By David Pitt, PhD
We were at a little café enjoying a midafternoon coffee, when one of my friends leaned into the group, gestured towards the couple who appeared to be on a date a few tables away, and said “she soooo doesn’t want to be there.” It seemed true enough. Leaning away from the table, with her arms creating a subtle barrier between them, and the look of boredom in her eyes, unaffected by his apparent interest. There the two of them were in the same place and yet they weren’t together.
We were sitting around our dining room table enjoying an extended family meal when my daughter turned towards the camera and asked her grandmother to repeat what she had just said. Because when even two or three are gathered over Zoom, there is bound to be some communication lag and there are going to be moments when people speak overtop of one another. And when you have two or three households, each at their own dining room tables, each at the same extended family meal, it happens more often than not. There might have been 700 miles between us, but we were together.
“Presence” is a funny thing. Depending on context, it can mean different things. Any student can briefly look up from their phone to respond “present” during roll call to indicate their attendance in class. As the teacher can attest, that student is physically “present” in a particular place, but that student is not likely to be successful. By this measure, the couple on the date were, indeed, “present” to each other and my extended family was not. But this minimal definition is hardly satisfying. When we talk about being “present,” we imply relationship. To be “present” means to be genuinely engaged in what one is doing — to be a full, conscious and active participant. By this measure, my extended family was, I presume, mostly “present” to each other. I presume that the couple in the café was mostly not. I do not mean to suggest that such “presence” is an either-or situation. The best form of “presence” among people involves both physical/material and relational proximity.
The kind of “presence” the Church associates with the real presence of Christ in the liturgy goes infinitely further than the presence of roll call or that café date. It seems ridiculous to play it out. “Jesus, are you here?” “Present, Father. (… but I’m not interested in interacting with you, no matter how desperately you plead…).” That is why the General Instruction of the Roman Missal 27 contains the description of how Christ “is really present in the very liturgical assembly gathered in his name, he is present in the person of the minister, in his word, and indeed substantially and continuously under the eucharistic species.”
Notice how that listing prioritizes relationship. The assembly in which Christ is present are people who have gathered together; they are not simply a group of people who happen to be in the same place. The minister in whom Christ is present is the one leading that assembly; he is not simply someone who is ordained. The word in which Christ is really present is the word that is proclaimed and preached to the assembly; it is not simply the Bible or the Lectionary in which those words are written.
This is why, at the conclusion of the readings, the lector says “The Word of the Lord” rather than “This is the Word of the Lord.” The Word of the Lord is proclaimed and preached, the Word of the Lord is sent to be lived: “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” The eucharistic species of bread and wine under which Christ is really present are those that are taken, blessed, broken and given so that those who share might themselves more become the body of Christ; they are not simply the consecrated elements to be adored. This is why, during the distribution of Communion, the minister says “The body of Christ” rather than “This is the body of Christ.” The body of Christ is blessed and broken, the body of Christ is sent to be lived: “Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life.” Christ’s manifold presence is about relationship with people. More than about being in a place, the presence of Christ is about the manner of being in a place. Through the liturgy, Christ is trying to draw us into relationship with God and into relationship with the rest of the body of Christ.
We are assured that Christ is present to us in the liturgy and we know that Christ’s presence is oriented around relationship. What then, of ourselves? Christ is present to us but are we present to Christ? To what degree are we like that woman in the café? Leaning away from the table, creating barriers, despite Christ’s interest? To what degree can we be like my daughter around the dinner table, eager for ongoing relationship, even when that relationship with Christ might not be as immediate as we might like? To what degree are we willing to be present to Christ, who is present to us in consecrated bread and wine? Who is present to us in the proclaimed and preached Word? Who is present to us in the minister presiding over our assemblies? Who is present to us in those standing, singing, kneeling, praying, listening and eating around us? To what degree are we willing to be present to the body of Christ?
(David Pitt, Ph.D., is associate professor of Liturgical and Sacramental Theology at Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa.)