates this perspective when he insists that only when we plumb the mystery of Christ’s presence in the community will we discover the meaning of the real presence in the sacred species. Like Schillebeeckx, Schoonenberg stresses the importance of seeing the presence of Christ in the sacred species in relation to his presence both in the proclamation of the scriptural word and in the community.
There is, of course, only one real presence of Christ, albeit under many modes. What we often forget, however, is that the real presence in the eucharistic species is not an end in itself. As Schillebeeckx reminds us, Christ’s gift of himself is not ultimately directed toward the bread and wine, but toward the community. This is not new theology. Augustine expresses these very ideas in two of his oft-quoted sermons. He poses the following question in Sermon 272: “How can bread be his body? And the cup, or what the cup contains, how can it be his blood?” Augustine explains:
The reason these things, brothers and sisters, are called sacraments is that in them one thing is seen, another is understood. What can be seen has a bodily appearance, what is to be understood provides spiritual fruit. So if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the apostle telling the faithful, “You, though, are the body of Christ and its members” (1 Cor. 12:27). So if it is you that are the body of Christ and its members, it is the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the Lord’s table; what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to what you are that you reply Amen, and by so replying you express your assent. What you hear, you see, is The body of Christ, and you answer, Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true.
Augustine reasons, in other words, that if his listeners want to understand the Eucharist as sacrament, they must begin by understanding themselves as the body of Christ. Later in the sermon, he sums up his theology with the often quoted exhortation: “Be what you can see, and receive what you are.”
In Sermon 229, Augustine similarly focuses on the church as the Body of Christ, but this time includes a more specific emphasis on unity. Quoting the Apostle Paul, Augustine says, “One loaf, one body, is what we, being many, are” (1 Cor. 10:17). He expands on the meaning of the verse thus:
However many loaves may be placed there, it is one loaf; however many loaves there may be on Christ’s altars throughout the world, it is one loaf. But what does it mean, one loaf? He [Paul] explained very briefly: one body is what we, being many, are. This is the body of Christ, about which the apostle says, while addressing the church, But you are the body of Christ and his members (1 Cor 12:27). What you receive is what you yourselves are, thanks to the grace by which you have been redeemed; you add your signature to this, when you answer Amen. What you see here is the sacrament of unity.
In this instance, Augustine highlights the unity of the church, the res sacramenti. His perspective is different from Scholasticism’s emphasis on res et sacramentum, that is, the real presence of Christ under the form of consecrated bread and wine. According to William Crockett, there occurred in the course of the Middle Ages a gradual separation between the community on the one hand and the gifts of bread and wine on the other. In the patristic period (Augustine’s time), the primary emphasis was not on the eucharistic presence per se, but on the purpose of that presence—the presence of Christ in the community. In the medieval period, the worshiping assembly’s focus gradually moved away from perceiving Christ’ s presence in its midst to perceiving Christ’s presence solely in the consecrated bread and wine. A further unfortunate development was that the Eucharist came to be adored, but rarely eaten. As the sacramental theologian Enrico Mazza aptly observes, the sacrament of unity of the church became the sacrament of union of the believer with Christ.
Such distortions in the church’s belief can arise when the multiple modes of Christ’s presence are not understood in proper relationship to one another. The reforms of the Second Vatican Council were an attempt to enrich our belief in the real presence by recalling the fullness of the church’s teaching. The writings of Paul VI, particularly Mysterium Fidei (1965) and the Instruction on Eucharistic Worship (1967), which were promulgated during his papacy, further reiterate this teaching. As recently as 2002, in No. 27 of the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the presence of Christ in the liturgical assembly gathered in his name is mentioned first, followed by the other modes of presence.
Implications for Eucharistic Faith and Practice
While the faith of the church has always held that Christ is present in the church, particularly when the church gathers for worship, this belief does not appear to have always had much impact on the average Catholic’s experience. Nonetheless, when an understanding of Christ’s presence is limited to the eucharistic species alone, belief in all of the modes suffers, including belief in the consecrated bread and wine. What happens is that the dynamic presence of Christ, rooted in the living, breathing life of the church, is reduced to a static presence. The Eucharist is perceived as an object rather than an action, and the relationship between the reserved sacrament and the worship of the gathered assembly is obscured.
There are some clear signs that the average worshiping assembly, including the presider, has lost sight of the essential interrelationship among the various modes of Christ’s presence. One sign is the fact that little objection is ever raised to the widespread practice of going to the tabernacle to distribute Communion during Mass. No. 85 of the revised G.I.R.M. repeats the previous instruction of 1969 when it states, “It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s Body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass....” The practice of routinely distributing Communion from the tabernacle speaks volumes without saying a word. Gradually and imperceptibly this practice erodes the vital connection between the assembly celebrating Eucharist and the Eucharist they receive during the Communion rite. The resulting misconception can be that while there is only one presence of Christ, this is certainly not located in the gathered assembly.
A similar situation occurs in the instance of Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest. Few local churches view this situation as the serious loss that it really is for a church that understands itself as sacramental. Many are satisfied with a service of the word and Communion that requires less time than Sunday Mass. But these celebrations can further obscure the assembly’s perception of itself as a locus of the presence of Christ and of their participative role in “doing” Eucharist. Reception of Communion from the tabernacle rather than from the altar where the eucharistic action takes place once again obscures the relationship between the presence of Christ in his church and his presence in the sacred species.
A People Called
The presence of Christ in the Eucharist is rooted in the presence of Christ in the church, particularly the church gathered for worship. A keener awareness and appreciation of that presence will not only enrich our eucharistic liturgies and deepen our eucharistic spirituality, but will also provide members of the church with an understanding of their dignity as baptized members, particularly when they gather to celebrate the Eucharist. Developing in the worshiping assembly a keener awareness of the presence of Christ in its midst is not a liturgical nicety or pious option. Today’s church faces not only diminishing numbers of ordained ministers and increased instances of Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest, but also the growing awareness on the part of laypeople of their unique role in the church. What better time to revitalize this aspect of our Christian faith? Doing so is integral to the church’s self-understanding and its ability to celebrate the Eucharist as a people called to be the presence of Christ in the world.