Presents or presence?


By Fr. Joseph DeFrancisco

Fr. DeFrancisco

Now that Advent is coming to an end and our semester here at St. Ambrose is completed, I have had some spare time to surf the web in search of a couple of theology articles I needed. I had a flash-back memory of seeing an article entitled: “Are you ready for all the Presence this Christmas?”

I am sure the author intended to catch our attention by throwing out a “play on words.” At first glance you may think to yourself, “He should have checked his spelling carefully.” He meant to write “presents.” This certainly makes sense in a materialist culture that began marketing jewelry, toys and gadgets at the beginning of Halloween.

After some short reflection I knew that the author’s intent was to invite us to some soul-searching. By this I mean some serious theological reflection. In our anticipation and excitement to tear open all the material wonders under the tree, have we forgotten that the most meaningful gift of this season is not any one present but “The” tangible Presence of God in our world, Jesus Christ.


In my first semester of sacramental theology in the seminary, we were asked to read a challenging theological work by a famous Dutch-Catholic theologian, Dominican Father Edward Schille­beeckx, entitled, “Christ, Sacrament of Encounter with God.” My intrigue with his theology was the primary impetus for me to choose a focused theological discipline for my master’s and doctoral studies, sacramental-liturgical theology. He made a convincing argument that in much of our theological speculation we often compartmentalize and divide theological disciplines, which in the case of Jesus serves only to cloud the true and mystical meaning of Jesus’ Real Presence in the world.

Schillebeeckx’s work is visionary in grounding all sacramental and liturgical theology on the foundation of a solid Christology. Jesus is the first, primordial sacrament of God’s tangible presence in the world. Are we open and willing to wait for and embrace his full presence in our lives? Fr. Schillebeeckx does a masterful job in wedding Jesus’ presence in sacrament, most enduring for us, the Real Presence of Jesus in our Catholic Eucharist.

But he warns that any tangible, ritual presence we celebrate and experience needs to be intimately connected to both an ecclesial and spiritual theology.

In liturgical theology we often refer to this transcendent, cosmic presence as the “Totus Christus,” the Whole Christ.

The gift of God’s incarnational presence in Jesus invites us to open our eyes, hearts and minds to the powerful, grace-filled encounters we have with Jesus when his Word is effectively, mystically revealed, much in the tradition of St. Ambrose’s famous gift for homiletics.

The gift also includes a sinful and broken presence of the mystical body of Jesus in his Church. Jesus’ unconditional love and mercy are affectively and sacramentally shared in the community of faith, our parish family. The first, meaningful presence of Jesus in my childhood experiences came through his tangible presence in our true pastors and authentically prayerful priests and religious Sisters who served our parish. They became my much-needed true spiritual parents.

But there is still one more meaningful presence that I believe most Americans have not forgotten. This is the Jesus incarnated in the cries, actually “screams” of the poor, marginalized, victimized, sick and suffering souls, both physically and spiritually. Too many of our human family are falling through the cracks, even the heroic soldiers who keep returning from war.

Ultimately, the question that ought to confront us as Christmas grows closer is whether or not we will joyfully and enthusiastically embrace the full/total presence of God as his beloved son Jesus manifests himself to us in so many uncountable ways. It is appropriate that I end with Jesus’ own words: “And Know that I AM ALWAYS with you, until the end of time.”(Matt. 28:20)

(Fr. DeFranciso is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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